Assessing the possibility of revolt in Jordan

Published in Jordan

 By Lamis Andoni

In an effort to contain the increasing tensions in Jordan, the government of Marouf Al Bakhit, appointed late January after protests forced the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rafai, initiated a national dialogue with different political groups to agree on political and economic reforms. But the initiative was set back when the Muslim Brotherhood, the strongest organised opposition in the country, boycotted the talks citing lack of seriousness on the government's part. As a result of this position taken by the Brotherhood, King Abdullah met with its leadership - for the first time since he assumed power in 1999 - but failed to convince the movement to engage in what has been described as a new era of genuine reforms in the country. Other political trends and parties share the Muslim Brotherhood's deep scepticism, but have decided to give the government and the dialogue a chance while maintaining weekly rallies pushing for reforms.

Demands for reform in Jordan range from calls for changes to the electoral law that currently limits the opposition's representation; to demands for the dissolution of parliament, holding new elections, and transforming the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. Calls for limiting the king's authority have gained unprecedented support, especially among the East Bank component of the population, but do not yet reflect a broad national consensus.

Some political leaders, including East Bank leaders and many in the Palestinian component of Jordanian society, fear that stripping the king's executive powers could undermine the social cohesion of the country. Abdullah faces rising criticism of his decisions while many point out that corruption has reached, and might be encouraged by, the royal court and members of the royal family. However, he is still seen as a unifier of the country mainly because of the lack of a real alternative, but also because of a fear that Israel could use a power vacuum, or civil strife, to intervene in the kingdom.

But even those Jordanians who are not calling for a change of the system insist they will not settle for less than fundamental changes in the system. People demand an accountable, and preferably an elected, government, and constitutional amendments that will ensure freer political life and more power to the Jordanian judiciary and parliament.

The successes of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions had sent a clear message to the palace that the king should endorse fundamental reforms, or face demands for regime change. However, the setback of revolutionaries in Libya and Arab states' intervention in Bahrain seem to have emboldened the Jordanian regime to slow down reforms.

But the king cannot simply weather the storm. Demands for constitutional amendments, including revoking the king's right to appoint and dissolve the government, are gaining momentum and reflect a deeper crisis of governance.

 Deeper crisis

The ongoing debate and tensions in Jordan are symptoms of a serious crisis of confidence of the people in the state, and in the alienation of broad segments of the Jordanian society. As in Tunisia and Egypt, the crisis in Jordan was caused by a combination of increased prices, unemployment, corruption, and the concentration of decision-making power in the hands of a few. Partly to contain growing popular anger, the Rifai government lowered heating fuel prices days after it declared a fuel price increase - the ninth such increase since 1989 - and raised the salaries and retirement benefits of government and army staff.

In 1989, responding to protests over fuel price hikes that rocked the south of Jordan, King Hussein contained discontent by restoring parliament after three decades of martial law and a ban on political parties. Martial law had been imposed in 1957, crushing a vibrant pluralistic political landscape that included nationalist, leftist and pan-Arab nationalist parties brought together by the goals of ending the new kingdom's dependency on the west and the liberation of Palestine. A young King Hussein, backed by the United States, dissolved parliament and disbanded the only government formed by the winning coalition of opposition parties headed by the late nationalist prime minister Suleiman Nabulsi. All political parties - except the Muslim Brotherhood which was registered as a society - were banned. The Brotherhood was tolerated so as to undermine the leftist and pan-Arab nationalist trends that swept the region at the height of the cold war between the US and the former Soviet Union.

Weakened political parties, as a result of repression and the imprisonment of opposition leaders, and a devastating civil war in 1970 enabled the palace and consecutive governments to keep a lid on political dissent. But by the late 1980s an era of relative affluence came to an end due to a fall in the value of the Jordanian dinar, and decreased remittances from expatriates in the Gulf. The living conditions of the majority of the population were radically affected.

The government of Zaid Rifai, father of the former prime minister Samir Rifai, cracked down on the media and professional associations - the only avenue for popular participation in the absence of political parties, and stifled freedoms as a way to stifle discontent. When the government accepted the International Monetary Fund's stipulation to reduce fuel subsidies, Jordanians erupted in a limited but effective uprising in 1989.

 The uprising of the south

The uprising of the south, as it was called, was quelled, but it compelled the king to usher in a new era that led to the lifting of martial law in 1991, and the signing of the first-ever accord between the regime and all political trends in the country - including banned political parties. The national accord, as it was known, was the first social contract in the history of Jordan that included the agreement of the opposition to accept multi-party political life under the Hashemite monarchy. In 1993 the government violated the spirit of the accord by formulating a new electoral law that gave a disproportionate number of seats to rural areas (where tribal relations prevail over political affiliations) to undermine the parliamentary opposition.

 The Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty

The new law was a prelude to Jordan's unpopular signing of the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, and it ensured that opposition parties would not get a majority in the parliament and would, thus, not be able to block the treaty. Consequently, all elections held according to the new law produced loyalist majorities based on tribal representation as opposed to wider popular presentation.

Successive governments continued implementing IMF economic conditions. Another wave of protests swept the south - where most people rely on limited incomes from state jobs - in 1996, when the government reduced wheat subsidies, triggering a hike in bread prices. King Hussein, who was known for his ability to manage crises and reach out to the opposition, kept discontent from turning into serious upheavals. His death and succession by his son Abdullah brought about new realities. The new king inherited social and political contradictions but had none of the experience or status of his father to deal with them.

But even before Hussein died, media and political freedoms were being eroded as governments tried to prevent protest against Jordan's new ties with Israel. Furthermore, acting contrary to the way his father would have, Abdullah collaborated with the Americans during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, thus provoking wider opposition to Jordan's alliance with Washington.

The new millennium brought about new challenges as agreements with Jordan's creditors involved the privatisation of state institutions, and the creation of fear among state employees and concern within the traditional ruling elites. The structural changes in the economy resulted in the emergence of new economic elites that competed with the old traditional economic elite for political power.

 New political elites

This power struggle culminated, in 2007, in the appointment of Bassem Awadallah, a strong advocate of economic liberalisation, to the sensitive post of Chief of the Royal Hashemite Court. The king's strong support for the young economist signalled the take-over of the most sensitive positions in the government by the new elite. The ensuing power struggle created different centres of influence within the establishment, and pitted Mohammed Dahabi, the head of the intelligence service, against Awadallah. Abdullah eventually removed both men, but the conflict left the country with competing power centres within that are constantly battling each other for power.

 The Palestinian dimension

The polarisation within the establishment galvanised the media, and soon manifested as Jordanian nationalists against Jordanians of Palestinian origin. Prominent ultra-nationalist Jordanian writers and activists joined the Dahabi camp in a bid to oust Awadallah, and used the latter's Palestinian origin to suggest that Jordanians of Palestinian origin were prosecuting and benefiting from the liberalisation agenda. Such thinking has its origin in two factors:

  1. The majority of Jordanians of East Bank origin have relied on the inflated Jordanian state bureaucracy for their income because of the regime's attempt to ensure loyalty of East Bankers through state jobs. Jordanians of Palestinian origin, mostly denied state jobs, sought their income from the private sector. That explains why the uprisings of 1989 and 1996 began in the south - an area where few Jordanians of Palestinian origin reside.

  2. A number of Palestinian holders of Jordanian passports who had returned from Kuwait in 1990 - after the Iraqi invasion - had the capital and savings that allowed them to benefit from the liberalisation of the economy and from soaring real estate prices.

In the 1990s, Jordan also witnessed a new structural change when a growing number of East Banker Jordanians chose business investments and private sector jobs instead of positions in the government. Nevertheless, the East Bank ultra-nationalist trend, which has become more vocal over the past year, still views Palestinians as the main beneficiaries of liberalisation. The increasingly skewed distribution of wealth thus brought the Palestinian-Jordanian schism and other existing tensions to the fore.

 Economic Gap

A 2006 study conducted by the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies found that the richest thirty percent of Jordanians earned sixty percent of the total income, and the middle forty percent earned thirty percent of total income. Even more striking was that the richest two percent of the population earned thirteen percent of total income, while the poorest thirty percent earned eleven percent. It is likely that the gap has been maintained if not widened since then, especially since the government relied more on high sales taxes on basic items than on direct taxes, thus increasing the burden on the middle and poorer classes.

Thus the economic crisis, brought about by global factors and by government policies, formed a strong backdrop to an ensuing political crisis. The collapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and thus the failure of the two-state solution of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, revived fears that Jordan would become the de facto Palestinian homeland for Palestinians in Jordan. Jordanian political parties across the spectrum accused the government of lacking a strategy to deal with the consequences of the failure of the negotiations, and thus leaving Jordan vulnerable to the designs of the Israeli right to expel Palestinians to Jordan.

On 1 March 2011, a group of retired army officers demanded that the palace: 1) reconsiders the peace treaty and announces that Israel was an enemy, 2) fights corruption, and 3) respects the constitution. The ultra-nationalist tone of the statement, targeting officials of Palestinian descent, prevented it gaining wider support. Its main demands, however, reflected an emerging national consensus for more independent Jordanian policies away from US influence.

Meanwhile, there were signs that social movements in the country were gathering momentum. Jordanian teachers escalated their sit-ins and demonstrations, demanding a union to protect their interests; temporary workers followed; and the Aqaba port labourers joined in with demands for better wages.

 The Rifai government

Less than a year earlier, Abdullah had dissolved the parliament and appointed a new government to oversee new elections in order to diffuse local and international criticism of the 2006 election, which had been tainted with widespread fraud and intervention by security forces. But Samir Rifai's new government ignored calls for a revision of the electoral law, and provoked the Muslim Brotherhood and a small leftist party to boycott the poll. Elections were held in November, and resulted in a loyalist parliament, fuelling resentment and opposition to the government.

The Rifai government again ignored the criticism, and, instead, deployed the riot police forcefully to stop protests and to deal with clashes between students and other youth that were sparked by tribal feuds. The opposition accused the feudal clashes among youths to deteriorating economic conditions, stifling of political freedoms on campuses and the electoral law that reduced election campaigns to competition between Jordanian clans over status and privilege.

On 10 December 2009, Jordanians was shocked when riot police attacked fans of Al-Wihdat football team after it won Jordan's championship cup. Some 250 people, including children, were injured. The incident was especially problematic since the Wihdat team represented a Palestinian refugee camp, and the competing Al Faisali team attracts predominantly East Bank Jordanian fans. The government promised an investigation, then shelved it - a move that was widely perceived as a reflection of the government's willingness to inflame Palestinian-Jordanian division in order to distract from rising social and economic grievances.

Ignoring demands for an investigation into corruption resulting from selling public owned industries at inexplicably low prices, the rising cost of living, and calls to introduce a new electoral law, the government declared an increase in fuel prices towards the end of 2010. Jordanians had been watching the unfolding events in Tunisia, and surprised the palace by taking to the streets in protest against price rises, then in an organised fashion calling for the departure of the government, and finally by issuing statements that included a direct warning to the king.

 Conclusion

King Abdullah's initiation of a national dialogue will contain only some tension in Jordan but will not end the crisis. There is a real political crisis brewing, and the palace will be forced to make more fundamental changes to defuse it. Will Jordan follow Tunisia and Egypt? In terms of regime change that is unlikely - unless the king commits serious blunders. There are several reasons why Jordanians are not likely, or not expected, to push for the overthrow of the monarchy:

  1. Jordan is located between the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and Iraq. Most people fear that Israel will take advantage of instability in Jordan.

  2. There is fear among considerable segments of Jordanian society that the country could become a substitute homeland for Palestinians; thus, they do not want to endanger its stability.

  3. There are also sections of Jordanian society which fear a takeover by Islamists, and will consequently tolerate a regime with severe shortcomings rather than seeing the Muslim Brotherhood come to power.

  4. The Muslim Brotherhood itself is not ready to lead protests for regime change, and favours fundamental reforms instead.

  5. The emerging nationalist trends - even if there are signals that they are becoming impatient with the Hashemites - are also focused on reform rather than regime change.

  6. Jordanians of Palestinian origin - who number more than fifty percent of the population - will not take part in protests for regime change as they fear the possibility of civil war and of being accused of trying to take over Jordan.

Despite these factors, the crisis is definitely serious. There is discontent across the political spectrum and among all Jordanians - regardless of their origin. Promises of reforms are insufficient. The palace will have to take serious steps towards broader participation, stem corruption, review economic policies, and curtail the influence of the strong security organs on people's lives.

The regime benefits from the absence of a strong alternative, and from fear of civil strife that could make the country vulnerable to Israeli threats. But there are two developments that suggest that the protests could turn into a broader movement for change.

  1. Just as in Tunisia, the middle class feels threatened, and, according to studies cited earlier, is losing its safety net and resorting to its savings and to selling its assets to sustain itself.

  2. The Jordanian masses are not yet ready to take to the streets - unlike in 1989 and 1996. Jordanians of Palestinian origin are weary of possible accusations by the security services of disloyalty, and by hard-line East Bankers of trying to take over the country.

The lack of sufficient national unity benefits the regime and threatens that a revolt could lead to civil war instead of a revolution or transformation. But a single incident could ignite the simmering anger, causing it to explode into a huge revolt. A repeat of the deployment of thugs to disrupt protests, as happened on 18 February 2011, could spin the situation out of control. There are alarming signs that deteriorating living standards - combined with exclusion from the political process - is pushing Jordanians to the point of revolt.

By mid-March, King Abdullah appeared to be relying on financial aid from Saudi Arabia to allow the government to ease the economic crisis and strip the opposition of essential popular support. But Abdullah cannot bet on a relative improvement in economic conditions to bail the regime out of its serious crisis. While there are constraints that might prevent a popular revolution, the regime must also understand that it is being given a real, and possibly final, opportunity to respond to popular demands.

* Lamis Andoni is a journalist and a researcher focusing on Middle East affairs

** This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between AMEC and the AlJazeera Centre for Studies

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 14:41

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