Why the Jordanian government's legitimacy is on trial in the Prince Hamzah case

Why the Jordanian government's legitimacy is on trial in the Prince Hamzah case
Analysis: The trial of the remaining suspects in the Prince Hamzah affair is crucial to proving the Jordanian government's version of events, but it requires a delicate balancing act.
7 min read
29 April, 2021
Two individuals arrested as part of the Prince Hamzah affair remain in detention. [Getty]
In a surprise move last Thursday, King Abdullah announced he would be releasing 16 of the 18 detainees arrested as part of the Prince Hamzah affair, so that they can "return to their families."

While the 16 have been released, there has been no word on whether their cases will be dropped, according to Asem al-Omari, a lawyer working with the Committee for the Defense of Detainees, a group of lawyers representing eleven of those detained. 

Two individuals scooped up as part of the Prince Hamzah affair still remain in detention: Bassem Awadallah, the former head of the Jordanian royal court and the man alleged to be the ringleader of the Prince Hamzah affair by Jordanian authorities, and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a member of the Hashemite royal family and King Abdullah II's former envoy to Saudi Arabia. Thus far, the government has given no signs it is stopping its prosecution of the two.

The trial of Awadallah and Bin Zaid is crucial for the Jordanian government, whose narrative of the "seditious plot" against the king faces scepticism both at home and abroad. It will be a chance to provide concrete evidence of the still-murky claims it has made of a foreign-backed conspiracy to destabilise the king's rule.

However, the trial also carries with it a host of challenges for the government. On the one hand, the government would like to prove its version of events once and for all. On the other, the government is loath to attract the attention of the international media and present evidence which would upset its allies

The trial of the two remaining suspects is crucial for the Jordanian government, whose narrative of a 'seditious plot' against the king faces scepticism both at home and abroad

To try or not to try?

The most prominent of the two detainees is Bassem Awadallah. Jordanian government officials have detailed in anonymous interviews how Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and Awadallah allegedly conspired together to destabilise King Abdullah II.

Awadallah is a deeply unpopular figure in Jordan. His former tenure as finance minister is associated with the much-hated privatisation of many of Jordan's key industries, including telecommunications and potash. Notably, when protests broke out against the Jordanian government in March after seven died in a hospital in Salt, protesters chanted against the sale of state assets, including the potash company.

Read more: Jordan's authoritarian shift: The erosion
of civic space since the Arab Spring

The prosecution of Awadallah would thus probably not arouse much sympathy in the hearts of Jordanians, who view him as the epitome of the elite corruption which plagues the country.

Much less is known about the charges against Bin Zaid, and he is a relatively unknown figure in Jordan. Local newspaper Al Bawaba ran a telling headline after his arrest, asking, "Who is Sharif Hassan Bin Zaid?"

There is, however, also the possibility of either Awadallah or Bin Zaid calling Prince Hamzah to the stand as a witness. If the prince were to act as a witness in the trial, this could spoil the king's attempts to keep the conflict with his half-brother within the confines of the palace.

A situation where Prince Hamzah was given airtime to recount his side of the story would potentially embarrass the royal family by further exposing internal rifts or contradicting the king. Even if the defence called the prince to the witness stand, it's unclear whether the palace would allow this to happen, given its prior decision not to try him.

The trial carries a host of challenges. On the one hand, the government would like to prove its version of events. On the other, it is loath to attract international media attention and present evidence which would upset its allies

When asked whether the defence would consider calling Prince Hamzah as a witness, Awadallah's lawyer, Mohamed Afif, told The New Arab that the question was "premature," and that witnesses would be "discussed at a later time."

For his part, Bin Zaid's lawyer, Alaa al-Khasawneh, told The New Arab that as of yet he had not been able to review all of the evidence against his client - but if it would help his case, he would request the prince as a witness. 

Both Awadallah and Bin Zaid have hired well-established lawyers whose names carry weight in Jordan. Awadallah's lawyer, Mohammad Afif, is a former judge of Jordan's military court and has high-level connections within the government. Bin Zaid's lawyer, Alaa al-Khasawneh, is an accomplished law practitioner and cousin of Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh.

The hiring of the two heavy-hitting lawyers will undoubtedly help both Awadallah and Bin Zaid to negotiate a better deal with the government, should Amman decide to keep the case out of court. 

Read more: How the Prince Hamzah affair reveals the sharp decline in Jordan's press freedom

Attempts to control the media narrative

In the aftermath of the Prince Hamzah affair, Jordanian officials called a small group of prominent Jordanian journalists for a closed-door meeting with the Royal Court, promising them exclusive information about the unfolding events.

"They needed support of the domestic media after the bad handling of the crisis, but unfortunately, they didn't give the media any new information about what happened - so each journalist went off in their own direction," Oraib Rantawi, the founder of the Amman-based Jerusalem Center for Studies who attended the meeting, told The New Arab.

The closed-door meeting was just one of many attempts by Jordanian authorities to influence media coverage of the Prince Hamzah affair. Still, despite a strategy of calculated leaks and anonymous statements to foreign outlets, Jordan seems to have lost control of the narrative, as shifting, and opaque public statements about the nature of the crisis prompted scepticism from the media.

The trial will likely renew interest in the Prince Hamzah affair and intensify the media spotlight on Jordan

The government has suffered under the resulting spotlight of the press in recent weeks, with headlines describing Jordan as a "banana monarchy," and airing Jordanians' concerns about the monarchy itself.

The trial will likely renew interest in the Prince Hamzah affair and intensify the media spotlight on Jordan. While this gives the government the chance to lay out the evidence it has collected on those it has accused of trying to destabilise the kingdom, it also means it has to perform a delicate dance.

Read more: Teachers in Jordan are asking for fair pay.
Instead, the government launched a violent crackdown

Specifically, the charge that detainees were working with foreign actors puts the government in a precarious position, where it needs to prove foreign involvement, but not in such a way that it could endanger its strategic relationships with countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

"The linkages with foreign actors is worrying. [Whether] they ignore their actions or release it to the public, this will be embarrassing for the government," Rantawi said.

The government has spoken plainly about the role played by foreign states in anonymous interviews, but if the public prosecutor presents official evidence of foreign interference, this could be interpreted by foreign states as accusations from Amman. Such accusations risk causing a diplomatic issue between Jordan and its allies.

The trial might also have repercussions for the domestic audience, especially if Prince Hamzah does end up taking the witness stand.

Prince Hamzah remains a popular figure in the country, with the hashtag "Prince Hamzah is not the prince, he is the nation," trending on Twitter last week. A renewed speech by the prince could earn him more support, or at the very least, drag the royal feud out of the palace and back into the spotlight.

The New Arab contacted the Royal Hashemite Court with questions about the detainees and their potential trial for the purposes of this article, but it declined to comment.

William Christou is a MENA-based journalist covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean, and a researcher with the Orient Policy Center. Previously he worked as a journalist with Syria Direct in Amman, Jordan. Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou