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What lies beneath Jordanian calls for reform

Several pro-reform activists and journalists were injured in clashes with the police during last Friday's protests [Reuters]By Nisreen El-Shamayleh

In a rare outbreak of violence, a protest in Amman last Friday demanding political reforms ended in broken bones and cameras.

Several pro-reform protesters and journalists were injured in clashes with the police, leaving the media and officials wondering what exactly went wrong.

The Public Security Department said it is fully responsible for what happened but accused the pro-reform protesters and the Muslim Brotherhood of provoking the police and instigating the violence.

Journalists were promised compensation and four policemen were arrested for suspicion of being involved in the July 15 attacks.

Two pro-reform protests - on Saturday and Wednesday - took place after this incident and ended peacefully, in a clear attempt by the authorities to placate the people and improve the tarnished image of Jordan's security authorities.

Observers say they have reason to believe the protests planned for this Friday will not fall into chaos.

But although pro-reform protests in Jordan have lost steam in recent months, it is becoming clearer by the day that Jordanians are growing more divided.

Demographic rift

Between those demanding political reforms ending with a constitutional monarchy and an elected government, and those wanting sweeping executive powers to remain in the hands of the monarch, a dangerous social and demographic rift is becoming evident.

At a pro-reform protest I covered on Wednesday evening, pro-government loyalists trying to infiltrate the peaceful pro-reform demonstration were immediately halted by the police.

Within minutes a security barricade was set up with metal fences, vehicles and dozens of gendarmerie forces to prevent friction between the two opposing groups.

When the pro-reform protest ended, participants had to be escorted by the police to the main street through a loyalist crowd calling them "traitors" and yelling the most atrocious Arabic profanities through loudspeakers.

The police did nothing to shut them up. The pro-reform protesters, among them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, showed restraint and walked away.

The question is how long will citizens making valid reform demands practise restraint?

Jordan enjoys stability and security unlike most of its Arab neighbours but it could also be explosive, volatile and unpredictable.

To run this country and avoid an explosive situation, the authorities have had to walk a tightrope for decades through what critics describe as a "police state".

Bedrock of support

The loyalists or "thugs" are believed to be mostly of East Bank Jordanian and Bedouin origin, the bedrock of support for the monarchy.

Some of them told us they think it's politically dangerous to transfer power to the Palestinian majority.

These fears seem to be deeply rooted among some Jordanians due to the absence of a Palestinian state.

They want to make sure only they continue to run their country to the best of Jordan's interests. That means maintaining the status quo.

A former MP participating in Wednesday's pro-reform protest said the authorities' failure to meet reform demands will drag Jordanians into bloody battlefields and civil unrest.

Torn between efforts to preserve the monarchy and obeying Western instructions to carry out democratic reforms have left the authorities doing no more than buying time and creating distractions to sedate the public over the last six months.

The message the protesters are trying to send now is that empty reform promises can only placate people for so long.

In the meantime, the riot police will have to work extra hard to keep pro-reform protesters and pro-government loyalists separated by barricades - until the effects of political sedatives wear off.

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