The Middle East Channel

Identity and corruption in Jordanian politics

Former head of Jordanian intelligence Muhammad Dhahabi was detained this week on charges of money laundering and corruption. He wasn’t the first. In December, former Amman mayor Omar Maani was arrested on corruption charges. Last month, a young pro-democracy activist from Madaba, Ibrahim Braizat, was arrested and then convicted – in the State Security Court ...


Former head of Jordanian intelligence Muhammad Dhahabi was detained this week on charges of money laundering and corruption. He wasn’t the first. In December, former Amman mayor Omar Maani was arrested on corruption charges. Last month, a young pro-democracy activist from Madaba, Ibrahim Braizat, was arrested and then convicted – in the State Security Court — for setting fire to a banner picturing King Abdullah II. Last week, police arrested the always-controversial former Member of Parliament Ahmad Oweidi al-Abbadi, allegedly for suggesting that Jordan should become a republic.

Each of these arrests has generated considerable discussion, and sent signals about where exactly Jordan is on the barometer of the Arab Spring. While the Maani case was greeted by some in Jordan’s reform movement as part of a crackdown on corruption — a key opposition demand — Braizat’s two year sentence was met with serious concern, as the state seemed to have come down unusually harshly for what amounted to minor vandalism. As should be expected from those who follow Jordanian politics, the signals are mixed.

The most surprising arrest may have been Dhahabi, the former head of the General Intelligence Department (GID) who has been a controversial political figure since his departure. His detention came just after reports in local websites that he had paid off a network of journalists while he was head of the mukhabarat. These reports have, understandably, sent the entire Jordanian media community into a whirlwind of speculation. But most Jordanian journalists and media analysts that I have talked to over the last twenty years had long assumed mukhabarat links and infiltration in newspapers and other media. The difference this time was the explicit nature of the charges, and the arrest of such an influential political figure.

The arrests suggest a regime reining in not just corruption, but also dissent. As different as the Dhahabi and Abbadi cases are, both men have been accused by their many detractors of fomenting ethnic identity divisions in the kingdom, by actively pushing for a resurgence of conservative East Jordanian nationalism and tribal identities in the face of perceived Palestinian inroads into the levers of power in Jordan.

Abbadi in particular has long been associated with a kind of chauvinist Jordanian nationalist trend, and can be seen as a more polarizing and even marginal or extreme figure. Dhahabi, however, had been head of one of the country’s centers of power, the mukhabarat, and is suspected of having paid off journalists to bring down the political career of another controversial figure — former Finance Minister Basem Awadallah. East Jordanian nationalists had particularly despised Awadallah, then a close confidante of the king, as the very archetype of a Palestinian technocratic business mogul in a seat of political power.

There is no question that ethnic identity tensions within Jordan have dramatically increased over the last ten years. This is due, in part, to the severe economic hardships, but also to the kingdom’s extreme vulnerability to regional tensions: from Israeli discussions of Jordan as an "alternative homeland" for Palestinians, to war in Iraq and massive Iraqi refugee flows into Jordan (after 2003), and now to fears of complete civil war and even collapse of Syria to the north.

These identity dynamics have been most clear in the strong nativist trend that has emerged to "protect" Jordan for "real Jordanians." This has led to unprecedented levels of criticism of the regime and of the monarchy (including of the king’s Palestinian wife, Queen Rania) for allegedly selling Jordan to a Palestinian economic and now increasingly governmental elite. Tensions have abounded in the largely East Jordanian southern cities and towns, and between and among Jordanian tribes. High profile criticism of the monarchy has emerged from tribal leaders and retired military officers, and the latter have now also formed their own political party.

Recent alarmist accounts of Jordanian politics have indeed picked up on these tensions, but they too often mistake the more polarized views of particular Palestinian and East Jordanian political figures for the views of most Jordanians. Jordan is actually a diverse country, and should not be confused with the ethnic caricatures that both Palestinian and East Jordanian chauvinists use for each other. It is not, in short, a country of tribal bigots and disloyal rich Palestinians. Rather, it is predominantly an Arab state with a significant Circassian minority and predominantly a Muslim country with a large Christian minority. Some have tribal backgrounds, but many do not. And regardless of the exclusivist nativist trend supported by some in Jordanian politics today, all Jordanians actually have ties across one or more of the kingdom’s borders. Not least among these is the Hashemite royal family (a point often made by former crown prince Hassan). As one Jordanian activist put it, "Just a few years ago, talking identity was blasphemous in progressive circles. Now it’s valid. But these are all fabrications. Jordan was a fabrication. All families have roots across borders." While political tensions in Jordan frequently manifest in ethnic, tribal, or identity terms, they are more often than not more deeply about class divisions between rich and poor, and between haves and have-nots. And these cut across ethnic lines.

Still, the violence in Syria has exacerbated these tensions. Even as the regime remains deeply concerned about the implications of the Syrian imbroglio for Jordan’s own security and stability, the kingdom’s broad-based reform movement has splintered in its responses. The large Islamist movement, based in the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Action Front, has called for the ouster of the regime of Bashar al-Assad and broken from many secular left opposition parties who have stood by Damascus. Some of the latter parties, originally allied with the Islamists as part of a broad reform coalition in Jordan, now fear that the Arab uprisings have led only to Islamist empowerment and even charge that there is a new "Islamist-American-Zionist" conspiracy to that effect. As one democracy activist told me last month "there is also a certain sense of waiting for what will happen in Syria. It divided the opposition. Some of the Jordanian opposition backed Bashar, because he and they take an anti-U.S., anti-Israel, and anti-capitalist stance. This includes the old socialist Baathis or Arab left. Their main focus isn’t necessarily pro-democracy, but anti-privatization and Jordanian foreign policy." The same activist noted the contradictions in both leftist and Islamist positions, regarding one another. "The secularists are sometimes so terrified that they end up supporting an authoritarian regime, while the Islamist discourse links secularism and liberalism, as though Ben Ali and Mubarak were liberal." An opposition that was already splintering along ethnic identity lines, in other words, is now dividing ideologically as well.

Yet despite the various ethnic and ideological fault lines in Jordanian politics, pro-reform and pro-democracy demonstrators — from the leftist, nationalist, and Islamist parties and also from non-partisan youth movements across the country — have marched and protested against corruption and for reform almost every Friday for more than a year. The Arab uprisings have certainly helped inspire the reform movement, and have also spurred the regime to push through revisions in the constitution and soon in the electoral laws as well. It has also made moves to combat corruption, and the current government is led by a highly regarded former judge, Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh.

Yet the regime’s moves are still often met with reserve rather than applause, and with suspicion about motivations rather than praise even for anti-corruption moves that the opposition has demanded. Why is this? The answer is that there remains a profound lack of trust within Jordanian politics, and lack of faith in the regime. This does not mean looming revolution or civil war. Indeed, most Jordanians still support the monarchy, and want it to lead the country to genuine reform.

But the depth of suspicion and lack of faith is apparent in virtually every government move. Does reform really mean reform, or is it more of the cosmetic changes Jordanians have become accustomed to? Are arrests for corruption really arrests for corruption, or signs of political moves against opponents? For Jordanian royalists, these types of questions are maddening. The regime, they argue, can’t seem to get any credit no matter what it does. But the lack of faith has, unfortunately, been well earned, and activists interested in genuine political and economic change are no longer interested in promises and plans, but await only actual and demonstrable reform in practice. As usual, there are both promising and alarming signs, and so…they are still left waiting.

Curtis R. Ryan is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.