Roil, Jordan?

By acting fast, King Abdullah II has managed to avoid the turmoil seen elsewhere in the Arab world ... for now. Published in Foreign Policy, 28 February 2011

AMMAN, Jordan — On Feb. 18, as dozens of protesters were killed by Libya’s security forces in the first stirrings of that country’s uprising, as thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets for the funeral of demonstrators killed a day earlier, and as police in Yemen used tear gas to disperse a "day of rage" in Sanaa, the largely stable Jordan also appeared to be witnessing at least a few moments of rage. On the streets of Amman, a gang of pro-government supporters attacked protesters who had gathered after prayers at the capital’s central Husseini mosque. Eight people were reportedly injured before the police intervened to break it up. At least two people were later arrested.

The street fight was the first outbreak of any violence this year in Jordan, where a peaceful protest has become a regular feature of Fridays in the capital since early January. But Jordan’s King Abdullah II has, so far, managed to avoid the level of opposition seen elsewhere in the region. Most people here still respect the institution of the monarchy. "I think 95 percent of the people are in favor of the king," one local tells me while walking along the waterfront in Aqaba, a resort city on Jordan’s short coast.

Still, a key lesson from the events in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and elsewhere is that regime-shaking protest movements can appear almost overnight. If the cataclysmic elements of government overthrow don’t appear to be present in what is still a largely content population, some early fissures are nonetheless visible.

Jordan has never had a strong opposition, though many here admit that the king’s support may be somewhat overstated.

"I am sure there are republicans in this country. It would be difficult to assume we are all monarchists," says Nawaf Tell, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, one of the country’s leading think tanks. "I am not aware of any anti-regime forces. I am sure there are individuals against the Hashemite monarchy, but there is definitely no group."

The closest thing to a genuine opposition movement has been the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), is the country’s largest and best-organized political party. For now the Brotherhood appears willing to work within the system, and there have been no explicit calls for the monarchy to be overthrown.

Yet Jordan shares many important similarities with the countries where regimes are wobbling or have already toppled. Complaints about the prevalence of corruption, the lack of jobs, and the curtailing of basic political freedoms are common themes in Amman, as they have been in Tunis, Cairo, and Tripoli. Economic growth has halved from 7.6 percent in 2008 to 3.4 percent last year, and unemployment is officially 13 percent, but unofficially as high as 30 percent. Urban Jordanians, a majority of the population, complain they are vastly underrepresented in parliament. Freedom of speech is also suppressed, particularly when it comes to the position of the monarchy, the peace treaty with Israel, or the position of Palestinians in Jordanian society.

All this means the monarchy cannot rely on respect for the institution alone — it also has to try toaddress the grievances of its citizens. "The potential [for more social or political unrest in Jordan] is there; the grievances are there," says Ralf Erbel, who heads the local office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty, a German organization promoting individual liberty and free markets. "The economic situation is not satisfying."

So far the authorities have succeeded in meeting at least some aspirations for change. The Husseini mosque protesters’ demands have included the dismissal of the government and greater subsidies to reduce food and fuel costs. In response, Prime Minister Samir Rifai unveiled a package of subsidies and public-sector pay rises worth $423 million a year on Jan. 20, but he was still sacked by King Abdullah II on Feb. 1. In his place, King Abdullah appointed a new prime minister — Marouf al-Bakhit — and asked him to accelerate the political and economic reforms.

Since the appointment of Bakhit’s government on Feb. 9, a number of planned reforms have been announced, with the promise of more to come.

Among the new government’s proposals are giving teachers the right to form a professional association — a long-standing demand that had been resisted by authorities who claimed it would be unconstitutional to allow public sector employees to have their own regulatory body. The government has also agreed to lift the ban on access to some websites from government offices and end a stipulation that groups must obtain official permission before holding a demonstration, changing the requirement to previous notification instead. Of these, only the removal of the website block has gone ahead so far, but the fact that the government appears serious about the other measures has helped take the sting out of the opposition movement.

The economic complaints are proving harder to address. Jordan, hit hard by the rising price of imported commodities and fuel, has little fiscal room to maneuver. The government has promised to keep fuel prices steady and vowed to take tougher action against corruption, but there is little it can do to create jobs quickly. From today’s perspective, these economic issues look far more dangerous for the regime than the political ones.

The new government is also due to draw up a fresh election law, less than 12 months after the last attempt to reform the country’s deeply flawed electoral system. Local political analysts and businessmen alike complain that the existing election law encourages tribal and clan considerations to dominate the electoral process, making it all but impossible for parties with national policy platforms to emerge. The IAF is arguably the country’s only really credible one.

The institutionalized conservatism of a system in which tribal loyalties are to the fore helps bolster the position of the monarchy, but if stronger political parties materialize, then the balance would likely shift. If the new reforms achieve what the previous effort didn’t and manage to encourage the emergence of mature political parties, it could presage even greater change in the kingdom’s political scene. There are many possible beneficiaries, including the IAF, but new secular parties could also emerge. The most likely loser would be the monarchy, which could find its power and influence challenged more easily in a culture of vibrant policy debates.

The king says he wants to see genuine opposition parties emerge and also insists that he wants the pace of reform to accelerate. In a speech on Feb. 20, he told members of the government, parliament, and the judiciary, "Through your cooperation, we will move forward and proceed with comprehensive reform … And when I say reform, I want real and quick reform. … I want quick results. When I talk about political reform, I want real reform consistent with the spirit of the age."

The king does not have a strong history as a reformer, however. The fault of passivity to date lies less with successive unwilling parliaments and far more with the king himself, given the overwhelming amount of power he holds. Plans such as the National Agenda, which was published in 2006 and proposed sweeping reforms to life in the country, have been quietly sidelined.

And the reform agenda that the king now insists he is committed to has been largely forced on him by the dramatic changes in neighboring Egypt and across the Middle East. Those looking for democratic reforms coming from the king can’t have been encouraged by the royal court’s response to a story by Agence France-Presse’s longtime Amman correspondent, Randa Habib, in early February. Her article quoted a statement from 36 tribal leaders that openly criticized Queen Rania, alleging her family was involved in corrupt land deals and she had been involved in securing Jordanian citizenship for tens of thousands of Palestinians. The latter is a particularly sensitive issue in Jordan, due to the tensions between Jordanians originally from the east bank of the Jordan River and those of Palestinian origin. Similar stories have appeared in the past in foreign media outlets, but this time the Royal Court issued a statement, which was carried by the local press, angrily condemning the AFP story.

"That was a fiasco. They shouldn’t have responded," says Tell. "It was a mistake on those people to claim that they represented all of their tribes and it was a mistake also to say they represent no one. It’s not black and white. Irrespective of that, the royal court should not respond. That reaction shows panic."

Abdullah deserves some credit for quickly adapting to the new political reality in the region. But even if he manages to retain control of the domestic reform agenda, further external influences could yet easily undermine his position.

If the reform program that Jordan has tentatively embarked on fails to meet the aspirations of its people, it’s quite possible that far more people could take to the streets. Just as important, however, is the democratic transition in Cairo, which Abdullah is no doubt watching closely.

"If the developments in Egypt result in a democratic, prosperous, liberal society — this will be an incredibly attractive force, and Egypt will regain its long lost political and cultural leadership role in the Arab world," says Erbel. "If that happens, millions of people all over the region will look towards Egypt and ask for similar rights. But the opposite also holds true: If Egypt degenerates into street violence, chronic instability, and economic crisis, then this will likely have the effect of discouraging people from rebelling against state authority."

One thing, however, is clear: This year has shown the region’s leaders just how quickly absolute control can dissolve into absolute chaos. That’s as true of Jordan as of anywhere.