In Jordan, coup trial shakes public confidence in royal family

In Jordan, coup trial shakes public confidence in royal family

Raad Adayleh/AP

Reporters stand outside the state security court where the trial of Bassem Awadallah, a former royal adviser, and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a distant cousin of King Abdullah, is taking place, in Amman, Jordan, June 21, 2021. The defendants are accused of conspiring with former Crown Prince Hamzah to foment unrest against the monarch.

Loading…

June 23, 2021

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

The military tribunal surrounding an alleged plot to undermine Jordan’s King Abdullah is meeting behind closed doors. But that’s not stopping a gush of media coverage. And Jordanians are dissecting and debating each and every word.

The plot already had the ingredients of a Shakespearean play: former Crown Prince Hamzah, half-brother to the king, channeling public discontent to present himself as an alternative for the throne; the king’s right-hand man suspected of betraying the throne.

Why We Wrote This

As Jordanians digest published leaks and rumors over the closed-door trial surrounding an alleged coup plot, many who once counted on the royal family as a bedrock of stability are questioning its role.

Jordan’s Hashemites have long shown a united front, unlike the game of thrones that is the hallmark of other Arab monarchies. Now, with the royal family suddenly under the spotlight, revelations about its own divisions are making the public question the family’s stature as a stabilizing pillar of the country.

“The stability of the country has long been tied to the stability of the royal family,” says Jordanian political analyst Amer al-Sabaileh. “Now a taboo has been broken. Someone has opened the door of the Hashemite family to the public debate, and if it is not managed now carefully, we will witness people questioning the model of governance in Jordan.”

AMMAN, Jordan

The former head of the royal court in the dock, a jilted former crown prince called to the witness stand, a member of the royal family in prison garb – Jordan’s coup plot trial has all the ingredients to live up to its billing as the “trial of the century.”

But as the military tribunal surrounding an alleged plot to undermine King Abdullah continues its closed-door sessions, something is being broken: a decades-old taboo against discussing the royal family in public.

“It is like a period soap opera, but we are watching it live,” says Muna, a 20-something accessories vendor, alluding to a gush of leaks, rumors, and comments about the trial from the government, foreign intelligence agencies, and lawyers.

Why We Wrote This

As Jordanians digest published leaks and rumors over the closed-door trial surrounding an alleged coup plot, many who once counted on the royal family as a bedrock of stability are questioning its role.

With the royal family suddenly under the spotlight, revelations about its own divisions are making the public question the family’s stature as a stabilizing pillar of the country.

“The stability of the country has long been tied to the stability of the royal family,” says Jordanian political analyst Amer al-Sabaileh.

“Now a taboo has been broken. Someone has opened the door of the Hashemite family to the public debate, and if it is not managed now carefully, we will witness people questioning the model of governance in Jordan.”

Insulting the monarch is punishable with jail time and a fine under a lèse-majesté law; other royals were seen as “off-limits,” as potential targets of indirect criticism of the royal family and the monarch himself.


As Kamala Harris’ portfolio grows, so does the scrutiny

Now that convention is being turned on its head, and Jordanians ask: If the papers can talk about the royal family, why can’t we?

“We are seeing a divide within the royal family itself play out in public,” says Oraib Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies. “This hurts the image of stability of the political regime.”

Shakespearean plot

The alleged plot, purportedly disrupted by Jordanian security services April 3, already had the ingredients of a Shakespearean play: former Crown Prince Hamzah, half-brother to the king, channeling public discontent to present himself as an alternative for the throne; the king’s right-hand man suspected of betraying him.

It has external intrigue, with security services’ leaks to journalists suggesting outside involvement, indirectly pointing the finger at the Saudis, perhaps, or former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

While no disclosed evidence has yet proved external involvement, the real sensation for Jordanians is the juicy details: Prince Hamzah saying “I don’t care about Jerusalem,” indicating a willingness to surrender Hashemite custodianship of Al-Aqsa; the prince mocking the monarch’s early-to-rise routine; nicknames for the former royal court chief.

Jordanians are dissecting and debating each and every word, and the trial is sending shock waves through the country.

The Hashemites have long shown a united front, unlike the game of thrones that is the hallmark of other Arab monarchies.

Jordanians cite the peaceful transfer of power in 1999, when then-Crown Prince Hassan stepped aside after 35 years in his post, allowing his brother, the late King Hussein, to pass the throne on to his son, the current monarch Abdullah. 

The same arrangement placed Prince Hamzah as crown prince as part of a compromise, before he was replaced in 2004 with Abdullah’s son, Hussein bin Abdullah.

Yousef Allan/The Royal Hashemite Court/AP/File

Jordan’s King Abdullah addresses Parliament, in Amman, Dec. 10, 2020.

Projecting such unity while other Arab states witnessed military coups, uprisings, and sectarian violence made even the most critical Jordanians see the royal family as a pillar of stability in a troubled region, envied by non-Jordanians.

Yet with the alleged bungled coup, sensational police investigation leaks, and an apparent state-sponsored smear campaign against Prince Hamzah, Jordanians are learning that the Hashemite monarchy is not as steady as it seems. In fact, it may be just as vulnerable to internal upheaval as neighboring ruling families.

Many sides, many opinions

The trial is also dividing Jordanians, already riven by socioeconomic class and urban-rural fractures. Siding with the state’s narrative are so-called saheej, or loyalists, and conservatives.  

Prince Hamzah’s supporters include marginalized tribes – sidelined by the rise of a new Amman-based economic elite – and young democracy activists, the so-called hirak, who say they have been shut out of politics and the national conversation.

“We did not turn our backs on the state; the state turned its back on us,” Dahham Methqal al-Fawwaz, son of an influential tribal leader, says of tribes’ relations to the regime. “This has forced some to look for alternatives, and this is a real danger.”

With national unemployment creeping to 30% – 50% among youth – amid a debt crisis, inflation, an economy decimated by COVID-19, and a historic drought year looming, analysts warn that the saga has opened the door to disaffected groups backing rival royals to further their cause.

“What we don’t want is the royal family to become a tool for frustrated and angry people to link their grievances to royals, backing certain members of the family because they think they support their cause,” warns Mr. Sabaileh, the analyst.

“Jordan is already fragmented on the socioeconomic level. This could lead to fragmentation at the psychological level.”

Even the closed court sessions are dividing Jordanians: For some, the secrecy is proof of Saudi or Israeli involvement in the sedition plot; for others, it is a damning indictment of a state-arranged political theater with little evidence.

“The trial is only reviving the debate: the rumors and polarization about who is right, who is wrong, what happened, really happened, and who is to blame,” says Mr. Rantawi.

Public enemy No. 1

Also shining the spotlight on the royal family is the main suspect: former royal court chief Bassem Awadallah.

The charge sheet alleges Prince Hamzah approached Mr. Awadallah last summer to gain external support for his quest for the throne. Mr. Awadallah was an adviser to Saudi Arabia when the crisis erupted.

But Jordanians remember Mr. Awadallah from when he was the key adviser to King Abdullah and architect of controversial neoliberal economic reforms and privatization that empowered a new elite in the country.

For much of the past 15 years, Mr. Awadallah was both the most powerful non-royal in Jordan and its most reviled.

Protesters have called for his trial for alleged corruption since the 2011 Arab Spring. The palace until now had protected him.

Seeing Mr. Awadallah tried in a closed-door trial – with nary a mention of corruption – has increased public skepticism and resurrected 15 years of frustration over the direction of the country.

“We want to see Awadallah on trial for his economic crimes, for destroying the middle class and enriching his inner circle, not this,” says Abu Aboud, an Amman government clerk who works three jobs – a hardship for which he blames Mr. Awadallah’s reforms. 

“If they had tried Bassem Awadallah for corruption 10 years ago, and we would have known that there is truly a rule of law in Jordan, we would have stopped our protests and kissed the foreheads of our leaders,” says Zeid, a 30-something who is unemployed and took part in economic protests from 2012 to 2018.

“But now he is being tried in a show trial while the rest of the corrupt get off free? It makes me feel a burning injustice.”

Reforms?

This month King Abdullah launched a royal reform committee to “open up the kingdom’s political life” – an initiative set in motion prior to the crisis.

The hand-picked committee of 92 Jordanians from across the political spectrum is tasked with amending electoral laws to empower Parliament, which in recent years has been reduced to a rubber-stamp body.

It is an official recognition of Jordanians’ need to express their discontent through the ballot box as the country weathers economic and health crises.

“After these crises, we need political reform shock therapy to bring back people’s trust and revive their involvement in politics,” says Mr. Rantawi, who also serves on the committee.

Get the Monitor Stories you care about delivered to your inbox.

Your email address

By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Yet as committee members meet this week and debate the electoral system in Jordan, their deliberations are being overshadowed by the trial and speculative talk of the day.

“Everyone agrees on the regime, and no one wants to see sedition,” says Mr. Fawwaz, the tribal leader’s son. “But until there is real reform on the ground to give us hope, Jordanians will fantasize about alternatives.”

You’ve read  of  free articles.
Subscribe to continue.

Help fund Monitor journalism for $11/ month

Already a subscriber? Login


Mark Sappenfield
Editor

Monitor journalism changes lives because we open that too-small box that most people think they live in. We believe news can and should expand a sense of identity and possibility beyond narrow conventional expectations.

Our work isn’t possible without your support.

Subscribe

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Already a subscriber? Login

Digital subscription includes:

  • Unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.
  • CSMonitor.com archive.
  • The Monitor Daily email.
  • No advertising.
  • Cancel anytime.

Subscribe

Related stories