King Abdullah of Jordan has just taken the remarkable step of firing his powerful head of General Intelligence in the middle of a major regional -- and potentially domestic -- crisis. Nabil Ghishan, a Jordanian journalist, explains in al-Hayat that the reason for the firing of Mukhabarat head Mohammed al-Thahbi was his role in a controversial rapprochement with Hamas over the last few months. Presumably his replacement, Mohammed Raqad -- whose prior assignment was in the northern city of Irbid -- will have fewer ideas about outreach to Hamas. But more broadly, the move suggests a panic at the heart of the Hashemite establishment over the ramifications of the spiraling Gaza crisis. It's no accident that King Abdullah and Queen Rania have been urgently calling for Israel to "end the violence immediately", even as fellow pro-U.S. autocrats in Cairo and Riyadh hedge in anticipation of Hamas taking damage. There is no way for Jordan to stay on the sidelines of an Israeli-Palestinian crisis - and this one may prove more dangerous than others.
The intensity of Jordanian public opinion on Gaza should not be surprising. Without resorting to the journalistic shorthand of assigning a percentage of the population as "Palestinian" (given decades of intermarriage and deep divides in the life-circumstances of, say, the impoverished residents of the camps and the wealthy Amman bourgeoisie), the Jordanian and Palestinian populations are deeply interconnected. The Jordanian public has been extremely vocal, with protests in the streets and burning Israeli flags in the Parliament. Normally level-headed commentators have been calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, the severing of ties with Israel, the "removal" of all things Israeli from the Kingdom, and more. Unlike during the Hezbollah war of 2006, there's a consensus in Jordan spanning liberals, Islamists, and conservatives over Gaza... with even those who have written extremely hostile commentary about Hamas in the last few years now lambasting Israel and defending Gaza. (And some bloggers are helping to organize a food drive -- good for them!)
Expect anti-Americanism in Jordan (and across the region) to spike again as the U.S. is blamed for allowing the Israeli offensive, just as during the 2002 Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank, and for moderate voices to be marginalized or radicalized. The King is following the popular mood this time, to a point (with an ostentatious picture of him donating blood gracing the front pages of the papers). But even as the influential columnist Samih al-Mayateh writes that the people and the Palace are united, it's clear to all that the government has offered only words and has not acted on any of the popular demands.
The domestic context of the regional crisis is terrible. The economic crisis has badly hurt all sectors of the Jordanian population, while rumors of corruption and official incompetence have been rife. The Parliament is widely derided. The relatively new Prime Minister seems generally respected, but doesn't have a great deal of independent weight. The Muslim Brotherhood, which seemed to have lost its way in the face of intense regime pressures over the last few years, has of late seemed to have found its feet under the leadership of the pro-Hamas "hawk" recently elected as it head. Back in October, the government had initiated a surprising, if limited, rapprochement with the Brotherhood -- and Hamas -- which now seems to be done. I expect that the Jordanian regime will most likely ride out this round of domestic anger as it always has before -- but it seems clear that the leadership is worried about the rising wave of anger and the possibility of violence migrating across the Jordan River. Whatever Abdullah's real feelings about Hamas, it seems likely that he's sincere about desperately wanting the crisis to be over and is trying to find ways to limit the impact at home. Replacing his mukhabarat chief in the middle of the crisis suggests that desperation is turning to panic.
UPDATE: a well-informed observer adds:
Firstly, the timing is indeed strange, in particular if the King wants to calm down a domestic sphere which appears even more united around a pro-Hamas front today compared to 2006, then it is odd to fire THE figure representing a link between the regime and Hamas. From what I have heard it may instead be the outcome of pressure from Egypt which is pissed at yesterday's demonstrations in front of the Egyptian embassy with anti-Mubarak slogans. This is unprecedented and in the spring a planned demonstration in front of the Egyptian embassy was banned. ....
Secondly, as for the decision as such – and not the timing - to fire Dhahabi, what I have heard it is a combination of a number of factors related very much to the domestic sphere and less to the current crisis – still the timing is strange. Those I talk to have for a while expected that one of the Dhahabis had to quit as two brothers in prominent positions (if the PM can be labelled as such) were one too much. At the same time it is suggested that it is a kind of payback from the King to GID and the PMs opposition to [Bassem] Awadallah, who had to leave the court back in September. And related, it is said to be the price PM Dhahabi has to pay to make the last purging of pro-Awadallah people in the upcoming re-shuffle of the government. This is probably not the whole story, but adds some further dimension to this strange story.