Jordan tensions rise, fears of Syria spillover

A wave of popular dissent across the region

Bloody clashes in Jordan have exacerbated the confidence crisis between the government and Islamists, accused of taking orders from northern neighbour Syria, which is itself facing popular protests.
The Islamist opposition and the government locked horns after a protester died and 160 people were injured on Friday when police broke up a pro-reform protest camp in Amman following a stone attack by loyalists against young demonstrators.
The rift between the government and Islamists widened after Prime Minister Maaruf Bakhit accused them of trying to spread "chaos" and "taking orders from the Muslim brothers in Egypt and Syria," which is itself facing a wave of popular dissent.
Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood has rejected the "lies," with its leader Hammam Said insisting they "have the right to consult with our brothers in Damascus about the Palestinian cause" and that "we do not take orders or instructions from anybody."
However, the link between the two countries' Islamists is indisputable.
"There is no doubt about the strong relations between the two branches of Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Jordan," a former Jordanian official of the 1980s said.
"The breakdown in relations between the government and Islamist movement, and the current tension in Syria can be worrisome for Jordan."
Syria's Islamists sought refuge in Jordan in 1982 after a massacre in the northern city of Hama, where the army killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people.
The security situation in Syria has worsened in past days, with reports of gangs wreaking havoc in the northern port city of Latakia and sporadic bouts of violence in the southern governorate of Daraa.
Rights groups have put the death toll at around 130, with Daraa -- a tribal area at the Jordanian border -- sustaining the most casualties.
Authorities have accused Muslim fundamentalists of aiming to incite sectarian-based strife in Syria, a majority Sunni Muslim country which is also home to Christians, Druze and Alawite Muslims.
"There is geographical proximity, but also ties and bonds between families in northern Jordan and southern Syria, in particular Daraa," said the former official.
Mohammad Momani, political science professor at the Yarmuk University, said the "geographical proximity is undoubtedly disturbing."
"Its impact is unpredictable, but the political setting in Syria is completely different from Jordan," he said.
Friday's death was the first of a demonstrator since the outbreak of pro-reform protests in Jordan three months ago.
Hundreds of loyalists on Saturday marched in several neighbourhoods of the capital, carrying pictures of King Abdullah II as well as firearms and swords, chanting slogans against "all those who undermine the stability" of the regime and the country.
"What happened created a feeling that our personal safety is questioned. But what is dangerous is that it injected division within the society," said Mohammad Masri, a researcher at the University of Jordan's Centre for Strategic Studies.
The Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood, has called for Bakhit's ouster after the clashes.
"A carefully prepared plan by authorities has led to the violence and sought to create discord and division among Jordanians," Zaki Bani Rsheid, head of the IAF's political office, said.
He accused authorities of using "thugs and prisoners, who were freed temporarily" to attack the protesters.
"We are committed to the peaceful expression of our reform demands," Bani Rsheid said.
The king called for national unity on Sunday, saying "the most important thing now is our national unity, which must not be touched."
"We need to stay away from any behaviour or attitude that would affect our unity."