Brandishing orange, yellow and green anti-election leaflets and demanding
reform, more than 1,000 Islamists, youth activists and members of various
Jordanian opposition groups staged a rally after Friday prayers in the capital
on January 18, calling for a boycott of the country’s upcoming parliamentary
Placards denouncing corruption and rising prices outnumbered
the candidate posters plastered throughout the capital. Many of the disenchanted
demonstrators decried the recently amended electoral laws, which, they say,
leave urban areas underrepresented and is doomed to usher in a parliament that
is no different to the one that was elected in 2010.“The people are not
the source of power, this is our biggest problem,” 20-year-old Abdul Kahman
Al-Jalowti said, holding up an oversized sign for the 24th of March
As Jordan stood on the brink of parliamentary elections,
scheduled for January 23, touted by King Abdullah as ushering in significant
electoral reform, many citizens remain unconvinced that any real change is
likely to come from a new 150-seat parliament. And as a widespread boycott
threatens to undermine the elections, other issues such as the changing dynamics
of the opposition, a strained economy and the effects of the civil war in Syria
are also impacting on the stability of Jordan.
“I think we have to be
really careful about our predictions about destabilizing factors of the
stability of the Kingdom… But the trajectory, unless things change, could
potentially go in a bad direction,” David Schenker, director of the Program on
Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, said from Washington in a phone
The sweeping discontent is reflected in the boycott of the
elections by the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of Jordan’s
powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which draws strong support from Jordanians of
Palestinian origin. Believing that reforms to the electoral laws have not gone
far enough to allow parties to gain proportionate power in the parliament, the
IAF will not be participating.
Under the current system, Jordanians can
vote once for a candidate in their constituency and once for one from a national
list. But critics of the amended law say this system is designed to preserve
traditional support for the king in power, with only 27 seats available for
candidates from the national list, while the other 108 are reserved for
individuals – the majority of whom are expected to come from areas dominated by
East Bank Jordanians.
Traditionally, they have been steadfast supporters
of the regime.
Despite the king’s reforms to the electoral laws and his
encouragement for people to go to the polls, a sentiment of malaise and doubt
pervades the atmosphere of the more than 2.3 million Jordanians who registered
to vote, from cab drivers to the politically active young and old.
Kalaldeh, a medical practitioner and a member of the Communist Party in Jordan
for more than 20 years and now part of the Jordanian Social Left Movement, is
boycotting the elections. He does not believe in their legitimacy and does not
expect Jordanian citizens to be able to accept the decisions the candidates make
while in power.
“The ones who are running, aside from a handful, are
businessmen who have nothing to do with economics. Even they are thieves,
corrupt people… Very difficult economic decisions are going to have to be taken
by the parliament. If people trust a man and he comes with very difficult
economic solutions, they will accept it – if he is clean. But… ,”
Kalaldeh said, trailing off with a shrug.
Shahd Hammouri, a
17-year-old social activist and university student, agrees that corruption is
rampant not only in politics, but in daily life as well. Without electoral laws
that encourage parties, she believes that parliament will continue to be made up
of politicians who don’t represent the people of Jordan.
“My opinion is
they should have done something more drastic with the law.
speaking, I don’t see this law as just. There has to be a law that pushes
political parties forward,” Hammouri asserted.
The Jordanians’ weariness
with politics and lack of faith in the government comes during one of the most
challenging economic situations the kingdom has faced in the past two decades.
With Jordan’s budget running at a deficit of more than $3 billion, Abdullah was
forced to seek an emergency $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund
(IMF) last year. The loan was secured on condition that government subsidies
would be slashed.
In recent months, Jordan has seen unprecedented numbers
rallying in the streets in protest against the subsidy cuts, with thousands
protesting in the capital and throughout the country in October and November
against government corruption, the slow pace of electoral reform and the rising
cost of living.
In November, after the government raised the price of
cooking gas by more than 50 percent, the kingdom erupted in protests.
nearly a week after the price hike, demonstrations continued throughout the
country, resulting in the death of two officers and one civilian, as well as an
estimated 300 arrests. Outside Amman, some demonstrators burned voter cards and
attacked private and public property, including municipal buildings and the
house of a governor.
Most of the detainees were released in December, but
among allegations of torture and mistreatment by security and police forces.
According to Amnesty International, 66 of 89 detainees questioned reported ill
treatment or physical or verbal abuse at the time of their arrests or while in
detention, while 53 said they were “tortured, beaten, insulted or ill-treated”
before they were transferred to prison.
The arrests reflect a red line
that was crossed publicly in the week of dissent that began on November 16, when
thousands gathered in Jordan’s capital in front of Al- Husseini Mosque in
downtown Amman and publicly called for the ouster of Abdullah.
to Schenker, the fact that such fierce demonstrations came in the wake of a
drastic hike in gas prices pointed to the priority of people’s grievances, and
the deep divisions that still exist and complicate the issue of political
change. “Corruption and the economy are the key issues,” Schenker
“Political reform is important, but it doesn’t rise to that level in terms of popular dissent actually because political reform
is a divisive issue in the kingdom. For many people, political reform means that
the indigenous East Bankers lose, and the Palestinian population is
Despite divisions, these key issues have been a unifying
force among the fractured opposition, including well-known groups such as the
IAF and al-Hirak, an emerging movement made up primarily of young tribal
activists, as well as leftists, independents and other grassroots movements.
Though they are not necessarily standing side by side, the calls for an end to
corruption can be heard from Amman to Irbid in the north and Tafileh in the
Tafileh has become a particularly important area that demonstrates
a shift in politics in Jordan. A southern town that is home to mostly East Bank
Jordanians, the people of Tafileh have traditionally been steadfast loyalists to
the regime, and are even known for providing guards for the palace. But over the
past year, with the lack of economic opportunity in the town and the belief that
there has not been enough political reform, this has started to
Al-Hirak has grown out of southern towns such as Tafileh, Ma’an,
Karak, Jarash, Ajloun, Salt and Shobak, as well as northern cities like Irbid.
According to Sean Yom, a Jordan expert at Temple University in Philadelphia,
these young, educated activists differ from other opposition groups such as the
IAF because of their independence and lack of a history of organizational
mobilization – and they are unhappy with their monarchy.
Al-Mhesen, one of the founders of the al-Hirak movement in Tafileh, said in an
interview that the movement is unique because “it’s the only movement that is
saying that if no reforms take place, the current regime has to go.” He also
stressed that despite the fact that the movement has its roots in tribal areas,
al-Hirak strives to involve all members of the opposition by identifying with
the common cause of reform.
Though this developing East Bank opposition
is not yet a majority, it is an important development. In Tafileh, al- Hirak is
becoming more organized, creating committees and, some analysts say, has the
potential to be a significant problem for the regime.
“I think these are
all factors that suggest that there’s not going to be a revolution in Jordan’s
future, but al-Hirak isn’t insignificant. The monarchy now has two opposite
constituencies to worry about. In the past it’s always been the Islamists,” Dr.
Yom said in a phone interview. “For a monarchy that has long thought Islamists
are the number one concern, this complicates the picture.”
With the Arab
Spring sweeping through the region over the past two years, with dictators being
overthrown and a civil war still raging in Syria, Jordan has seen to be
relatively stable in relation to its regional counterparts.
regional dissent has severely disrupted Jordan’s economy, according to Khalid
Wazzani, CEO and founding partner of a Jordanian consulting firm. Dr. Wazzani
said that the Arab Spring had cost Jordan more than $4.2
Jordan’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation
Jaafar Hassan echoed this sentiment, noting the difficulty of countries affected
fiscally by the Arab Spring to respond to the demands of the
“Countries are under more and more fiscal stress because the
regional conditions have undermined growth and foreign investments, so the
capability of countries in fulfilling the economic and financial requests of
these protesters is more strained and limited,” Hassan said.
Jordan is a
small country with limited resources. Privatization has affected the country in
the past 20 years. Unemployment runs high, with 25 percent of students unable to
find a job, and income is low – more than 14 percent of Jordanians live below
the poverty line. Even with the recent lowering of cigarette prices from 1.80 to
1.40 Jordanian dinars, in light of all other subsidies that have been cut,
citizens don’t seem to be won over by this small concession.
“All of the
people are begging for food except the corrupt ones,” Intasa al-Khaluz, 50, said
at the mid-January demonstration.
Khaluz has no political affiliation but
was protesting because of the poor economic situation in Jordan.
country is also facing the added burden of hosting thousands of Syrians as they
flee the violence in their homeland.
The Jordanian government estimates
that more than 300,000 Syrians are now living in the country, with more than
50,000 of them currently housed in the country’s largest refugee camp, Zaatari.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has registered 135,732 Syrians,
with another 52,000 or so who have been in contact with the agency.
rest of the displaced Syrians living outside the camps are putting a strain on
an already vulnerable housing and job market.
With the civil war to the
north continuing with no end in sight, the flood of refugees and the cost to
host them does not promise to abate any time soon.
“The influx of Syrian
refugees has been a great burden because today we have about 300,000 Syrians in
Jordan,” Hassan said.
“The numbers by the summer might even double… We
allow refugees free education in our public schools, in our health centers and
hospitals. They have free health services and they enjoy all the subsidies that
are provided to Jordanian citizens. So this adds a significant burden on an
already strained budget and fiscal situation,” Hassan added.
Wazzani, and based on a study conducted by the Economic and Social Council, the
cost of hosting the Syrians in Jordan comes to around $700 million.
despite the fiscal challenges of hosting such a large population of refugees,
some analysts have said Syria has also had a stabilizing effect on the kingdom.
People are looking at other countries in the region in turmoil and staying home
because they are afraid of compromising the safety of Jordan, even if they are
dissatisfied with the state of their country.
“Basically, I think we’ve
established it’s going to be business as usual, which is very depressing,” Yom
said. “And if the benchmark in the Middle East is that we’re not Syria – that’s
a pretty terrible barometer.”
There are significant pressures on
Traditional politics are changing, with a new generation
demanding reform, and the country has been directly affected by the unrest in
the surrounding region. But despite political indifference or disillusionment,
there are still some who remain positive for the future of Jordan.
optimistic. We’re going to better the future. But I don’t know how long it will
take,” Kalaldeh said, as he sat in his office in Jabal al-Weibdeh in Amman, with
a view of the city he loves behind him.
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