Clear and present chance
How is Jordan faring in the midst of the sweltering Arab world? Oula Farawati in Amman analyses the calls for change facing new Prime Minister Maarouf Bakhit
A rather eccentric scene is recurring in Jordan these days. Officers in uniform are handing bottles of mineral water to protesters swarming the rainy streets. The crowds brimming the streets of the capital Amman and other cities in the kingdom are politicised. They come from the leftist parties or the Islamists. The man in the street is watching and bracing for change as those who dare to go out and voice demands continue to voice their rejection to the lack of real reforms.
Less than a month ago, those protests would have been considered illegal according to the public gatherings law. The government of outgoing Prime Minister Samir Rifai was steadfast on applying this temporary law, which was approved at the absence of the house of deputies.
But the government of army veteran Maarouf Bakhit, a PM for the second time, has been sending several "positive" messages to quell the anger of the public whose sentiment had sent PM Rifai and his government back home, to be replaced by a government that is characterised by heavyweights.
Recently however, one downtown Amman protest witnessed violent skirmishes between protesters who were attacked by thugs. Considering how this technique was harmful in freedom protests in Egypt and Libya, the Jordanian society reacted in a sweeping resentment.
For a government that is trying hard to brand itself as an agent of change in a country that is plagued by a debt- ridden economy and so much anger at a myriad of political issues, such mistakes are not allowed.
Action was needed. And it came from no less than the Jordanian monarch who in his few speeches has always managed in the past to quell public anger in a country where the monarchy has always enjoyed unprecedented loyalty.
"There are serious challenges. There are economic problems, and many of our people are suffering. However, my brothers, has there ever been a time when we did not face challenges? Has there ever been a time in our history when there were no difficulties?" the king asked during a meeting with heads and members of the executive, legislative and judicial authorities on Monday.
Those who dared to go to the street are asking for jobs, better opportunities, and an end to what they called "rampant corruption." King Abdullah took a stance where he acknowledged that "Some [issues] are true, some are exaggerated, and others are untrue."
"There are shortcomings that must be addressed. Likewise, there are proud achievements that should be maintained and built on," he added.
Since assuming office on 9 February, Bakhit has taken several crisis management steps to quickly send an assuring message to many disgruntled Jordanians who are skeptical of real change. He allowed for the establishment of the politically taboo Teacher's Union, annulled the Public Gatherings Temporary Law, and referred several cases to the Anti-Corruption Committee.
How is Bakhit going to walk this fine line when the Arab World is boiling and, internally, lots of issues have afflicted the country?
Political analyst Mohamed Abu Rumman is cautiously optimistic at these steps. He saw the departure of Rifai as "extraordinary", but he believes that the credibility of the official discourse is still at stake.
"People have heard sweet words about reform for too long but were seeing that what actually took place in reality was totally against reform, sending public confidence in governments to the lowest," he wrote in Al-Ghad.
Op-ed writer Salameh Daraawi blamed the low public confidence in change on the fact that state agencies were late in responding to royal directives for combating corruption.
"There's a small numbers of influentials who climbed the public ladder and used all means to curtail the powers of national political forces and made sure that no calls for anti-corruption are heeded," he wrote.
This call for change and reform is as old as Jordan. What is new in all the rhetoric about partnerships, equality and rule of law?
Analysts are seeing a firmer tone from the king concerning those who waste opportunities. In his address, the king said: "When I say reform, I want real and quick reform, because without genuine reforms, the situation will remain as it was, when many officials wasted opportunities because of reluctance to move forward and fear of change... when they retreated before people with private agendas who resisted reform to guard their own interests. I will not allow that to happen again."
For Abu Rumman, this should put reform on the "fast track". The only guarantee for the continuation of reform is the popular and political momentum to push in this direction, to provide an umbrella of a national political consensus to protect and defend it.
Is the pious talk for real this time?
A couple of months ago, the answer would be a straight no. But with the Middle East boiling and events going into at this astonishing trend, the people may just hold the king to his word this time.