Jordan’s Islamists regain key asset

Government restores control of the Islamic Center back to Muslim Brotherhood after six years under its control.

January 10, 2012 13:49
King Abdullah of Jordan

King Abdullah of Jordan 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood movement has not climbed the ladder to political power as its counterparts have in Egypt and Tunisia, but a recent government decision has paved the way for it to gain money and boost influence with voters as Jordan moves toward elections.

The government of Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh decided to offer the Muslim Brotherhood the carrot of ending state control over the Islamic Center, the group’s financial backbone. It was an attempt to assuage its anger soon after security apparatus and regime loyalists used sticks and rocks to disperse an Islamist-lead protest in the northern city of Mafraq last month. The attack left dozens injured and prompted the Muslim Brotherhood to send its supporters into the streets a few days later in a show of power.

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Transferring control of the Center back to the Brotherhood comes at a critical moment.

The country is heading to municipal and possibly parliamentary elections where the Islamist movement and its political wing stand a good chance of scoring major wins similar to that Muslims movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

Pro-regime media and lawmakers accused the group of flexing its muscles to intimidate the government, with Islamist leaders vowing to protect their followers. If so, the strategy worked. Khasawneh saw returning the Center to Brotherhood control as a way of containing bubbling tension as the kingdom tries to navigate the political uncertainty and economic distress created by the Arab Spring.

The Center, whose assets are believed to amount to billions of Jordanian dinars, was seized by the government of then-Prime Minister Mauve Bichat in 2006 as part of American-influenced policy to cut Islamists all around the Middle East down to size.

But Washington has had a re-think on its policy toward Muslim movements after the Arab Spring brought moderate Islamists to power in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. As a result, Jordan’s King Abdullah, a close ally of the US, was forced to return the Center six years after giving the nod to the government to impound it over allegations of corruption.

The Center provides assistance to tens of thousands of families in poverty-stricken areas, and has been instrumental in enhancing the image of the Muslim Brotherhood in a society that lost faith in public institutions because of corruption, nepotism and favoritism. About a quarter of the population is estimated to be living in poverty and unemployment runs at about 15%.

Middle class Jordanian have benefited from the Center as well. Thousands of doctors, engineers, lawyers and other professionals have received scholarships from it after being squeezed out of government assistance that often goes to members of pro-regime tribes

When Um Hussam from the squalid Baqaa refugee camp was widowed a decade ago after her husband died in a car accident, she was left with seven daughters to feed and no skills or time to find a job. She turned to the Baqaa branch of the Islamic Center for monthly aid. But over the past three years, her assistance was frozen.

“I was told the Center no longer had funds to help many families and I was among those crossed out from assistance,” said Um Hussam, who had to send two of her children to sell chewing gum at the central bus station after school. The return of the Center to the hands of the Islamist movement is a relief.

“Now I hope they resume assistance to my family so that my children can focus on their studies to build a better future for them,” said the 45-year-old widow.

But it is also a tool for recruiting loyalists and voters.

Take the case of Ahmed Sandouqa, a 35-year-old civil engineer from Amman, who recalled how the Islamic Center played a fundamental role in his life after all doors were closed to him after finishing high school.

“I scored a high grade in high school that qualified me for an engineering scholarship at the University of Jordan, but the Ministry of Higher Education overlooked me without any explanation. The Islamic Center rescued me with a scholarship to India and I will be forever grateful to them,” he told The Media Line.

Sandouqa is now an activist in the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, and helps administer a charity program run by the movement in eastern Amman.

According to Ali Abul Sukkar, president of the IAF, the government agreed to return the Center following lengthy negotiations that arranged for a transition period during which a temporary committee runs the charity ahead of general elections in a few months’ time.

In the meantime, he said, the government agreed to remove hundreds of regime loyalists installed in the Center’s general assembly by the government and the intelligence department and to drop corruption charges against senior Islamist leaders linked to alleged financial irregularities at the Center.

The Center will get a new board of directors elected by a new general assembly within a few months.

Sources in the Islamist movement claim that the Center, which owns at least two hospitals, private schools and other enterprises, has been left in financial ruin as a result of bad management while under state control. They say it has debts of nearly $40 million to local banks and in dire need of restructuring. They have warned that rebuilding the Center will take time.

Nevertheless, officials from the Muslim Brotherhood have done little to hide their excitement over the government’s decision and are cautiously optimistic about prospects of better ties with authorities.
Abul Sukkar said returning the Center to Brotherhood control, and dropping law suits against senior Islamist leaders is a step in the right direction, but it must be followed up by real reforms.

This government has to fight influential right-wing groups in control of the intelligence agency as well as key security bodies, who oppose empowering the Islamist movement for fear of losing perks they have gained since King Abdullah ascended the throne more than a decade ago.

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