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Five years after Arab uprisings, security trumps reforms in Jordan

- March 4, 2016
A Jordanian demonstrator wearing a mask with the colors of his national flag flashes the “V” sign while taking part in an anti-Islamic State rally in Amman, Jordan, on Feb. 6, 2015. (Nasser Nasser/AP)

Prior to King Abdullah II’s visit to Washington last week, President Obama signed the United States-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act, increasing U.S. military support to Jordan to $450 million and reaffirming the depth of the alliance. The additional funding is meant to shore up Jordan’s border security and help it deal with challenges such as refugee flows and the rise of the Islamic State. So much has changed from five years ago, when Jordan was squarely focused on internal challenges and questions of domestic reform rather than external security threats.

On Jan. 14, 2011, Jordanian opposition forces marched in a “Day of Anger,” drawing as many as 15,000 protesters in what organizers argued was the largest demonstration in Jordanian history. A leader of Jordan’s Islamist movement afterward wrote that the “Jordanian Spring” had begun. There would be other demonstrations to follow, almost every Friday in Amman and in other towns and cities throughout 2011 and 2012. Now, a mere five years later, that all seems like the distant past — to the relief of many regime loyalists but much to the chagrin of those in Jordan’s opposition who had hoped for far greater reform and change.

Detractors sometimes refer to Jordan as the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom — implying that, among other things, nothing much happens there. Although this has always been an inaccurate portrayal of Jordan and its politics, many Jordanians presently might prefer that appellation over the chaos that characterizes most of their neighbors. Syria remains aflame in a devastating civil war. Iraq remains a semi-sovereign state attempting to rebuild itself in the wake of the U.S. invasion and occupation, and both states have lost lives and territory to the Islamic State.

Compared to other Arab states, Jordan’s relative stability and security stand in stark contrast. For most Jordanians, it is also a welcome distinction. But that should not be mistakenly conflated with acceptance of the status quo. Jordan has had its own unique experience during the Arab Spring years, and today there is a pervasive sense not of finality or of conclusion, but rather of waiting to see what is in store for the Hashemite Kingdom.

Like their counterparts in other Arab countries, Jordanian demonstrators marched against the government, calling for change. But while Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrators called for the overthrow of their regimes, Jordanian protesters demanded the ouster of the prime minister and his cabinet, not the toppling of the monarchy. Protesters got their wish, as the king dismissed the government in a country used to fairly frequent turnover in prime ministers and cabinets.

But the Jordanian version of the Arab Spring continued. Protesters continued to march and demand more significant change. At moments, the opposition looked like it would coalesce into a large and broad-based national movement. But fissures very quickly  appeared as different movements were sometimes working together, sometimes at odds.

Jordan’s traditional opposition of leftist parties and Islamist activists — including the Muslim Brotherhood and its related political party, the Islamic Action Front — called for reform, democratization and a constitutional monarchy. But other movements also emerged, including a new opposition based especially among East Jordanian tribes.

A group of tribal leaders and an influential organization of retired military officers each criticized the state and the policies of the monarchy in particular. Youth-based and tribal-linked movements collectively calling themselves Herak (the Movement) were harshly critical of the economic development strategies pursued by the regime.

They demanded that the regime restore the formerly larger state role in providing public sector employment. But many Herak activists also echoed the traditional opposition in calling for greater democratization. New and old forms of opposition stressed the problem of corruption, which many associated with the neoliberal development strategy of shifting Jordan’s large public sector toward ever more privatization.

Beneath all this remains a subtext of identity politics. Although often depicted as a dichotomy between the Palestinian-Jordanian urban centers of the private sector and the largely East and tribal Jordanian towns dominating the public sector, the reality is far more complicated. Identity lines are not always as stark as they appear, but they do matter. In times of political stress, the lines can come into focus very quickly, especially when manipulated by cynical elites who have an interest in turning otherwise legitimate public demands into identity politics issues, undermining them as truly national issues. Many youth activists and reformers consciously eschewed the old school and knee-jerk tendency to open up such intra-ethnic fissures, but such divisive tactics are often used by others to divide the opposition nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the regime argued that the Arab Spring was not just a challenge, but also an opportunity to push through a reform process that had lain dormant in the preceding 10 years. New national committees and commissions were established to propose reforms and revise the constitution. The regime pushed through new laws on elections and political parties, it amended the constitution, established a constitutional court, an anti-corruption commission and an independent electoral commission, and it invited international expertise and international observers to help with new national parliamentary elections in 2013.

The regime suggested that Jordan was moving toward parliamentary governments, and MPs were consulted prior to the naming of a new government, which turned out to be a new term for the incumbent government of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Nsour. For many in the regime, Jordan was and is a model for the rest of the region to follow and even emulate. The king himself issued a series of discussion papers on various aspects of the reform process.

Critics, in contrast, argue that all the reforms still amount to limited and cosmetic change. Power remains concentrated in the monarchy. Parliament remains weak and is drawn from heavily gerrymandered districts. The prime minister and cabinet are royal appointees rather than members of an elected parliament. And corruption remains a major concern for almost all Jordanians.

Although most of these critics remain deeply unconvinced about the depth of reform in the kingdom, they have been divided by other largely external events. Jordan’s political debates would be difficult enough without its regional setting, but its political geography leaves it especially vulnerable to conflicts across its borders — and Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia provided no shortage of challenges.

The “story” of Jordan and the Arab Spring is therefore not just one of a domestic struggle between a regime and its often-divided opposition. It is also a story of Jordan in the crossfire of regional disasters from the Syrian civil war to the rise of the Islamic State. Added to these concerns, Jordan is also home to at least 630,000 Syrian refugees and about 600,000 additional Syrians not officially registered as refugees — all in a country of less than 7 million people. Dealing with the refugee crisis and addressing the real fears of militancy and terrorism from the Islamic State are almost all-consuming for the regime and the state.

Many opposition forces have pulled back, essentially waiting for Jordan to survive this latest set of regional challenges, before pressing harder for an agenda of greater domestic change. This importantly implies a loyal opposition, although one that has still not acquiesced to the status quo.

The opposition is divided, in part, over Jordan’s role in the Syrian war. Many in Jordan’s traditional leftist opposition supported Assad, while Islamists supported rebel forces, and secular liberals found both sides wanting. Meanwhile, Jordan’s oldest opposition force — the Muslim Brotherhood — has divided into two different groups, each claiming the mantle of the original. One is more internationalist, hawkish and wants to maintain links to counterparts in Egypt and to Hamas, while the other is more domestically oriented, dovish and seeks to create more of a moderate Islamist and consummately Jordanian, rather than regional, version of the movement. Both sides now struggle over the support of rank-and-file members.

Opposition elements of all types — leftists, liberals, Islamists, the Herak and others — are all in varying degrees of stasis. They have not vanished, nor have any of the main grievances that brought people to the streets in the first place in 2010 and 2011. Protests do still occur, but are more likely to focus on single and specific issues, such anti-nuclear activism, environmentalist efforts to save Bergesh Forest or the wide-ranging coalition against buying gas from Israel. Other forms of protest have proven more volatile, especially those over economic issues, such as lifting fuel subsidies, that hit people hard at a time when the cost of living is outrageously high.

Many Jordanians – regime supporters and regime critics alike – agree that Jordan’s safety must come first, and they value the stability and security that Jordan has maintained thus far in the Arab Spring period. But most issues that started the entire regional process remain unresolved. Jordan has taken initial reform steps, but the rest of its story remains unwritten. Questions regarding the depth of reform and change remain at the forefront of the agenda for all the country’s many opposition elements and reform activists. Events of the last few days underscore Jordan’s often competing reform and security challenges. Parliament passed the latest electoral law, but even as debates continued, the long feared ISIS threat seemed to emerge within Jordan itself, as security forces battled militants in a counterterrorism operation in the northern city of Irbid.

Jordan’s challenges are severe, and while its opposition may be divided and less vocal as the country faces domestic and external threats to its stability, it has not been silenced. In the five years since the start of the regional “Arab Spring,” the kingdom has avoided the revolutions and civil wars that have rocked much of the region, but Jordan’s key challenges going forward will continue to include engaging in deeper levels of domestic political reform, stabilizing and making more equitable its aid-dependent economy, dealing with its massive refugee crisis, and confronting the challenges of Islamic State militancy both within Jordan and across its borders.

Curtis Ryan is a professor of political science at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.