September 5, 2012
by Avi Melamed
The Hashemite kingdom of Jordan is experiencing growing unrest.
Jordan is grappling with many challenges – just some of which are: a growing external debt; an unbalanced budget which is threatening to bankrupt the country’s fragile economy; a high unemployment rate; growing inflation; a severe shortage of fresh water; constant electric blackouts and brownouts; a disintegration of public order; and growing feelings of insecurity among the population.
At the same time, Jordanians are also focused on two additional issues: the exposure of what seems to be deep corruption among politicians, civil servants and people who are part of the monarchy’s inner circle – specifically the Queen; and the perennial, yet sharply escalating debate, between Jordanians of Palestinian origin (70%) and Jordanians of Bedouin (30%) origin regarding who is more “Jordanian” and who is more critical to the Monarchy.
Over the past few years all of the above challenges and debates have caused the instability of Jordan’s political establishment. Governments are assembled and then disintegrate within a short period of time.
Today the growing tension in the country is reflected in the verbal and physical violence that characterize the political debates between politicians and members of the Jordanian Parliament.
In addition, the Jordanian street is heating up. The combination of political tension and economic and social challenges is generating a growing wave of public demonstrations, conferences, strikes and petitions throughout the Kingdom. Generally, the hundreds of protests (and the number is growing), are conducted according to all ordinances, the participants are orderly and abide the law, and the demonstrations are generally peaceful. All sides – including the government and law enforcement agencies – are making concerted efforts not to let the protests spin out of control. That being said, some of the demonstrations – mostly those held in Jordan’s southern cities – often deteriorate into public riots and disorder.
Different political entities and various civil society organizations are involved in the protests. The leading one is the Muslim Brotherhood Movement in Jordan and its political party, the Islamic Action Front Party. There is also a significant involvement of the Bedouin tribes in the protests. This fact is very significant – the Bedouin tribes are the Hashemite Dynasty’s backbone.
The protests sometimes openly criticize the King. On rare occasions people threatened to bring down the Monarchy. On one occasion, the King’s photo was set on fire. Yet these incidents are an aberration. It is clear that – for now – the Hashemite Dynasty and the King are still off limits. For now, in the eyes of the majority of Jordanians, any attack on the symbols of the monarchy, not to say insulting the King, is crossing the line.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that the tensions are rising. Intense protests swept Jordan’s major cities following the Jordanian government’s decision to raise the price of gasoline and diesel. Eighty-nine members of the Jordanian Parliament appealed to the king asking him to reverse the decision and to dismiss the government. As a response, the King asked the government to freeze the price hike – and they abided.
However, the hottest issue at the center of the public debate today in Jordan is the upcoming general elections that are planned for the end of 2012. An adjustment in the election law passed by the Parliament (which would reduce the Muslim Brotherhood’s power) resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood declaring a boycott of the elections and launching an intense campaign to force the government to abolish the adjustment to the law or alternatively, to cancel the elections. In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood says that the government’s official report stating that only 800,000 out of the country’s 3,000,000 eligible voters have registered to vote, will make the elections illegitimate. In spite of the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts, the government has stood its ground to hold the elections as planned.
Where is Jordan going in the foreseeable future?
Unrest in Jordan will increase and the Jordanian street will continue to heat up. The political dispute over the elections, coupled with growing economic and social challenges, will deepen the crisis in Jordan to the point that it may generate a chain-reaction that could lead to severe outbursts of violence.
The balance of power between different political factions is shifting and that process is likely to continue. As part of this process, it is reasonable to expect two major developments. One, the Muslim Brotherhood movement will gain additional political power. Two, the King will lose some of his authority.
Neither an Egyptian or Tunisian style revolution, nor Syrian style disintegration are likely to take place in Jordan. There are different reasons I make that assessment such as: the structure and deployment of the power-centers in Jordan; the parliamentary, political and media institutions; the evolution of various channels of criticisms and protest; and perhaps the most important one – a strong fabric made up of cultural norms and values, education, traditions and a notion of shared history and common destiny which creates a powerful emotion that bonds the Jordanians with their monarchy. Regardless of the political reconfiguration Jordanians will continue to view the King as a major leading figure whose role should not be restricted to rituals.
Some analysts argue that the Hashemite monarchy will inevitably devolve into a symbol similar to the monarchy in the United Kingdom. Though such scenario is possible, I think there are different factors that will delay or even block – at least in the foreseeable future – the realization of that scenario. The Jordanians are not yet ready for a UK style monarchy.