JORDAN took a new stride in its democratization process this week by allowing the formation of political parties for the first time in 36 years.
Although King Hussein has yet to ratify parliament's July 5 decision, he apparently wants to promote the development of political parties to counter the growing influence of the Islamic fundamentalist movement, which opposes peace talks with Israel and seeks the establishment of an Islamic state.
The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood won a third of the 80 seats in parliament in 1989, in the first elections in 23 years. Its power has triggered fears that the movement could take over the parliament in next year's elections, forcing the country into the dilemma that disrupted Algeria's experiment with democracy. The Algerian Army staged a coup last January to preempt an imminent, fundamentalist election victory.
Consequently, according to officials and analysts here, the Jordanian government wants to undercut the fundamentalists' influence by allowing other, secular parties to compete in next year's elections. The palace is thereby ending long-time support for Islamic fundamentalists, which, since the mid-1950s, was part of the king's strategy to contain radical and leftist Arab rivals.
There are even indications that the government is pondering an informal alliance with leftist and pan-Arab opposition politicians. "The government is trying to avoid a crackdown on the Islamic movement [and] is also seeking to contain its growth," says a Jordanian official.
King Hussein is also trying to ensure that the parties' formation does not facilitate Arab governments' manipulation of Jordan's opposition - a problem in the 1950s when radical Arab governments exerted influence on Jordanian political groups. But this time, analysts say, the king is more concerned about interference by Saudi Arabia, which has not forgiven Jordan's refusal to join the United States-led coalition against Iraq during the Gulf war.
A ban on external funding was accepted by pan-Arab and nationalist groups that historically have been associated with the ruling Baathist parties in Syria and Iraq.
"The situation has changed dramatically," says Mazen Saket, a former Baathist leader. However, a danger now is that some Jordanian groups could become beholden to secret help from abroad. "In the past there was an equitable relationship between the leadership of pan-Arab parties [in Damascus and Baghdad] and the Jordanian parties, [but] now a similar bond would be reduced to subservience to various Arab intelligence departments," he said.