Dispatch

The revolt of Jordan’s military veterans

Last month, Jordan’s "National Committee of Military Veterans" published a rare petition directly attacking the monarchy and the Palestinian population of the kingdom.  This petition should not be dismissed lightly.  This is the first time that an organization representing tens of thousands of military veterans has expressed controversial political views, particularly on such extremely sensitive ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Last month, Jordan’s "National Committee of Military Veterans" published a rare petition directly attacking the monarchy and the Palestinian population of the kingdom.  This petition should not be dismissed lightly.  This is the first time that an organization representing tens of thousands of military veterans has expressed controversial political views, particularly on such extremely sensitive issues. Crafted by a higher committee of 60 military veterans (including some ex-generals), the document expresses the concern about what they see as moves to solve the Palestinian problem at the expense of Jordan through external pressures to settle the refugees in the kingdom, with the cooperation of "treacherous" elite members.

The permanent settlement of most of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan, a likely scenario in any potential outline of Israeli-Palestinian peace, is a great source of trouble for the regime, as it touches the very heart of its relationship with its Transjordanian backbone. A Wall Street Journal reporter heard from King Abdullah last April that Jordan could not annex the West Bank population since, among other things, "we don’t have the water to be able to do so."  This phrase was too sensitive to be included in the interview’s final version: the Jordanian public opinion is not willing to see a conditioned refusal to this Armageddon scenario.  While the challenge posed by the "veterans’ uprising" eventually faded, the incident is an ominous sign for the coming phase in regional politics.

The veterans’ petition lamented the King’s neo-liberal economic policies and directly criticized the appointments of Palestinians to key posts, implying the involvement of Queen Rania in these appointments. The signatories concluded with demands to constitutionalize the disengagement from the West Bank of July 1988; to disenfranchise the entire Palestinian population of the kingdom, whether immediately or subject to the implementation of UN Resolution 194 calling for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes; and that the military be strengthened and prepared to deal with the Zionist threat by adopting guerrilla warfare methods. They also demanded genuine political reforms, curbing corruption and greater authorities to the government and parliament (i.e. less to the palace and other independent power centers). Most of these statements are well known claims of the Transjordanian national movement — an opposition trend with very different implications than the better known challenge posed by the large number of citizens of Palestinian origin.

This was not a sophisticated call for dialogue: it was a straightforward statement of clash. It marked the culmination of a gradual process in recent years, whereby senior army veterans interfere in political matters.  In an extraordinary guest appearance in Al-Jazeera, the chair of the national committee of veterans stated bluntly that "we want to make clear to the decision-maker that the constitution may not be violated by anyone, whomever he may be," and implied that the fact that the three branches of government are currently headed by non-Transjordanians proves their claims. An interesting discussion ensued between him and Laith Shbeilat, the old time symbol of the Jordanian opposition, on whether Jordanians of Palestinian origin should be at the center of the veterans’ arguments or rather Israel is the main target.

The distress and anxiety of the regime were apparent: its old time power base had turned against it. Sympathetic media outlets proudly dubbed the petition "Communiqué No. 1," a term dating back to the officers’ revolts in the Arab world. Rumors began to spread that the old-time regime loyalist (and father of the current Prime Minister) Zaid al-Rifa’i blamed the recently retired Chief of Staff of the army, the senator Khaled al-Sarayreh, and other former politicians and generals, for masterminding the petition. The king paid separate visits to the Rifa’ies and Sarayreh (who reconciled with each other a few days ago). If army generals were indeed part of the scheme, this amounts to an almost explicit case of a nationalist opposition trickling down to, or coming from, the senior ranks of the military. Up until now it could be no more than an educated guess.

A striking testimony to the regime’s predicament is that it was helped by Ahmad Obeidat, the former head of the Mukhabarat and Prime Minister, whose relationship with the regime has seen more down’s than up’s for the past two decades. Obeidat’s counter-petition was much sharper with regard to Israel and the peace process, and more moderate with regard to the Palestinian population in the kingdom. It was signed by thousands of people, Transjordanians and Palestinians, including senior figures from the heart of the political, economic and social elite and counter-elite. While the signatories may well have joined Obeidat’s petition for the cause of safeguarding national unity rather than for its anti-Israel flavor, the petition is significant nonetheless: it represents the only politically defensible vision uniting the Transjordanians and Palestinian elite: cancellation of the peace agreement with Israel and support for the struggle against it; turning away from Fatah (still bitterly remembered in Jordan for its role in the civil war); and getting closer to Hamas, despite the U.S. position.

The "veterans’ uprising" reveals deep undercurrents. One possible scenario is that the regime will slowly drift towards adopting the lowest common denominator among the Transjordanian and Palestinian elite: Israel is the strategic threat for Jordan (the country, if not the regime). As demonstrated in the two petitions, the refugees’ factor is clearly a growing concern for both elites, but especially for Transjordanians, regardless of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The worse news for the regime comes from its traditional power base: Transjordanians will not lose their earned benefits and privileges without a fight. More of these might do for now, but not for the long run. Perhaps it is time for the regime to pay more attention to the growing grievances of the Transjordanians, and to the dangerous development gap between the urban center and the rural periphery in Jordan.

Assaf David serves as a consultant on Jordanian affairs to several public and private sector organizations and will be a post-doctoral research fellow at the Truman Institute for Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during the upcoming academic year.

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