In the shadow of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, social mobilizations and political developments in Jordan have prompted a significant amount of attention on the Kingdom. Below are the five most common questions I’ve received from both friends and reporters as well as composites of my responses.
(1) Will we see in Jordan the type of upheaval we are witnessing in Tunisia or Egypt?
To date, what has happened in Jordan does not compare to what is happening in other parts of the Arab world neither in terms of degree (i.e., the number of people out in the streets) nor in terms of nature (i.e., the types of demands being made). Jordan shares many of the structural features and governing practices that have inspired the mass mobilizations in both Egypt and Tunisia. These are primarily authoritarian systems of rule that offer little in the way of accountability and civil liberties as well as a neoliberal economic development strategy that has disempowered the average citizen vis-à-vis meeting her basic needs. However, whereas demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia have been focused on regime change, protests inJordan over the past four weeks have called for changes in the government (which is appointed by the regime) as well as serious (as opposed to cosmetic) reforms that would fundamentally address the political and economic problems facing Jordanian society. Is it possible that mobilizations in Jordan could develop, both in terms of size and demands, into what has transpired in Tunisia and Egypt? It is certainly possible but not very likely barring some major contingencies. However, it should be noted that public slogans surrounding the protests as well as the specific demands being advanced through various public letters are shifting from calls for the downfall of the government to specific political and economic reforms. Again though, these demands for reform are nowhere approaching calls for regime change.
(2) Why is it that Jordan is not experiencing similar mobilizations both in terms of size and demands?
The level of polarization between the regime and the general population in Jordan has not reached the zero-sum game it reached in Egypt and Tunisia. This is a result of several complex historical factors. An initial assessment of these factors would consider the following:
First, the nature of the Monarchy’s legitimacy in Jordan is different than that of the “republican” regimes of Egypt and Tunisia. Similar to Morocco’s Alaouite dynasty (see Gretchen Head on Morocco), the Hashemite dynasty claims descent through the Prophet Mohammad as well as the leading role in the “Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, the Jordanian state was constructed (both materially and discursively) around Hashemite sovereignty. Such legacies, however one may evaluate them, offer the Hashemites both Islamic and Arab nationalist credentials that complicate discussions about the legitimacy of King Abdullah II and the Hashemite Monarchy.
Second, there has been an effective rhetorical separation between the Monarchy (i.e., the regime) and the government (i.e., the royally-appointed Cabinet). In other words, political discourse in Jordan has represented contemporary politics (whether the government, the formal opposition, or any of the state institutions) in the Kingdom as separate from the role of the Monarchy. This is partly a function of the legitimacy of the Monarchy discussed above. It is also a function of the fact that law and violence have enforced this separation. Equally important, the Monarchy has in many ways set itself up as the vanguard of reform in the Kingdom, claiming to both plot the course of reform and manage its dangers. Barring some type of radicalization of the public, this separation and the legal violence that underpins it has had a real effect on the nature of political demands being advanced.
Third, the dynamic of top-down regime-managed political reform has offered several controlled outlets for public frustration (e.g., organized demonstrations, new media forums, parliamentary elections) while maintaining the concentration of power in both the polity and the economy. This strategy has sometimes responded to public demands (e.g., the sacking of the Cabinet of Samir al-Rifa’i) while at others has pre-empted them (e.g., calling for national consensus on a new election law). Thus, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the “reform game” is still playing itself out in Jordan with little indication of what Jadaliyya Co-Editor Hesham Sallam described as “a rebellion against orthodox Egyptian politics, which includes the ruling party and the ineffective and mostly co-opted formal opposition parties it surrounded itself with for decades.” (See statements by Jordanian Islamist, leftist, and centrist parties for their positions on reform in the Kingdom.)
Fourth, there are the socio-political legacies of intergroup relations in Jordan. For several decades, the Monarchy has played the role of mediator between rival tribes in Jordan. This has caused a broad spectrum of Trans-Jordanian tribes to maintain their loyalty to the King and his ability to “keep the peace” amongst competing tribes and factions therein. Furthermore, the Monarchy’s historical strategy of constructing a social base by privileging Jordanians of East Bank origin over those of Palestinian origin has buttressed the regime. Given that Jordanians of Palestinian origin represent a majority of the population, East Bankers would lose whatever privileges they currently have in an alternative system of rule. Finally, with a history of repressing and co-opting secular and leftist opposition figures/movements, the primarily-of-Palestinian-origin Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its political wing – the Islamic Action Front (IAF) – have emerged as the leading opposition group on the Jordanian political scene. Thus, the existing alternative to the regime (i.e., an IAF-dominated government) presently poses significant problems for parties that stand to lose the most from a redistribution of power. (not to mention various segments of the Jordanian population that are weary of the IAF). This is perhaps most evident in the recent statements by a coalition of centrist parties that “only when there emerge two strong parties running for elections” would it become appropriate to enact the type of reforms that would allow for a Prime Minister (PM) and Cabinet to be selected by the Parliament – as opposed to the existing practice of a royally-appointed PM whose Cabinet is selected from outside the Parliament. These legacies combine to create formidable obstacles to the formation of broad-based mass mobilizations necessary for either revolution or genuine reform. In effect, they have created variations of what Eva Bellin (in a different yet related context) calls "contingent democrats" (i.e., supportive of democracy only given certain guarantees of what the power-distribution in that democracy would like).
Lastly, the regime has a consolidated command of all branches of the armed forces, intelligence services, and police agencies. The Jordanian regime effectively adapted to the regional series of military coups that occurred between the 1940s and 1960s to consolidate its rule and “coup proof” itself. As Hesham Sallamand Paul Amar have argued, fissures between the different coercive institutions of the state – as well as that between the army and the regime – are central dynamics that structure the strategic calculations of both formal opposition groups as well as those activists interested in contentious politics. There is little doubt that all coecive institutions of the Jordanian state would be effectively mobilized in defense of the Monarchy.
(3) What about the “domino effect” that many analysts and media outlets are alluding to?
Recent events in the region (particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, but also in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen) have forced a shift in the public discourse of politics as well as in the strategies of regimes and opposition groups alike in all Arab states. Whether what happened in Tunisia and Egypt (both ongoing processes) will happen in other countries depends on the historical legacies specific to each state, along with both structural conditions and unforeseen contingencies. We need to be critical of the idea of a linear path-dependent domino effect. It might be more productive to consider a “demonstration effect.” Developments in Tunisia and Egypt have made it possible to imagine alternatives to the existing Arab regimes in ways that go much further than was previously the case. As Maya Mikdashi, Noura Erekat and Sherene Seikaly have poignantly captured, these developments have opened up future perspectives that these regimes have long foreclosed. This has primarily occurred in two ways. On the one hand, we have witnessed the collapse of what Bassam Haddad described as the “’eternal’ aura these regimes/leaders occupied in the conscience or un-conscience of ‘their’ people—despite, or maybe because of, their longstanding opposition.” On the other hand, neighborhood committees, Muslim-Christian solidarity, and various efforts at coalition building have challenged the false choice between authoritarianism and chaos (a choice that Arab regimes and their supporters always allude to). This new imaginative possibility could very well lead remaining regimes, their formal opposition, and those sectors of the population not co-opted by either to alter their strategic calculations. On the one hand, that might translate into real tangible gains in certain spheres of the polity and the economy. On the other hand, it might cause existing regimes to find new ways of “upgrading authoritarianism” (i.e., the reform game). Either of these outcomes depends on a regime’s self-assessment and the public’s level of radicalization and nature of mobilization. In sum, recent events have caused a transformation in both the expectations of different populations as well as the calculations of different regimes. Whether these transformations will translate into anything structural in terms of systems of rule and economic development models remains to be seen.
(4) Does the lack of larger numbers and more radical demands similar to those of Tunisia and Egypt mean that Jordanians are content with the existing political system?
It is important to parse the issues here. First, you have the question of how people feel about the King. Second, you have the issue of demands for a genuinely representative, accountable, and rights-based political system. Finally, you have the issue of what people are willing to do to create such a system.
One of the difficulties in gauging public perception of the King is that various forms of political speech, especially those concerning the Monarchy, continue to be criminalized. Thus, it is literally impossible to speak freely of the King. Feelings about the King and the Monarchy are probably much more complex than a dichotomy between unwavering loyalty and calls for its abolition offer. However, it is impossible to grasp this complexity absent the necessary conditions to protect the rights of people to freely express their position on the issue.
However, there are a plethora of specific demands for reform that have been articulated through various forums, media, and statements including those for a representative election law, an empowered parliament, genuine freedom of speech, association, and assembly, as well as reforms to various legal codes and procedures, especially those associated with “crimes against the state.” The notion that people are uninterested in civil liberties, adequate representation, and government accountability is absurd. There might be certain political elites, within the regime, government, or formal opposition that have made strategic choices about what reforms are to take place at what point. But that is different than saying that the vast majority of the population does not desire and yearn for real political reforms that safeguard their civil liberties, provide adequate representation, and offer avenues for holding officials accountable.
The difference between protesters in Tahrir Square and the average Jordanian is not in their aspirations for real meaningful change. It is in the legacies animating each society (some of which are mentioned in Question 3), the strategic calculations within these contexts, and unforeseen contingencies (like the murder of Khalid Said in Egypt or the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazzi in Tunisia) that radicalize public demands. The fact that Jordanians are not choosing revolution, openly calling for the abolition of the Monarchy, or turning out in significantly large numbers is not the same as them not wanting change that is real and meaningful. Rather, it is simply a reflection of the fact that many elements inform the actions people undertake in their quest for freedom, including a diversity of positions in between the dichotomous poles of allegiance to the Monarchy and calls for its abolition.
(5) The concessions made in the last few weeks represent more of the status quo. What would real change look like?
Over the past few weeks, the regime in Jordan has increased the subsidization of basic goods, raised the salaries/pensions of current/retired civil and military public sector employees, sacked the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, appointed a new Prime Minister, and promised to persist in the “ongoing” program and political and economic reform. None of these measures offers anything structurally different in terms of civil liberties, representation, or accountability. This is to say nothing about the economic development strategy underway in Jordan, which I will address in a future article specifically dedicated to the topic.
A baseline minimum with respect to real political reforms, according to the demands that have been made by various groups in Jordan, would include:
A Representative Election Law: There are three major problems with the existing Election Law that governs the election of the Lower House of Parliament. First, the electoral districts are currently uneven and allot more seats to certain traditional regime-supporting constituencies than is the general basis for seat-allotment. This effectively compensates for a perceived demographic disadvantage of the regime (i.e., its electoral social base is much smaller than those voters that would cast ballots in favor of opposition candidates). Second, while seats are typically allotted on the basis of the population residing in a district and its sub-districts, voters are free to register in whichever district they subsequently choose and in any sub-district therein. This allows regime-protected socio-political formations (whether tribes or co-opted opposition parties) to mobilize voters across districts and sub-districts in favor of regime-friendly candidates. Finally, the Single Non-Transferable Vote System (of which Jordan is one of only three countries to implement) means voters cast a single ballot in favor of a single seat despite voting in a sub-district and district that is allotted several seats. This discourages individuals to vote for parties or policies given that they typically use their only vote for a personal contact of some sort (i.e., a relative or a member of their tribe). Any meaningful change to the representativeness of the Parliament would require that these three aspects of the Election Law be amended in line with even and fair districting, voting within the districts and sub-districts one was counted in for purposes of seat allotment, and a bloc or party-list voting system.
An Empowered Parliament: Currently, the regime’s authority pervades the structure of Parliament. Legislation is first introduced through a royally appointed Prime Minister (who selects his Cabinet), must also be approved by the royally-appointed Upper House, and is subject to ultimate approval or rejection by the King. While few opposition groups have dared to publically call for an elected Upper House or the removal of the King’s prerogative to reject legislation, a growing number of groups are calling for the right of the party with the largest number of seats in the Lower House to select the Prime Minister and that Cabinet-appointments be drawn from the Lower House. Such changes, in addition to those of the election law, would begin the process of transforming the role of Parliament from that of legitimizing decrees to one of legislating policies.
Enshrined Civil Liberties: Jordanian law continues to criminalize political speech that is critical of the status quo. This includes “insulting” members of the royal family, a head of a foreign state, or public officials, as well as “defaming” parliament or its members, official institutions, courts, public administrations, and the army. This is to say nothing of writing or speech that “instigates conflict” between “different members of the nation.” These laws are subject to the interpretation of prosecutors and judges, effectively limiting political speech. Furthermore, Jordanian law is highly regulative of public association (both NGOs and political parties), including sanctioning the refusal to allow their incorporation without reason, as well as requiring the admittance of government officials into meetings. Any serious move towards freedom of speech and association would redress these mechanisms of control that have little to do with maintaining public order and everything to do with stifling dissent.
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