The Middle East Channel

Why Jordan isn’t Tunisia

On Jan. 14, angry over increasing economic hardship in the kingdom, and certainly with their eye on events in Tunis, Jordanian leftists organized a protest march that attracted several hundred demonstrators in downtown Amman. Two days later, a combination of leftist, nationalist and Islamist members of various professional associations held a gathering that attracted several ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

On Jan. 14, angry over increasing economic hardship in the kingdom, and certainly with their eye on events in Tunis, Jordanian leftists organized a protest march that attracted several hundred demonstrators in downtown Amman. Two days later, a combination of leftist, nationalist and Islamist members of various professional associations held a gathering that attracted several thousand. Those protests have led many observers to focus on the question of whether Tunisia’s revolution will spread to the Hashemite Kingdom. There are good reasons to be skeptical, however. Jordan is not Tunisia, and these protests do not likely mean that King Abdullah will follow President Ben Ali into exile.

This is not the first time that Tunisia has paved the way for protests across the region. In November 1987, Ben Ali initiated the first in what became a wave of liberalizations across the Arab world by setting aside the ageing president-for-life Habib Bourguiba and promising a "New Era" of democracy and freedom. If this was a coup from the top, the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada only a month later marked a more radical change in Arab politics, coming from the grassroots and transferring the heart of resistance to Israeli occupation from an armed struggle outside, to a people’s revolt of civil resistance, stones and slingshots inside the West Bank and Gaza. Then came the explosion in Algeria, leaving hundreds dead, but also ending more than a quarter century of monopolization of power by the National Liberation Front (FLN). In spring 1989 it was Jordan’s turn, as riots triggered by IMF-dictated reductions in petroleum product subsidies exploded in what the Hashemite regime viewed as the heartland of its traditional support and forced the holding of the first relatively free elections since 1956.

The years that followed witnessed the failure or betrayal of all of these experiments in political liberalization or democratization. The Jordanian government, like most of its Arab counterparts, steadily withdrew the early promise of liberalization by manipulating elections and tightly policing dissent. Only now, more than 20 years later, do we witness what could be a new beginning.

An examination of the response in Jordan, however, shows the limits of a potential Tunisian "demonstration effect." Growing instances of societal violence in Jordan have been noted with increasing concern by policymakers and commentators in recent months, many on university campuses among youth from different tribes, but others between the police or the darak (gendarmerie) and demonstrators, from port workers to teachers.   

But what were their demands? The slogans were a mixture of complaints about prices and dissatisfaction with the current government, led by Prime Minister Samir al-Rifa’i. The problem is that they have the wrong target. In Jordan, it is not the members of the government — the prime minister and those holding portfolios — who set the major policy lines. Policy is made by the king and a small group of advisors who are directly responsible to no one but him. That said, since 1989, when parliamentary elections were resumed in Jordan after a more than 20-year hiatus, the regime has excelled in creating the image of a government (prime minister and cabinet) responsible for all manner of domestic policy and problems, while the king is portrayed as above the fray, intervening only to set aside governments that have not lived up to his or the people’s expectations. It has proved a valuable fiction which seems still to have currency with some Jordanians, although it is hard to say how many. In such a political system, what can really change with the replacement of a prime minister, or even a number of key ministers?

As a result, demonstrations calling for the resignation of the Rifa’i government may help let off steam, and the regime’s allowing such manifestations may serve to perpetuate the image of a state that allows freedom of expression. But so far, none of the banners or chants has dared to criticize the Hashemite monarchy. Just as important, given the current balance of forces in the kingdom — particularly the heightened tensions between Transjordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian origin which complicate the formation of cross communal alliances based on shared economic interests — one should not expect a repetition in Jordan of a critical part of the Tunisian script: that of the national army first refusing to fire on Tunisian protesters and then intervening to protect average Tunisians and their property against some elements from the police and security forces.

Such a defection of significant elements of the army is critical in successful revolutions.  In Jordan, in the current circumstances one would instead expect the swift and decisive mobilization of a united (and brutal) front — army, darak and police — against any and all whose slogans call for an end to the regime of the Bani Hashim. At least in the near term, the demonstrations may continue, but the messages on the banners in Jordan are likely to remain tame, criticizing the government and its policies, but never those who actually rule. 

Laurie A. Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations at the Unversity of Southern California, and the author of  "Jordan’s Inter-Arab Relations:  The Political Economy of Alliance Making."  

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