Will a Western recipe work for Middle Eastern menu?

THE MEDIA LINE

AMMAN Jordan — Jordan has officially jumped on the bandwagon of countries, such as the U.S. and Britain, that have adopted anti-terrorism laws. The Jordanian parliament has endorsed the bill despite warnings from human rights groups and opposition parties against its negative impact on freedom and political reform. The law is expected to be in place within a month once it is signed by Jordanian King Abdullah II.

However, observers and opposition leaders believe Jordan needs more than a law to protect its territories and interests from terrorist attacks. Sunday’s attack by an individual on a group of foreign tourists in downtown Amman, where a British man was killed, highlights the terrorist challenge that Jordan faces in a nation comprised of Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians and Egyptians.

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Jordan takes pride in being a beacon of freedom in a region marred by seemingly never-ending political mayhem. Apart from the 1971 civil war with the Palestinians, it has never found itself entangled in internal power struggles. The wisdom and wit by which the country was ruled during years of regional political turmoil, thanks to the late, charismatic King Hussein, arguably made Jordan a safe haven ringed by countries plagued by civil wars and invasions.

Millions of refugees have streamed into Jordan from the Palestinian areas, Israel, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon over the past five decades. But since the United States declared war on global terrorism, and since its occupation of neighboring Iraq, it became evident, according to both government officials and the opposition, that Jordan’s privileged status was at risk.

A terrorism spillover from Iraq and Afghanistan was just a matter of time. With the return of Arab fighters who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, security measures were stepped up as mass arrests continued among former mujahedeen, who, it has been claimed, are plotting attacks against Western targets in the kingdom. One of these men was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former Al Qaida leader in Iraq, who preferred to be called Al Gharib (the stranger, in Arabic) by his friends. One of Al Gharib’s cellmates, who spent four years with him before both were pardoned in 2000, told The Media Line that al-Zarqawi felt he was “a stranger in Jordan after seeing the country’s political and moral situation take a nose dive.”

Security forces say they foiled several attempts by terrorists against government and diplomatic targets. But last year, when 60 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in a triple blast in hotels in the heart of the capital, the perpetrators, as expected, were from Al Qaida in Iraq; the attack was courtesy of al-Zarqawi.

Policymakers fear there will be more attacks, because the hotel attacks were not isolated incidents. One month earlier a rocket aimed at two U.S. vessels moored in the port city of Aqaba killed one Jordanian soldier and severely wounded another.

Security forces apprehended individuals who were said to be directly involved in the hotel attacks, including an Iraqi woman, who was among the suicide bombers, but failed to trigger an explosive belt wrapped around her body.

Despite the swift arrests, security officials, proud to bolster their image as the most efficient in the region, said a drastic change needed to be introduced to the country’s legal system to protect the kingdom from similar attacks. They did not need to look very far.

Authorities in the U.S. and Britain, Jordan’s close allies, had already passed anti-terrorism laws as part of their war against terrorism.

But would a Western recipe work in a Middle Eastern country against terrorists from the Middle East? Would this law help Jordan regain its status as the safest spot in the region? Observers and politicians have their doubts.

The law incriminates individuals associated with what are considered terrorist groups inside or outside the kingdom, or those who fund them. Suspects would be tried at the military-run State Security Court, which is under constant criticism for its tough and irreversible rulings.

What powers will the law give security forces they previously lacked? And what is the difference between this legislation and the existing penal code?

Within the bill’s 11 articles, one of the most striking points is that security forces will be granted a free mandate to investigate suspects, put them under tight surveillance and freeze their assets for one month. Yet such powers already exist, with some being even more stringent.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse the powerful General Intelligence Department (GID) of detaining suspects for months without access to the outside world. The groups also say that torture is a common practice and confessions are often taken under duress.

Politician and human rights activist Zuheir Abul Ragheb says existing laws are “good enough to protect the kingdom.” He was among the 15 Islamist MPs who opposed the law in parliament when it was endorsed at the end of August.

Some human rights activists, who originally opposed the draft bill, say what the parliament endorsed was no more than old wine in new bottles.

“I do not see that big a difference in the law compared to the [existing] penal code,” says Christoph Wilcke, researcher at Human Rights Watch.

So why did the government come up with the law, knowing legislation alone is insufficient?

Officials say the political atmosphere dictated the need to press ahead with the bill to close loopholes in the legal system.

“The existing law penalizes [someone] for a crime after it takes place, but we’re talking, in this law, about preventing crimes at their planning stage. It’s a preventive law,” says Interior Minister Eid al Fayez.

But extreme views from opposition parties claim the United States and Israel dragged Jordan by the scruff of its neck to draft the law in order to justify their own war on terrorism. Israel refuses to recognize Hamas because it labels it a terrorist group, while the U.S. is waging an open war against Al Qaida. Both groups are seen as champions of Arab and Muslim causes against the American and Israeli occupying forces.

“They’re doing what their masters are telling them,” says Zaki Bani Rsheid, secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Jordan.

It is commonly thought among former officials and observers that Jordan was better off when it distanced itself from the global war on terrorism. Some say Jordan is putting its hands in a beehive at a time when it does not need to and cannot afford to so do.

Islamist leaders fear the law was carved out as a scarecrow for opposition groups who would dare to challenge the official line, mainly on the kingdom’s close ties with the U.S. and the peace treaty with Israel.

“I’m afraid this law might backfire and force moderate groups to adopt extreme ideologies after being forced into the dark. The result would be opposite to what policymakers had in mind,” says Bani Rsheid.

Abdul Rahim Malhas, a former minister, insists that concrete steps of political reform and dialogue with civil society groups should have been the cure.

“The government must open up to opposition groups, allowing real democracy and freedom of expression. That’s the only way to fight terrorism, because with openness those people would never find supporters in the kingdom,” says Malhas.