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By David E. Miller
Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood has stepped up its criticism of King Abdullah II's monarchy, going so far as to risk breaking the law by questioning its legitimacy.
"Any authority that does not rely on the people does not represent it nor does it express its interests," declared the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Brotherhood's political wing, in a press statement issued Tuesday. Since March, the Brotherhood has vociferously criticized the government's snail-pace political reforms, organizing weekly demonstrations throughout the kingdom.
Friday's demonstration may be different, experts say. Organizers plan an open-ended sit-in in Amman's Gamal Abd Al-Nasser Square, where a previous demonstration organized by a youth coalition on March 25 was violently dispersed by government security forces and pro-monarchy thugs. One man was killed and dozens injured as pro-monarchists hurled stones at opposition demonstrators.
"An open ended sit-in would mean a scenario similar to Tahrir Square in Cairo," Assaf David, a Jordan expert at Jerusalem's Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, told The Media Line. "The regime's big fear is that more and more people will join the demonstration and things will get out of hand."
Abdullah, a key U.S. ally in the region, has failed to snuff out protests and other political activity that has surfaced this year and grown bigger and increasingly critical of his rule in recent weeks. He has promised reforms and had re-shuffled his cabinet twice, most recently last week, but protestors have been encouraged by their Arab Spring peers across the region and by revelations of corruption in government.
Like mass protests elsewhere in the Middle East this year, young, mostly secular figures mobilized through social media have been leading the way. But the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was formed in 1942, is the kingdom's largest and most organized opposition group and its decision to up the stakes poses a bigger threat to the king.
Fahed Khitan, a political columnist with the independent Jordanian daily Al-Arab Al-Yawm, said the crowd's size scared the government less than its chants. "It's not unlikely that the demonstrators will raise the famous banner of Arab revolutions: 'the people want the regime to fall'," he wrote on Tuesday, adding that such calls would lead Jordan to a disastrous civil war.
The Brotherhood's growing assertiveness was made clear in an interview given by Zaki Bani Arshid, a senior member, to the Qatari daily Al-Shourouq on Sunday. Bani Arshid told the newspaper that his movement was leading the popular mobilization against the government of Jordanian Prime Minster Maaruouf Al-Bakhit. The Brotherhood has refused to participate in the national dialogue initiated by the king in March to appease the opposition movement.
"The majority of Jordanian society is religious and believes that those who raise the banner of Islam should be trusted," Bani Arshid told Al-Shourouq.
The Brotherhood is quite popular on the Jordanian street, said Fatima Al-Smadi, a journalism professor at Zarka University and columnist for Al-Arab Al-Yawm. She said the group's power was recently boosted by an American announcement that the administration would engage Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the Jordanian movement's parent organization.
An expected rise in gasoline prices would also push the average Jordanian away from the government and towards the opposition, she added.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized opposition group, and the most capable of mobilizing the street," Al-Smadi told The Media Line. "The government's reaction to Friday's demonstration will determine whether the situation will escalate further."
But Al-Smadi said it was all but inevitable that the government and Brotherhood are headed for conflict in the coming days.
"They demand a just election law, which hasn't materialized so far," she said. "Over the past few months the Brotherhood has gauged the government and come to realize that it wasn't serious about reforms."
On July 2, Al-Bakhit reshuffled his cabinet, replacing nine ministers, including the minister of interior, in the wake of a corruption scandal. But the prime minister kept his job and in the weekly demonstration the following Friday, protesters clearly said that wasn't enough.
David of the Truman Institute said Friday's demonstrators may call for the resignation of Bakhit's government and even the dissolution of parliament, but would likely not call for the king to step down. Criticism of the King and the royal family is illegal in Jordan.
But Al-Smadi said calls to topple the regime were already heard, albeit limitedly, during demonstration in southern Jordan last Friday. She said the Muslim Brotherhood is capable of fanning the flames or extinguishing them at will.
"It depends on the Islamists," she said. "They can raise the rhetoric to that level."
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