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The Middle East Channel
Jordan is not about to collapse
If one is to believe what’s in the papers, it’s a bad year for Jordan. It’s got a violent civil war going on in its northern neighbor, which has sent more than 100,000 refugees fleeing over the border, and constantly threatens more spillover. Internally, it’s facing a massive budget crisis, and its two-year-old, Arab Spring-inspired ...
If one is to believe what’s in the papers, it’s a bad year for Jordan. It’s got a violent civil war going on in its northern neighbor, which has sent more than 100,000 refugees fleeing over the border, and constantly threatens more spillover. Internally, it’s facing a massive budget crisis, and its two-year-old, Arab Spring-inspired political protest movement just won’t seem to go away.
In the past few months, I’ve read a dozen or more news articles and think tank reports that claim, with greater or lesser degrees of hysteria, that Jordan is finished. If King Abdullah II does not bow to the will of the protesters in the streets, and implement reforms that are less cosmetic than those of the past two years, it’s all over. The regime will fall, the country will be destabilized and either "collapse" or "explode," or be taken over by Jihadi Islamist Fanatics, the Muslim Brotherhood, or people from a scary alternate universe in which the Muslim Brotherhood are Jihadi Islamist Fanatics.
Certainly, this week’s widespread and fairly aggressive protests over fuel-price hikes are worrisome, and not a good sign for Jordan, or the regime. But, to callously equate life to sci-fi TV: all of this has happened before, and all of this will very likely happen again. Seen from within, Jordan seems extremely unlikely to fall, explode, crumble, or collapse. It is not Somalia, or Yemen: it is a middle-income country with substantial state legitimacy, large bureaucratic institutions, and a strong military apparatus. Such countries do not crumble like sand castles when a wave hits. Negative development is possible, but it takes time – -and usually a lot of waves. Nor is it Iraq, Syria, or Yemen, where the state has spent years establishing massive, coercive violence as a social norm. Jordan is unique, and actually has a lot going for it.
Jordanian Advantage #1: Bureaucracy. The kingdom’s vast apparatus of state institutions may be unpopular at the moment, but that very unpopularity is a sign that it is legitimate. People are, for better or for worse, invested in it functioning. Jordanians interact with the state regularly and extensively; they depend on the government for jobs, for education, for medical care, for subsidized goods, for roads and street cleaning, electricity and municipal water, and all sorts of other things.
Perhaps the most important of those services is education. Jordan is a country with vast economic aspirations, which has spent a decade trying to catapult itself into first-world status. The educational system has quality issues that have stymied that aspiration, but the state has been very successful at making sure everyone goes at least to grade school. Not only is primary education valued and seen as a gateway to a better life, but it also exposes nearly every citizen in a fairly aggressive national identity-building project. The point is, Jordanians have lots of positive interactions with their government, which leads directly to Advantage #2: Decent Policing.
The Jordanians’ police show up to record car accidents. They investigate petty crimes, arrest drug dealers, and on balance deliver more security than violence. Sure, they are resented in many poor and marginalized communities, including in urban Palestinian camps and rural tribal enclaves — but they are not wildly unpopular. One big factor is that the police are not the sharp end of a state repression project. Jordan can be described as authoritarian, but it has never relied on the kind of omnipresent state violence that characterized Iraq, Syria, Libya, or even Egypt. There are reports of dissidents being beaten and abused in Jordanian prisons, but they are a far cry from the widespread detentions, torture, and "disappearances" in which other Arab regimes have indulged. Jordan’s security state prefers to act through intimidation and subtle coercion, or buying loyalty with patronage and handouts.
Jordanian Advantage #3: An Organized Opposition. Perhaps mirroring the state’s preference for soft security, Jordan’s major opposition political actors are determinedly nonviolent. In early October, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing organized a huge protest: organizers hoped for 50,000 participants. Regime loyalists had planned a counter-protest at the same location, and the conventional wisdom was that the country was going to explode right there. Instead, the state asked the counter-protesters to cancel their march, the organizers complied, and the Muslim Brotherhood proceeded with a protest so non-threatening it bordered on soporific.
Everything from slogans to marching formation was relentlessly organized, and very safe. Participants stood in neat lines, while organizers walked among them making sure they stood several feet apart, so the group looked bigger. On every flank of the protesters were groups of women in hijab and abaya: anyone who tried to start a confrontation, police or counter-protesters or thugs, would find themselves facing off against mothers, children, and grannies. The young male protesters were kept in the center, away from provocation. They mingled with families, painted faces, and filmed things on their cellphones; nowhere was there even a whiff of #MuslimRage.
In a recent interview, one of the leaders of the Brotherhood’s political party, Nimer Al-Assaf, said that state security had actually been trying to provoke the protest movement into acts of violence, and protesters had to be very clear that they were not going to take the bait. Which leads to Advantage #4: Security. Jordan has been peaceful and stable long enough to get used to the idea, and while people want more freedom, it is unlikely that large numbers will accept security disruptions to get it. Remember the example of Osama Bin Laden, who had approval ratings between 50 and 60 percent among Jordanians, until al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate set off three human-carried suicide bombs in the capital, and Bin Laden’s popularity plummeted. Any protest movement that seriously appears to endanger public security would risk immediate irrelevance and backlash. (Even during today’s relatively standard austerity-protest riots, featuring tear gas and stone throwing, there were signs the political movements were distancing themselves from the violence rather than doubling down.)
The list just goes on: Jordan has a large and very competent army, which is pretty capable of handling external threats and serious internal unrest. It has strong international relationships. Maybe monarchy itself is an advantage. Or not. For the kingdom to "collapse" in the short term would require a massive, debilitating blow to a whole host of civil and state institutions. Surely, such a thing is not impossible, but looking at specifics it is very, very difficult to imagine a scenario short of asteroid impact that would do it.
People who predict a Jordanian collapse usually do so in generalities, perhaps because trying to figure out how it would happen, day-by-day, raises such a large number of alternatives. Let’s look at a few.
Scenario #1: Violent spillover from Syria. This is often raised as something that could destabilize Jordan — but to do so, the violence would have to be so extensive that Jordan’s Armed Forces would be incapable of containing it. I doubt Syria could manage that with much less than a full-on invasion. In such an unlikely and extreme case, it is then impossible to imagine that Jordan’s allies, including the United States and Saudi Arabia, would not send tanks, advisors, and money to shore up the walls. Also, refer to advantage #4: any external stress seems more likely to cause Jordanians to rally ’round the flag than to divide and start fighting. Some analysts have worried about Syria’s sectarian civil war getting regionalized — and in Iraq and Lebanon this seems to be happening. But Jordan’s communal divisions, which center around national identity, and the competition between East Bank Jordanians and Jordanian Palestinians, are completely different from Syria’s; the sectarian war there would have trouble taking hold in entirely Sunni Jordan.
Scenario #2: Economic Collapse. Jordan’s bloated budget is a serious worry — the kingdom needs cash — and drawing down subsidies on fuel is tremendously unpopular, as demonstrated in the last two days. Government largesse will have to diminish, or the country could face broader economic problems, but lowering salaries or eliminating government jobs will swell the ranks of the discontented. However, the regime has developed ways of serving up bitter pills: trying out price increases and then rolling them back when the popular pressure is too much, sacrificing governments to appease popular discontent. Jordan has rolled back subsidies before, and survived.
But imagine that this time the tricks don’t work and the protests just won’t die off — Jordan’s government could wind up with its back to the fiscal cliff. But if maintaining deficit spending a bit longer is what it takes to prevent a protest surge, the kingdom’s foreign allies offer it a large credit line. The United States and the Gulf monarchies do not want to be cast as long-term backers of Jordan’s welfare state, but they have too much invested in Jordan to risk letting it sail off the edge. If an economic reckoning day does come, there will be a loan from somewhere that lets Jordan keep the lights on for another month, or another quarter — long enough to find a solution, or at least a delaying tactic.
Scenario #3: Jordan’s protest movement "blows up." It’s true that the vehemence of this week’s demonstrations has been worrying. But it’s still hard to picture them getting out of hand in a way that could lead to state collapse. Particularly with Jordan’s population still divided over the protest movement’s validity, demonstrations that embrace violence or call for the downfall of the regime are more likely to be self-delegitimizing than inflammatory. It’s entirely believable that the state can simply continue with its time-tested tactic of rounding up the most extreme, sweating them in jail for a while, and sending them home with a reminder that getting too radical isn’t good for their job prospects, or their children’s education.
Yes, but couldn’t some incident send the whole thing spiraling out of hand? Possibly, but it’s highly unlikely there will be an incident severe enough to do so. Recall: the Syrian protests got out of hand when the regime tortured a group of teenagers in Daraa.* Now remember Advantage #2: Jordan’s government is autocratic, not psychotic, and smart enough to learn from its neighbors’ mistakes. The idea of the Jordanian security services torturing children or opening fire on protesters is, I believe, genuinely unthinkable.
Of course, there are spoilers on many sides: individuals or ungoverned groups that might do something beyond the pale. And the most vehement protest rhetoric at the moment is coming out of semi-rural, tribal East-Banker communities. It’s possible that a protest in the town of Tafileh could get out of control in a way that a Brotherhood-organized protest in Amman simply wouldn’t. But the Jordanian government has decades of experience resolving tribal disputes. Every year, at least, some Jordanian city will see destructive clashes between rival tribes or, more spectacularly, between tribes and the police. Yet these outbreaks are always swiftly resolved: after a day or two of burning tires in the street, the government brings in high ranking tribal figures, even members of the royal family, and brokers a truce over cups of Arabic coffee. The lesson to take from this is not that Jordan is a violent place, but that Jordan has both state and non-state institutions that are very, very experienced at mediating and defusing violence when it happens.
In a last resort, Jordan’s military would impose martial law, as it has done successfully in previous crises. That, too, might stir more popular resentment than in the past — but enough of the community would back it that defying it would be costly.
I could go on like this, but perhaps that’s enough. I would be fascinated to see anyone lay out, point-by-point and event-by-event, the trajectory that they believe could lead Jordan to a major state collapse or significant regime change. But I can’t imagine one. Or perhaps I will be wrong — in which case I will get to see firsthand.
None of this is to say that there are easy solutions to Jordan’s problems. There are plenty of bad outcomes that do not equal collapse. I have no trouble imagining Jordan limping on as-is more or less indefinitely, with an economy lurching from one fiscal crisis to the next; a crippled, puppet government acting as little more than a foil for the palace; and an angry opposition movement, its fortunes waxing and waning in the streets, but lacking the leverage to force reforms on the state without alienating the street. All to the accompaniment of a long series of security "incidents" and distraction tactics, of soft repression alternating with cosmetic reform and bogus perestroika. We do not like to think about scenarios like these; they do not feel like "outcomes." But they seem much more likely than clear and cataclysmic resolutions.
No, it can’t go on forever. Enough living like this would slowly erode all those nice advantages. Jordanians would have fewer positive interactions with their government, black markets and underground services would replace state ones, and repression would have to get harsher. People would feel less secure, and be less willing to trade away freedom for security. Give Jordan 10, 20 years like that, and perhaps it will truly be ready to fall. But not today. By denying the people’s desire for reform, the regime may be selling off Jordan’s future as the economically thriving, developed nation it would like to be — but not critically endangering its present.
Nicholas Seeley is a freelance journalist who has lived in Amman, Jordan since 2004.
*Correction — The article initially stated that the three teenagers were killed, however, they were released after their families rioted at their detention. Three were killed in the riots, and the marks of torture on the children were put on YouTube and sparked the revolution.