Into the Fray: From potentate to puppet?

Is embracing the Islamists the only way Abdullah can preserve his rule? Is preserving Abdullah the only way Islamists can prevent ‘Jordan’ becoming ‘Palestine?’

February 3, 2012 17:54
Jordan Muslim Brotherhood supporters

Jordan Muslim Brotherhood supporters_311. (photo credit: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed )

We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are perpetual and eternal and those interests it is our duty to follow – Lord Palmerston, British foreign secretary, 1848

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same) – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, 1849

The Lone Ranger, to his hitherto trustworthy American-Indian comrade, Tonto, on realizing they are surrounded by hostile Apaches: It looks like we’re in a lot of trouble, old friend!
Tonto: What do you mean ‘we,’ Paleface? – an old joke

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The eternal potential for perfidy – or at least the impermanence of loyalties – in pursuit of interests, personal or national, is being illustrated by the events unfolding in Jordan today.

Crumbling of conventional wisdom?

It has long been a pillar of conventional wisdom in the Middle East that the Hashemite kingdom is a bastion of moderate pro-Western stability. Accordingly, it has been held that the relationship between the monarchy and radical elements in the Arab world in general, and among the Palestinian in particular, will inevitably be adversarial. Consequently, the assumption has been that, by their very nature and the nature of their goals, these elements necessarily are an existential threat to the regime in Amman.

Furthermore, with the eruption of the Arab Spring, the dominant view has been that the popular waves of support for resurgent Islam are a grave menace to the rule of incumbent autocrats, monarchical or military.

After all, Islamic regimes have risen in the wake of deposed dictatorships in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, while other are under siege in Syria and Yemen. The same scenario was presumed valid in Jordan.

However, here it seems the Palestinian question might be disrupting – even reversing – this pattern, at least for the time being.

For as the recent visit by Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal to Amman (his first official one since his 1999 expulsion) shows, a surprising, even counter-intuitive, truth seems to be emerging.

Rather than radical Palestinian Islamic elements threatening to overthrow the monarchy, they appear to be articulating a rationale for sustaining it. At least in the medium term and at least as far as appearances are concerned. This may have dangerously deceptive consequences for Israel.

Sinister solidarity?

As some analysts have noted, the public protests in Jordan have been subtly but qualitatively different from those in, say, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria.

Rather than being focused on revolution, they have centered on reform; rather than clamoring for forced removal of the autocrat and his regime, they have centered more on consensual transformation of the regime and the transfer of some powers of royalty to other institutions of government.

This anomalous moderation in the tenor of public protest is intriguing and significant, particularly in light of Mashaal’s statement made during the meeting with the king, in which he affirmed Hamas’s concern “for Jordan’s security and stability.”

As The Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh observes, the message was clearly “aimed at reassuring King Abdullah that Hamas does not challenge his monarchy.”

Another interesting point of note was that Mashaal was accompanied on his visit by Musa Abu Marzouk, a prominent figure in the Muslim Brotherhood and slated to be Mashaal’s successor.

The professed concern for Abdullah by the Hamas leadership was far from expected – and in assessing it several important facts should be borne in mind.

Neither of the Hamas men has reason for any sense of affinity with the monarchy. Indeed, not only was Hamas banned in 1999, after being accused of misusing Jordanian soil for illegal activities, but in the same year, both men – together with several other Hamas leaders – were arrested by Abdullah on charges of being members of an outlawed organization, illegal possession of weapons, fraud and illegal fund-raising.

Mashaal was expelled from Jordan, and has operated since then mainly out Damascus, something which is becoming increasingly difficult given the current conduct of the Assad regime.

The riddle of radical restraint

Just how remarkable this apparent largesse on the part of erstwhile archenemies is, is underscored by contrasting it with sentiments conveyed at the start of the Arab Spring by Hammam Saeed, head of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and a close ally of Mashaal.

During a rally held at the Egyptian Embassy in Amman barely a year ago, he declared: “Egypt’s unrest will spread across the Mideast and Arabs will topple leaders allied with the United States.”

Although he avoided any direct reference to Abdullah, it is no secret that Jordan under Hashemite rule has long maintained one of the closest relationships with the US in the Arab world. Indeed. Adm. Michael Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited in early 2011 to reassure the jittery kingdom that “the US has its back.”

Pundits cautioned that Islamic elements were well poised to unseat Abdullah, but this has not happened. Rather – as noted above – protests have focused more on reform of the regime than on its removal.

The restraint on the part of Hamas and its Jordanian allies cannot be explained by weakness.

Much has changed in Jordan’s political power structure since 1970’s Black September, when King Hussein unleashed the Jordanian military on the PLO, killing thousands of Palestinians. The chill winds of change ushered in by the turmoil in the Arab world have put the monarchy on the defensive. Islamic elements are clearly in ascendance, buoyed by widespread popular support.

Mashaal is the object of much admiration among the millions of Palestinians in the country. The opinion of one woman, interviewed recently by The New York Times’ Stephen Farrell, seems representative of far wider sentiments: “Everybody loves him, he’s very dear to us... He’s a distinguished figure, he has stature.”

Pervasive popularity

Islamist political muscle is not limited to Mashaal’s personal stature.

The Jordanian Brotherhood has its own political party, the Islamic Action Front, unequivocally the most coherent and capable force in Jordan’s political landscape – despite the fact that it has had its parliamentary representation slashed by contrived electoral legislation designed specifically for that purpose.

The current situation – in which Islamic Action Front has just over 5% of the seats in parliament – portrays a deceptive picture of its real political clout. As Jonathan Schanzer observes in The Wall Street Journal: “If... Abdullah reinstates Jordan’s old elections laws, the Islamists will enjoy new parliamentary power.”

Moreover, although Hamas still remains officially banned in Jordan, it enjoys tremendous popularity among the people. There are signs that changes might be in the offing on this issue as well. Jordanian Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh, appointed by Abdullah in October, after he dismissed two predecessors in deference to popular dissent, has repeatedly said that expelling Mashaal was a “legal and constitutional mistake which must be corrected.”

Cairo and Amman: Pre-Spring parallels

In gauging the potential of Islamic factions in Jordan, it seems logical to compare public perceptions there, before the Arab Spring uprisings, with those that prevailed in pre-Tahrir Egypt, the rationale being that if initial conditions were largely similar, it is plausible expect that the end results – i.e. Islamic dominance, will also be similar.

A poll conducted by Pew Research Center, and published in December 2010, on the cusp of uprisings in North Africa, provides edifying – and disconcerting – findings.

For example, support for radical terrorist groups in Jordan outstripped that in Egypt.

In Jordan, support for Hezbollah was 55 percent (higher than Lebanon’s 52%), while in Egypt it was only 30%; for Hamas it was 60%, compared to 49% in Egypt, and for al-Qaida, 34%, far more than the 20% in Egypt.

In both countries, massive majorities (typically 70-85%) endorsed death for apostasy (leaving Islam), stoning for adultery and amputation for theft. In both counties there were overwhelming majorities for the view that “the influence of Islam on politics is positive” – in Egypt 85% and in Jordan 76% – wellabove Pakistan’s 69% and Turkey’s 38%.

Clearly these findings bode ill for the longevity of the Hashemite regime – at least in its current form – and add to the perplexing conundrum of why Islamic opposition in Jordan – with all its manifest potential for seizing power – has not been more militant.

Compliance or cunning?

After all, why the king needs to tread carefully with Hamas and the Islamist opposition is clear. For in the wake of the anti-incumbent forces unlocked by Arab Spring, the precedents of Tahrir, Tunis and Tripoli have grave implications for him.

As Al Jazeera reported, “Abdullah has realized the important role Islamists groups are playing in [the Arab] revolutions and since he has faced protests at home... he has decided to reach out to Hamas.”

But far more intriguing is why Hamas and the Islamist opposition need the king. This puzzle is a matter of crucial consequence for Israel – and the answer to it seems to lie in the question of “Palestine.”

For to keep alive their claim for a Palestinian state west of the Jordan, they cannot permit the establishment of manifestly “Palestinian” state east of the river – which would be the case if the Hashemite monarchy was deposed and the Palestinian majority populace took control of the country. If a new political entity emerged, geographically situated on almost 80% of what was the original Mandatory Palestine, that has a Palestinian majority as the source of popular sovereignty, it would be increasingly difficult deny that this was a “Palestinian state.”

Such a development might severely undermine the claim that the Palestinians are “stateless.”

Hamas appears keenly aware of this “ominous” possibility! Indeed, Al Jazeera’s report on Mashaal’s reference to the matter is hugely significant: “Mashaal also responded to calls from some in Israel for the establishment of a Palestinian homeland in Jordan as a substitute for the Palestinian refugees’ right to return. ‘The Hamas movement categorically rejects all alternative homeland projects in Jordan and we insist on restoring all our rights fully so that Palestine is Palestine and Jordan is Jordan.’”

‘Therein lies the rub?’

That is precisely the point. To preserve their demand for a cis-Jordan River state, the Islamists must preserve the illusion that the trans-Jordan River state is non-Palestinian – by propping up non-Palestinian monarch.

In a recent blog, Barry Rubin commented that “Radical Islamists who want to open a new round of battle against Israel now rule or are likely to do so very soon in Egypt, Gaza, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia and Turkey.”

For some reason he did not mention Jordan. This is a regrettable omission – one that those charged with Israel’s strategic planning can ill-afford.

Indeed, they must come to terms with the prospect that although Jordan may well have long been an important – albeit covert – ally, this can no longer be assumed. Rather than being a force for protecting Western interests, it may well be on the way to becoming a façade for promoting Islamic ones.

The end of the Hashemite era may thus arrive well before the formal removal of the monarchy. One might make a persuasive case that the process of transforming the Jordanian potentate into a Palestinian puppet has already begun.

Israel will be gravely remiss if it does not heed Palmerston’s words of warning – that it has no permanent allies, only permanent interests – and plan accordingly.

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