Jordan wants the United States to believe that Islamists, headlined by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) party, are the most dangerous opposition in the kingdom. Yet this is pure fiction, a ruse that exploits Western fears of an Islamist takeover while justifying the authoritarian monarchy’s preference for shallow political reforms cloaked in the language of democracy. In truth, nearly two years of protests have exposed the more perilous threat to the Hashemite kingship to be a new generation of tribal opposition. Led by popular youth movements, these grass-roots activists demand that King Abdullah honor past promises to deliver true change, such as a fairer elections law and the elimination of corruption. Left unattended, this unprecedented wave of dissent will create a major crisis for the regime.
Tribal youth opposition began in February 2011, when demonstrations rocked the small town of Dhiban. These groups have since mobilized hundreds of protest events on a weekly basis, including dabke song-and-dance performances, impromptu street protests drawing dozens of people, organized marches attracting hundreds, and contentious acts like blocking highways and harassing government motorcades. That such agitation has spread across Jordan’s rural governorates, where many tribal communities reside, flies in the face of academic stereotypes. Whereas urban opposition groups like the IAF draw strength from the Palestinian majority, concentrated in sprawling Amman, the East Bank minority, exemplified by the tribes, is supposed to be the regime’s loyal bedrock. The reality is more complex. Tribal youth activists respect the institution of monarchy, but they have lost trust in this monarch and all of his appointed cabinets. Amman may still be a hotbed of opposition, but the most spirited Friday protests now erupt in the northern and southern tribal areas outside the capital.
New tribal dissidents differ from urban opposition in their informality. Unlike leftists, they do not aspire to create political parties, which they associate with factionalism and elitism. Unlike prominent Amman-based groups like the IAF and the star-studded National Front for Reform, they do not have vertical leadership or deep pockets. In fact, many young activists accuse these mainstream forces of cooperating with the regime’s plodding framework of shallow reform for their own benefit, and have rejected their offers to create a broader alliance. Even Amman’s own youth movements like Jayeen, the 1952 Constitution Movement, and the March 24 Shabab (which also sport many East Bankers, but are wealthier and more Westernized than their rural kin) have more organizational formality in their membership, meetings, and agendas.
In contradistinction, popular tribal groups prize mobility over institutionalization. They prefer consensual decisions to rigid hierarchies, and often reject the more conservative advice of their elders. In keeping with youth movements elsewhere, they exploit social media to disseminate news and diffuse strategies. Protest movements from around Irbid, and the towns of Dhiban, Jarash, Ajloun, Salt, Tafileh, Karak, Ma’an, and Shobak, make great use of Facebook. Moreover, despite historical rivalries, activists from different tribal clans express cross-provincial solidarity. The seven largest groups have formed the Coordination Committee for Popular Movements, which helps plan Friday events. Moreover, in November 2011 reformists from the large Bani Sakhr and Bani Hasan confederations initiated a coalition with colleagues from several other tribes, such as the smaller al-Da’aja and al-Ajarma. Pan-tribal associations like the Tribal Movement for Reform have crystallized, while online forums entertain cross-provincial complaints.
Popular tribal protesters also differ from urban opposition in their language of resistance. While Amman’s young elite activists hold civic debates about political repression and publish essays on the constitutional monarchism, they aggressively violate red lines. Some speak out against the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) and its repressive intolerance. Most, however, target King Abdullah. They have harassed his motorcade and burnt his picture. They joke about his clumsiness in Arabic as a way to emphasize his disconnect from tribal society. At a July rally in Irbid, one orator told a laughing audience to break into the English chant, "We want freedom!" for this reason (9:40 mark here). Some accuse him of selling Jordan to the highest bidder and goad him to stop hiding. A December 2011 march compared him to the deposed Egyptian president with an Arabic mantra — "O Abdullah, reform your house before you join Mubarak!" A more recent rally juxtaposed him alongside Muammar al-Qaddafi, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and Bashar al-Assad. Most troubling, many whisper that another member of the Hashemite family could be a better king.
Why are these tribal youths so angry? Many observers dismiss their demands as purely economic, just more East Bank indignation that King Abdullah’s neoliberal policies have robbed the monarchy’s core supporters of their old privileges like jobs and services. To be sure, many older tribesmen do simply want a bigger piece of the state pie: the military veterans who infamously disparaged the regime in 2010 have become much quieter since receiving higher pensions in March. Further, the hard-hit south always generates unrest when prices for basic goods increase — e.g., fuel in April 1989, bread in August 1996, electricity this past June. However, young activists today pointedly want democratic reform alongside economic development, with some geographic variation. Reformists in southern towns who hail from poorer tribal groupings like the Bani Hamida and the Huwaytat confederation attach petitions for jobs with demands for political openness. By contrast, those in the better developed central and northern governorates, and who come from wealthier tribes ranging from the Bani Sakhr to the smaller Sardiyya clan, warn that welfare concessions cannot replace democratic reformation.
Two reform battles reveal the priority of politics — elections and corruption. After witnessing the first pangs of unrest in December 2010, King Abdullah pledged to issue a more competitive elections law as part of a sweeping reform agenda. After consideration within national dialogue committees, deliberation within the GID, and several cabinet shuffles, the monarchy unveiled disappointing results. They include constitutional amendments that created an electoral commission and constitutional court, along with revised laws regulating political parties and parliamentary elections. The new elections law has drawn the most derision from every opposition force because it retains controversial flaws, in particular malapportioned districts and the Single Non-Transferable Vote system (SNTV), while allocating just 27 out of 150 seats to a new national list rewarded through proportional representation.
Tribal activists have joined the IAF and other urban groups in pledging to boycott the elections scheduled for this winter, though for different reasons. Whereas the Islamists want a larger PR-style national list, tribal youths have attacked the retention of SNTV. This seems counterintuitive: after all, the regime implemented SNTV in 1993 to ensure tribal predominance in parliament, because the system incentivizes citizens to spend their single district-level vote for trusted communal figures rather than outside opposition parties. Yet tribal protesters desire a multiple-vote system because they prefer younger, more liberal parliamentarians to their own elders. Tribal Jordanians today are the least conservative and best-educated generation of their communities. Some have studied abroad, and even those that seldom leave their governorate are liberated from state media thanks to Twitter feeds, blogs, and online news portals. They see parliament as a glorified talk-shop filled with self-serving deputies who care more about their inflated salaries and benefits than youth concerns, such as when it recently refused to lower the age of candidacy from 30 to 25.
The second reform theme is corruption. Popular tribal movements contend that corrupt practices have become endemic in politics. Rumors run rampant about kleptocratic public figures enriching themselves through bribery, graft, and embezzlement while living standards recede for everyone else. Some qualifications are necessary here. Some reformists confuse corruption with privatization, as when the new owners of a previously state-owned factory sack workers to cut costs — unpopular, but legal. Others also are repeating longstanding unease about small-scale nepotism, wasta, which privileges the better connected who apply for university positions, public employment, and other state goods.
However, most tribal activists stand firm with urban oppositionists in framing corruption at the highest levels as a kind of black hole draining national resources. This is not anti-Palestinian prejudice repackaged, as is the case with older tribal leaders. They argue East Bank elites are just as disconnected and crooked, including those from their own communities. Former Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit faced corruption accusations from dissenters in his own Abbadi tribe, while the most cynical critics of current Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh are members of his Tarawneh clan in Karak. Thus, when King Abdullah promised a comprehensive crackdown against corruption in late 2011, tribal reformists were not surprised when state watchdogs like the Anti-Corruption Commission made only a few symbolic arrests. They seethe that allies of the royal family enjoy virtual immunity from prosecution, and that for every sacrificial lamb offered to appease the public — like former GID Director Muhammad Dhahabi and corporate mogul Khalid Sheen — are 10 more officials, businessmen, and parliamentarians who escape attention.
The worst part is that the monarchy does not know how to engage these popular tribal movements. King Abdullah does not understand that wooing tribal elites with patronage, the traditional method of Hashemite enticement, does not satisfy youth activists because the mere act of protest is already a rejection of their authority. Yet repressive crackdowns are out of the question. Rural areas may reside on the economic periphery but they are the political center, the tribal heart of its East Bank social foundation. Further, the police can arrest only so many dissidents because the inevitable torture and abuse of detainees sets off even more protests — compelling the king to pardon many for fear of inciting further tensions. GID campaigns to muddy the waters by stirring up anti-Palestinian sentiment have failed, as many young tribesmen reject the xenophobia of their fathers and also denounce such meddling by outside agents.
The regime’s only saving grace ironically lies with its long-time antagonist, Syria, whose worsening civil war has exerted a temporal chilling effect. Many tribal protesters admit to voluntarily moderating their actions for fear of creating chaos on Jordanian soil. They also have not completely given up on King Abdullah. The palace can take the first step toward reconciliation by revising the hated electoral law again — and this time, provide a binding timeline of proposed changes rather than making vague future promises. What it cannot do is ignore this new youth opposition in hopes that they will demobilize out of boredom. That did not work for other autocracies during the Arab Spring, and it will not work here.
Sean L. Yom is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University. Wael al-Khatib (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an independent anthropologist based in Amman and Cairo.