The Middle East Channel

Jordan’s Islamists lose faith in moderation

Jordan’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) party elected centrist moderate Hamzeh Mansour last Saturday as its new secretary-general (the party’s highest executive office), hoping to ease conflicts between the self-described "hawks" and "doves" over the direction of the party — the hardliners prefer a more confrontational position toward the Jordanian government and stronger relations with Hamas, ...

Jordan’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) party elected centrist moderate Hamzeh Mansour last Saturday as its new secretary-general (the party’s highest executive office), hoping to ease conflicts between the self-described "hawks" and "doves" over the direction of the party — the hardliners prefer a more confrontational position toward the Jordanian government and stronger relations with Hamas, while the moderates want to focus on domestic issues while leaving the Palestinian matter to the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, a.k.a. Hamas. The IAF is now debating whether to boycott the November parliamentary elections, having won only six seats in the 2007 contest amid blatant government manipulation of those results.

What the Jordanian regime should be doing is using Mansour’s election as an opportunity to reach out to the IAF and its sister organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. Continuing to alienate Jordan’s pro-democratic, moderate Islamist movement (at a time of economic turmoil and while radical Islamists are gaining a toe-hold in the country) is a long-term strategy for disaster. With tensions between Jordan’s Palestinian citizens and Transjordanian nationalists at their most heated in decades, King Abdullah needs to take a cue from his father and build bridges to all sectors of its citizenry, not just the security personnel, tribal elites, and economic reformers on whom he has relied.

The IAF’s most recent internal conflict began when its shura council met on May 8 to fill the office of shura council president — head of the party’s 120-person decision-making body. Moderates stormed out of that session after a heated debate with the hardliners, leading temporary council president Husni Jarrar to adjourn the meeting. The remaining hardliners recognized that they still had a quorum and reconvened the meeting, quickly voting Ali Abu al-Sukkar to the position. The IAF’s legal council ruled the vote invalid.

Abu al-Sukkar and the hawks initially refused to accept the legal council’s ruling, and Sukkar announced that the shura council would meet a few days later to elect the party’s secretary-general and executive officers. That meeting was canceled when the legal council deemed that Sukkar did not have the authority to call the meeting in the first place. A new meeting was scheduled for a week later, but key leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood threatened to resign if a vote went forward.  Hammam Said, the Brotherhood’s secretary-general, then threatened resignation if the IAF shura council failed to follow the recommendation of a majority of Brotherhood shura council members to elect hardliner Zaki Bani Irshid as IAF’s secretary-general.

A May 29 vote of the IAF shura council saw Sukkar re-elected as council president with 60 votes, beating moderate candidate Adnan Majali’s 50 votes. The hardliners seemed to have cemented control of the party, but the date for IAF’s secretary-general election was postponed several times as tensions between the doves and hawks reached fever pitch. New elections for the IAF shura council gave the moderates an edge, but discord over the position of secretary-general continued. Only last week a compromise was reached: Irshid agreed to withdraw from the election, as did moderate favorite Salim Falahat; Muslim Brotherhood secretary-general Said promised that the Brotherhood would stop insisting that Bani Irshid be elected to the office. Portrayed by many as a consensus candidate, Mansour was elected.

Jordan’s mainstream Islamists have always known internal tensions, notably over whether IAF deputies should continue participating in the parliament once Jordan had signed its peace treaty with Israel in 1994. With few exceptions, those differences have been settled democratically. Hardliners within the Brotherhood and IAF seemed to gain dominance in recent years, especially following the IAF’s weak showing amid government manipulation of the 2007 elections. In April, 2008, moderates lost the election for the Brotherhood’s secretary-general by a single vote, and moderate Falahat was replaced by Said, a conservative and longtime critic of close engagement with the government. The firebrand Irshid was elected as secretary-general of the IAF, but he was forced out after only one year due to his antagonism over the party’s participation in the 2007 parliamentary elections. He was replaced as a temporary measure by Ishaq Farhan, a longtime moderate who had served as both secretary-general and shura council president of the IAF in the 1990s; in the 1970s he held a cabinet portfolio in the government.

Irshid’s resignation in spring 2009 took place in a domestic context still marked by the Gaza protests and violent police repression that winter. As those protests escalated in late December, 2008, King Abdullah dismissed General Intelligence Directorate head Muhammad Dhahabi, who had been advocating for closer relations with Hamas. Dhahabi’s dismissal was also viewed as the latest rebuke to Jordan’s moderate Islamists. The Brotherhood had a relatively close relationship with King Hussein’s regime, but with Abdullah’s 1999 assent to the throne, those relations steadily soured. As early as 2002, prominent IAF officials complained to me that they could no longer get high-level government officials on the phone. Following the emergence of a real but very small stream of radical Islamists in Jordan since the mid-2000s, the regime should have sought to embrace Jordan’s moderate Islamists. Instead, it alienated them, manipulating the 2007 elections to significantly reduce their 17-seat representation in the 2003 assembly. That’s why Dhahabi’s advocacy for closer relations with Hamas was a conciliatory gesture toward Jordan’s mainstream Islamists, and why his dismissal was understood as a message to the movement. 

The IAF elections can have three meanings.

First, the choice of Mansour reflects the IAF’s effort to heal itself. The moderates have a slight edge over the hardliners — for the moment — but hardliners including Zayoud and Irshid were among the eight elected to the executive committee. While the party’s conflicts run deep, it has again sought to resolve those differences by adhering to its formal internal governing practices, which are democratic. Mansour’s election was not a foregone conclusion going into last Saturday’s poll, and he did not win by a landslide.

Second, Mansour is stressing that the party hasn’t decided yet whether or not to participate in the November parliamentary elections and that any decision will be taken by the IAF shura council. The Higher Coordinating Committee of Opposition Parties — of which the IAF is part — is also debating whether or not to boycott the elections. The regime should strive to encourage all political parties to participate in the contest or else the new assembly’s legitimacy will be questionable. If the Islamists do contest the elections, they will limit their candidates to certain sub-districts to improve overall performance in the polls. The new election law added four seats to districts where the movement might be expected to perform well — one each in Irbid and Zarqa, and two in Amman. This creates new possibilities for IAF gains over its current six seats in the assembly, assuming the government allows the poll to be free and fair. 

Third, the Jordanian government should view Mansour’s election as an opportunity to renew relations with the country’s mainstream Islamists. The regime has almost systematically alienated the Muslim Brotherhood and IAF at a time when it should be striving to encourage moderate Islam, not because it can necessarily turn those moderates into full-fledged liberal democrats, but because supporting moderate Islamists can deny radical Islamists the constituency support-base that they need to flourish. 

Jillian Schwedler is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge 2006).

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