Awn Khasawneh faced one of the most difficult choices of his life last week: jump into a political minefield by becoming the prime minister of Jordan or stay on at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where he was on track to lead the body, potentially becoming only the second Arab judge in history to take up the vaunted position. In the end, he chose his country over his career. “I felt that the situation was really turning dangerous in the country,” Khasawneh, 61, told Newsweek in an interview at his house in Amman. “And I felt that if I didn’t accept, it would slide and nosedive. I decided to do what I think was the right thing for my country.”
For the most part, Jordan has been spared the bloodshed and chaos that have hit other countries in the region during the Arab Spring. But that’s changing fast. In recent weeks, thugs carrying sticks and firearms have busted up opposition rallies around the country, injuring several participants. Many Jordanians see the thugs as the equivalent of Hosni Mubarak’s baltagiya goons in Egypt and blame the regime for stoking the attacks. As the violence has ramped up, the opposition’s slogans have become more radicalized: demands for political reforms and investigations into official corruption have now led to direct calls for curbs on King Abdullah’s powers. “In January, protesters were begging the king to make small changes,” says Amer Sabaileh, a political analyst in Amman. “Now, they’re questioning the state.”
King Abdullah is feeling the heat. After thugs attacked an opposition conference in Salhoub last week, there was a public outcry for a government response. King Abdullah listened: the sitting prime minister was ousted and the job was offered to Khasawneh, who is widely respected and rose to prominence as a senior legal adviser and chief of the royal court under King Hussein in the ’90s. Khasawneh, a shrewd man with an easy laugh, was a key member of the team that negotiated the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel. A decade later, he joined several fellow judges at the ICJ in writing a tough advisory opinion against Israel’s construction of the separation wall in the West Bank, a stand that many Jordanians remember.
Khasawneh’s close ties to the monarchy haven’t alienated him from the opposition. He has equally good ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and best-organized opposition group in the country, and he even attended one of their iftar dinners during Ramadan last August. “The Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic movement in general have been demonized for so long, unjustly I think,” Khasawneh says. “They’re a real force.” Khasawneh has also established good ties with other branches of the Muslim Brotherhood over the years, namely Hamas. When Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was poisoned by Mossad agents in Amman in 1997, Khasawneh was one of King Hussein’s point men who dealt with the crisis. Meshaal, who survived the attack, called Khasawneh to congratulate him last week.
Still, some Brotherhood members say that Khasawneh is being asked to do an impossible job. “Khasawneh will not succeed in his mission,” says Zaki Bany Ershead, the head of the political department of the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front. “The king has not decided until now to present genuine reforms. Khasawneh will have to clash either with the society or with the king.” For his part, Khasawneh points out that the king has already accepted some limitations on his power and is allowing Khasawneh to choose his own cabinet. And Khasawneh says he’s ready to pursue further measures to curb the king’s powers “if they make sense legally and logically. They shouldn’t just become political slogans.” King Abdullah undoubtedly noted the violent death of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya last week, and when asked about the dramatic development, Khasawneh played it safe: he said he would prefer not to comment since he hasn’t officially formed a cabinet yet.
Some members of the opposition are skeptical that the king will stand by his promises to reform, and claim he’s dangerously out of touch. One issue that has raised the opposition’s ire: a $1.5 billion Star Trek–themed amusement park that the king is pushing to build in the city of Aqaba in southern Jordan. A rabid Trekkie, the king even appeared as an extra in a 1996 episode of Star Trek: Voyager.
It will be up to Khasawneh to inject a dose of reality into the royal court.
With Ranya Kadri in Amman