• U.S.

Jordan: A Genius for Survival

4 minute read

As it has often before in his ten-year reign, the throne of Jordan’s King Hussein trembled last week. In the capital city of Amman, in old Jerusalem. Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah, crowds filled the streets roaring, “Bidna Nasser! Bidna Nasser!” (We want Nasser).

With the proposed new Arab union of Iraq, Syria and Egypt now on every Arab lip, the merger virus swept irresistibly through Jordan. The riotous crowds ended three years of relative political calm, and faced tough little King Hussein, 27, with his deepest crisis. Two-thirds of Jordan’s 1,800,000 people are Palestinian Arabs, who care little about the nation’s stability, progress or growing industry. Above all else, they are intent on eliminating Israel and regaining their former homes, and see Arab unity as the only way to do it; to them, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser seems the only leader capable of achieving their goals.

No Relation. The street mobs were dispersed by troops and gunfire (mostly over the rioters’ heads), and by the establishment of a 22-hour curfew. Schools were shut down by the government or closed by student sit-ins. Angered when the unruly Parliament forced the resignation of his Prime Minister Samir Rifai, King Hussein dissolved it and ordered the arrest of ten pro-Nasser Deputies. As caretaker Prime Minister, during the four months before new national elections, the King picked fat, easygoing Sherif Hussein ibn Nasser, 66, who is Hussein’s great-uncle, is also married to Hussein’s aunt, and—despite his name—no relation to Egypt’s Nasser.

King Hussein was not dependent on relatives alone. He drew support from businessmen, farmers and the middle class —people with something to lose. Bedouin chiefs led 4,000 tribesmen into the gardens of Basman Palace to shout “Long live Hussein, our King!” When the Bed ouins overenthusiastically roared anti-Nasser slogans, Hussein stopped them with an angry gesture, offering conciliation to Nasser with the words “Jordan is the heart of the Arab homeland and seeks Arab unity.”

Short & Dirty. The Cairo press cried, “Jordan explodes!” and Nasser’s propaganda radio. Voice of the Arab Nation, urged Jordanians to “stage a bloody revolution to deliver Jordan from Hussein.” Yet at week’s end, Egypt and Nasser seemed content to let the demonstrations die down. At the present moment, chaos and anarchy in Jordan are too risky for Nasser. The brutal fact is that if Hussein falls, Israel is more than likely to march to the west bank of the Jordan River, slicing off the null piece of Jordanian territory that protrudes into Israel. And even should U.S. and U.N. pressure force the Israelis back again, they might successfully insist on border rectifications to produce a more defensible frontier against the Arab world, and a U.N. force to guard against attack from the east. A knowledgeable Western observer is convinced “that Israel will attack Jordan if given sufficient excuse or provocation. It would be short, dirty, and over in 48 hours.”

The result would be the destruction of all Gamal Abdel Nasser’s plans for a new U.A.R. and the humiliation of the Arabs; for neither Nasser nor his pals can handle the tough Israeli army, especially since a third of Egypt’s army is tied up in Yemen, where royalist tribes are still fighting to put the dethroned Imam back in power. As for King Hussein, as long as he controls his army, he controls Jordan. Meanwhile he is gaining time, and there is always the possibility that Nasser’s new U.A.R. may break up as did the last one. Said a Western ambassador: “If I had to choose between Hussein’s chances and the new U.A.R.’s chances of survival over the next three years, I’d bet on Hussein. He has a genius for survival.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com