The Middle East Channel

Just what does Jordan’s Abdullah understand?

Just what does Jordan’s Abdullah understand?

"Fahimtkum," meaning "I get it," (literally, "I have understood you") became famous this time last year when then-Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali cynically proclaimed it in a speech, a last ditch effort to convince the Tunisian people that he had heard their discontent and was ready to make serious changes.

In late summer 2011, a new Jordanian political satire taking its name — "Al`an fahimtkum" ("Now I understand you") — from the same phrase of Ben Ali’s, began running on the stage of the Concord Theatre in Amman. Using the family of a Jordanian of modest means who works as a driver for a government minister, Abu Saqr, the play’s successive scenes address a range of the country’s current political scandals and woes: from repeated references to the government’s questionable sales of state land and assets, to mocking the process by which government ministers are chosen, to raising questions about just who has been sending the baltajiyyah (thugs) to beat up protesters at opposition meetings and demonstrations over the past year. In December, demand for tickets increased dramatically after King Abdullah II attended and reportedly much enjoyed the play. 

What does this play and its reception, both by the Jordanian public and the palace, indicate regarding the current state of affairs in the kingdom? Concern, indeed, anxiety is widespread and palpable in Jordan these days, not only over the direction of the country and its future stability, but also concerning who is actually making decisions, and what recent developments reveal about possible conflicts between unspecified "centers of power." Awn Shawkat al-Khasawneh, the third prime minister in a year, and a respected international lawyer, has recently taken what appear as bold steps to respond to growing demands for greater accountability. Old scandals thought put to rest have been reopened. For example, there is Casinogate, the project for a gambling complex at the Dead Sea that was signed by an earlier prime minister, Ma`ruf al-Bakhit, without proper government approval. There is also the case of the business tycoon, Khalid Shahin, convicted for bribery in a corruption case regarding the Jordan Petroleum Refinery Company, who was released from prison for a trip abroad for medical treatment only to be spotted in London dining with his family at a fancy restaurant. 

However, toward year’s end, new "irregularities" came to light on nearly a weekly basis. Most notably was the revelation of the title transfer of thousands of acres of state land to the king’s name, which the royal court attempted to explain away as a move simply intended to avoid cumbersome bureaucratic procedures that could slow down their disposition for development purposes. Khasawneh is also apparently opening investigations into the privatization of numerous state enterprises, cases that are likely to involve at best mismanagement and at worst criminal profit at state expense. While cracking down on corruption has certainly been central among protestors’ demands, the way new cases are being announced raises important questions. Is this the beginning of a serious process? Is it an unrepresentative sample of characters intended to serve as sacrificial lambs? Or are we about to witness a period of account settling among various power centers by denouncing certain figures for corruption? 

Adding to the sense of uncertainty regarding what is happening and who is responsible, some forces in the regime seem to believe that sending in goon squads to intimidate critics or opponents calling for reform can be accomplished with no trail leading back to them as long as the perpetrators don’t wear government-issued uniforms. In the past, behind-the-scenes intimidation by the mukhabarat (internal intelligence) or, more recently, by the baton-wielding Darak (gendarmerie) forces has been used in such situations, generally achieving the desired effect. But for the last several months, some center(s) of power — perhaps from within the security services or, according to other speculation, even the palace, (given the king’s special forces background) — have sponsored seemingly unaffiliated baltajiyyah to intimidate opposition meetings and protests. In some cases they have merely attacked peaceful protesters while uniformed state security forces look on. M; more recently, following a march by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in the northwest town of Mafraq, they upped the ante by setting the MB headquarters on fire. If the intent was to intimidate the Brotherhood, the assault backfired miserably, as Khasawneh responded by returning the influential and charitable Islamic Center Society to Brotherhood control. The Brotherhood responded by organizing a major demonstration in downtown Amman the last Friday of the year featuring a martial display of young demonstrators intended to clearly send the message that it is capable of defending itself against the baltajiyyah if the state is unable or unwilling to provide security.

All of this may seem relatively tame for those who look to Jordan’s neighbor to the north and compare the use of force in Syria with that in the Hashemite Kingdom. But Jordan’s population is much smaller than Syria’s and, superficial appearances notwithstanding, still largely based in tribal structure. In such a setting, the state cannot get away with the use of deadly force, particularly not against an opposition which to date is overwhelmingly composed of Transjordanians, not Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

Hence, recent regime behavior raises many questions. Who within it supports Prime Minister Khasawneh’s attempts at reform? Who feels most threatened by demonstrations calling for an end to corruption? Who is making the decisions to send in the thugs, and how long will it take before someone with an ounce of wisdom realizes that such crude attempts at repression, generally by Transjordanians against other Transjordanians, have serious potential to spin out of control? (And can we finally put to rest the tired canard about Jordanians of Palestinian origin being the source of potential unrest or threat to the system?)

King Abdullah apparently enjoyed "Al`an Fahimtkum," smiling throughout the entire production. If so, one can only wonder, has he really understood? Even more important, exactly what is it that he thinks he understands? There is no shortage these days of open and direct criticisms of the king, including references to his inability to understand his people because of his poor Arabic. While the play’s critiques all attribute responsibility for the country’s problems to "the government," several of its references should have hit home with the monarch personally. In any case, few Jordanians believe corruption stops at the ministerial level. Just as serious, much popular anxiety is a direct result of Jordanians’ no longer believing the king has control of the situation or that he is capable of steering Jordan effectively through the current regional and domestic turmoil. Indeed, he is increasingly seen as part of the problem. The palace called for a meeting this past week with a group of former prime ministers to consult regarding the current situation. If press accounts of the meeting are to be believed, this gathering, the likes of which has not been held for some eight years, served to air myriad criticisms and concerns, including from one former prime minister who reportedly told the king, "Sidi, I have worked in the state bureaucracy for 50 years…frankly, I don’t understand what is happening these days, nor do I understand how the affairs of this country are being run."  

If the regime — palace, government, and security forces — continues on its current course, the possibilities for more serious instability are real. Given the current murky nature of the alliances of actors involved and the balance of power among them, it is troubling that the gap between what the king has understood and what he needs to understand to manage the current demands for change seems unlikely to narrow; indeed, it threatens to continue to widen as the region enters year two of what long ago stopped feeling anything like an "Arab Spring."      

Laurie A. Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor and Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. Fayez Y. Hammad is lecturer in the Department of Political Science and the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California.