Jordan - no longer boring?

Commentary

For so long a reliably boring country in the middle of a tumultuous region, there are signs that Jordan may soon become lively as demands for political reform and the wider impact of the Arab Awakening begin to reach Amman.  

The Kingdom of Jordan has for decades been the Middle East's reliably boring country. Troubled, but stable. Now, however, discontent and signs of unrest are gathering pace, raising fears that regional tumult could slowly be headed its way.

Over recent weeks a number of events have highlighted the sense of uncertainty hanging over the kingdom. On Thursday prosecutors ordered the detention of former intelligence chief Mohammad Dahabi on corruption charges. The step comes one week after violent clashes broke out in Amman after Ahmed Oweidi Abbadi, a former MP and bête-noir of the regime, was arrested for calling for the establishment of a republican system. A week earlier young demonstrators in the southern city of Tafileh faced teargas as they protested in demand of jobs; another youth 18-year old Odai Abu-Issa, was sentenced by a military court to two years in prison for burning a picture of the King. Meanwhile, more than one year after they first began in tandem with revolt elsewhere across the region protests continue on a weekly basis in towns across the country. 

These are unprecedented times. Perceived internationally as a beacon of stability in a volatile region, the country is in fact experiencing its own slow awakening and Jordanians across the political spectrum exhibit palpable anxiety. “We are facing a silent crisis,” a former senior government official told me in Amman last week. “We have a problem and the level of government effort is not equal to the challenge.”

To be sure the Jordanian monarch and effective absolute ruler, King Abdullah, continues to enjoy popular support. Voices of discontent remain few in number and those calling for change want reform rather than regime change. For a country only created in 1921 and deeply divided by a Palestinian refugee influx that now accounts for more than 50% of the total population, the monarch maintains support as a much-needed symbol of national legitimacy and unity.

Yet over the past year the country has experienced a remarkable sea change. Inspired by regional developments, and tired of a monarch who for more than a decade has failed to deliver on promised political reform while presiding over neoliberal reform that has accentuated the wealth divide, talk of a constitutional monarch has entered the mainstream. Personal criticism of the king, including allegations of incompetence and involvement in corruption – hitherto unimaginable claims – are increasingly pronounced.

Unlike other regional leaders Abdullah was apparently quick to see the writing on the wall when unrest first hit North Africa in early 2011, immediately promising to increase the speed of reform. More than one year later, however, and the fruits of accelerated change remain limited at best – indeed an apparent scapegoating of a number of senior level figures such as Dahabi on corruption charges appears to be the chosen way to divert popular pressure.

While the King acknowledged the right of parliamentary majorities to choose the prime minister and cabinet – a power that has hitherto sat with him – he cautioned that the process would take several years before it could be implemented. A number of constitutional amendments approved in September, including the setting up of a constitutional court and an independent election body, though important, placed no restrictions on the monarch’s absolute powers and there has been no subsequent move toward the establishment of a legitimate parliamentary democracy. Meanwhile, important reforms to the political parties and electoral laws, which make it hard to form new parties and discriminate against the urban, predominantly-Palestinian, population respectively, have also been slow to materialise. While a national dialogue committee has looked into redrafting these laws, the arrival of a new government in October – the third since the regional crisis broke out - once again delayed the process which was originally tasked with completion by June 2011.

Increasingly it seems that the King is forestalling change – and yet the opposition is growing bolder. “The reforms have not been enough,” states Zaki Bani Irshad, head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), which holds the ability to get tens of thousands of supporters into the streets. “The king cannot have ultimate power. We want a real democracy where the people choose the government.”

To be fair, Abdullah faces a perfect storm of challenges. On one front are growing calls for political liberalisation from the IAF, the country’s dominant political party, which maintains strong support among the disenfranchised Palestinian population and which would stand to lead the country under any truly democratic system. At the same time discontent is brewing among the regime’s longstanding base, the East Bank tribes who feel that the long-standing benefits of the system have been seized from them; protests in demand of employment opportunities and local development now regularly occur in towns up and down the country. The emergence of this force, which is allied to elements of the security apparatus and which seeks a reinforcement of the long-established status quo, marks the most potent challenge to Abdullah since his emergence on the throne.

Meeting the cross-cutting demands of this divided opposition will be difficult. Any move to empower the IAF will directly challenge the hold of the East Bankers; conversely, a consolidation of East Bank domination will serve to stunt any move towards political reform inciting IAF anger. While there is common cause among youth from both sides of the fence, the divisive identity issue that has long split East Bank Jordanians and Palestinians is once again rearing its head. In January military veterans created a new political party, the Jordanian National Conference, with nationalism a central focus of its platform, threatening communal tensions.

Meanwhile the country’s coffers are empty and the country is hovering perilously close to bankruptcy, ever more dependent on foreign aid to sustain public spending. While economic reform is much needed, any spending cuts will provoke the ire of the different voices of opposition. Indeed one of the King’s first acts in response to growing unrest last year was to increase state sector salaries and subsidies. While handouts from the Gulf have helped overcome recent challenges, the country’s financial future remains precarious.

And so, amidst these challenges, the public mood is slowly turning against the king. The barrier of silence, if not fear, has been broken and though he remains in power, it is hard to see how Abdullah can turn back the forces of change. More worryingly a failure to grasp the magnitude of the crisis now facing the country and embark on a transparent, consensus driven and all-encompassing reform programme - perhaps the only way to counter the diverse challenges - threatens to increase popular disenchantment and potentially fuel wider instability. As has been seen elsewhere one spark is all it takes.

With both municipal and parliamentary elections due later this year, it will soon become clearer than ever whether the king has grasped this truth or whether cosmetic change that seeks to maintain the monarchy’s stranglehold over political power remains the order of the day.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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