The Middle East Channel

Jordan’s fictional reforms

Compared to recent dramatic events — Qaddafi’s demise in Libya, Tunisia’s groundbreaking elections, the Coptic killings in Egypt — Jordan’s latest cabinet shuffle barely registered as a news blip. Indeed, King Abdullah’s dismissal of wildly unpopular Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit had been expected as early as this summer. Still, many analysts greeted new Premier Awn ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Compared to recent dramatic events — Qaddafi’s demise in Libya, Tunisia’s groundbreaking elections, the Coptic killings in Egypt — Jordan’s latest cabinet shuffle barely registered as a news blip. Indeed, King Abdullah’s dismissal of wildly unpopular Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit had been expected as early as this summer. Still, many analysts greeted new Premier Awn Khasawneh with hope and anticipation. In a country that has simmered with growing unrest, the appointment of a new government explicitly charged with rejuvenating a moribund political reform process may represent a decisive royal concession. As opposition protests enter their eleventh month, perhaps the monarchy has realized that democratization can wait no longer.

Such an appraisal is admirably optimistic, but it is a convenient fiction produced for Western consumption. Scryers of Jordan must look beyond any given cabinet to understand that although the Hashemite palace trumpets the cause of democracy, its goal during the Arab Spring has been to preserve autocratic supremacy. A transition to constitutional monarchy exists more as fantasy in the minds of liberals than a goal supported by the palace. Yet that is the logical endgame of Jordanian democratization: a near-absolute monarchy devolving power to a fairly elected parliament, alongside a General Intelligence Directorate that no longer interferes in public life.

Despite the heroic assumptions of reformists expecting progress toward such transformation, Khasawneh’s new government is designed to fail. Why? It is not simply that Khasawneh’s task is Herculean. (Starting off by promising no more rigged elections, given that every past election was declared free and fair, does not inspire much confidence.) Rather, in Jordan cabinet changes are signals rather than causes of major policy shifts. While prime ministers have always been executors of royal imperatives, since the political opening of 1989 they have become part of a new system of cyclical management. Premiers are appointed with impossible jobs because they are expected to stumble — and popular cabinets do not get sacked. When their inability to deliver generates an inevitable crisis of public confidence, the king ritualistically intervenes.

Such essential reboots allow the palace to maintain its fictive distance from the political fray by sympathizing with (and, in theory, defusing) popular frustration, while promoting another loyal retainer into the top spot. Parliament ironically lubricates this cycle because the imbalanced electoral system favors independent MP’s who, bound by no party, raucously echo their constituents’ displeasure because it wins votes. The historical record exposes the dispensability of cabinets: this is the 61st premiership since the 1950s, and the ninth government since Abdullah’s 1999 ascension. Either Jordanian prime ministers are all incompetent, or else cabinet stability — the institutional foundation for any sustained policy change — is not the goal.

Analysts should thus use the latest session of the musical chairs game to consider the direction of royal strategy. It starts with the logic of selection. During his half-century of rule, King Hussein placed trust in a small coterie of East Bank advisors and loyalists. They often rotated between the official cabinet and royal court (a parallel government of sorts), and many served as prime minister multiple times given the King’s confidence in their skill. By contrast, King Abdullah’s strategy has been to experiment more diversely, plucking out new political talent from a broader network of clients. At times this backfired. For instance, conservative tribal supporters still bitterly recall the King’s early endorsement of Bassem Awadallah, a Palestinian technocrat who gained unparalleled authority and prominence — it was their ferocious criticism that eventually forced his resignation from the royal court in 2008.

However, such eclecticism now makes sense now in a context of weekly protests and social tension. With his quiet credentials as an international jurist, Khasawneh lacks domestic experience and political baggage — the former would have kept him unknown under Hussein, but the latter makes him Abdullah’s newest superstar. He will pursue whatever limited reforms the palace suggests, such as the recently ratified constitutional amendments and tepid changes to the elections and political parties laws. Thus, he is the ideal successor to Bakhit, who was the only prime minister to serve twice under Abdullah but whose reputation had been irrevocably decimated by scandals — e.g., the Casino-Gate corruption hearings, tribal agitations that forced the postponement of municipal elections, and violent attacks against opposition demonstrations.

Given the inevitable collapse of this government, the changeover’s real benefit has been to give the palace time to regroup. The sheer volume of public discontent floored royal insiders this year, and they will use the next several months to rebuild relations with opposition forces. For example, the Islamists were offered several posts in the new government, and have been encouraged to reenter the political scene after they boycotted the last general elections. Khasawneh met with the professional syndicates and to their approval pledged to improve relations with Hamas. Urban youth activists disgusted with their brutal treatment by riot police and anonymous thugs received invitations to royal summits and other high-level gestures.

Notably, what surprised the regime was that many of those youth activists, such as the March 24 Shabab, were not Palestinian but rather hailed from tribal backgrounds. That hostility from East Bankers has grown immensely significant. After all, the Jordanian "street" does not threaten the monarchy when it encompasses the Muslim Brotherhood, professional associations, and leftist parties — predictable actors easily contained through targeted repression and legal constriction. Existential danger instead emerges when dissent emanates from the very social forces that staff the state, man the army, and operate the mukhabarat (GID).

That danger has become tangible in recent years, as prominent regime veterans and disaffected tribal communities have loudly complained about the status quo. They are neither traditional opposition nor lockstep liberals. They occasionally march with Islamists, manipulate the Palestinian issue to benefit their cause, and often focus on material demands like halting economic privatization. Yet like other Jordanians, they are furious about corruption, frustrated with economic stagnation, and disappointed with Abdullah’s reign. Towns like Tafileh have witnessed repeated protests, and East Bank activists have spearheaded the creation of new opposition fronts. Most of all, public disparagement of the monarchy has become startlingly brazen, far more so than in 1989. Much as condemnation of Queen Rania broke a major taboo last year, reports of tribal gatherings openly criticizing both king and crown have become common.

However, the regime’s old method of preserving East Banker support — sacrificing its fiscal health to maintain the institutions that employ them and the welfare that assists them — is invoking untenable costs. The absurd sacking of Central Bank Governor Faris Sharaf is a case in point. Among other reasons, his insistence on fiscal austerity threatened the price subsidies, public salary increases, and other grant programs promised this past year. Only Saudi aid grants have prevented the budget deficit from swelling further, but such expectations are unsustainable given the king’s acknowledgement that living conditions precede democracy. Simply put, the regime lacks the financial resources to continue its lavish public spending spree.

Politically, the new opposition is using the Sharaf controversy to decry the overreach of the regime’s security apparatus. In doing so, they have highlighted an uncomfortable fact: that the monarchy is either unwilling or unable to downsize the mukhabarat’s interference in political affairs. Western analysts often assume the palace and mukhabarat are inseparable, but this is not always true. Both institutions seek to preserve authoritarian order, but over the past year the latter has exhibited an independent resistance to even half-hearted reforms that surprised the King himself. Not coincidentally, Khasawneh’s installment as prime minister coincided with the appointment of a new GID director, General Feisal Shobaki, alongside a royal promise to review the agency’s role.

For the Jordanian monarchy, maintaining stability depends on whether it can demobilize East Bank dissent while checking traditional opposition forces. It must accomplish these goals by foreclosing genuine democratic reforms, which would endanger its capacity to command the social policies central to its survival. Herein lays the current paradox of Jordanian politics: the monarchy shall succeed when its government fails.

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

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