The Middle East Channel

The King’s speech

The King’s speech

On Tuesday, King Abdullah II of Jordan delivered a rare televised address announcing a wide range of planned political reforms. He outlined plans to have governments selected by parliamentary majority rather than by monarchical appointment, and to strengthen political parties. The next day, however, as Abdullah toured the southern city of Tafila, he was reportedly bombarded with stones and empty bottles.

The King’s reform initiative and the stories about his rough welcome in a traditional Hashemite stronghold highlight that Jordan has not been immune from the Arab spring. It has been affected by the Arab uprisings deeply. Jordanians have been demonstrating for months, calling for the ouster of the government. But unlike their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, the Jordanian demonstrators aimed their anger mainly at the appointed government of Prime Minister Samir al-Rifa’i, leading an alarmed monarchy to dismiss the entire cabinet.

Today, the calls for change in Jordan remain extensive and persistent, and they have come from almost every direction. Even the most pro-Hashemite constituencies have repeatedly challenged the king in various ways. Retired military officers have called for change while condemning the regime’s policy priorities, tribal leaders have railed against the allegedly intrusive role of Queen Rania herself — even going so far as comparing her to deposed first ladies Leila Tarabulsi and Suzanne Mubarak. The main question is simply to what extent the monarchy realizes this.

The image of the royal motorcade being welcomed with flying objects contrasted with the previous several days of national (but mainly royal) celebrations marking the anniversary of the Great Arab Revolt, Army Day, and Coronation Day. Thousands of cheering rural residents were bused to parade locations to celebrate as the royal motorcade passed by. The carefully orchestrated celebrations suggested that the king and the monarchy were not only secure but wildly popular. A more accurate read would require separating the two terms: the king is not popular with many Jordanians these days, yet most Jordanians continue to support the monarchy.

Public questioning now crosses red lines that would have been unthinkable under King Hussein. But for King Abdullah, as one Jordanian analyst noted "all his choices are contested; his choice of prime minister, his choice of crown prince, his choice of wife. All are contested." The monarchy should be concerned, because it is actually hard to find a Jordanian that is satisfied with the status quo right now. When I made these very observations to members of the soon-to-be-dismissed Rifa’i government in December 2010, I was assured that I was mistaken. The government had a comprehensive reform plan and people just needed to be patient.

Within weeks, patience clearly exhausted, Jordanians were in the streets. But the king then replaced a government largely of Neoliberal technocrats with a more old guard elite that had strong tribal and East Jordanian roots, ties to the security services, and virtually no record of commitment to reform. The monarchy also launched yet another round of national committees of various notables to reassess the laws on elections, parties, the judiciary, and the constitution itself.

Buoyed by their success in toppling the government, protesters continued Friday demonstrations, calling for an end to perceived endemic corruption and for greater inclusion, democratization, and the return to a more constitutional monarchy with more checks and balances.

Organized online as the March 24 movement, Jordanian democracy and reform activists gathered at the Ministry of Interior Circle for perhaps their most important demonstration yet. Despite the presence mainly of red checked East Jordanian keffiyehs, Hashemite and Jordanian nationalist songs, and a clearly peaceful protest, the demonstrators were attacked on March 25 by bultajiyya, or thugs who appear to have been bused into the city. Calling themselves the "Da’wa al-Watan" (Call of the Nation) and believing they were saving the monarchy from "Palestinian" revolutionaries who were "occupying" their capital, they stormed the peaceful demonstration, leading to the death of one participant.

Similarly, on May 15, at demonstrations in the Jordan valley for the Palestinian right of return, still-unknown assailants in civilian clothes opened fire on the gathering of activists. Twenty-one-year-old Jalal al-Ashqar was shot in the back and rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Jordan has had no central tragic figure, such as the late Khalid Said of Egypt, to rally their anger around. But many in both government and opposition watched closely the prognosis for al-Ashqar. Prime Minister Bakhit visited the young man, assuring his family that the state would pay all medical expenses.

More recently, in June 2011, the bultajiyya issue returned as thugs attacked the offices of Agence France Presse and threatened well-known veteran journalist Randa Habib, perhaps because of reporting on the Tafila incident. In each of these cases, countless Jordanians remarked to me just how distinctly un-Jordanian these incidents seemed. Indeed, each seemed like the kind of news one associated with some of Jordan’s neighbors, rather than with Jordan itself.

Despite such incidents, most Jordanians remained strongly in favor of reform rather than regime change. Meanwhile, outside Jordan, the extreme violence of the latter round of Arab uprisings — in Libya, Yemen, and especially Syria — may actually have helped the Hashemite monarchy, since no Jordanian wants to see their country take those routes. It bought the monarchy at least some more time, and most Jordanians seemed willing to give the king a chance to join and even lead reform.

In his June 12 speech to the nation, King Abdullah II once again decried disunity, fitna, and irresponsible media reporting. But the king also called for strengthening the party system and shifting from governments that are royally-appointed to those that are drawn from the majority bloc in a democratically elected parliament. If the latter idea is indeed implemented, it meets a major demand across the opposition spectrum. But the new electoral laws themselves can still be expected to minimize representation for leftist and Islamist activists, so in practice the new governments may actually have a familiar feel. Almost every Jordanian I talked to had a conditional response to the proposal of democratically-elected governments. As one activist put it, summarizing the general view, "it’s a good idea … if it happens;" because the speech omitted any timetable for implementing this key opposition demand.

If the king had made this exact speech three years ago, the response might even have been enthusiastic. It might have been seen as path-breaking. But the muffled response suggests a more pervasive pessimism that has been well-earned. Even before the speech, every Jordanian I met with expected to be disappointed. Jordan’s liberalization process began in 1989, not in 2011, and since its beginnings has seen countless retreats from reform, new royal committees, cabinet reshuffles, slogans and marketing campaigns. As one opposition activist put it, "the whole region is moving at high speed like a BMW while we are riding donkeys: … donkeys, not even horses."

If the king’s call for reform is genuine, then it will require some immediate and clear signs of implementation. Otherwise, it will be dismissed as still more cosmetic reform. But regardless of the regime, the spirit of 2011 across the Arab world remains a major point of departure for the Jordanian public. It has seen the rise of extensive levels of youth activism, both in the streets and in cyberspace, from blogs to Twitter to Facebook groups. It has seen a revitalization of old political movements, from leftist parties to the more well-organized Muslim Brotherhood and its party, the Islamic Action Front (but interestingly none of these seem to be of interest to Jordan’s energized youth). It has seen a rise in public sphere discussions on virtually all topics, in cyberspace, in print, and in person, such as the impressive Hashtag Debates organized by youth activists.

The constituency for real reform, in short, stretches across Jordan’s generation, class, ethnic, and gender divides. But it continues to be thwarted by entrenched anti-reform elites. As former Jordanian government official Marwan Muasher noted in a recent Carnegie Endowment report, "the political elite must recognize that the only way they can retain power is by sharing it, and governments will have to acknowledge that substituting serious implementation with reform rhetoric fools no one." Exactly. Jordanians have one of the most literate and well-educated populations in the entire Arab world, so if old authoritarian tactics seem to work less and less well across the region, they can be expected to be even more useless in Jordan. If the regime takes that point to heart, then Jordan will provide a very different and very positive model for reform in the region. If not, then calls for regime change will soon arrive in Jordan too.

Curtis R. Ryan is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.