THE RECENT DEATH of King Hussein has led to widespread mourning in his beloved Jordan and evoked new concerns about stability in the Middle East, specifically the stalled Middle East peace process.
Unfortunately, in many Western capitals, King Hussein's historical importance has been either simplified through numerous personal anecdotes or diminished by a focus on his relationship with Jordan's powerful neighbor, Israel. Relatively little has been said about Hussein's public image in Jordan, his relationship with his subjects and his place in the Arab world. Evidence of King Hussein's legacy could be seen along the route marking the funeral procession.
On the rain-swept streets of Amman, Bedouins, Jordanians and Palestinians, whose past differences have threatened to tear the country apart, stood together and openly grieved for their fallen monarch. Many waved posters of King Hussein. They did so in a clean, increasingly modern city of 1.5 million people, which bears little resemblance to the hilly, dusty outpost of a few thousand souls where King Hussein was born 63 years ago. But just as he built Jordan with bricks, mortar and sweat, so, too, did he weave together a nation of different ethnic and religious threads.
"He [King Hussein] created the kingdom," said Hisham Shirabi, a prominent Palestinian scholar and former Georgetown University professor. "He made it possible for a society with a definite identity. He provided Jordan with a modern bureaucracy, the best university in the Arab world. He created an economic system of free enterprise, with some welfare aspects. And, despite limited democracy and some retreat on reforms made, his rule was never tyrannical. He served as a father figure who provided security."
Four years ago, during my first trip to Jordan, I was greeted almost immediately by the old adage: "Hussein is Jordan, and Jordan is Hussein." I was naturally skeptical of this hackneyed phrase, which came to mind as I drove around Amman and saw the billboards depicting the smiling monarch. When I entered government buildings, hotels, cafes and restaurants, framed portraits of a smiling King Hussein stared down from doorways and walkways. I judged this all to be the same kind of personality cult that I had seen elsewhere in the Middle East. But I discovered that King Hussein's image in Jordan stands in stark contrast to many other Middle East leaders.
In more than a half-dozen capitals, the gratuitous color portraits of various heads of state were so huge and numerous that they had essentially become landmarks. This was a holdover from the era of the charismatic Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose face, voice and charm captured the imagination of the restive masses of the Arab world in the late 1950s and 1960s. He was the personification of Arab nationalism, the modern architect of what was known as the "Arab project," by which Palestine would be liberated and the rest of the Arab world would be unified and redeemed.
When Nasser died in 1970, an estimated 6 million people attended his funeral in Cairo. Genuine grief swept not only the Middle East but much of the Third World. He was an authentic historical figure of the 20th century. While there will never be another Nasser, the cult of personality that he encouraged has been shamelessly copied by many leaders of lesser vision and stature.
Portraits of the king
As I spoke with Jordanians in the privacy of their homes, I noticed that many of them had portraits of King Hussein hanging from their walls and doorways or displayed in other prominent places. But they did this voluntarily, not in response to a directive from the local political boss or a member of the shadowy state security agency.
For all his flaws, King Hussein, like Nasser, was genuinely popular among a wide cross-section of his people.
King Hussein's reign spanned Jordan's transformation into a modern state, and he was the personification of this, growing from a boy-king to a wise, respected elder statesman. That is one reason why Bedouins, Jordanians and many members of the Palestinian expatriate majority hung portraits of the monarch in their homes; they held King Hussein in their hearts.
At some point in almost every conversation I had, Jordanians from all walks of life would proudly tell me about their face-to-face meetings with King Hussein. Others would tell me about personal acts of kindness by the monarch, such as picking up stranded motorists along desert roads or paying medical expenses for a sick child.
Despite being the target of numerous assassination attempts, King Hussein insisted on mixing freely with his people, ignoring safety concerns by making impromptu public appearances. Although he ruled by decree for much of his reign, he cultivated his constituents to such a degree that many average Jordanians considered that they had a personal relationship with him.
They also knew that he took them into account in his decision-making, such as refusing to join the U.S.-led military coalition in the Persian Gulf war. Jordan's Western supporters and Persian Gulf sheikdoms were dumbfounded, but King Hussein followed popular domestic sentiment against the war. For this, he was revered by his people.
Hussein was accessible
There was a big difference between King Hussein and other Arab leaders. Where the Jordanian king was accessible, other Arab leaders were not. Yasser Arafat, for example, lived and worked in fortress-like residences, surrounded by rows of grim-faced men in business suits or truckloads of uniformed soldiers with AK-47 assault rifles held across their chests.
This is understandable given the history of assassinations in the Middle East. But while many of these autocrats succeed by instilling fear in the general public, it's also clear that they fear their own people. For most, public appearances are rare, and their publicly displayed images are examples of the cult of personality as a weapon, an ever-present reminder of the ruler's power.
In Iraq, for example, Saddam Hussein's cult of personality is literally engineered into the modern architecture of Baghdad. Large, modern government buildings, many of which bear his name, tower over the city streets. Some of the structures, like the presidential palaces, rebuilt on an even larger scale than before the gulf war, appear so mountainous that they cast large shadows, dwarfing the average citizen. Massive color portraits of Saddam appear beside Iraqi highways. Every public park has a statue or stone bust of Saddam.
Personality cults in Syria
Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, the public has witnessed the strange birth of multiple personality cults. In Damascus, the benign, almost grandfatherly visage of President Hafez el Assad is everywhere. But his image is rivaled, and sometimes exceeded by, that of his eldest son, Basil.
Even before he died in a car accident in Damascus five years ago, the dashing Basil, who strongly resembled his father, was apparently being groomed to succeed the president - though he held no top government post. As if to prepare the Syrian public for the transition, Basil's portrait started to appear in public, usually alongside those of the president.
When Basil died, a period of public mourning was declared, and there was an explosion in the number, size and variety of images depicting him. In the bustling, narrow streets of the sprawling, ancient Ommayid souk in Damascus, posters and portraits of Basil abound. An avid equestrian, Basil is depicted on horseback on a banner that hangs from arches across the street. At the swank Meridien Hotel, a large photo of Basil, in black bow tie and tuxedo, hangs near the entrance.
When I questioned my handlers from the Syrian Ministry of Information about this, I was told that the portraits were a spontaneous outpouring of public emotion. In Syria, and other totalitarian nations, most "spontaneous" reactions must first be approved by the government.
Now that Assad is grooming Basil's younger brother, Bashar, as his successor, public portraits of the publicity-shy physician are growing in number and prominence in Damascus.
When I was in Lebanon three years ago, I did not see one public portrait of then-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri or Elias Hrawi, the Lebanese president. But the portraits of the elder and young Assads are plastered all over Lebanon, where 40,000 Syrian troops are stationed. The message from Syria's cult of personality is clear - there is an Assad in your future. And if the father and his sons cannot engender love, they will compel respect and fear.
S.M. Khalid is a free-lance writer and a former reporter for The Sun