A late-blooming Arab Spring in Jordan?

Muslim Brotherhood, opposition groups, call for massive rally in Amman to demand reform and boycott upcoming elections.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters at rally in Amman 370 (R) (photo credit: Muhammad Hamed / Reuters)
Muslim Brotherhood supporters at rally in Amman 370 (R)
(photo credit: Muhammad Hamed / Reuters)
The Arab Spring has blossomed – and sometimes wilted – in nearly every country in the region, aside from Jordan.
Now, with large demonstrations planned for Friday in Amman – which organizers say will be the biggest the Hashemite Kingdom has seen in years – some question how long Jordan can remain immune from the demands for change that have swept through the region, sparking uprisings and unseating dictatorships.
Jordan is a relatively small, stable country with a measure of freedom and a popular monarchy. But the conflation of new pressures on the desert kingdom – an influx of Syrian refugees, an economic crisis exacerbated by the region’s recent instability, and the ascent to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – are adding up to a potentially combustible atmosphere that many analysts say should not be underestimated.
“I don’t think Jordan is on the same Arab Spring track as other countries, but we are looking at a new peak of these demonstrations. It’s normal that when dialogue channels are closed, people will go to the streets,” said Oraib Rantawi, founder and director-general of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman.
The dialogue in question is between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a variety of other organizations demanding reform.
King Abdullah II, who ascended the throne following the death of his father King Hussein in 1999, has sworn to answer demands for reform and says he will hold new elections by the end of the year.
But many say the mode of elections the king has on offer promises to be a “copy and paste” of the same kind of parliament, Rantawi said.
While a new elections formula increases the number of deputies who would be voted in on a national basis – in other words, through parties which had been virtually banned in Jordan – the king also increased the number of deputies from 120 to 150.
The burgeoning number would effectively dilute the potential impact of new electees. And the upper house of Jordan’s bicameral National Assembly consists of 60 members appointed by the king.
Given this formula, the Muslim Brotherhood, along with several other non-Islamist opposition groups, says it will boycott the elections, for which a date has yet to be set.
“This is a bad sign from my point of view. If the upcoming elections go ahead as planned, they will be part of the problem, not part of the solution,” Rantawi said.
“With the absence of serious dialogue, this has led us to situation where there are worries, concerns, and a degree of polarization in Jordan that is increasing like never before in the past 10 years. If we don’t have a last-minute initiative by the king himself to postpone these early elections, and to put all the parties around one table to have a serious dialogue, things will become very difficult in Jordan,” he said.
The situation in Jordan has been simmering for the past year and-a-half. But few protests have garnered international attention or have indicated that a critical mass of Jordanians demand fundamental change.
In recent weeks, however, frustration has grown. This Friday, there will be a large protest in Amman, billed as Jordan’s largest demonstration in decades. It’s main organizer is the Muslim Brotherhood, but opposition parties are expected to join, including the leftist Wihda and the Nahda Party.
On Monday, the protest’s organizers outlined seven demands for reform and said that the gathering would attract some 80 parties, reform groups and other local organizations critical of the Jordanian government, The Jordan Times reported.
A pro-monarchy group announced it would hold a counter-protest adjacent to the one demanding reform, raising concerns that there would be clashes between the two groups.
The Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood declared its gathering as a “Save the Homeland” rally, and outlined demands which, if implemented, could change the face of Jordan. These include constitutional amendments which would place citizens “at the source of authority” – an apparent reference to royal rule.
They refer to the formation of a “national salvation” government.
This would apparently coincide with greater efforts to rein in corruption; a loosening of control on civic and political life by Jordan’s security services; greater freedom of expression; and the release of imprisoned protesters and political detainees.
Several weeks ago, Jordanian journalists, academics and other reform-minded activists were deeply disappointed when the king endorsed a controversial media law which threatens to stifle freedom of expression online.
“This Friday will be a test,” predicted Oded Eran, an expert on Jordan at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and a former Israeli ambassador to Amman.
“Looking at the last two years and the numbers involved, they are not enough to create a Tahrir Square affect. People come out on Fridays, which means it’s not a daily phenomena.
They use the mosque prayers as a focal point in time and space.
It doesn’t show great force,” Eran said.
“However, given the political agenda plus the economic one, this compounds and erodes the king’s traditional base of support.
“For example, in the largely Beduin south, one sees people who are criticizing the king for economic reasons, and this never happened in the past.
People never touched the royalty itself. Yes, the system, the ministers, but never the king.
“But now, the royalty is also a subject, and people are talking about the style of leadership in Jordan and the corruption that exists,” he said.
Indeed, given the lack of dayto- day uproar that defined the Arab Spring in other countries, some Jordanian analysts argue it’s inappropriate to even compare the tidal wave of protesters in Tahrir Square with the tepid demonstrations they’ve seen so far in Jordan.
“The Muslim Brothers have been demonstrating every Friday, from the same place, from a mosque in the middle of the town, for the last year and a half,” said Tariq Masarweh, columnist from Al- Rai newspaper, and a former Culture Minister.
“They prepared some cameramen to take shots while the worshipers are leaving the mosque. So the demonstrations, which is something like 500 people, looks as if it’s 5,000,” he said.
“I think the Brotherhood is asking for some blood in the streets. They are trying to provoke the policemen to shoot somebody or hit somebody, because so far, no one tried to stop them.
“On the contrary, the police gave them water on the hot days and let them demonstrate,” Masarweh said.
“The Brotherhood wants to abolish the corruption from the government, but they don’t say how they want to reform. They say Islam is the solution, but they don’t really present solutions,” he said.
“They are against the World Bank, they are against the peace treaty with Israel. In short, they want power,” said Masarweh.