Opposition gears up for protest march in Jordan

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Protests planned for today in Jordan's capital city of Amman, demanding a quickening of the pace and depth of political reform, could represent an importing stepping stone in the development of the country’s growing opposition movement. Organised by the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamic Action Front (IAF), the country's largest opposition party, in conjunction with a wide coalition of opposition and tribal groups, the ‘Save the Homeland’ march, is expected to be the country’s biggest reform protest to date, with the IAF saying they expect more than 50,000 people to attend. In the context of two years of low-level nationwide protests a march of this size would mark a significant statement of intent for the opposition movement – and another worrying sign for King Abdullah of widening political and economic discontent.

When upheaval first broke out across the region in early 2011 the King quickly promised swift reform and suggested an intention to move towards a constitutional monarchy. However, as we documented in a recent ECFR report, nearly two years on there has been little meaningful change to a system that continues to discriminate against the predominately urban-based Palestinian population and grants the King extensive executive powers, including the right to appoint and dismiss the government. The recent introduction of a controversial media censorship law has added to the sense of unease with the reform agenda. Extremely challenging economic conditions – as much as 30% of the population is unemployed and government coffers are running dangerously low - are exacerbating popular discontent.

The King’s strategy has long consisted of channelling popular anger against his governments – there have been four different prime minister since the Arab Uprisings began. However, the tactic appears to be losing steam, with people’s ire increasingly focused against the King himself, an important shift. As such yesterday's announcement by the King that he was dissolving parliament and clearing the way for new elections is unlikely to appease protestors. The IAF has already announced it will boycott the vote, expected to take place in early 2013, and with voter registration running very low, it risks being becoming a meaningless exercise. As a condition of participation, the IAF is demanding an electoral law that grants fairer representation and the right of the largest party in parliament to form the government.

Of course, Jordan remains considerably more stable than most of its neighbours. Though the country has experienced weekly protests for two years, they have remained mostly small and peaceful. Moreover, much of the population continue to trust in the King, who argues that political life needs to be given time to mature before the system can be opened up; if not, he warns, it will be taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the mood in the kingdom is clearly souring and today's protests will be a key marker of just where the situation is headed. Having called for a mass turn-out the IAF clearly believes that it can mobilise significant numbers - if it succeeds in doing so the opposition movement will gain considerable momentum, placing the King under unprecedented pressure. If by contrast numbers are weak, the king will feel comfortable in continuing along his current path. Equally there are concerns that violence could break out, threatening instability at a perilous regional moment. Although it has since been cancelled, a large counter-demonstration had originally also been planned for Amman today and there are fears that remnants of this protest could still emerge and clash with pro-reform demonstrators. An outbreak of violence, to the backdrop of popular frustration, would not bode well.

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