Rumblings across the river

Despite recent violent protests, most Jordanians, when they look at what is happening around them, are aware that things could be a lot worse.

Jordan protests gas price 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)
Jordan protests gas price 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)
Jordan has been conspicuously absent from the list of Arab states that have been buffeted by uprisings during the last two years.
One, partial, explanation is that monarchical regimes from Morocco to the Gulf states (excepting Bahrain) possess an important extra degree of legitimacy and political capital, and have thus been better equipped than other Arab states to manage tensions and avoid major upheavals.
However, no Arab monarchy, least of all resource-poor and geopolitically vulnerable Jordan, is immune.
The eruption of violent protests across the country mid-November, in protest against an announced cut in fuel subsidies, served as a reminder of that maxim.
Particularly noteworthy was the fact that some of the demonstrators openly called for the overthrow of the monarchy.
The fact that there were clashes with the security forces in the southern cities of Tafilah, Ma’an and Dhiban, traditional bastions of support for the Hashemite monarchy, confirmed anew that the intimate relationship of East Bank Bedouin with the late King Hussein, which bordered on reverence, has not carried over to his son, King Abdallah II.
Like the rest of the non-oil producing Arab countries, economic troubles are central to Jordan’s malaise, which the existing political framework is incapable of meaningfully addressing. Nearly a decade of violence in neighboring Iraq has had a serious negative impact on Jordanian exports, while the massive influx of welloff Iraqi refugees has driven housing prices in Amman beyond the means of most Jordanians.
The chaos in Syria has caused further losses for Jordanian businesses, and 150,000 Syrian refugees constitute a new burden on the authorities. Meanwhile, tourism revenues have been weakened by the recession in Europe, while gas supply interruptions from Egypt and the rising cost of imported oil placed new pressures on the Jordanian budget.
Moreover, the underlying structural factors are sobering and not essentially different than in most other Arab states.
The official unemployment rate is more than 12 percent, and for those in the 15-24 age bracket almost 30 percent, and there is no prospect for lowering it. Although Gulf monarchies have provided significant aid and pledged even more, the $2 billion loan contracted with the IMF requires major budgetary reform, including the reduction of fuel and subsidies, which prompted the latest unrest.
The cutting of subsidies on basic goods has always been a dangerous step for authoritarian Arab regimes that lack the underlying legitimacy, which a genuinely democratic political system provides.
Abdallah has long presented himself as a champion of reform, one which would revitalize the political system without undermining monarchical authority, and enable the government to tackle the country’s structural economic problems.
But this is easier said than done. Weekly protests during the last year led by the opposition Islamic Action Front (Muslim Brotherhood) have called for a genuine transfer of authority from the palace directed governmental apparatus to an elected parliament and prime minister.
Changes in the electoral system in advance of the upcoming January 2013 elections for parliament were heavily weighted against IAF candidates, causing the IAF to declare a boycott of the elections.
But given the upward trend for Islamic movements in competitive elections across the region during the last two years, Jordanian authorities are keen not to allow too much political space for the IAF. Moreover, genuine reform measures, including a sustained tackling of corruption, would upset some of the regime’s elite loyalists, whom Abdallah must avoid hurting as he now needs them more than ever. Following the latest disturbances, the IAF has called for the establishment of a “national salvation government,” in which it would expect to play a prominent role.
This is not to say that Jordan is on the verge of upheaval. Gulf monarchies, Western powers and Israel all have a keen interest in preserving this fragile island of stability between the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula. And most Jordanians, when they look at what is happening around them, are aware that things could be a lot worse.
But successfully steering Jordan through the coming phase will require considerable finesse, as well as preventing the myriad conflicts on its borders from spilling over into the kingdom.
The author is the Marcia Israel Principal Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University.