Misguided Analysis and the Reality of Jordanian Politics

Photo Credit: The Platform

By Rachel Bessette, Columnist

A raid by Jordanian Special Forces on suspected ISIS militants in Irbid on March 2nd reinvigorated debate on Jordan’s anomalous stability in a region marred by conflict.[i] All the classic warning signs for instability are there—Jordanian youth unemployment is at nearly 30% according to the World Bank, 750,000 Syrian refugees have entered the country since 2011, and over 2,000 Jordanians have gone to Syria to fight with ISIS.[ii] Commentators can generally be placed into one of two camps based on how they interpret these statistics and what they mean for Jordan’s future. The first is the ‘Jordan on the brink’ camp, which predicts impending doom and forthcoming instability based on these indicators. The opposing camp optimistically credits “Jordan’s moderate, nonideological, and revolution-adverse political culture” and the effectiveness of limited political reform as bulwarks against the threat of regional instability.[iii] Both of these arguments, however, rest on mutually flawed assumptions. The ‘Jordan on the brink camp’ assumes that the most severe threat to the Jordanian monarchy stems from radical Islam and the potential for extremism stemming from increasingly disaffected Jordanian youth. The counter-argument to this relies on the familiar trope of East Bank Jordanians as the bedrock of regime support that privileges al-amn wa al-istiqrar, or ‘security and stability,’ above all else.

While these arguments are valid in many ways, both ignore the nuance of Jordanian politics in favor of using ‘one size fits all’ analytical frames that gained currency following the Arab Spring, namely youth marginalization, political Islam, and strong ethnically cohesive regimes and security apparatuses. In reality, while religious extremism is undoubtedly a problem in Jordan, the threat is vastly overblown. The link between Jordan’s faltering economy and youth radicalization is weak, with most foreign fighters citing ideological over economic motivations.[iv] The robust Jordanian security apparatus has also repeatedly proven its competence in countering such threats. Likewise, too much credence is given to arguments regarding loyalty and pacifism among East Bank Jordanians, the monarchy’s traditional base of support. Massive refugee inflows and the unravelling of Syria and Iraq, rather than inherent political apathy, are the most powerful deterrents against opposition activity. In fact, beginning in the 2000s, the monarchy faced mounting criticism from tribal East Bank Jordanians, the regime’s previously stalwart supporters.

Through a decade of opposition, marginalized East Bank Jordanians broke down barriers to political protest and had begun to erode long-standing inter-communal divides in the pursuit of dignity and social justice

Analyzing the development of this protest movement and the significant changes it engendered in the Jordanian political landscape paints a very different future for the kingdom. It will not be radical Islam that determines the fate of the Jordanian monarchy, but how it responds to the erosion of barriers to protests and the fracturing of the base by which it has been sustained.

Among the lesser of the Arab Spring protests, the 2011 Hirak protests in Jordan were lumped into the prevailing description of the times: repressed Islamists and tech-savvy disaffected youth demanding their rights. The Jordanian monarchy was classified as a one of the ‘smart regimes’ that avoided large-scale crackdowns and successfully leveraged limited political reforms to survive. This account of the 2011 protests is an especially easy sell given the dominant narrative of Jordan’s burgeoning youth population and the history of the Muslim Brotherhood as the country’s main opposition party and historical representative of politically marginalized Palestinian Jordanians. While much of this narrative is true, viewing Hirak through this lens obscures the fact that the protests’ real roots were in an opposition movement begun in response to accelerated neoliberal reforms and perceptions of political marginalization after King Abdullah’s ascent to the throne in 1999.

IMF-mandated reforms began under King Hussein in 1989. Austerity measures provoked riots in East Bank tribal areas, such as Ma’an, al-Karak and Tafileh, where over 90% of the employed labor force worked in the public sector.[v] King Hussein succeeded in quelling discontent through a combination of parliamentary elections heavily weighted in favour of East Bank Jordanians and continued political patronage.[vi] While this ensured that East Bank opposition remained splintered and ineffectual, protests sowed the seeds for the re-emergence of opposition under King Abdullah.

When King Abdullah came to power in 1999, he broke from his father’s tradition of relying on a small cadre of trusted East Bank Jordanian advisors, expanding his governing coalition to include many Jordanians of Palestinian origins. This ran afoul of the monarchy’s traditional bedrock of support, known as the ‘old guard,’ who saw Abdullah as abandoning the regime’s base in favor of Palestinian-Jordanian economic elites close to his wife, Queen Rania, and her family, who are of Palestinian roots.[vii] East Bank opposition coalesced around several of these figures, most notably Bassem Awadallah, who oversaw the privatization of several state owned companies and the sale of military assets.[viii]

The retrenchment process Awadallah spearheaded hit rural East Bankers the hardest, leaving many unemployed or underemployed as a result of cuts in public sector spending.[ix] The accompanying trimming of the military, a large source of East Bank employment, led East Bank pensioners to form the National Committee for Retired Servicemen (NCRS) in 2001 in response to planned cuts in the provision of social services to military personnel.[x] The formation of the NCRS was paralleled by an emerging trend of activism and opposition to neoliberalism in tribal areas, which united in the first public demonstrations in 2006, when rural day wage laborers staged a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Agriculture in Amman and port workers in Aqaba began to hold regular demonstrations.[xi]

The 2007 through 2008 financial crisis further galvanized opposition against reforms among East Bankers, who were again hit the hardest. Port workers in Aqaba escalated protests, gaining significant concessions after prevailing in an unprecedented confrontation with the Darak, or Gendarmie.[xii] The success of Aqaba port workers contributed enormously to breaking down longstanding barriers to protests in the kingdom and drew national attention to the labor movement. For East Bankers and others feeling increasingly marginalized by the regime, Aqaba port worker’s success represented the first time that Jordanian laborers challenged neoliberal policies and won. This inspired other protesters to take to the streets, including a coalition of 105,000 Palestinian-Jordanian and East Bank Jordanian schoolteachers, and led East Bank laborers and the NCRS to begin to join forces.[xiii] The NCRS issued its first three ideological manifestos in 2010, attacking the monarchy, demanding higher wages and pensions, critiquing neoliberal reforms, and demanding the constitutional acknowledgement of Jordan’s 1988 disengagement from the West Bank.[xiv]

The NCRS’s 2010 ideological manifestos and the 2009 Aqaba port protests enabled groups across Jordan with shared grievances to connect, bringing together NCRS members with teachers unions and Jayeen, a coalition of Palestinian-Jordanian leftist activists and day wage laborers. Members of these groups held their first joint protests on January 24, 2011 after two weeks of ongoing workers protests led by Jayeen in East Bank governorates.[xv]

By March, other groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and individual youth activists, had joined the protests, obscuring their roots and effectively situating Hirak within prevailing narratives of marginalized youth, radical Islam, and an unbridgeable chasm between East Bank Jordanians and Palestinians.[xvi]

The resulting portrayal of the opposition in 2011 as radical Islamist Palestinians combined with the unfolding revolution in Syria went a long way in handicapping initially cross-cutting opposition and preventing the emergence of a truly national movement. Yet, while protests in Amman’s central duwaar dakhliyah largely petered out by April, continuing opposition in the governorates underscores the seismic shifts that the build-up and movement of Hirak engendered.

Outside of the capital, protests in the governorates actually increased in both number and intensity through 2011 and 2012. Demonstrators attacked King Abdullah’s motorcade with stones in Tafileh and discussions of replacing Abdullah with his brother Hamza were held with increasing openness.[xvii] Massive protests known as Hibbat Tishreen, or ‘The November Uprising,’ broke out again in Amman in November 2012 over a decision to raise fuel prices.[xviii] By this time, however, Hirak had spun out of the control of the NCRS, Jayeen, and the unions. Lack of organization and the onset of conflict in Syria effectively put an end to most domestic political opposition. The specter of state failure and civil war is an undoubtedly powerful incentive to embrace the status quo.

This does not, however, negate the importance of Hirak and the more than five years of protest and activism that laid the groundwork for its emergence. The story of Hirak and protests that preceded it is far from clear-cut. It is not a story of a unified opposition taking on an oppressive regime, but rather one of different disparate groups with unique histories and demands brought together by overriding sentiments of injustice and the desire to redefine their nation and their role within it. None of these groups fit neatly into prevailing analytical tropes of radical Islam, youth marginalization, and East Bank Jordanians as stalwart regime supporters; however, their significance for the monarchy’s future cannot be overlooked.

Beginning in the 2000s, marginalized East Bank Jordanians shattered barriers to political protest and by 2011 had begun to break down long-standing inter-communal divides in the pursuit of dignity and social justice. While the monarchy has since succeeded in ameliorating some of these groups’ grievances through patronage and ad-hoc reforms, such policies may not suffice in the long-term. In the absence of some level of genuine self-reckoning, the real threat the Jordanian regime faces will not emerge from the burden of Syrian refugees, ISIS attacks, or the radicalization of marginalized youth. Rather, the real challenge will emerge from confronting a society feeling the effects of decades of neoliberal reforms on a new playing field, in which the monarchy’s traditional base of support is shaky, boundaries for political protest have been dramatically eroded, and the threshold for public resistance has soared.

This is not to say that the Jordanian monarchy is in any near and present danger. Events in Syria and throughout the region went a long way in rendering opposition fractured and ineffectual and it may very well remain so. Yet in the event that the day comes again when frustration trumps fear, we should be loath to overlook the fact that the groundwork has been laid for a genuine shake-up in the kingdom.

[i] Al-Khalidi, Suleiman. “Jordan Says Foils Islamic State Plot to Attack Civilian, Military Targets.” Reuters. 2016. Accessed March 19, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-jordan-militants-idUSKCN0W40QA.

[ii] “Unemployment, Youth Total (% of Total Labor Force Ages 15-24) (modeled ILO Estimate).” World Bank. Accessed March 19, 2016. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.UEM.1524.ZS.; “2015 UNHCR Country Operations Profile – Jordan.” UNHCR. Accessed March 19, 2016. http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e486566.html.

[iii] “Political Instability in Jordan.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed March 19, 2016. http://www.cfr.org/jordan/political-instability-jordan/p30698.; Magid, Aaron. “ISIS Meets Its Match?” Foreign Affairs. February 17, 2016. Accessed March 19, 2016. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/jordan/2016-02-17/isis-meets-its-match.

[iv] Mercy Corps. From Jordan to Jihad. Report. https://www.mercycorps.org/research-resources/jordan-jihad-lure-syrias-violent-extremist-groups.

[v] Tell, Tariq. “Early Spring in Jordan: The Revolt of the Military Veterans.” Carnegie Middle East Center. Accessed March 19, 2016. http://carnegie-mec.org/2015/11/04/early-spring-in-jordan-revolt-of-military-veterans/iigv.

[vi] Massad, Joseph Andoni. Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

[vii] Saafin, Mahdi. “Research Interview.” Interview by author. July 29, 2015.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Al-Fazaa, Ali. “Research Interview.” Telephone interview by author. March 18, 2015.

[x] Tell; Saafin;

[xi] Anonymous. “Research Interview.” Interview by author. February 11, 2015.; Adely, Fida. “The Emergence of a New Labor Movement in Jordan.” Middle East Research and Information Report 42, no. 264 (Fall 2012). http://www.merip.org/mer/mer264/emergence-new-labor-movement-jordan.

[xii] Tell; Anonymous

[xiii] Tell

[xiv] Parker, Christopher, and Pascal Debruyne. Contentious Politics in the Middle East: Popular Resistance and Marginalised Activism beyond the Arab Uprisings. Edited by Fawaz A. Gerges. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

[xv] Anonymous; Saafin; Pascal and Debruyne

[xvi] Saafin; Yom, Sean L. “The New Landscape of Jordanian Politics: Social Opposition, Fiscal Crisis, and the Arab Spring.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 42, no. 3 (2014): 284-300.; Kadoumi, Dina. “Research Interview.” Interview by author. February 27, 2015.

[xvii] Parker and Debruyne

[xviii] Al Hayat. November 28, 2012. Accessed March 25, 2016. http://www.alhayat.com/Details/457166.

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