The Jordanian government's fall in Amman today appears to be the latest in the series of dominoes that first fell in Tunis and appears poised to tip over in Cairo. At first glance, there are similarities: Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Amman, Karak, Salt, and Irbid protesting difficult economic conditions, tax policies, government corruption, and other domestic maladies. Demonstrators called for their leaders' resignation, tanks deployed to the cities, and barricades were erected.
Yet the government's toppling in Amman is not regime change and does not presage it. Instead, it is the removal of a government that leaves the throne well intact. The demonstrators in Jordan did not call for King Abdullah's removal; they called for better governance, economic reform, and the removal of Prime Minister Samir Rifai, who is blamed for rising commodity prices and political stagnation. Even demonstrating Islamists remain loyal to the monarchy. They want policy changes, not regime change.
Monarchies like Jordan are better insulated to absorb the wave of discontent sweeping the Arab world today. This is true for most of the monarchies in the Arab world, such as Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. While the king retains ultimate control, power is also more diffused, allowing for a buffering of rage and resentment, and greater potential for real politics. It also means greater government accountability; the prime minister and his cabinet are not the venerated unassailable symbols of the nation, as many republican autocrats elsewhere in the region have come to view themselves. Jordanians can criticize their government without being accused of being disloyal to Jordan.
Such is not the case in Cairo, where criticism of the president long ago came to be viewed by the leadership as tantamount to criticism of Egypt. Such centralization of power in one set of hands, and the juxtaposition of fealty to the leader with loyalty to the state, does not bode well for authoritarian strongmen in Libya, Syria, or Sudan.
The peaceful change of government in Jordan does not mean that all is well. One of the core demands of the demonstrators--elections to choose a new prime minister--was not met. Moreover, the new prime minister--Marouf al-Bakhit--may not be the right man for the hour. He is an ex-general whose previous term as prime minister from 2005 to 2007 was not marked by promised reforms, but by perceived inaction. Upon announcement of Bakhit's appointment, opposition leaders criticized the choice of a non-reformist. They did not, however, criticize the Hashemite leader.
Ultimately, to maintain the basic compact that exists between the monarchy and the people, King Abdullah may yet need to institute greater and more fundamental change--new elections, more governance reform, rapid economic reform, greater social safety nets--lest Jordanians begin to question the legitimacy of his rule and propel Jordan onto the wave that is sweeping other parts of the Arab world.