In a region where politics is not only governance but popular theater, Jordan’s first parliamentary election since the eruption of the Arab Spring two years ago provided a brief moment of comic relief. In the heart of the capital, candidates erected marquees like vast Bedouin tents, and handed out coffee from Bedouin copper flasks. But for all the entertainment, King Abdullah II’s claims that Wednesday’s election would mark Jordan’s transition to democracy seemed hyperbolic. In fact, the election was boycotted by five opposition parties, including the oldest and most powerful, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a raft of former prime ministers, and even according to disputed official figures less than 40 percent of the kingdom’s voters bothered to register and vote.
Those who did seemed to be more interested in promoting the interests of their own clan rather than relaunching a political process. Veteran politicians, including a former prime minister, cried foul, after their parties failed to make headway. There were reports of skirmishes with police in the south, as tribesmen closed main roads in the capital to protest the defeat of their kinsmen. Mohammed Khashman, the colorful founder of a Jordanian airline, was one of several candidates detained for paying for votes, earning him the sobriquet Captain Cashman. In refugee camps, some Palestinians nervously went to the polls after rumors spread that their identity cards could be withdrawn if they stayed away. International observers and local monitors alike cited numerous violations. True or not, the plethora of allegations point to a regime whose promises of reform seem increasingly empty.
The widespread cynicism stems from the king’s half-hearted response to the Arab Awakening. A much-hyped reform constitution that was promoted as Abdullah’s answer to the popular revolts against autocracy that have swept the region has instead maintained the king’s powers to appoint the upper house, hire and fire the prime minister (albeit in consultation with parliament), and dissolve parliament; while a new electoral law that was supposed to make this week’s election more democratic has left the kingdom’s carefully choreographed political system largely unchanged. “It seems that authorities believe the Jordanian spring is over and that we can return to the way things were before January 2011,” said Jordan’s prime minister, Abdullah Ensour, when he voted against the law a few months before his appointment.
Above all, Jordanians pointed to the disproportionate power the electoral system gives Jordan’s indigenous Bedouin (East Bankers) who, though they constitute a minority of the country’s six million citizens, have long dominated the security forces and served as a backbone of the regime. The king has reserved four fifths of the seats in parliament for independents from gerrymandered rural constituencies whose boundaries often match those of tribal domains. In contrast, Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who are concentrated in cities and who make up the primary constituents of opposition parties like the Brotherhood, are grouped in constituencies twice the size of rural ones, to ensure that their voice is diluted. Though they now form the majority of the population, they appear to have secured only about 20 percent of parliament’s 150 seats, up from 15 percent in the previous parliament. Feeling disenfranchised, most opted not to vote.
The National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based watchdog which sent an observer mission to the election, was forceful in its verdict that the system is deeply flawed. “The unequal size of districts and an electoral system that amplifies family, tribal and national cleavages limit the development of a truly national legislative body,” it said in a statement, “and challenge King Abdullah’s stated aim of encouraging ‘full parliamentary government.’”
Ironically, when the Arab uprisings began in 2011, the protest movement first gained strength among the Bedouin themselves—in the form of grassroots activism among hirak (or groups) from rural areas suffering from grinding poverty, the growing shortage of jobs in the public sector, which they had hitherto treated as a Bedouin right, and the desire for the king to cede some of his powers to a parliament they elected and controlled. In dribs and drabs, these Bedouin descended on the capital, singing ditties in rhyming couplets mocking the king, and demanding the perks, jobs, and free university education their fathers received from a kingdom they considered their inheritance. I often saw them at the roundabout outside the prime minister’s office, until the authorities erected railings to cordon it off. In the first eighteen months of the Arab uprisings, the authorities counted over seven thousand protests, an average of ten per day.
At first, Jordan’s normally pliant urban middle class scoffed at these yokel antics. Most, including the leadership of the Brotherhood—a largely urban movement with a recognized political arm, the Islamic Action Front—remained on the sidelines throughout 2011. They criticized but did not call for demonstrations against the king’s cosmetic reforms to the constitution. When Abdullah authorized price increases on basic goods and the cost of living soared, however, they too began demanding a greater say in deciding how the country’s money is spent.
Then, in October, the king decreed that independents, not national parties, would retain the bulk of parliamentary seats and the protest movement exploded. Led by the Brotherhood, opposition parties called for an election boycott and staged a demonstration that dwarfed previous protests. A rally in the heart of the capital, Amman, drew at least 15,000 people, whose chants denouncing King Abdullah echoed those heard against Mubarak in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in early 2011.
But the king seems to have feared that any concession would be viewed as a sign of weakness. While his fellow monarch, Mohammed VI of Morocco, moved to co-opt his own country’s Muslim Brotherhood, Abdullah repudiated the overtures of his prime minister, Awn Khasawneh, to Jordan’s Islamists, prompting Khasawneh to resign. And in November, to comply with IMF loan requirements, Abdullah ended petrol and fuel subsidies, increasing the price of cooking gas by over 50 percent.
Coming after the October protests, the price increases only heightened tensions, threatening to unite Bedouin tribes and Palestinians in a common grievance against rulers they both denounced as corrupt. Hundreds of East Bankers marched from Amman’s poor eastern suburbs to the gates of the royal palace shouting Irhal! (“Get Out!”). Outside the oldest mosque in the city, youths at Brotherhood rallies chanted Al Shaab Yurid Isqat al-Nitham! (“The People Want to Bring Down the Regime!”), the popular slogan that unseated Mubarak in February 2011. And after almost two years of non-violent activism, those who turned out to protest now ransacked shops and attempted to storm police stations, where hundreds of demonstrators were being detained under military laws. Three people—one protester and two policemen—were killed in clashes between the security forces and a population angry about bearing the financial burden of a kingdom whose treasurers and decision-makers they had no power to elect.
Unlike his father, Hussein, who liked to go on television if not the street to empathize with his people at the first sign of crisis, King Abdullah disappears from public view for weeks at a time when trouble erupts. He is hampered by his English-accented Arabic, and in recent months it has sometimes seemed that his population has to watch American television shows like Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show to see him. Such aloofness might work for the oil-rich monarchs of the Gulf, who have the largesse to placate their subjects, but Jordan’s resource-poor king is more vulnerable. Amid economic doldrums at home, a growing crisis spilling over from neighboring Syria, and dramatic political upheaval throughout the region, Jordanians wonder where their monarch and monarchy are heading.
For now, the confrontation has yet to reach a point of no return. The main opposition groups say they remain open to working with the king on further reforms. Historically, the Brotherhood has been careful not to challenge Jordan’s monarchical system directly, and under King Hussein took refuge in the kingdom when Egypt’s rulers in the 1950s banned its activities and jailed its leaders. The relationship began to sour after King Abdullah’s succession in 1999. Veering toward the strong-arm approach of Mubarak’s Egypt, he used his intelligence services to rig elections and dissolve Islamist institutions, including the board of the Brotherhood’s welfare arm, Islamic Centre, Jordan’s largest charity.
Even so, Brotherhood leaders continued to champion reform, not revolution, and to hang the king’s portrait in their offices (albeit one in which he sports a beard). “We’re not against the monarchy; only the corruption, the theft of state lands, and the sale of state assets on the cheap,” Abu Obeyda, a veteran Islamist and former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden’s in Afghanistan, told me shortly before he was detained without charge, say his relatives, in December 2012. Remarkably, he still professes allegiance to the king and says he hopes for a dialogue with the regime on reform: “The problem with all the Arab rulers is that if only they compromised a little they could keep their seats.”
After two years of near-ostracization from the king’s political process, the Brotherhood may be reconsidering its strategy. “We’ve had so many promises of reform, it’s becoming embarrassing to keep calling for it,” says Salem Falahat, a former Supreme Guide of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood. “Wouldn’t you start thinking about non-peaceful methods?” Where once he presented himself as a royalist, Falahat now likens the change sweeping the Arab world to the 1848 revolutions in Europe, which brought down many European monarchies and stripped the eight survivors of their powers.
That said, for all their common economic grievances, many Jordanians seem unnerved by the mounting opposition to their sovereign. During his father’s reign, the monarchy enjoyed rare affection in a deeply cynical region. Even today, many profess a residual knee-jerk allegiance to King Abdullah. Others look at the Brotherhood’s recourse to violence in Syria and power grab in Egypt and wonder whether Islamists in Jordan would be any more democratic or tolerant than their current leader. “We’re no longer sure that the replacement of the regime is better for political reform,” says Oraib Rantawi, who runs a think-tank in Amman that once advised the king. At the very least, many fear that transition to a new form of government would jeopardize their much-prized stability. “If the Hashemites fell, I’d be out of Jordan within twenty-four hours,” says a worried businessman.
External allies are also coming to the king’s aid. Gulf countries, whose financial support had slowed, rushed to resume funding after Iran offered Jordan free oil for thirty years in November. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait have each pledged $250 million; and the IMF, Qatar, and the US—which since the fall of Mubarak considers Jordan its closest Arab ally—have committed to larger contributions of their own. In addition, Iraq plans to build a pipeline running from Basra to Aqaba, which would allow Jordan to collect copious transit fees. By the end of the year, King Abdullah could be celebrating an injection of funds worth $2 billion, almost eliminating his budget deficit.
The king’s advisers hope the influx of cash will help stave off social discontent, and that a new parliament with a strong East Bank representation and scant Palestinian presence will further divide the opposition. (In the coming weeks, the king will likely be able to play the Brotherhood, which seeks an extra-parliamentary deal to share power in exchange for continued allegiance to the monarchy, against the new delegates to parliament, who will demand as Jordan’s elected representatives that the king give them more say in legislation.)
Even with the additional aid, however, it will be difficult for the ruling house to keep up with expenses. Officials blame Jordan’s soaring budget deficit on his policy of subsidizing the Bedouin with government jobs, pensions, and perks for their expanding population, but also on the rise of Islamists in the region who are less friendly to the monarchy. After taking power in Cairo, for example, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi cut Egypt’s supply of cheap gas to Jordan in order to meet its own domestic shortages, a move that cost the kingdom an extra $2 billion in substitutes. Recent promises by Egypt to restore its Mubarak-era gas supplies have failed to materialize, and the flow has since slipped back to a quarter of its former level. Moreover, much of the aid from Gulf states is earmarked for capital projects, not budget support, and the lion’s share of US aid is spent on American goods, such as arms. For their part, critics say the Kingdom’s financial crisis has been precipitated by royal corruption and graft, not the loss of cheap Egyptian fuel.
For over a year, the police handled demonstrators with a remarkably light touch, on instructions not to carry arms and to keep loss of life to a minimum. But in September the king endorsed a press law allowing the government to jail bloggers operating without a government license. And following the November protests, the authorities arrested hundreds of people, referring a hundred of them, including nine children, to the State Security Courts—military tribunals otherwise reserved for terrorism, treason, and drug-smuggling.
With the break provided by the election now over, the coming weeks will offer an important test: If the king resorts to harsher measures rather than pursuing a compromise to keep his opposition on board, some observers think the monarchy itself could face a growing challenge. Should push come to shove, says Bassam Badareen, Al-Quds Al-Arabi’s veteran correspondent in Amman, “The Brotherhood has more stamina than the king.”
This is the second of two posts about Jordan in the new Middle East. The first, about Jordan’s growing problems with Syria, is here.