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Jordan’s detention of ‘coup plotters’ is really a crackdown on dissent

Abdullah is trying to silence his half-brother Prince Hamzah, while the US is bent on supporting the anti-democratic regime.

Analysis | Middle East

In response to an alleged coup attempt, Jordanian security has arrested several prominent figures, two with close ties to the royal family, and placed the former crown prince under house arrest. Former Crown Prince Hamzah’s lawyer released a video to the BBC following the arrests, in which the prince states that he was instructed to remain at home and that his other forms of communication had been shut down. On Monday, he released an audio recording stating that although he did not wish to “escalate,” the restrictions on himself and his family were “unacceptable.”

The high-level arrests come in the midst of government repression of protests against increasingly authoritarian restrictions in Jordan. In his video, Prince Hamzah stated that “Jordanians have lost hope” as a result of corruption and misrule. Although Hamzah did not mention his half-brother the king, he recorded the video in front of an image of their father, the late and revered King Hussein, whom Hamzah resembles. Prince Hamzah is popular in Jordan, especially for his close ties to East bank Jordanian tribes as well as his command of Arabic, in contrast to King Abdullah, who is seen by some as too close to Palestinian interests due in part to the Palestinian heritage of his wife, Queen Rania, as well as his initially less-than-fluent command of Arabic.

The narrative put forward by the Jordanian government is that Prince Hamzah was involved with “foreign agents” in an attempted coup. In particular, Roy Shaposhnik, an Israeli friend of the prince who offered to host his wife and children, has been described by Jordanian security as a “former Mossad agent,” which Shaposhnik denies. Other rumors about foreign connections remain unsubstantiated: possible ties to the UAE appear unlikely, as none of the Gulf monarchs are interested in undermining the authority of one of their own.

The King may have hoped to keep his half-brother quiet as the palace sought to placate Jordanians by shifting blame for the country’s problems on to a handful of elites. Bassem Awadallah, a former confidant of King Abdullah II and later an advisor to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is often a fall man for the king: unpopular decisions can be blamed on him rather than on Abdullah himself. During the Arab Spring uprising of 2011, protestors chanted for his removal from government. The Jordanian regime may have hoped that by arresting him, along with Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a member of the royal family who also served as envoy to Saudi Arabia, frustrated Jordanians would feel temporarily appeased. In addition to their arrest, key figures of the Majali tribe were arrested, a powerful family that has historically expressed dissatisfaction with Abdullah’s rule.

Given the close ties between Prince Hamzah and those arrested, security services may have tried to contain the former crown prince by placing him under house arrest as a precaution. Yet rather than quietly accept, Prince Hamzah released the video while he still could, thereby escalating the situation, and forcing the Jordanian government to allege a coup attempt.

At present, no clear evidence of an actual coup attempt has emerged. The incident therefore resembles the alleged coup attempt against President Erdogan in Turkey in the summer of 2016. It remains unclear what precisely occurred, yet Erdogan used the alleged coup attempt to crack down on dissent and consolidate his power. King Abdullah, feeling threatened by ongoing protests, high unemployment, high COVID cases, and dismal economic prospects, may decide that the alleged coup attempt offers a useful excuse to clamp down on any criticism of his rule.

Prince Hamzah’s threat to King Abdullah’s authority is tied not only to his popularity, but to the fact that their father King Hussein, intended for Prince Hamzah to serve as Abdullah’s successor. Hamzah has long expressed support for a more democratic system in Jordan, as well as more authority to powerful tribes who ruled Jordan before the Hashemite regime was instated by the British in 1921. Ironically, upon his coronation, King Abdullah II was also seen as a proponent of democratic reforms, yet in the intervening two decades of his rule, he has consolidated power in himself, and designated his son Hussein as crown prince in 2009 when the prince turned 15.

The US, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all expressed support for Abdullah in response to the alleged coup narrative. The US and the other Arab monarchs see the ongoing rule of their regimes as necessary for regional stability. Despite pushing for greater democratic reforms after 9/11, the US has largely refrained from advocating too strenuously for democratization among its Arab security partners. Instead, despite President Biden’s stated commitment to supporting democracy and human rights, the US shows no sign of altering its robust support for authoritarian governments in the Middle East. Countries like Jordan and Egypt, that once appeared to be moving towards greater freedom for their people, are now simply additional data points in a global trend towards authoritarianism.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, Queen Rania, Queen Noor, other members of the Royal Family, attend wedding of Prince Hamzah (brother of the King, son of King Hussein and Queen Noor) and Miss Basma Bani Ahmad Al-Atoum, at Basman royal Palace, in Amman, Jordan on January 12, 2012. Photo by Balkis Press/ABACAPRESS.COM
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