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Interior Minister: Islamists Can't Cross 'Some Red Lines'

The man responsible for running Jordan's parliamentary elections - and for maintaining law and order - is Interior Minister Nathir Rashid.

He well embodies twin characteristics historically required to survive in Jordan's harsh climate: a desert Bedouin toughness and an open-armed hospitality.

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The toughness was seen during a previous spell in the service of King Hussein: Mr. Rashid was chief of security during a Palestinian uprising in 1970. Palestinian forces were chased so ruthlessly that they still refer to those battles as "Black September."

"We were tough then, very tough," he says, but that was nearly three decades ago. "People say I am a hard man, but I am not."

The hospitality is seen in his making adjustments to smooth Jordan's peace with Israel - in small and big ways. In one recent example, a rabbi wanted to cross the border to be with Israeli Embassy staff for the Jewish New Year, but had no visa. Rashid approved one on the spot, a move he says would not be reciprocated if a sheikh arrived at the border to enter Israel without a visa.

Rashid also handed back two Israeli Mossad agents caught in an assassination attempt in Jordan, instead of putting them on trial. It was all part of a bigger deal in which Israel vowed to restart the peace process.

Rashid promises that the Nov. 4 parlimentary election will follow the letter of the law, despite the boycott by Islamic parties, which complain that the system favors pro-government groups.

"The margin of freedom in Jordan is very high," Rashid said in an interview. "We're trying to set an example of a modern, democratic life, and his majesty wants people to share in governing their future, to put the right rules for their future."

For him, those right rules include changing Jordan's political landscape legally.

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"You can't change things by asking for it in the media. You must go to parliament," he says. "The minority can't impose its will, and by sitting outside [with the boycott], the Islamists will never serve their target. It's just an excuse for them not to take part in the election, because they know - and we know - they will have less seats if they do."

Jordan will be spared from any violent Islamist problem, he says, precisely because it alone has accommodated moderate Islamists. "They know that there are some red lines they can't cross," he says. "They know ... what happened to their people in Algeria, Egypt, and Syria - and here they live with respect. They must keep this place clean."

Jordan's experiment with democracy is also testing limits. "Freedom is allowed, but [outlets] should be justified," Rashid says in reference to curbs on protest during Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit and on earlier ones over strict press laws. Such "nonsense" protests "do not serve Jordan" and should not be allowed, he says.

Because 561 candidates are running for 80 seats, election rallies will also be kept "under control." Still, Rashid says, Jordanians have far to go before they put party and ideological loyalty above that of local tribes.

"There is a misunderstanding of the role of parliament. It is not to give service but to look into laws and make modern laws," he says. "It might take years until people realize the role of parliament is not servicing themselves."

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