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Chasm Widening Between Amman, Fundamentalists : Jordan: The Muslim Brotherhood has pushed King Hussein. He has responded firmly.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When King Hussein reopened the doors of Jordanian democracy two years ago, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood’s solid showing at the polls sent a political message to the palace. Now the king has sent a message back.

At a pivotal moment in Arab-Israeli relations, the king last month appointed Taher Masri, a veteran politician and Palestinian moderate, to head the new government. The fundamentalists could get with Hussein’s peace program or take a walk. They walked, voting to reject Masri’s government--a move that was unsuccessful--and vowing to oppose any deals with Israel.

Then, the 22 fundamentalists in Parliament, its largest bloc, rammed through a resolution opposing the U.S. peace initiative just hours after the king had given his acceptance to visiting Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

The political aftermath has left a messy stain on the new democracy. The Brotherhood lost the five Cabinet seats it held under former Prime Minister Mudar Badran. The king rejected fundamentalist calls for a holy war to defeat the Israelis, pointedly warning, “We are not advocates of bloodshed.”

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Coming on the heels of the Algerian government’s crackdown on its fundamentalist movement, Hussein’s message was clear: The Brotherhood’s rhetoric against the peace process was nearing unacceptable limits. Fundamentalist influence in the media and mosques, he implied in a publicized letter to Masri, had the scent of “psychological terrorism.”

Late last month, Jordanian security authorities announced they had uncovered a conspiracy to destabilize the country with bombings and assassinations.

Officials said a police sweep had arrested more than 60 plotters and seized 62 machine guns, 10 pistols with silencers and a cache of explosives and grenades. According to the government, the conspirators were fundamentalists, members of groups called the Prophet Mohammed’s Army and the Holy Fighters in the Name of God.

The official report mentioned no connection between the alleged plotters and the Muslim Brotherhood. But fundamentalist leaders understood the political import in the widening chasm between their movement and the palace.

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“We, the Muslim Brotherhood, condemn all actions against the security of the country,” responded Sheik Abdul Rahman Khalifeh, the group’s spiritual leader. Added Zaid abu Ghanimeh, a spokesman for the parliamentary bloc: “We don’t believe in using force. Dialogue is the best way.”

Much has changed since 1989, when King Hussein, moving to release seething public anger over the economy and corruption, ordered the first general elections in 22 years and restored the parliament. The Brotherhood--the Ikwan, as it’s commonly called--figured to hold its own. It had shaped a party-like structure under the cloak of charitable endeavors during the decades of direct palace rule, and Hussein and his advisers had encouraged the fundamentalists as a political counterweight to Jordanian leftists.

But no one predicted a rightist bandwagon, with the Brothers and their allies winding up in control of more than a third of the 80-seat assembly.

The political honeymoon went well, with the fundamentalists getting good marks for their floor work on populist economic issues. Badran appointed Brothers to head several ministries considered important to their religious interests--education, for instance. The palace was busy creating a so-called National Charter to encourage the growth of a free press and political parties, and the democratic experiment was watched with interest in the Arab world.

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But over the last year and a half, the equation became imbalanced--the result of many factors:

* The Jordanian economy, never strong and highly dependent on foreign aid, was an early casualty of the Persian Gulf crisis. The economic embargo of Iraq also spelled disaster for Jordan, its major supply pipeline. Democracy was not creating jobs.

* The crisis also politicized the kingdom--with a pro-Iraqi tilt--right across the traditional spectrum. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s avowed championing of the Palestinian cause found strong support in this country.

* Badran’s newly minted fundamentalist Cabinet members began to act. The minister for social development, for instance, decided to segregate men and women workers in his ministry offices.

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The experiment in democracy--and the fundamentalists’ role in it--is getting bound up in the positioning on the peace process.

Masri, 49, is Jordan’s first Palestinian prime minister in 21 years. His political views on a Middle East peace are considered close to the official position of the Palestine Liberation Organization: the two-state policy that offers peace with Israel in return for a Palestinian homeland.

The Brotherhood’s position is hard-line. It wants all the old Palestine restored to Muslim rule--the elimination of Israel.


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