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The Middle East Channel
Don’t forget about Jordan: a regime caught between contagion and consent
King Abdullah of Jordan celebrated his 49th birthday this past Sunday, and his reign turns 12 years old on Feb. 7. Neither anniversary could fall at a more unpropitious time. As popular protests roil the Middle East, with Tunisia’s dictatorial incumbent ousted and another in Egypt on the way out, observers have wondered whether the ...
King Abdullah of Jordan celebrated his 49th birthday this past Sunday, and his reign turns 12 years old on Feb. 7. Neither anniversary could fall at a more unpropitious time. As popular protests roil the Middle East, with Tunisia’s dictatorial incumbent ousted and another in Egypt on the way out, observers have wondered whether the Hashemite Kingdom will be the next to catch revolutionary fever. With Jordan’s lively blogosphere and independent press insinuating about the "contagion" effect, the monarchy has also been squeezed by its increasing inability to extract consent. For several weeks, weekend protests have punctuated urban life, with thousands of demonstrators cheering the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts while demanding the dismissal of the king’s cabinet led by Samir al-Rifai — a Harvard-educated technocrat from a prominent East Bank family. Yesterday, they finally received their wish. In an ironic twist of history, Abdullah dismissed Rifai, mirroring his father Hussein’s sacking of Rifai’s father, Zeid, from the premiership in response to rioting in April 1989. He brought Marouf al-Bakhit, a career military officer who previously served a two-year stint as prime minister, back to office.
The Hashemite monarchy now faces an extraordinary challenge. Though the U.S. media has focused on the drama of nearby revolutions, the absence of Anderson Cooper in Amman should not connote that Jordan matters any less to U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the fate of its pro-Western regime holds more consequences for American interests than any Arab state not named Egypt and Saudi Arabia — something better ruminated now than at the eleventh hour.
The kingdom is Israel’s other peace partner and remains the keystone to a two-state Palestinian solution. It reliably backs American initiatives, from the invasion of Iraq to the anti-Iranian containment strategy. Its intelligence services have provided vital services during the war on terror, something rarely exposed. In return, Jordan has received enormous economic and military aid from Washington, reaping more than $7 billion since 2000 and enjoying $660 million in annual support through 2013. It has also welcomed democracy-promotion programs, a contradiction that begs scrutiny. Above all comes diplomatic intimacy: It surprised few that King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to visit President Obama in April 2009.
The Hashemite regime has been in full-crisis mode for weeks, but its economic problems are long-standing. Despite pursuing market liberalization in the 2000s, which envisages converting the public-sector-dominated economy into an investment-friendly haven for technology and services, there are not enough viable jobs. More than two-thirds of the unemployed are under 30, and more than half of these jobless have university degrees. In addition, middle- and lower-income households — the social classes at the heart of the Arab world’s mobilizational wave — have chafed at heightening living costs, with inflation in 2010 hitting more than 6 percent. Already facing a huge fiscal deficit, the bloated state can do little more. It pays $4.7 billion annually to nearly 800,000 public employees and pensioners, alongside nearly $1.4 billion for subsidies on goods and housing — which will devour this year’s $8.5 billion budget.
Yet it was the November elections that catalyzed the current opposition upsurge. The 2007 parliamentary contest saw representation for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front Party, the leading opposition force, fall from 17 to 6 seats due to significant fraud. That experience helped hawks ascend to leadership positions in the MB and IAF, raising the stakes in their democratic reform demands. The November 2009 dissolution of parliament marked a potential turning point, as the king was able to promote Rifai to push through economic liberalization measures while recalculating its strategy for the next elections.
The chosen strategy backfired. Last May, the much-anticipated royal reformulation of the Elections Law drew instant criticism. Though it enhanced female representation, untouched were the perverse SNTV balloting system and district malapportionment, which both Islamists and secular reformists — such as Marwan Muasher’s 2005 National Agenda Report — had recommended overturning. More troubling was a new "subdistricting" statute, a complicated maneuver that reinforced the predominance of conservative candidates like tribal elders, wealthy businessmen, and service deputies. Little wonder that the IAF boycotted the hollow contest, a decision made with nearly 75 percent support of its membership. Further, the fact that just