Can Abdullah take the strain?

The outcome of the struggle in Jordan will depend more on the regime’s capacity to manage the economy than on any other factor.

jordan jeopardy 521 (photo credit: OMAR ALKALOUTI)
jordan jeopardy 521
(photo credit: OMAR ALKALOUTI)
The Jordanian monarchy is going through one of its most difficult periods ever. The present crisis is certainly the most trying phase of King Abdullah’s reign, which began exactly 14 years ago with the death of his father King Hussein in February 1999. But it would be wrong to rush in with predictions of doom and gloom for the Hashemites in Jordan. Many have done so in the past only to be proved wrong.
Although the present difficulties should not be underestimated, there are three constants that have contributed to the extraordinary longevity of the monarchy: 1) Jordan is not a one man show and over the years a staunchly loyal, cohesive East Banker political elite has developed.
Jordan is their political patrimony, they have no other and they will fight to defend it against all comers; 2) The monarchy and the elite are buttressed by a very loyal and professional security establishment, far more powerful than any coalition of potential domestic opponents; 3) The regime and the state have been constantly supported by an array of external allies because of the kingdom’s geopolitical centrality.
Its destabilization is a nightmare to a combination of regional and international powers that have always been willing to assist in bailing out the regime in times of need. As a result, the Jordanian monarchy is the only regime of all the newly established states in the Middle East of the early 1920s that still remains in power.
Jordan’s present difficulties are not a result of the Arab Spring. Their origins are in the kingdom’s desperately difficult economic problems and the ensuing domestic rumblings of discontent that began long before. The Arab Spring has exacerbated matters by emboldening the opposition and by seriously eroding the deterrent effect of the notorious “fear of government” in the Arab world. On and off for the last two years, Jordan has experienced almost weekly demonstrations led by the Muslim Brotherhood and other less substantial opponents of the regime. They have been calling for political reform while decrying the pervasive corruption in the country, which they see as a prime cause for the depletion of the state’s resources and the steadily declining living standards of the masses.
But although there is corruption, the real problems of Jordan’s economy are structural. The economy has been in serious trouble since the late 1980s and was never particularly strong with a population growth that was too rapid for the cash-strapped and resource-barren state.
Recent price rises in food and fuel, especially since the shutdown of the relatively cheap gas supply from Egypt (from the pipeline which also supplied Israel and was rendered inoperative by repeated sabotage) have made matters considerably worse for the Jordanian man in the street.
Jordan’s economic woes have serious political ramifications. For decades regime stability has rested on an unwritten social contract between the monarchy and the East Bankers, according to which the regime has enjoyed the unswerving loyalty of the indigenous Jordanian tribes in exchange for jobs and salaries and other forms of government largesse.
Since the “Black September” civil war of 1970 between the Jordanian armed forces and the PLO, there has been an institutionalized functional cleavage between original East Banker Jordanians and their less trusted compatriots of Palestinian extraction. The East Bankers hold the bulk of the government jobs and run the security services and the military, while the Palestinians dominate the country’s private sector. Tensions between Palestinians and indigenous Jordanians are high, as the Palestinians resent their exclusion from positions of political influence and the Jordanians resent Palestinian affluence, which they increasingly feel is gained unfairly at their expense.
Since the late 1980s when Jordan sank into deep economic crisis, it has been urged by the IMF and the World Bank to engage in neo-liberal economic reforms designed to reduce government spending, including the extensive privatization of state enterprises. These measures have tended, in the main, to hurt the loyalist East Banker constituency. They have lost government jobs and forfeited other forms of government largesse.
Moreover, the privatization of state enterprises has tended to further enrich Palestinian entrepreneurs, generating a sense among East Bankers that the regime is not keeping its end of their historical bargain. In recent years, starting well before the Arab Spring, criticism of the monarchy has surfaced with increasing regularity from within the inner sanctums of the East Banker elite and has become a common feature of Jordan’s domestic politics.
An unprecedented crack has appeared in the edifice of the traditionally loyalist elite and among the rank and file of the regime’s tribal base. That Abdullah is married to a Palestinian; that his mother is English; that he spent much of his life growing up abroad; that he speaks a less than flawless Arabic with a trace of an accent; that he lacks his father’s instinctive intimacy with the tribes; and that he is said to feel more comfortable in the company of foreigners have all contributed to his being perceived by many East Bankers as something of an outsider.
But it is the Muslim Brotherhood with its mainly Palestinian base that is the best organized, largest and most consistent component of the opposition to the king and it is they who lead the weekly protests after Friday prayers. Interestingly enough, in Jordan the opposition for the most part has not called for the overthrow (iskat) of the regime but only for reform (islah) towards a truly constitutional monarchy, which would shift the center of power from the palace to parliament. There have, however, been moments when protesters have crossed this red line, openly calling for the overthrow of the monarchy. In one of their recent demonstrations, Muslim Brothers, by just hissing, left people guessing whether their collective “isssss” was for “isss…lah” (reform) or “isss…kat” (overthrow).
As far as the opposition is concerned, Abdullah’s political reforms, relating to both the constitution and the election law, have been no more than window dressing.
Indeed, they have not come anywhere near real reform that would seriously undercut the prerogatives of the monarch or give the Islamists a fair chance of winning the upcoming elections, as they might have done had the election law been less restrictive and less gerrymandered against them and their Palestinian supporters. The Islamists refuse to play by these rules and have decided to boycott the forthcoming elections scheduled for 23 January.
Significantly, the different oppositional voices in Jordan are not united in their origins or their objectives. While both the Islamists and the East Bankers call for greater democratization, the East Bankers actually have a serious dilemma on this score. While they want more influence to determine how wealth and power are shared in the kingdom, they are clearly not interested in a democratization process that would almost certainly empower the Islamists and the Palestinians. Therefore, while the East Banker old guard share some of the criticism of the monarchy, they are equally indisposed to genuine reform and actually serve as a brake on the king who might have been willing to speed up the process if left to his own devices.
The fact that demonstrations by the albeit disparate opposition have continued for two years shows the determination of the regime’s opponents and the depth of popular disaffection. But it also demonstrates the staying power of the regime and the opposition’s relative ineffectiveness. The demonstrations have turned into what is beginning to look like a benign routine. If the Arab Spring emboldened the opposition in its earlier phase, the outcomes of the revolutions in countries like Egypt, Syria and Libya have hardly been ideal sources of inspiration.
As some 200,000 Syrians seek refuge in Jordan, like hundreds of thousands of Iraqis before them, spokespersons of the regime could ask what Jordanians really have to complain about. They could argue that the people ought to be thankful for the life of law and order that they enjoy in a country that does not have a reputation for particularly brutal repression. In all the two years of demonstrations hardly a handful of protesters have been killed by the security forces, under strict orders from the king himself not to use unnecessary force.
The outcome of the struggle in Jordan will depend more on the regime’s capacity to manage the economy than on any other single factor, including the pace of political reform. Demonstrations in Jordan have been more massive and more extreme when economic hardships have been most acute. The problem for the regime is that improving the material well-being of the people is almost totally dependent on the goodwill and the generosity of others, such as the US, the EU, Japan, the Saudis and the other Gulf states.
But these players are not as wealthy as they used to be. The Jordanians can never be quite sure whether the checks will always be large enough or that they will arrive on time, before the impoverishment of the people overflows into uncontrollable expressions of political distress and despair. After all, it was poverty and sheer hopelessness that set the region ablaze in the so called “Arab Spring,” not a sudden urge for democracy and civil rights.
Prof. Asher Susser, an expert on Jordan, is a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.