Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood: struggling to remain relevant

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Prior to the 2011 uprisings, the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was influential in Jordan’s politics and society. The Brotherhood participated in elections, ran social institutions, and was one of very few organisations that was able to straddle the Jordanian–Palestinian identity divide. The uprisings initially augmented its powers, and in 2011 and 2012 the Brotherhood widened its appeal, organising large protests. However the nature of the Jordanian political system, the stance of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Brotherhood’s decision not to participate in Jordan’s elections have since severely diminished its influence. The Brotherhood is now undergoing a process of introspection and, in the light of the GCC decision to declare it a terrorist organisation, it is reasserting its support for the monarch in an attempt to remain viable relevant.

The Jordanian Brotherhood: a brief overview

Established in 1945, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has entrenched itself in Jordanian society. The Brotherhood supported Jordan’s King Hussain when Egypt, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, sought to destabilise the Arab monarchs in the 1950s, and the movement was thus allowed to continue operating in Jordan even after Hussain dissolved many nationalist and leftist parties in 1957. The Brotherhood is involved in charitable organisations, participates in professional associations, and in the country’s religious establishment.

In 1989, when King Hussein implemented a partial reform process, the Brotherhood established a political wing known as the Islamic Action Front (IAF) and began to take part in electoral processes. Although the IAF is theoretically a separate legal entity and maintains its own internal processes, the party’s high-ranking leadership is still ‘suggested’ by the Brotherhood. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the IAF was seen as the only organisation that was capable of putting pressure on the Hussein regime. In 1989, the IAF won twenty-two out of a possible eighty seats in Jordan’s lower house, and in 1993 it won 17 seats. It is significant that in both instances, the IAF contested less than a third of the total number of seats, illustrating its reformist bent. It is noteworthy that the Brotherhood’s leadership and membership largely consists of two wings, the hawkish ‘Suqoor’, and the dove-like ‘Hama’im’ one;  the hawks are currently in the ascendancy.

It is important to note here that that different strands of Islamism and numerous Islamist parties now operate in Jordan. Aside from the IAF, the most influential of these are Hamas, the Wasat Party, and the Zamzam Initiative, an Islamist splinter group, formed in 2013. A small Salafi movement is also active, but its members tend to be apolitical, and more concerned about the conflict in Syria.

Relations with the monarch

During King Hussein’s rule, relations the monarch and the Brotherhood were cordial; the group was allowed to operate, and its members regularly held high-ranking positions in parliament. The king utilised the Brotherhood to oppose nationalist and leftist parties – which he saw as the greatest threat to the survival of his regime – while the Brotherhood believed that reform rather than revolution offered the optimal route to achieving its aims. In the 1990s, however, the state realised that the IAF posed a threat, and relations between the two became strained. As a result, an electoral law was passed in 1993 that drastically diminished the influence of political parties; districts were also gerrymandered to favour individual and tribal candidates at the expense of parties. Yet the IAF continued to operate, and maintains that it is the system, not the monarchy, that is in need of reform.
 
The cooling of relations continued under Abdullah II’s regime, mainly as a result of the monarch’s inability and unwillingness to implement reforms. In 2006, the Brotherhood-controlled Islamic Centre Society (a charity that runs over fifty-five schools and supports over 20 000 orphans) had its leadership removed by the king, and the Brotherhood’s attempts to initiate a teacher’s union were thwarted. When further electoral reforms stalled in 2007, the IAF suspended its participation in elections. During the 2011 uprisings, the Brotherhood supported weekly protests, and joined a coalition of tribal and nationalist elements decrying state corruption and advocating reforms. This led Abdullah to label the movement a ‘masonic cult’ and ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’.

The Brotherhood’s influence on Jordanian politics

Significantly, authority in the Jordanian system vests in the monarch. He appoints all ministers, determines domestic and foreign policy, and can institute emergency law. Further, if ministers rebel, the 1952 constitution gives him the power to suspend parliament and pass temporary legislation. Abdullah has not hesitated to use these powers. The previous parliament operated for only half of its mandated period (2010–2013), and prime ministers were regularly replaced.

In this context, the IAF has had little influence over the development of state policies or the passing of legislation. It has thus used its parliamentary powers to highlight state corruption and call for reform.

The Palestinian issue
 
In the realm of foreign policy, the IAF has highlighted the Palestinian cause, vehemently criticised the kingdom’s policies on Israel and maintained close relations with Hamas. However, it has refrained from directly attributing Jordanian policies to the king. For example, in an attempt to minimise criticism of the king, the party called for a referendum on Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel instead of calling for the treaty to be revoked. Since then, the IAF condemned the 2008/2009 Gaza War and the 2012 Israeli offensive. It is noteworthy that between fifty-five and seventy per cent of Jordanians are ethnic Palestinians, and many identify with the IAF’s positions on Palestine.

These pressures have had little impact on the kingdom’s stance towards the conflict, however. Jordan still supports a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel, and maintains good relations with Fatah. Meanwhile, Jordan co-ordinates security activities with Israel and maintains trade relations with Tel Aviv. Furthermore, little has been done to address the representation of Palestinian refugees residing in Jordan – for example, only fifteen per cent of representatives to the 2010 parliament were Palestinians, even though Palestinians make up around sixty per cent of the population.

The Arab spring: relations with Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council

The uprisings that engulfed the Middle East and North Africa region in 2011 had had a tremendous impact on the kingdom. As one of the poorer monarchies in the region, the Jordanian state is unable to leverage oil revenues as a buffer between itself and its people in the way that some of the wealthier oil-rich regimes have done. Jordan also has one of the more active opposition movements in the region, and, in general, Jordanians are well educated and highly skilled.

Endemic corruption, and the reduction of fuel subsidies leading to drastic increases in the cost of living, combined with the growth of democratic movements and rise of the Egyptian and Tunisian Brotherhoods (that is, Ennahda in Tunisia), emboldened the IAF to adopt a more confrontational stance on reforms. This resulted in weekly protests supported by the IAF and, unnervingly for the regime, certain tribal elements as well. (Tribes are of paramount importance to the kingdom, as they provide it with legitimacy and support in exchange for state benefits.) As early as 2010, letters and declarations by military veterans’ associations and tribal leaders called for a halt to privatisation and a crackdown on state corruption.
 
The regime has been unable to respond coherently. On the one hand, cosmetic electoral reforms, which saw the 2013 election being overseen by an independent electoral commission rather than the interior ministry, were instituted. On the other hand, baltagiyya (thugs), reportedly funded and organised by the kingdom, were dispatched to disrupt protests. Meanwhile, the Gulf monarchs, under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), stepped in to provide assistance.
 
Seeking to push back the democratic fervour and calls for reform that had engulfed the region, the GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, sought to buttress struggling monarchs. The GCC dispatched troops to quell the uprising in Bahrain and actively supported the Egyptian military’s 2013 overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s regime in Egypt. Further, through a strategic partnership, the GCC has provided over US$5 billion  to the kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan, ostensibly for infrastructural development. Following Jordan’s May 2011 request to join the GCC, and the formal invitation presented to Jordan and Morocco in September 2011, the expansion of the GCC is firmly on the cards – despite the fact that both Jordan and Morocco are dissimilar to the Gulf states in many ways, and, in the case of Morocco, geographically located on a different continent. Indeed, in March 2014, it was reported that the two countries had been invited to join the GCC’s envisaged military bloc.
 
Together with Egypt, Jordan and Morocco would provide the council with access to over 300 000 troops in return for more investment and aid. The GCC has already adopted measures aimed at the formation of a 100­ 000-strong joint command (the Peninsular Shield), and the US congress is working on amending US legislation to allow for a direct supply of weapons to the council. Aside from the military and protectionist dimensions of this relationship, GCC states see Jordan as a source of cheap professional labour. With official unemployment in the kingdom at thirteen per cent and youth unemployment at over thirty per cent, Abdullah, in turn, sees the prospect of employment for Jordanian citizens in the Gulf states as an important mechanism for reducing levels of discontent.

The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood: introspection and self-preservation

In this context, the Brotherhood has been forced to engage in introspection. Its decision to boycott the 2013 election meant that it lost ground to the Wasat party, which won sixteen seats. Further, the decision to boycott led to splits in the organisation and gave rise to the Zamzam Initiative. Zamzam seeks incremental reforms and has expressed its willingness to partner with the regime and other political actors. The Brotherhood’s decision not to interact with the initiative and to expel its three main founders, Rheil Gharaibeh, Nabil Kofahi and Jamil Dheisat, added to members’ disillusionment. A conference held in Irbid in May 2014 drew a large number of influential dissidents from the Hama’im wing, including former the overseer general, Abdel Majid Thunaibat. Issues discussed included instituting term limits on overseers general, abolishing the group’s internal court, and unbundling the Brotherhood from the IAF. A call was made for a ‘popular uprising’ against the current leadership, and discussions took place around the disbanding of the current executive. The Brotherhood’s precarious position has strengthened the Hama’im wing and means that recommendations from this wing will be seriously considered by the leadership. Steps have already been initiated to restore the memberships of Gharaibeh, Kofahi and Dheisat.
 
Regional shifts have also impacted negatively on the Brotherhood.
 
The conflicts in Libya and Syria have encouraged ordinary Jordanians to accept minor reforms in an attempt to preserve the country’s stability (Jordan borders on Syria, and shelters around a million Syrian refugees.) The protests that engulfed Jordan in 2011 had waned significantly by the end of 2013, despite the fact that subsidy reform had created sharp increases in the prices of fuel and other consumer goods. The overthrow of the Mursi regime in Egypt and its consequences also helped to isolate the Jordanian Brotherhood. Mursi’s ousting was followed by a large-scale violent crackdown on the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood, thus depriving the Jordanian branch of support from the largest Arab country. It is noteworthy that although Jordan’s Brotherhood was formally a branch of the Egyptian Brotherhood, and although the two branches coordinate their theological positions, the IAF operates as an independent political party in Jordan and had participated in political processes before its Egyptian partner, the Freedom and Justice Party, was formed. The IAF also adopts policies and measures in line with the Jordanian context.
 
The decision taken by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation has also threatened to undermine the movement’s activities. The declaration, which was a direct outcome of Mursi’s overthrow, would detrimentally influence the group’s ability to operate were it to be adopted by Jordan. For now this is unlikely as the Jordanian Brotherhood has long been institutionalised and does not threaten the monarch. As Jordan’s minister for political affairs, Khaled al-Kalaldeh, argued, the group is licensed, and any infringements can be dealt with according to the law. Furthermore, the Syrian conflict has placed Jordan under pressure, making it likely that Abdullah’s regime will opt to maintain the status quo. However, it is possible that Saudi Arabia may pressure the kingdom to support the declaration as part of its plan to strengthen the GCC.

Conclusion

The influence of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood on Jordanian politics has declined over the past few years. Its decision to suspend participation in elections has meant that the Wasat Party has gained more influence, and led to the formation of the Islamist Zamzam Initiative by disgruntled Brotherhood members. Further, Saudi Arabia’s decision to declare it a terrorist organisation, and Jordan’s close relations with the Saudi monarch, has forced the movement into a retreat.
 
Members of the Brotherhood have begun to emphasise their support for the king, and reiterated that the movement merely seeks reform. This means that the movement’s influence, especially from the perspective of policy conceptualisation and implementation, is on the wane, and its rhetoric against corruption and for the rights of Palestinians may weaken as a result. For now, it seems unlikely that the kingdom will crack down on the Brotherhood in the way that the regime in Egypt has done. The diluted influence of the Brotherhood and its political wing, coupled with the strain on the Jordanian monarchy as it attempts to weather the conflict in Syria, means that the kingdom is unlikely to act to curb the group’s activities. However, if Jordan joins the GCC, and specifically its military bloc, the Saudis and Emiratis may take the opportunity to demand that the Jordanian Brotherhood be smothered.
Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 14:35

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