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Issue 36, March 1999

King Hussein of Jordan

TWENTY PRESIDENTS, eight monarchs, eight crown princes, and fourteen prime ministers assembled in the Jordanian capital of Amman for the burial of King Hussein on 8 February. Funeral eulogies painted Hussein as a benevolent patriarch whose charismatic personality played a vital role in the 'peace process' in the Middle East.

A review of his reign, however, shatters this utopian fantasy. His regime represented a dictatorship only periodically covered by a fig-leaf of democracy. During his reign Hussein dismissed 55 prime ministers and for large parts of the time dispensed with a parliament altogether. The press was held in an iron grip of censorship by the monarch. The armed forces were vital for maintaining the continued rule of the Hashemite royal family.

Jordan was a creation of British imperialism - a British protectorate carved out of Syria in 1921 as a bulwark against the expansion of French imperialism's interests in the region, and also as a gift to the Hashemites for their role in contributing to the downfall of the Turkish Ottoman empire. Following the creation of Israel, Jordan has become a vitally important buffer state between US imperialism's primary ally in the region (Israel) and hostile Arab states, such as Syria and, more recently, Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Despite achieving independence in 1946, the Hashemite dynasty has always relied on imperialism's support when its rule has been fundamentally threatened. King Hussein maintained this approach, although periodically he appeared to oppose Western imperialist interests when the anger of the Jordanian masses was greater than the pressure of imperialism. For example, in 1956, he sacked the British commander of the Jordanian army, General John Glubb, to solidify his rule and gain the popularity of ordinary Jordanians.

King Hussein assumed the throne in the period when the region was engulfed by revolutionary struggles based on strong moods of Arab nationalism. In 1958 Hussein felt that his continued rule was threatened by intervention by Syria and Egypt. He asked for, and received, military aid from the US and Britain, and dissolved Jordan's first elected parliament. His regime maintained secret links with the Israeli state from 1958 onwards.

  In 1967, however, he sided with Egypt and Syria against Israel in the second Arab-Israeli war. As Hussein explained later he feared the fury of his people more than he feared Israel. His position was weakened by the loss of Jerusalem and the West Bank. The flood of Palestinian refugees into Jordan threatened to destabilise his continued rule completely. The growth in support for the PLO amongst Palestinians inside Jordan reached a high point in 1969-1970, introducing elements of dual power inside the country. Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership could have overthrown the Hussein regime by mobilising the Jordanian masses and Palestinian refugees but refused to, explaining that they could not do so because 'they were guests' of King Hussein.

The King took advantage of this political cowardice and mobilised the army to crush the PLO when the height of opposition to his rule had passed. Between 5,000 and 10,000 Palestinians were massacred in this 'Black September' operation. In the latter decades of his rule Hussein increasingly played the role of a strategic ally of US imperialism. He was instrumental, for example, in persuading Saddam Hussein to go to war against Iran in 1980, at a time when this was advantageous to the US. His subsequent refusal to side with the US in the Gulf war in 1991 was dictated solely by the fact that, if he had joined the US war effort against Saddam, he would have faced an uprising by the majority Palestinian population in the country.

Following a period of ostracisation by the West and the majority of Arab regimes, Hussein was rehabilitated because of his role during the mis-named 'peace process'. US imperialism has used Hussein at pivotal moments during the negotiations to cajole both Arafat and the Israeli negotiators into signing agreements. Clinton claimed that, without Hussein's intervention, the Wye Plantation agreement would never have been signed.

Even when he was dying Hussein took action to attempt to ensure continued stability after his death. He unceremoniously removed his brother Hassan as Crown Prince and replaced him with his eldest son, Abdullah. This was for a number of reasons: Hassan was too closely associated with the present discredited government; he was seen as being too close to the Israeli regime; and there were rumours that he was cultivating alliances with more junior officers in the army in an attempt to undermine the influence of army generals who were Hussein loyalists.

For US imperialism, Abdullah is probably a better choice. He was trained at Sandhurst, Britain's premier military college. His first language is English and he reputedly speaks Arabic with an English accent. His youth and lack of a power base within the regime will probably, in the initial period of his rule, force him to lean on the support of the US. However, in his father's eyes one of his advantages is that he is likely to be more popular amongst Palestinians in Jordan because he has married into a Palestinian family.

  This may be very important in the final status negotiations between Israel and Palestine, brokered by US imperialsim. One of the most sensitive issues is the Palestinian refugees scattered around the Middle East. All the western imperialist powers are known to favour a solution which will mean all refugees being given permanent citizenship rights in their present countries of residence. The new Jordanian king will have a vital role to play in trying to sell this plan to Arafat, the other Arab countries, and more importantly, to the Palestinians in Jordan who make up 65% of the population.

An aide to Clinton explained at the time of Hussein's funeral that 'Jordan is a weak buffer state wedged betwen three of the region's powers: Iraq, Syria, and Israel. Instability in Jordan can therefore create problems and opportunities. Demographically, Jordan has a Palestinian majority, and its fate is inextricably linked with the Arab-Israeli peace process'. This explains why the US has promised $300 million extra in aid to Jordan and given full support to the new King. However, President Mubarak of Egypt will take advantage of the weakness of the new king's position, and attempt to play the role that Hussein did, as US imperialism's second eleven.

Whenever any dictator dies, the power vacuum that is generated can lead to increased instability. All the contradictions in society held back for decades can come to the surface. This is especially the case in the Middle East, where the situation is already extremely volatile. This explains the presence in Amman of the political leaders of the capitalist world - a symbolic display to imbue the new King with the same authority his father had and to show hostile Arab regimes that the US will not allow any meddling in the affairs of Jordan.

Hussein died leaving a country devastated by poverty and with official unemployment reaching 15%. The present government is unpopular and wracked by scandals. All basic food subsidies were removed last year under IMF instructions. This led to riots which had to be put down by the security forces. News reporting at the time of Hussein's death was preoccupied with stories revolving around individuals - the Machiavellian manoeuvres of kings, presidents, dictators and their wives. Yet Jordan's future will be increasingly made by the masses who will have no alternative but to move into struggle to defend their living conditions and democratic rights.

Kevin Simpson

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