Marc Lynch

Gaza rocks Jordan

The fallout from the Gaza war and the intense Palestinian divisions is ricocheting around the Arab world — nowhere more than Jordan. There have been several moments where the tensions seemed to be peaking.  At the end of December, for instance, King Abdullah shocked observers by removing Mohammed Dhahabi, his intelligence chief who had been ...

The fallout from the Gaza war and the intense Palestinian divisions is ricocheting around the Arab world -- nowhere more than Jordan. There have been several moments where the tensions seemed to be peaking.  At the end of December, for instance, King Abdullah shocked observers by removing Mohammed Dhahabi, his intelligence chief who had been pivotal in organizing an outreach to Hamas and Jordanian Islamists -- and who is again at the center of controversy for allegedly criticizing Jordanian policy (see below). Another moment came a few days ago, when conservative and Islamist members of Parliament nearly came to blows. Political tensions are running high. American policy could make a real difference in either easing them or making them worse -- and at least should take them into account as it reviews its regional strategy.

Political conditions in Jordan were tense long before Gaza, of course. The economy is in disastrous shape, with unemployment running high and the middle class under tremendous pressure. When I was in Jordan last spring I heard more open complaining about corruption at the highest levels than ever before. The government had been clashing with the Muslim Brotherhood, until the recent thaw.  And the last Parliamentary elections had been deeply disappointing to most Jordanians and observers, with rampant complaints about electoral procedures and outcomes (the Islamic Action Front was only the most prominent victim of seeming electoral fraud). I mention this just for perspective -- it's not like Gaza hit a serene, untroubled political environment. 

That said, Gaza has inflamed at least four intersecting fault-lines. 

The fallout from the Gaza war and the intense Palestinian divisions is ricocheting around the Arab world — nowhere more than Jordan. There have been several moments where the tensions seemed to be peaking.  At the end of December, for instance, King Abdullah shocked observers by removing Mohammed Dhahabi, his intelligence chief who had been pivotal in organizing an outreach to Hamas and Jordanian Islamists — and who is again at the center of controversy for allegedly criticizing Jordanian policy (see below). Another moment came a few days ago, when conservative and Islamist members of Parliament nearly came to blows. Political tensions are running high. American policy could make a real difference in either easing them or making them worse — and at least should take them into account as it reviews its regional strategy.

Political conditions in Jordan were tense long before Gaza, of course. The economy is in disastrous shape, with unemployment running high and the middle class under tremendous pressure. When I was in Jordan last spring I heard more open complaining about corruption at the highest levels than ever before. The government had been clashing with the Muslim Brotherhood, until the recent thaw.  And the last Parliamentary elections had been deeply disappointing to most Jordanians and observers, with rampant complaints about electoral procedures and outcomes (the Islamic Action Front was only the most prominent victim of seeming electoral fraud). I mention this just for perspective — it’s not like Gaza hit a serene, untroubled political environment. 

That said, Gaza has inflamed at least four intersecting fault-lines. 

First, Jordanian foreign policy.  King Abdullah has been walking a fine rhetorical line throughout the crisis. He has chosen to stick with the U.S.-backed "moderate" camp  — he sent his Foreign Minister to the Abu Dhabi meeting of "moderates" last week, and stayed away from the Doha "rejection" meeting. But he has also tried to align his position with a mobilized Jordanian public opinion which largely supports the "rejection" camp, allowing an unusually large number of pro-Gaza demonstrations and calling repeatedly for an end to the fighting and for humanitarian relief. For the most part, Jordanian politicians and pundits have praised the official position in public, as they must, but grumbling is increasing. King Abdullah always lives in this grey zone, and wants to find an Arab consensus within which to hide.  The grey zone shrinks as lines sharpen, as they have in recent years with American backing.  No Arab leader would be more helped by a real Arab and Palestinian reconciliation — hence Abdullah’s call today, yet again, for both.

Second, Palestinian divisions.   Samih al-Mayateh, a leading Jordanian analyst, writes today that Jordanians need to focus on achieving Palestinian unity and supporting all Palestinians in their struggle — and, above all, preventing Jordan from becoming an extension of the intra-Palestinian battlefield. That follows from a long-standing Jordanian interest in insulating the Kingdom from intra-Palestinian battles. The regime’s modus vivendi with the PLO after 1988’s severing of ties with the West Bank and long-standing relationship with Hamas via the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood were both used in part to keep Jordan calm. But as those intra-Palestinian battles escalate, and Americans and Israelis talk ever more openly about inviting Jordan back in to some role in the West Bank, those arrangements may come under strain.  Hence the concern over the Islamic Action Front’s recent accusation that the Jordanian government is showing unacceptable bias towards Fatah over Hamas.

Third, rising Islamist power.  Mohammed Abu Rumman, who is probably the leading analyst of the Jordanian Islamist movement, argues that the reality of rising Islamist popularity is fueling political conflict.  It appears that the MB and the IAF have  effectively used Gaza to regain the ground lost during several years of unusually direct regime repression and ideological setbacks following the al-Qaeda hotel bombings back in 2005.  This came to a head in the Parliamentary scuffle a few days ago, as conservative MPs including former Prime Minister Abd al-Raouf al-Rawabdeh and Mohammed Zureiqat blasted the Islamic Action Front for endangering the Kingdom (I’ve seen conflicting reports as to whether this actually came to physical blows).  This came during a heated debate over a statement issued by the Committee to Protect the Nation and Resist Normalization, chaired by the the head of the IAF’s Parliamentary delegation Shaykh Hamza Mansour.  The IAF hit back, saying that it was their efforts which best protected the Kingdom, while Ruhayl al-Ghuraybah denounced the attacks on the IAF as part of the conspiracy against Jordan.   Rawabdeh subsequently eased off, but tensions remain high.

Finally, the Alternative Homeland.  The chaos in Gaza and the West Bank, combined with the fear that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud will win the coming Israeli elections, has brought to the fore the perennial Jordanian fear of the "Jordan option." The increasing popularity in the U.S. and Israel of calls for Jordan to  play a security or political role in the West Bank may seem benign. But among Jordanians they arouse deep fears that this will be the first step on a very slippery slope towards the Likud’s vision of turning Jordan into the Palestinian state. This tends to inflame the most intense identity politics in the Kingdom, particularly tensions between Jordanians of Jordanian and Palestinian origin.    It intersects with, colors, and exacerbates the other three fault-lines — as in the accusations that the Muslim Brotherhood is supporting Hamas over Jordan.

The Gaza crisis is therefore putting pressure on four of the most important existing fault-lines in Jordanian politics.   The pressures on Jordan will only intensify if the Obama team continues along its early Bush-like path of trying to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas while encouraging Arab divisions.  General Mohammed Dhahabi, the fired intelligence chief, has been at the center of controversy over remarks exactly along these lines attributed to him by al-Akhbar newspaper saying that Jordan’s "natural place" was with Doha and attacking U.S. policy (though Dhahabi is now disowning the interview) [*]. While it may be loathe to say so publicly, Jordan would be much better served were George Mitchell to shift gears:   try to bridge Arab differences by reaching out to allies within the "rejection camp" such as  Turkey and Qatar,  and try to bridge Palestinian differences by encouraging some form of Hamas-Fatah unity government.  

[*] Dhahabi incident added after original version of post.  

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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