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Jordan all abuzz as woman quits office over press freedom

In a kingdom that tolerates no real political opposition, Jordan's minister of information has become an overnight hero by publicly resigning her post. Leila Sharaf quit one day after King Hussein castigated the press for ``exceeding the limits of reality, knowledge, and responsibility.''

The immediate object of the King's wrath was a spate of press commentaries criticizing traditional tribal law. The articles had offended the Bedouin tribes that form the backbone of the King's Army and intelligence services.

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But diplomats here say the larger target was the Jordanian and Palestinian intellectuals who have pushed the King to liberalize Jordanian society. Mrs. Sharaf, widow of a former Jordanian prime minister, was one of those who had called for reforms.

Sharaf responded to the King's letter attacking the press by firing off a letter to Jordan's prime minister Jan. 27, saying she could not serve a government that failed to allow freedom of expression.

``These letters [the King's and Sharaf's] were the two strongest texts that have appeared in Jordan in the last 25 years,'' says one Western diplomat.

The resignation provided fascinating insight into the fragile structure of a nation the United States views as one of its staunchest friends in the Arab world.

The day after the King's letter was read on Jordan television, Sharaf gave copies of her resignation to Jordanian and foreign reporters.

During her 10-month tenure, Sharaf wrote, ``I became conscious of the narrowness of Jordanian officialdom towards the citizen and his channels of national information.'' That narrowness was forcing citizens ``to turn to hostile media [for information],'' she wrote.

No Jordanian newspaper dared to publish the letter. It was merely reported that Sharaf had resigned. But thousands of photocopies were made of the original, and copies of an English translation also were made. They've been changing hands ever since.

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What her resignation revealed, diplomats here agreed, is that King Hussein's power still rests largely on support from traditional groups such as Bedouins.

He would rather offend the intellectuals than risk alienating the tribesmen.

``The King was telling everybody, `I know where my support comes from and it's not from trendy lefties,' ''said one Western diplomat who spoke on condition he not be named.

Among Jordanian intellectuals, however, the resignation was seen as a criticism of the King's Cabinet -- composed largely of ministers who first served in the intelligence apparatus -- and not of the King himself.

``Leila Sharaf was the only man in the Cabinet,'' is the newest political joke Jordanians tell at dinner parties where they pass around the photocopied resignation letter. They also like to talk about how the Cabinet is ``without Sharaf.'' (``Sharaf'' is the Arabic word for honor.)

When Sharaf appeared at a conference on family law held in Amman shortly after her resignation, she received an ovation from the participants. Taxi drivers have refused to accept fares from her family members. Ambassadors have written her letters of support.

``I didn't expect all this,'' says Sharaf, a short, plump woman with an easy smile. ``My decision to resign was very sudden. I get these flames in my head, and I act.''

Her position as information minister was her first political job, Sharaf says. Married in 1965 to Abd al-Hamid Sharaf, she stuck to volunteer work while her husband served first as Jordan's ambassador to the US, then as ambassador to the United Nations, and finally as prime minister before his death in 1980.

Abd al-Hamid Sharaf was both a member of the Hashemite family and a pan-Arab nationalist. He was widely regarded as an influential advocate within the royal court for political liberalization.

``For the first two years after he died, I could not even concentrate long enough to read a book,'' says Sharaf. ``Then the King asked me to serve on the National Consultative Council, and then they asked me to join this Cabinet.''

Sharaf insists her quarrel was not with Hussein, but with his Cabinet. She considers herself a part of the King's family by marriage.

She is reportedly close to the American-born Queen Noor. Her ties to the royal family, many diplomats say, are what made her public criticism possible.

``I didn't know what the reaction was going to be from anybody,'' Sharaf says. ``I just thought that the King's letter went against my principles and I decided I would not work under directives like that.''

Hussein's letter, Sharaf said during an interview in her home on Amman's outskirts, ``was merely that last straw.'' She had spent much of her time in the Cabinet struggling to convince other ministers to loosen restrictions on the press, she says.

``I wanted to get a conflict of ideas, a real cultural movement going,'' Sharaf says.

Jordanian reporters interviewed for this article confirmed that during Sharaf's tenure there had been an easing of restrictions. More investigative pieces and political columns that were contrary to the government's policies began appearing in the normally docile press.

Jordan's press law requires licensing of all Jordanian journals and newspapers. Controls on the press are so tight that one Jordanian journalist noted wryly that the restrictions could be used to exclude ``even the weather report.'' Although articles are not actually seen by a censor before publication, there is rampant self-censorship, and the government has closed down journals it found offensive.

The government's treatment of the resignation has been to ignore it. No government statement was issued.

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