On September 2, 1991, the public liberties committee of the lower house of the Jordanian parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, issued a shocking report on torture of political detainees in Jordanian prisons. The shock was not that no one knew these things, but rather that the report had been issued by the parliament. It referred specifically to the abuse of detainees belonging to Muhammad’s Army, an underground Islamist group, arrested on charges of illegal arms possession and plotting attacks against Jordanian and Western targets in Jordan. [1] Despite the two-year old Jordanian glasnost, only al-Ribat, the weekly publication of the Muslim Brothers, initially printed the full report, although all three Arabic dailies carried Interior Minister Jawdat al-Subul’s denial of the charges.

The episode illustrates the fragility of the liberalization process in Jordan. The government press and publications department did approve the article in al-Ribat, but the important fact is that such a department still exists. Al-Ribat is published outside Jordan, and has not yet received official recognition inside the country. The liberalization process remains a “guided” experiment at best. The government still owns large shares of the newspapers, which hesitate to exercise their new freedoms, either because of remaining obstacles or because old-guard publishers and editors are too accustomed to the heavy hand of the government to break out of the habit of self-censorship.

Does the liberalization that has occurred add up to democratization? Democracy has been usefully defined as a system of governance that embodies:

meaningful and extensive competition among individuals and organized groups (especially political parties) for all effective positions of government power, at regular intervals and excluding the use of force; a highly inclusive level of political participation in the selection of leaders and policies, at least through regular and fair elections, such that no major (adult) social group is excluded; and a level of civil and political liberties — freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom to form and join organizations — sufficient to ensure the integrity of political competition and participation. [2]

None of these criteria have yet been entirely met in Jordan. To offer a feeble comparison with events in the Soviet Union, Jordan is undergoing an experiment in glasnost (openness) but has not yet ventured into serious perestroika (restructuring). [3] Certain aspects of Jordanian political life have been liberalized, but not others.

The initiative came from the regime. The government had been promising political reforms since 1984, but took no significant steps in that direction. In July 1988, after Jordan formally relinquished its authority over the West Bank and acknowledged the PLO’s claim to represent the Palestinians living there, it could no longer postpone elections on the pretext that West Bankers were not able to participate. King Hussein dissolved the old parliament (half of its members were drawn from the West Bank) and promised elections after revising the electoral laws.

Economic Dimension

This process took on new urgency following serious rioting in central and southern Jordan in April 1989, triggered by austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund. [4] The rioters denounced the austerity measures and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Zayd al-Rifa‘i. The riots broke out in towns and villages in the south which formed the backbone of East Bank Jordanian support for the regime, reflecting the extent of frustration in the “Hashemite core.” One of the most significant documents to emerge was a petition submitted by a group from the city of Karak demanding the resignation of Rifa‘i, a change in the electoral laws away from confessional-ethnic lines, punishment of officials for corruption, an end to austerity measures and greater democratization. A delegation from the city of Salt delivered similar demands to the king. [5]

The economic crisis underlying these disturbances had been mounting for many months. The regime had allowed external debt, unemployment and official corruption to go unchecked. Living standards were deteriorating. The regime needed to shore up its legitimacy through a measure of public participation in decisions over resource allocation, since it had no intention of lifting the austerity reforms. “The king has come to the conclusion that he cannot control the country in the way he did in the 1960s and 1970s,” observed Kamil Abu Jabir, now Jordan’s foreign minister, in 1989. “If he wants to maintain the continuity of the regime, he must share with the people.” [6] Many people were not willing to tighten their belts to pay for an economic crisis which they felt was the result of widespread corruption. The king dismissed Rifa‘i on April 24 and once again promised to allow general parliamentary elections, the first since 1967.

The democratic movement was not strong enough before the riots to successfully advocate its agenda. It took the upheaval over the deteriorating economy to give proponents of political liberalization a vehicle by which to press their demands. Democracy had been on the agendas of some for a while, but it was the regime’s fear of the riots which brought the process into the open, as professionals and businessmen used the opportunity to push their agendas.

The demands for democratization and government accountability came mainly from intellectuals and professional associations (lawyers, doctors, engineers). These well-educated persons resented the fact that they could not hope to break into the ruling elite on their own merits. Top positions always went to the same old faces, families and clans. Businessmen shared similar resentments: Sweetheart deals and lucrative commissions were traditionally channeled by insiders in their friends’ directions.

This system of cronyism is pervasive. During the riots, professional associations shrewdly hinted that the credibility of the king would be undermined in the absence of reforms. [7] The business sector wanted a more accountable government, more stable economic planning and greater public participation to prepare the masses for the austerity measures.

Elections in November 1989 represented the formal start of the proposed democratic reforms. In January 1990, anti-communist legislation was abolished, and political prisoners freed. Political parties, though still not legal, were allowed to function. Several parties regrouped after having been banned since 1957. As of now, some 90 parties have registered. [8]

The king formed a 60-member royal commission in April 1990 to draft a “national charter” that would regulate political life, allow for the return of political parties, and be a common denominator among the various parties and ideologies. [9] The king emphasized that only “national” parties would be tolerated: How “national” is interpreted will hold great importance for the Jordanian Popular Unity Party (an offshoot of the PFLP), the Jordan Democratic People’s Party (a DFLP offshoot) and even the Muslim Brothers.

Several factors indicate a move in the direction of liberalization: The government forbade the dismissal of employees on the basis of political orientation, reinstated activists in their former government positions, allowed exiles to return to the country, returned confiscated passports and allowed freedom of travel for “blacklisted” activists. Most martial law provisions were lifted in July 1991. [10] New parties have held open political debates and congresses, and oppositional journals are circulating (although some are still published abroad). The Jordanian Communist Party is no longer underground and even has a representative, ‘Isa Mudaynat, in Parliament. But the company which publishes their paper was threatened by the police with closure if anything appeared without prior approval from the intelligence service, a situation which may force the party underground again. [11] In June, the regime arrested six activists of the Jordanian Communist Party-Revolutionary Path on charges of slandering former Prime Minister Mudar Badran, only days after hailing the National Charter’s endorsement of a document guaranteeing civil liberties and pluralist politics. [12]

The liberalization process is still in a precarious stage. It is integrally linked with both the economic crisis and the “peace process.” Other factors which threaten this process include popular apathy, growing polarization between fundamentalists and liberals/leftists, conservative foes of the liberalization process and, finally, popular suspicions about its authenticity.

The economic crisis predated the Gulf war of 1991, but the war severely exacerbated the situation. [13] One of the gravest consequences was the deportation to Jordan of an estimated 275,000 Palestinians holding Jordanian passports, most of whom fled Kuwait and Iraq without belongings or savings. These refugees have taxed the country’s social services, especially the water supply and health care. [14] The refugees’ future prospects are bleak. The overall unemployment rate of 32 percent climbs to 83 percent among the refugees. [15]

Economic difficulties and overcrowding pose the threat of social unrest, stemming from sharp inflationary pricing for housing and food (rents have increased by 50 percent). [16] A deteriorating standard of living has left almost 1 million Jordanians living below the poverty line, including “about 150,000 who cannot afford to meet their basic human needs.” [17] The economic malaise has supplanted questions of political liberalization with concern for issues of daily livelihood. There is a general feeling of trauma in the country and little interest in politics, especially among the lower classes.

The Palestinian Factor

Jordan’s attempt to disengage itself from the West Bank suffered a setback when thousands of Palestinians carrying Jordanian passports arrived in the country. This accounts for the king’s enthusiastic support for the peace process as a way of keeping the country’s mounting economic difficulties from spilling over into the familiar patterns of Jordanian-Palestinian tension. The regime fears that Israeli de facto annexation of the West Bank to accommodate Soviet Jewish immigration could lead, in Prime Minister Tahir al-Masri’s words, to Jordan’s becoming “the dumping ground for millions of Palestinians from all over the world.” [18] A resolution of the conflict with Israel would also allow some reduction of the country’s defense budget (more than 30 percent of government spending), and reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and with the US, from whom financial assistance is badly needed.

The king signaled his stake in the peace process in June 1991 by replacing Mudar Badran as prime minister with Tahir al-Masri, a Palestinian who favors the peace process and enjoys good relations with the PLO. He also adjourned the current extraordinary session of Parliament until December, after the Madrid talks. The press has shifted from the attack mode it had adopted toward the US during the Gulf war to more conciliatory tones. The government banned a rally organized by Islamists against the Madrid conference, and seized editions of two newspapers. [19]

The country now faces growing polarization, both between the regime and the opposition (leftist and Islamist) and between secularists and Islamist militants. Both secularists and Islamists oppose the old guard, and both are represented in the professional ranks which led the charge for democratization. But while both seek to pry open the system, they part company over the Islamists’ desire to pursue a socio-religious agenda. They agree on democratic forms (democracy for all) but the secularists want a democracy which will guarantee individual rights. The Brothers, on the other hand, want democratic forms to allow them to gain power and alter the political and socioeconomic structure. The regime finds itself clashing with the fundamentalists, whom it had previously used against the left. The Muslim Brothers call for the liberation of all Palestine and refused to join al-Masri’s government. [20] A letter from the king to al-Masri in August 1991 characterized the Brothers’ influence in the media and mosques as “psychological terrorism.” [21] The Muslim Brothers later boycotted a “national conference” called by the king to broaden support for Jordanian participation in the Madrid talks. [22]

The Islamists’ gains also threaten liberals and leftists. Following their strong showing in the 1989 elections, the Brothers have since won municipal council elections in ‘Aqaba, and in al-Zarqa’ they entered into an alliance with tribal leaders who had lost in the 1989 elections and then sought to regain influence through an association with the Brothers. [23] Islamists also won the presidency of the medical association, the engineering association and the pharmacists’ association. The Muslim Brothers comprise the largest bloc in Parliament, with 22 seats; with their allies, they control more than one third of parliament and are the real opposition there. A factor in their increased support is that the leftist-nationalist support is largely limited to urban intellectual elites. The left’s failure in the elections showed that their concern with lofty political theories was not shared by lower-strata voters who struggled with concrete bread-and-butter issues and voted instead for the Brothers. This phenomenon has been repeated within professional groups and unions.

Following their boycott of al-Masri’s government, the Brothers have been accused of using democracy as a tactic to monopolize power, and as a threat to the democratic process. One leading commentator warned them to learn from the lessons of Algeria’s fundamentalists and moderate their ways. [24] Yet it is the government, not the Brothers, which is retreating. When 81 of 99 members of the Muhammad’s Army group who were not directly involved in planned acts of violence were released without trial, secularists condemned this “clemency” as a sop to the fundamentalists reflecting their growing power. [25] Had 81 leftists been caught in illegal possession of arms, there is little doubt about what their fate would have been.

By postponing the parliament and steamrolling Islamist opposition to the Madrid talks the regime displayed the leverage it can wield, but at the same time raised the prospect that the liberalization process might be derailed for the sake of the peace conference. Clearly, the process is going to be very controlled: In Tahir al-Masri’s words, “We will take it in small doses from the king.” [26]

The fact that ultimate political power rests with the throne, and that it is willing and able to exert this power, has led many to perceive no real change in the political institutions and the balance of forces. As Layth Shubaylat, a popular independent Islamist member of parliament, notes, “This is a decorative and superficial democracy which has not changed the reality of our situation; the power centers that administer and run the country are still there.” [27]

Ya‘qub Zayadin, the veteran Jordanian Communist Party leader, says that the people “do not believe the king is sincere.” [28] This lack of faith can be seen in the city council elections in Zarqa’, where only 21,000 of 64,000 registered voters (out of a population of 400,000) voted in the 1990 city council elections. [29]

Wider Scale

Many professionals and intellectuals insist on applying democracy on a wider scale, encompassing the educational system, the universities, the entire culture in the sense of freedom of thought, research, association and debate. Presently, it is limited to the parliament, parties and the press, but it should include socioeconomic rights — the right to form associations which would organize women, farmers, students and workers. Moreover, they stress the need to safeguard the constitutional rights of all citizens.

But democratization is not social liberalization, and not all those who support the former favor the latter. Both Islamists and secularists seek to break open the closed, corrupt clique of regime favorites and democratize the system. Where they go after that depends on how they view broader social questions. Recent Islamist victories within the professional organizations illustrate that there is no inherent contradiction between being a professional advocating democracy, yet supporting the Brothers’ call for instituting “Islamic morals.”

Jordan at the end of 1991 is plagued by three nagging problems: the struggle over the nature and bounds of democracy and the role of political parties in the country; the sense that Jordan is an incomplete entity which needs to be reunited with some larger, organic whole (Arab or Islamic, or both); and the question of what political role Jordan should play in the Palestinian conflict. Part of this problem is whether Palestinians in Jordan should act politically as Jordanians or Palestinians (or both).

The Islamists, and the Muslim Brothers in particular, are presently the best prepared to swim in the new, democratic waters of Jordan. They are well organized, and positioned to effect their policies in the spheres in which they dominate. The posts they have received in the government and the new democratic freedoms they enjoy have allowed them to propagate their ideals and even begin implementing some of them. Ministries headed by Islamists have separated men and women in their offices, for instance, and banned alcohol at official government functions. They also oppose talks with Israel, and organized a no-confidence vote that led Prime Minister al-Masri to resign in late November.

The left has not surrendered to the fundamentalists, but is struggling to retain its customary place in the Jordanian opposition. A number of leftist and nationalist groups joined together in late August 1991 to form a Jordanian-Arab Nationalist Democratic Coalition, claiming to have 20,000 followers. Even the old elite is fighting for survival, albeit in new, democratic garb. The traditional cliques which garnered support on the basis of tribal ties and patronage in the past are also making strides to recoup their losses in November 1989, even forming their own conservative parties as they realize that their past links with the regime may not assure their future political survival. But they lack clear ideologies and organization, and are thus ill suited to make electoral gains, especially among youth and among Palestinians.

In Jordan there is definitely a movement toward achieving the forms of democracy, but substance is another matter. Prevailing conditions — the Israeli threat, Palestinian uprootedness, the economic crisis and perhaps aspects of the political culture — will make progress difficult. The debate in Jordan over constitutional restraints on the monarchy and power sharing with Parliament is reminiscent of seventeenth-century England, where the issue took at least three centuries to settle. One must also keep in mind a certain paradox. Along with a genuine yearning for democratization, many intellectuals fear the possible tyrannical and exploitative tendencies of an Islamist majority rule. The great task ahead is to craft institutional and constitutional limits to protect individual rights while advancing the principle of majority rule.


[1] Foreign Broadcast Information Service, September 12 and September 19, 1991. Al-Sharq al-Awsat claimed that the “Muhammad’s Army” group also included members of the Palestinian wing of Islamic Jihad, which is linked to the Iranian-financed Hizballah in Lebanon. Mideast Mirror, July 31, 1991.
[2] Larry Diamond, Juan Linz and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds., Democracy in Developing Countries, Africa, vol. 2, p. xvi.
[3] Tahir ai-Masri used the expression glasnost in Jordan. Washington Post, October 3, 1989.
[4] There were earlier signs of the pending economic crisis. The Jordanian dinar was devalued by about 35 percent between October 1988 and June 1989, and in March 1989 the king was forced to suspend the purchase of $700 million worth of Tornado fighters from Britain. The Middle East (June 1989).
[5] Middle East International, May 12, 1989. Delegations from riot areas subsequently went to apologize to the king, but several key leaders reportedly did not go, and sent substitutes instead.
[6] New York Times, October 26, 1989.
[7] Middle East International, May 12, 1989
[8] They fall into three groups: parties formed in the early 1950s (Communists, the Muslim Brothers and the Liberation Party); parties dating from the early 1970s, such as the Jordanian Democratic People’s Party (Majd) and the Popular Front Organization in Jordan (PFLP); and parties declared in the 1988 or after the 1989 elections, most of which are still in the process of formation, such as the ‘Ahd party of ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Majali.
[9] The eight-chapter charter is in itself not legally binding and will require regulations to implement it. Those appointed to draw it up included leftists, liberals, Baathists, tribal leaders and religious fundamentalists. Only ten members were of Palestinian origin, and none from PLO groups. After a year of deliberation, the charter was announced on June 9, 1991, at a national conference attended by 2,000 delegates. It affirms the shari‘a as a basic source of law in Jordan, Arab-Islamic civilization as the basis of national identity, the equality of women and a constitutional, hereditary monarchy as Jordan’s form of governance. Mideast Mirror, June 10, 1991.
[10] These provisions banned public meetings, restricted freedom of speech and the press, and imposed military courts for ordinary criminal cases. Cases of gross corruption are still tried by a military court pursuant to martial law provisions. New York Times, July 8, 1991.
[11] Interview with Ya‘qub Zayadin, general secretary of the Jordanian Communist Party, in al-Shira‘, August 19, 1991.
[12] Mideast Mirror, June 13, 1991.
[13] Jordan’s total losses amounted to an estimated $1.5 billion for 1990 and about $2.5 billion for 1991. (The Middle East, July 1991). See also Eric Hooglund, “The Other Face of War,” Middle East Report 171 (July-August 1991).
[14] An estimated 120,000 Iraqis also fled to Jordan (Mideast Mirror, August 8, 1991). The government estimates that it needs about $29 million to offer health services and about $15 million to offer schooling to the newcomers (Middle East Economic Digest, August 30, 1991). It would need a further $350 million for job creation schemes and about $190 million to cover increased imports. It is estimated that Jordan would need about $3,700 million in capital expenditure to settle the returnees over a five-year period (Middle East Economic Digest, October 4, 1991).
[15] New York Times, October 3, 1991.
[16] Ibid.
[17] The Middle East, February 1991.
[18] New York Times, August 2, 1991.
[19] Washington Post, October 13, 1991.
[20] Mideast Mirror, July 18, 1991. Al-Masri’s government won a vote of confidence with 47 in favor and 31 against (all 24 of the Muslim Brothers, their allies, some pan-Arab nationalists and independents).
[21] Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1991.
[22] Mideast Mirror, October 3, 1991.
[23] Middle East International, May 25, 1990, p. 9.
[24] Comments by Mahmoud Rimawi, a leading commentator in al-Ra’y, Mideast Mirror, June 21, 1991.
[25] Mideast Mirror, September 2, 1991.
[26] Washington Post, October 3, 1989.
[27] FBIS, September 19, 1991.
[28] New York Times, October 26, 1989.
[29] Middle East International, May 25, 1990.

How to cite this article:

Abla Amawi "Democracy Dilemmas in Jordan," Middle East Report 174 (January/February 1992).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This