Marc Lynch

Jordan, Forever on the Brink

Jordan, Forever on the Brink

The sudden, unprecedented resignation by Jordan’s Prime Minister Awn Khasawnah last week threw a sudden spotlight on the ongoing shortcomings of political reform in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The deficient new election law rolled out last month, like every step the King has taken over the last year and a half, did too little, too late to respond to the concerns of Jordanian citizens. Limited reforms have done little to stem a rising tide of protest across the towns of the south, a deeply struggling economy, loud complaints of corruption, and an intensifying edge of political anger. Add in the potential impact of the ongoing crisis in Syria or of a new escalation in the West Bank, and concerns for Jordan’s political future seem merited.

Veteran observers of the region can be excused for rolling their eyes ever so slightly at reports of instability in Jordan, of course. The Kingdom has seemed on the political brink virtually constantly for many decades, its stability always questioned and the monarchy’s command doubted (often, admittedly, by me). And yet the Hashemite monarchy has survived.  Warnings about political crisis in Jordan therefore sound just enough like boys crying wolf or Chicken Littles shouting about falling skies. That long history of frustrated protest and successfully navigated challenges should caution anyone predicting a real explosion.  But it would be equally wrong to dismiss the signs of a rapidly escalating political crisis to which the Palace seems unable or unwilling to respond. 

This post previews a new POMEPS Briefing, "Jordan, Forever on the Brink," which collects twenty articles from the last three years explaining the nature of the Kingdom’s political crisis, the shortcomings of its attempted reforms, and the current political state of play.

The context of last year’s Arab uprisings adds urgency to Jordan’s problems, but its political stalemate has been developing for many years. The democratic opening, which followed an outbreak of social protests in 1989, including press liberalization, freely contested elections, and the crafting of a "National Pact" for a democratic monarchical system, now seems a distant memory. Then-King Hussein began rolling back the new freedoms in the middle of the 1990s, as he moved to conclude an unpopular peace with Israel. A new election law designed to curb the power of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front Party produced a series of weak, ineffectual Parliaments too often dissolved early at the whim of the Palace.  

Since replacing his father, the current King Abdullah has not behaved like a leader deeply committed to democratic procedures or credible about reform. Palace officials often argue that he is a true reformer frustrated by the slow pace of change, but if so then he has remarkably little to show for more than a decade’s effort. He suspended Parliament soon after taking the throne and ruled by emergency law for several years. Reform initiatives such as the National Agenda disappeared without a trace. The political history of the last decade has been a depressing litany of failed governments, incompetent Parliaments, and frustrated civil society. The last elections, in November 2010, ranked among the worst in the Kingdom’s history.

That frustration has been exacerbated by grinding economic problems, which have largely wiped out the middle class and badly hurt the poor. Cuts to government spending or the state bureaucracy, meanwhile, tend to disproportionately hurt the East Bankers who have generally been favored by the state for political reasons. The ostentatious new wealth on display in parts of Amman only fueled the simmering resentment, as ever more open talk of corruption at the top permeated political society… and circulated freely through new social media and in every day conversation. I still remember being shocked a few years back at being regaled in public by near strangers with stories of Queen Rania’s new private jet and the backers of a new big dig in central Amman. Official efforts to censor and control such information are long since hopeless. 

The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings inspired as much enthusiasm and popular protest energy in Jordan as they did elsewhere in the region. Jordanian youth mobilized large protests, while traditional opposition movements also gathered strength. Jordan’s impressive community of online activists pushed the boundaries of public debate, with unusual criticism of corruption at the highest levels — even (or especially) Queen Rania. Perhaps more troubling to the regime, discontent spread relentlessly into the south as a protest culture took hold. Military veterans spoke out in unprecedented ways, signaling potential problems at the very heart of the regime.   And Jordanian-Palestinian identity politics, always at the center of Jordanian politics and society, played out in ever more intense forms.   

The King’s responses have been consistently behind the curve, suggesting a failure to appreciate the full extent of the regime’s problems. The dismissal of several Prime Ministers in succession were dismissed as the mere shuffling of deck chairs with little practical significance. The King’s speech in June disappointed activists hoping for more concrete and far reaching promises of political change. Promised constitutional reforms compared poorly to even those limited changes offered in Morocco. By November, oft-promised reforms remained largely "fictional," in Sean Yom’s incisive verdict. More effective has been the traditional moves to polarize society around Jordanian-Palestinian conflict to divide and distract opposition — but even that strategy holds risks for the monarchy under current conditions. As Laurie Brand and Fayez Hammad recently asked, "what exactly does the King understand?"  

Some hopes had been placed in the appointment of the respected liberal jurist Khaswaneh as Prime Minister. With his departure, that hope too has been frustrated. The long history of the regime’s surviving such frustrated hopes and failed reforms would suggest that this too shall pass. But Jordan’s Palace should not be so confident. The spread of protest into new constituencies, the rising grievances of the south, the intensifying identity politics, the struggling economy, and the pervasive fury at perceived official corruption create a potent brew. The violent dispersal of an attempted Amman sit-in last March shocked activists and broke their momentum, but the protest movement has proven resilient and creative. I would rank Jordan today only below Bahrain as at risk of a sudden escalation of political crisis — at which point the impossible would in retrospect look inevitable indeed.

Click here for the full POMEPS Briefing 11 "Jordan, Forever on the Brink."