A Prime Minister Resigns in Jordan, and the Sun Rises in the East

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Anis Mili / Reuters

Jordan's Prime Minister Awn Shawkat Al-Khasawneh attends a news conference in Tripoli, February 7, 2012. Khasawneh resigned on April 26, 2012, barely six months after he was asked to form a government in response to protests calling for faster political reforms in the kingdom.

The news out of Jordan almost does not qualify as news:  Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh resigned Thursday. It happened all of a sudden and without explanation, but it’s something that happens so frequently in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan that his successor, Fayez al-Tarawneh, is the fourth person to hold the office in the space of 14 months.

In fact, he’s held the very same office before. Al-Tarawneh also headed the government in the late 1990s, serving then, as now, entirely at the pleasure of King Abdullah II, the embattled monarch who shuffles the place cards whenever his subjects show signs of growing too restive for comfort.  The maneuvering has been identifiable as farce years for a while now — frenzied activity in a palace hallway, frantic opening and slamming of doors, familiar figures popping in and out of places they weren’t a few moments earlier, all the while trying to look distinguished. The whole cast showed up for a curtain call Jan. 8 when His Majesty summoned a baker’s dozen of one-time premiers to Amman. The occasion was a group consultation on how best to move forward with “reforms,” the thing Abdullah has been promising since he assumed the throne 13 years ago. But the effect edged into the hilarious, the photo spread the next day in the in the Jordan Times resembling nothing so much as early animation, the king greeting a series of business-suited men in a kind of flip-book where actual movement is of course only an illusion.

What hasn’t changed is the pressure for Jordan’s monarch to respond to the same public demands that have turned the Middle East inside out over the last 16 months. Public protests were breaking out in the impoverished countryside south of Amman even before the street vendor succumbed to his burns in Tunisia, officially commencing the Arab Awakening.  Demonstrations occur every Friday in the cities across Jordan, most significantly in the Bedouin regions that traditionally have formed the monarchy’s base of support. The disappointment with Abdullah has deepened the longer the protesters have spent on the streets, with direct criticism of the ruler now being heard despite laws against it. Efforts to put the cat back in the bag — by bringing charges in state security court against a publisher for reporting that the king had intervened in a corruption investigation, and prosecuting a handful of protesters — might only hasten what has been the region’s slowest-moving uprising.

Khasawneh, who left office today, was brought in last October when the situation began to feel especially combustible. His appointment offered the Royal Court some breathing space, partly because he had run the court itself in the past (for King Hussein, Abdullah’s late father), partly because he had warm relations with the Muslim Brotherhood (which features prominently in the protests), and partly because he had arrived with some international standing (a jurist, Khasawneh had sat on the International Court of Justice). In January, as protesters gathered to mark a full year of weekly protests, Khasawneh appeared sanguine about the health of the Hashemite dynasty despite calls that its near-absolute power be replaced by a constitutional monarchy, like Great Britain’s. “We are not a boringly predictable people, so anything can happen,” he told TIME.  “But I think the country is a much calmer place now than it was in October.”

It might not be much longer. As a report by the respected International Crisis Group made clear last month, Abdullah’s security services have had considerable success in preventing dissidents from unifying against the monarchy, mostly by playing on historical divisions between the Palestinian and Bedouin communities in the kingdom. But shared complaints — about corruption, the cost of living, and an economy that leaves millions struggling for dignity — provide a common ground that the aggrieved parties may well gather upon down the road. Especially if the political leadership continues to resemble a sideshow. Jordan’s lower house of parliament — the only section of its national government Jordanians get to actually elect, and which even Khasawneh acknowledged had come to power by rigging — recent mounted a show of fisticuffs and a vote to give themselves lifetime pensions after only 18 months in office.

“The state of Jordanian parliament today reminds me of the Dead Sea,” wrote Naseem Tarawnah on the Black Iris blog. “It’s the lowest point on Earth, it’s a body of water where nothing can survive, and it continues to recede every year causing an increasingly dire situation.”