Political reformers in Jordan are struck by a sense of déjà vu. Jordan has been parliament-free since November 2009, when King ‘Abdallah II dissolved the legislature for not moving fast enough on his program of economic reform. The deputies had yet served even half of their four-year terms. Since then, a hastily assembled rump cabinet has been publishing its own laws, largely the very measures championed by the king but rejected or stalled by the last legislature. The king has done this before; for two years between 2001-2003, Jordan was without an elected assembly, during which time the cabinet introduced more than 200 “temporary laws.”

The government repeatedly promised that, on this occasion, Jordan would not remain parliament-free for longer than one year. And, indeed, on May 18, the cabinet passed a new temporary elections law that was endorsed by royal decree the next day. Parliamentary elections will be held on November 9.

Though Jordanian pro-democracy advocates certainly pressed for a return to parliamentary form, the days when these activists mark milestones on a road to democracy in Jordan are gone. Jordan is more accurately called a liberalized autocracy, the regime’s pretenses notwithstanding, and parliaments are intended to do the executive’s bidding. There is no reason to think that the new assembly will be any more amenable to royal wishes than the last one. In one respect, therefore, new elections perpetuate a cycle: new elections law, new parliament, stalemate on economic reforms, dissolution of parliament, flood of temporary laws, repeat.

But the November elections are far from irrelevant. The government hopes that they will at least temporarily focus attention away from growing economic problems and clan-based violence that has spread into Amman over the last year. Elections are a tried-and-true quick fix when the regime needs to reorient political discourse. In its zeal to stave off real popular participation in politics, however, the government has likely ensured that the elections will widen rather then close the fissures in Jordanian society over the long haul.

Adventures in Gerrymandering

Weeks after the dissolution of the parliament, the National Center for Human Rights (NCHR) issued a set of recommendations for revising the elections law in anticipation of new elections sometime in 2010. [1] The NCHR is a state agency created in 2002. It maintains administrative and fiscal independence from the government, although appointments of the director and board of trustees are made by royal decree. The first director was Ahmad ‘Ubaydat, who, as a former head of the General Intelligence Directorate and a former prime minister, was an odd choice for an autonomous human rights watchdog. The NCHR report was no whitewash, however. It called for numerous changes to the existing law, which was based on the 1993 elections law and had been revised several times over the years. The NCHR recommendations included increasing the number of quota seats for women and creating a mixed electoral system that would allocate a portion of “national” at-large seats by proportional representation. Most provocatively, the report leveled an explicit critique at the unequal distribution of seats across the population, drawing attention to the taboo but widely recognized fact that Jordan’s majority Palestinian population is effectively disenfranchised through the law. Numerous political parties, intellectuals, former government officials and civil society organizations lauded the NCHR report, formalizing their opposition to the existing law through the creation of a National Coalition to Reform the Legal Framework Governing the Electoral Process.

In announcing the new law in May, Prime Minister Samir Rifa‘i claimed that input from the NCHR and the National Coalition had been taken into consideration. A close look at the law, however, reflects business as usual, with only minor positive developments. The number of quota seats for women was doubled to 12, but the NCHR’s recommendation of a quota seat in each governorate was not incorporated. Only one woman, Toujan Faisal, was elected to Parliament prior to the adoption of the quota in 2007. Faisal won a seat in 1993; she is Circassian and nine seats are set aside to guarantee representation for Jordan’s Circassian and Christian populations. Government spokesperson Nabil Sharif told Jordanian reporters that the primary aim of the new law was to “ensure free and fair elections,” including an expanded role for judicial and civil society observers. To this end, the new law does mandate that the president of the Higher Judicial Committee appoint a deputy to the president of the Higher Election Committee from among high-ranking judges, with additional judges selected to serve as deputy to the president on every election subcommittee of the Higher Election Committee. The Ministry of Political Development will also appoint a representative (though not necessary a ministry employee) to serve on each committee.

The increased presence of judges on the elections committee is potentially a positive development if they are permitted to affect the process and act autonomously in confronting irregularities and electoral fraud. The minister of justice, Ayman ‘Awda, enjoys a reputation of being serious about reform, so there is reason to be hopeful that the judges’ participation will have a positive impact. The law also allows for monitoring of the elections, and in May Interior Minister Nayif Qadi announced that the NCHR and relevant Jordanian NGOs would be permitted to “witness” the elections; whether these groups will be allowed a presence inside the polling stations remains unclear.

The new law also seeks to prevent vote buying, which is reportedly a growing problem. Under the new law, vote buying and vote selling are punishable by up to seven years in jail, a sentence that cannot be replaced with a fine.

But the core of the previous elections law is intact. While the number of parliamentary seats was expanded from 110 to 120, including six additional quota seats for women (bringing the total to 12), only four additional seats have been added to address demographic imbalances in the system. One seat will be added for each of Zarqa, Irbid and the first and second districts of Amman, but these additions will have little impact. The southern part of the country will continue to have one seat allocated for every 3,000-5,000 citizens, while some districts in the north, particularly in metropolitan Amman where Palestinians are concentrated, will continue to have one seat for every 20,000 citizens or more. This imbalance is hardly accidental. It has largely been understood as a means of ensuring Transjordanian (rather than Palestinian) dominance in Parliament and weakening the performance of political parties, which are strongest in greater Amman. While the new seats might shift the imbalance slightly, government officials refuse to address the fundamental bias in the structure of the electoral system.

Over the past decade, the regime has gradually broken the electoral districts into smaller and smaller units. Under the new law, all districts with multiple seats will be broken into sub-districts, giving the country 108 single-seat sub-districts in which the winner will be decided by simple plurality — the candidate with the most votes in each sub-district wins. (The remaining 12 of the 120 seats are the women’s quota seats, which will be distributed to women candidates nationwide who receive the highest percentages of votes in their districts.) Voters will continue to have one vote, which they may cast for a candidate in any sub-district within their primary district. The sub-districts are administrative, not spatial, so that voters do not necessarily have to select a candidate who hails from their immediate residential area. Candidates, however, must choose which sub-district seat to contest — a system that is likely to create many rivalries as candidates strive to choose sub-districts with the weakest field of challengers. The new system also opens the possibility that a loser in one sub-district may have won more votes than the winner in another sub-district. This oddity of Jordan’s new system means that a given electoral district might be represented in Parliament by one or more politicians who were not among the top vote-getters in the district.

Undeserved Reputation

At least since 1993, this sort of inequity has been highlighted by all manner of domestic critics as well as international human rights groups and academics. But such criticisms have had little effect on the regime’s relations with foreign powers: In October 2001, Jordan quietly became the first Arab state to be granted Most Favored Nation trade status by the United States; in 2007, it qualified for Millennium Challenge Corporation funds aimed at advancing the world’s emerging democracies. Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, praised Jordan’s “great strides in its political development,” while presidential candidate Barack Obama is said by a palace insider to have told King ‘Abdallah, “Your Majesty, we need to clone you.” [2] Washington is likely to continue misrecognizing Jordan as a democratizer, despite the regime’s indisputably bad record of human rights violations, lack of transparency and failure to take meaningful steps toward democracy. [3] Washington is grateful to Jordan for its 1994 peace treaty with Israel and, in the post-September 11 era, its willingness to receive or pass along suspected terrorists though extraordinary rendition. [4]

The US is not alone in heaping undeserved plaudits upon Jordan for political reform. In May, the European Union issued a “neighborhood country progress report” on Jordan in which it also praised the country for its progress in the areas of “governance and transparency” as well as “human rights and fundamental freedoms.” [5] The report mentions the dissolution of parliament, but quickly moves on to note approvingly that the cabinet is tasked with “an ambitious reform program notably touching upon economic recovery and development of key sectors such as energy and transport, good governance, transparency and efficiency of the public service, decentralization and citizens’ participation.” The Europeans were also pleased by Jordan’s creation of an ombudsman’s office, which reported more than 2,700 claims against various government agencies and officials in the first six months after its formation in June 2009. On May 31, the EU announced an increase in annual aid to Jordan of 13 percent, providing the kingdom with an aid package worth 223 million euros (about $273 million) over the next three years.

Back in the real world, the political situation in Jordan is at best stagnant, and more likely deteriorating. In its 2010 report, the US-based Freedom House downgraded Jordan from “partly free” to “not free,” in large part due to the early dissolution of the parliament and subsequent foot dragging on scheduling new elections. The regime hopes that the new elections will show the world it is jump-starting the reform process, but Jordan has been billing itself as a budding democracy for so long that the act is wearing thin.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that while the electoral system has been calibrated over the years to produce a pro-regime parliament, the deputies returned by the polls have hardly been consistently compliant with the king’s wishes. True, few of them are wont to challenge the wildly unpopular peace treaty with Israel, as would Palestinians, Islamists and other political parties if they were to win a sizable bloc in the assembly. They are also much quieter about the kingdom’s collaboration in the US occupation of Iraq than the opposition forces would be. But parliament after parliament has also frustrated measures that the monarchy would like to see enacted. The cabinet passed two temporary laws aimed at improving the rights of women during the suspension of Parliament between 2001 and 2003, but those laws were among the first to be reviewed and rejected when the new legislature was seated in August 2003. The cabinet has also sent numerous economic reforms to the assembly, but the legislators failed to act on many while amending others beyond recognition. The regime continues to advocate policies that facilitate foreign investment and free trade, but do little to address the dire problems of poverty, unemployment and heavy dependence on foreign aid. To be sure, deputies have been concerned with these issues out of pork-barrel calculations rather than principle or even patriotism. For most Jordanians, the term economic liberalization means fewer and less secure public-sector jobs, which are still viewed as the ticket to a decent standard of living. Even the 20 young businessmen of the last assembly’s informal al-Ikha’ bloc, many of whom represented affluent Amman districts, were heavily pressured by constituents and did not consistently follow the cabinet’s neoliberal lead.

All these headaches have afflicted the government despite its having shut the opposition political parties out of Parliament, with the exception of the Islamic Action Front, which won only six seats in the 2007 elections, down from 17 in 2003.

Jordanian vs. Jordanian

In Jordan, the formal trappings of government have always been undergirded by tribal politics, such that access to jobs, schools, economic opportunity and social privilege has long been attached to extended family connections. Analyses of Jordanian politics have sometimes exaggerated the role of “tribes,” leading to sweeping generalizations such as “the tribes hold the real power” and “the survival of the monarchy depends on the support of the tribes.” Nevertheless, tribes are seen as “traditional” bases of support for the regime, protecting Transjordanian interests even as the Palestinian majority continues to grow in proportion.

Tribal and electoral politics intertwine most clearly when prominent tribal figures contest parliamentary seats. The 1993 election law effectively disadvantaged political parties — which together controlled 60 percent of the 1989 assembly, though they did not yet act as a single bloc — and increased the number of elite tribesmen in all subsequent assemblies. Indeed, the post-1993 roster of deputies and cabinet ministers reads like a Transjordanian who’s who: Names like ‘Ubaydat, Rifa‘i, ‘Abbadi and Dabbas appear again and again. In some areas in the 1990s, large extended families held informal primaries among themselves to eliminate intra-family competition at the polls and — if all went well — guarantee a spot for the clan.

But the past year has seen the resurgence of tribalism in the form of clan-based conflicts that have, at times, placed smaller towns under a virtual state of siege for days. These conflicts have now escalated in level of violence and, more worryingly, proliferated into parts of Amman, where such “primordial” ties were thought to be less salient.

The wave of clan violence dates to August 2009, when Ashraf al-Momani was stabbed to death by his ex-brother-in-law, a member of the Simadi clan, in ‘Ajloun. The Momani clan then set fire to the home of the killer and then homes and stores owned by other Simadis. The conflict lasted nearly a week even as the Public Security Department (PSD) and the Darak gendarmerie, a special unit under Interior Ministry control, blocked the entrances to town and top government officials met to work out a means of restoring calm. In November 2009, clan-based violence also emerged in Hayy al-Tafila, where a police raid resulted in a death. Riots broke out in the streets, sending six Darak officers to the hospital. Also in November, a lieutenant allegedly beat to death Fakhri Kreishan in the southern city of Maan; the police had stormed Kreishan’s home in an effort to apprehend a friend who was hiding there. In the spring in the city of Salt, near northwest Amman, two university students of different clans fought over a bus seat until one boy struck the other enough times to kill him. As in ‘Ajloun, roads into Salt were cut off for more than a day while the police and gendarmes sought to restore order. And in May, a supposed drug bust in the tony Khalda neighborhood ended in the death of ‘Abd al-Salam Nu‘aymat, a wealthy businessman and prominent figure in the Nu‘aymat clan, which has long-standing ties to the area. Nu‘aymat was shot seven times and died on the spot, leading rioters to burn a police kiosk and damage two police cars. In the past, such incidents might not have sparked immediate clan mobilization, but in 2009-2010 tensions have been so high as to require clan elders and (sometimes) external mediators to tamp them down.

According to tribal custom, conflicts between two clans can be resolved through arbitration, with fairly standard penalties depending on the severity of the precipitating incident. When a death is involved, the “guilty” party will appeal to the aggrieved party, who must agree to a sit-down to negotiate. If violence is ongoing, the aggrieved party may offer an ‘atwa, essentially a renewable truce lasting for three days during which the parties agree to stop all violence in order to facilitate the arbitration process.

When government forces are involved in a death, as they were in the Maan, Hayy al-Tafila and Khalda incidents, the elders of the “guilty” party’s clan typically approach the aggrieved clan. But increasingly, the PSD and Darak themselves have begun to act as clans, seeking an ‘atwa to bring a halt to violence and agreeing to pay such traditional compensation as 10,000 Jordanian dinars (about $14,000) for a death. One PSD officer said that “a few years ago, it wasn’t necessary, but now the PSD needs to get an ‘atwa as soon as possible to prevent people from rioting.” [6]

The PSD reported 229 violent clan-based conflicts in 2009, which it described as a jump from previous years. “The year 2009 witnessed a marked increase in the number and form of brawls with a social background in an unprecedented manner in Jordanian society,” said Mazin al-Qadi, chief of the PSD, during a meeting on January 22 on “the rule of law and social tensions.” [7] Al-Qadi attributed the violence not to a resurgence of tribalism, but to a breakdown of tribal discipline, as individuals take matters in their own hands but clan leaders must still take responsibility for cleaning up the mess. These conflicts increasingly demand government intervention — usually to stop the conflict and restore order during the period of the ‘atwa. But what is particularly troubling is the extent to which government agencies are becoming involved as parties to the conflict rather than arbitrators.

Jordanians themselves seem to disagree on the reasons for the ratcheting-up of clan-based conflicts. Some blame the economic reforms that disenfranchise portions of the population, rendering family connections ever more essential for obtaining jobs, housing and places in schools. Jordanians suffering serious poverty and social inequality express increased frustration with a system that has long neglected their wellbeing. Others point to the electoral system, suggesting that the ways in which the law disadvantages organized political parties at the expense of the regime’s “loyal tribal support base” has been a direct factor in elevating the local authority and importance of clans. As one political observer in Jordan said, “You realize that we are not electing a parliament; we are choosing a tribal council.”

The Coming Campaign

During the upcoming election season, more conflict may erupt between clans as they grapple for seats in the new assembly. The elections will be used by the regime largely as they were in 1989: to placate the public in times of economic hardship, as well as to deflect attention from the increasingly ambient fears that more Palestinians from the West Bank will be permanently settled in Jordan as part of a Palestinian-Israeli peace. Given the content of the new elections law, the parliament itself may serve as a body that reinforces rather than softens clan-based identity, particularly as citizens feel increasingly disenfranchised from a government and regime that does not appear to be looking after them.

Darkening these omens are the significantly heightened tensions between Jordanians of Palestinian and Transjordanian origin. The latter view themselves as “owning” the country, with Palestinians being unwelcome interlopers who bring with them the troubles next door. A more virulent strain of Jordanian nationalism has emerged. The nationalist hardliners are critical of the Palestinian majority and of the regime for its supposed support for them. These views have proponents in high places, resulting in such policies as the seemingly arbitrary revocation of passports for some Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin, as Human Rights Watch has documented. If Jordanians continue to retreat into perceived ethnic and clan-based identity groups, relying on forms of justice parallel to the formal state sector, the regime’s multi-million dollar national unity campaigns will provide window dressing for a vacant building. One observer commented that if Jordan seems beset with violence now, the conflict would double in intensity if Palestinians were allowed fair representation in Parliament. Several Palestinians hold high positions in government, a fact that draws constant grumbling from prominent Transjordanian families.

So the regime remains committed to producing a parliament drawn primarily from its traditional power base in the “tribes,” and as usual, the real losers will be the Jordanian citizenry, along with the prospects for meaningful political reform. The regime is digging itself deeper into a hole by promulgating an election law that strengthens rather than weakens clan-based identities, even as it relies on clans to support its economic reform program and its foreign policy commitments to Israel and the US. The November 9 polling will return a “pro-regime” assembly, if only because the regime has become skilled at excluding any group deemed undesirable. Only the traditional elites will be able to muster the support to win seats in any given sub-district. Business as usual will perdure, but the result is likely to be increased clan violence and political exclusion rather than continuation of the status quo.


[1] The report is available at: http://www.nchr.org.jo/pages.php?menu_id=&local_type=111&local_id=24&local_details=1&local_details1=&localsite_branchname=NCHR.
[2] Rana Sabbagh-Gargour, “Concerns About the Region,” Bitter Lemons International, November 20, 2008.
[3] For background, see Sameer Jarrah, “Civil Society and Public Freedom in Jordan: The Path of Democratic Reform,” Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institute, Working Paper 3 (July 2009); Human Rights Watch, Shutting Out the Critics: Restrictive Laws Used to Repress Civil Society in Jordan (New York, December 2007); and International Crisis Group, The Challenge of Political Reform: Jordanian Democratization and Regional Instability (Amman/Brussels, October 2003).
[4] Ken Silverstein, “US, Jordan Forge Closer Ties in Covert War on Terrorism,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2005.
[5] The report is available at: http://ec.europa.eu/delegations/jordan/press_corner/all_news/news/2010/20100512_01_en.htm.
[6] Interview with author, name withheld by request, Amman, June 4, 2010.
[7] Quoted by al-Shorfa at http://www.al-shorfa.com/cocoon/meii/xhtml/en_GB/features/meii/features/main/2010/02/15/feature-02.

How to cite this article:

Jillian Schwedler "Jordan’s Risky Business As Usual," Middle East Report Online, June 30, 2010.

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