The Middle East Channel

Jordan’s stubborn regime hangs in the balance

The Hashemite regime of Jordan is running out of time. Last Friday, a 2,000-strong opposition gathering in Amman dissolved into a spectacle of violence, leaving one dead and over a hundred injured. Although described by the Western media as the country’s first repressive crackdown during this winter of discontent, the reality is more complex — ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The Hashemite regime of Jordan is running out of time. Last Friday, a 2,000-strong opposition gathering in Amman dissolved into a spectacle of violence, leaving one dead and over a hundred injured. Although described by the Western media as the country’s first repressive crackdown during this winter of discontent, the reality is more complex — and more unsettling. Opposition activists infused by a new youth movement assembled near the Interior Ministry to vocalize a familiar chorus of democratic demands. Hundreds of armed government loyalists counter-rallied, cursing their fellow citizens and bombarding them with rocks. The street police were complicit in the breakdown of order until special darak riot forces began assaulting activists outright, allegedly using tear gas and then water cannons. Alongside many loyalists, they cheered and marched after "liberating" the circle from the reformist encampment.

This day of violence encapsulated all that has gone wrong since popular protests began three months ago: reform demands falling on deaf ears, apathy by agents of the state, brutality by government proxies. Above all, it exposed the bankruptcy of this authoritarian regime’s strategy of coping with the current opposition upsurge by furnishing vague promises of gradual reform while quietly manipulating social divisions from within. It failed in the first but is beginning to succeed in the second, creating a dangerous political climate that could result in further violence. The crisis will end when King Abdullah provides a credible commitment to reform — one that goes beyond hollow invitations to dialogue and instead furnishes a concrete timetable for change. Yet to do that would require the palace to reverse its stubborn stance, something that might well demand U.S. involvement.

How did Jordan come to this? While Tunisia and Egypt roiled in rage, Western observers insisted that the kingdom would right itself, for citizens here venerated the Hashemite crown and preferred moderate change. But the persistence of public protests has problematized such narratives. Starting in mid-January, weekly demonstrations drew thousands of frustrated Jordanians onto the streets over the rising cost of living, November’s toothless parliamentary elections, and political corruption. The protesters represent not only the Muslim Brotherhood, professional associations, and leftist parties — long-standing groups in which the Palestinian majority is well represented — but also East Bank tribesmen, military retirees, and civil pensioners, more conservative forces that the palace never predicted it would need to pacify. The youth movement that spearheaded last Friday’s assembly, the March 24 Shabab, also reveals profound dissatisfaction within the kingdom’s largest demographic: More than two-thirds of the population is under 30. 

However, the regime has repeatedly squandered opportunities to defuse such burgeoning criticism. In February, King Abdullah dismissed his unpopular cabinet and charged new Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit with formulating democratic reforms. Yet many activists saw the return of Bakhit, a consummate military hand and Hashemite retainer, as an insult, recalling the security restrictions that typified his first premiership in the mid-2000s. Equivocal pledges to review the Elections Law, extirpate corruption, and pursue other changes lacked any benchmark for resolution. In mid-March, the king anointed a 52-member National Dialogue Committee to explore options for restructuring government, but the consultative group excluded representation from youth activists and received no guarantee that its recommendations would be ratified. Sensing a repeat of the ill-fated 2005 National Agenda, 22 members have resigned.

The king and his men have hence miscalculated how to deal with a wave of public dissent that lacks any ideological foundation and instead revolves around a shared understanding that the current autocratic political system is neither transparent nor fair. Months of resistance from above combined with Friday’s infighting has catalyzed deepening frustration from various constituencies. Some tribes petitioned the palace to resolve its crisis of governance and make good on its reform vows, pointedly reminding the king that they are abnaa al-watansons of the homeland. Other tribes have embraced the cause of March 24 Shabab, noting that they contributed many of its young activists. Hundreds of political elites, including the king’s uncle, Prince Hassan, and former Prime Minister Ahmad Obeidat, demanded that the government take responsibility for the violence. Student activists now insist that the mukhabarat, the ever-present General Intelligence Directorate, halt its inference in civil society. And Islamists and secular activists alike are openly discussing the merits of constitutional monarchy by first removing the king’s prerogative of appointing prime ministers — a radical idea unthinkable just years ago.

That the regime has missed the reform boat is bad enough. However, the current crisis also stems from its equally precarious tactic of exploiting social tensions in hopes of fragmenting popular pressure. Government officials have excavated long-standing fears with their East Bank and tribal allies that rapid political change would allow the Palestinian majority to dominate Jordan’s national identity. Similarly, Bakhit incredibly blamed the Islamists for recent disturbances, suggesting that they had been taking orders from Syria. 

Further, just days after lifting security restrictions against public gatherings in mid-February, a move presented as a concession, officials idly watched as pro-government protests began shadowing opposition marches. Over the past month, the rapid countermobilization of loyalist demonstrations across the country has not only made public spaces more contentious — it has destroyed the middle ground. Reformists are portrayed as traitors to Jordan, enemies of the king, and Palestinian to boot — extreme rhetoric that precipitated Friday’s clashes and shows no signs of abating.

In addition, the progressively uncertain domestic security environment reflects official complicity, if not outright manipulation. Activists began complaining about the lack of police protection from knife-wielding, pro-government demonstrators more than a month ago, while the darak riot forces secured their atrocious reputation after Friday. Although Bakhit blamed such acts as failures of errant officers, Obeidat (himself a former GID chief) has countered that given the reach of the mukhabarat, police collaboration with loyalist attacks could not have occurred without government knowledge

This is state repression by other means, which journalists know all too well. Threatening phone calls, complaints that foreign reporters fabricate stories, critical news websites mysteriously hacked — these are recent signs that the regime fears that journalists will stop practicing the self-censorship that has long restrained public debate. It has good reason to worry: When over 200 reporters protested for broader press freedoms in early March, leading the charge were staffers from al-Rai newspaper, the state-owned daily.

The Jordanian regime now faces a crucial juncture. Bloggers and journalists warn of the possibility of civil conflict unless the palace shifts course and negotiates with, rather than patronizes, its critics. However, King Abdullah has only offered another open-ended promise for considering reforms through the National Dialogue Committee, whose remaining members are bitterly arguing whether to take the king’s word seriously anymore. Bakhit seems to be in little danger of losing his job, and parliament has predictably rejected any initiative to review, much less curtail, the crown’s constitutional supremacy. At the same time, pro-government loyalists will assuredly attack opposition groups again, who now have little incentive to moderate their position and put faith in dialogue. The March 24 Shabab have already promised to return to the streets this Friday, heightening social tensions. If they are assaulted once again, tragedy could ensue.

Here, Barack Obama’s administration can play a vital role in nudging Abdullah toward a constructive solution, one that begins with demobilizing the more rapacious pro-government thugs and ends with a shared reform timetable that includes major opposition forces and explicitly lays out which, how, and when major political changes will occur. Such credible compromises could convince opposition activists to take dialogue seriously and thereafter achieve immediate progress on issues with broad appeal, such as reconfiguring the Elections Law and reducing state corruption, before tackling thornier issues like the constitutional scope of parliamentary authority. 

Washington has both the leverage and interests to make that push. Jordan remains one of the most voracious consumers of American economic and military aid in the world. Key policy principals have visited Amman several times in the past two months; Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s brief visit last week coincidentally overlapped with Friday’s violence. Moreover, given that few policymakers would enjoy watching revolutionary paralysis unfold on Israel’s strategic East flank, there is universal consensus that the Hashemite Kingdom must remain stable. The next step is realizing that such stability will now only come with meaningful democratic reforms.

Sean L. Yom is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University.

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