Changes In Jordan May Lead To Criticizing Monarchy

Fallout from the Egyptian revolution is being felt across the Arab world. It's reached Jordan, where the ruling monarchy is facing pressure to update. Criticism of the royal family is rare, but lately some people have been speaking out against the queen.

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As Egypt's government fell on Friday, an analyst told us that other Arab leaders were surely hearing footsteps, and that would include the leaders of Jordan, where the ruling monarchy is facing pressure to reform. You can be jailed there for criticizing the king, and some Jordanians are coming pretty close.

NPR's Philip Reeves sent this report from the capital, Amman.

PHILIP REEVES: The people of Jordan are allowed to complain about many things. They rail against high prices, official corruption, poverty. But criticizing Jordan's royal family is off limits - or at least it was.

Mr. FARES AL FAYEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Fares al Fayez is sitting in a big pavilion beside his apricot-colored villa surrounded by vines and fruit trees. He's from one of Jordan's big Bedouin tribes. For centuries, these tribes have been a main pillar of support of the Hashemite monarchy that now rules Jordan. Today, though, Fayez is taking aim at Jordan's Queen Rania.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AL FAYEZ: Women like money very much, always.

REEVES: Fayez's aging face twinkles mischievously beneath his red-and-white Arab headdress. A handful of guests mills around on the carpets and sheepskins that cover almost every inch of the room. A conversation like this with a foreigner in front of others was unthinkable a few months ago. Jordanians fear their powerful security services, yet Fayez doesn't look at all worried as he weighs in on Queen Rania's dress sense.

Mr. FAYEZ: (Through translator) For example, she goes to visit poor Palestinians in refugee camps wearing Christian Dior outfits.

REEVES: At home, Queen Rania's known for her work promoting women's and children's rights and a moderate image of Islam. The Western media tends to portray her as a Hollywood-style celebrity, calling her one of the world's most glamorous women. This bothers Fayez. He thinks the 40-year-old Rania should tone down her image and model herself on Britain's Queen Elizabeth, who's 84.

Fayez is one of the group of tribesmen who've signed a highly unusual letter to Jordan's King Abdullah. Most of it's devoted to their many concerns about Jordan's problems, but Queen Rania is singled out. Fayez accuses her of meddling in politics.

Mr. FAYEZ: (Through translator) We don't want her to interfere in matters of land or money. We want her to be above this, to be a mother to all Jordanians.

REEVES: Queen Rania's lifestyle has caused mutterings in Jordan before, but there's been nothing like this. Does the letter mean Jordanians are now emboldened by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and might follow suit?

Mr. LABIB KAMHAWI (Political Analyst): The people who signed it do not carry heavy political weight, with all due respect. Maybe they represent a small fraction of the tribes.

REEVES: Yet, says political analyst Labib Kamhawi, the letter is significant.

Mr. KAMHAWI: It's getting very close to the red line. The red line in Jordan means the monarchy. The level of criticism makes it unusual, makes it critical, makes it worth observing.

REEVES: Reports from the Egyptian revolution are reaching Jordan. For weeks, there've been demonstrations here, though usually small. King Abdullah's responded - he sacked the government. His new prime minister is under instructions to carry out political reforms. Price cuts and pay raises have been announced.

This hasn't mollified Ibrahim Alloush, an economics professor striding through Jordan's capital, Amman, during a recent protest supporting the Egyptian uprising.

Professor IBRAHIM ALLOUSH (Economics): The fact that you have economic policies that are impoverishing the people. At the same time, you have a handful who are accumulating billions and billions of dollars.

REEVES: He believes the people attacking Queen Rania are missing the point.

Prof. ALLOUSH: If you speak about this or that particular person, you are eluding the issue, because then you are saying if we change that person, then everything will be solved. But that's not true.

REEVES: So far, Jordan does not seem to be on the verge of an uprising. The 36 tribesmen who signed the letter emphasized they're still loyal to the monarchy. The Royal Hashemite Court says they're mere individuals who don't represent Jordan's tribes.

Fayez says they're trying to help King Abdullah.

Mr. FAYEZ: (Through translator) We don't want chaos and instability. We don't want the fire we see in Egypt. We don't like this.

REEVES: So, is the king listening?

Mr. FAYEZ: We give the advice to him. We send the letter to him, and we wait.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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