When anti-monarchical revolution swept the Middle East in the 1950s, Jordan was one of the few populous Arab states to keep its king. King ‘Abdallah II, son of Hussein, the sole Hashemite royal to ride out the republican wave, has all the credentials to perform a similar balancing act. Aged 49, he has been in charge for a dozen years, unlike his father, who was just 17 and only a few months into his reign when the Egyptian potentate abdicated in 1952. And the son has grown accustomed to weathering storms on the borders, whether the Palestinian intifada to the west or the US invasion of Iraq to the east.
Why is it, then, that the Jordanian monarchy seems so alarmed amidst the revolution sweeping the Middle East today? In part, the king knows he is out of touch with the times. By regional standards, he remains young, but he is still twice the age of the youth marching in the streets from Rabat, Morocco to Manama, Bahrain. The population that he rules has begun to tire of his performance: For over a decade, he has mouthed the platitudes of reform but failed to deliver. And unlike in the 1950s, when Western powers backed his fellow rulers, he may feel than he can no longer fully rely on the support of his main external patron, the United States, which seems to have nudged Husni Mubarak of Egypt toward the exit.

Promises, Promises

So far, ‘Abdallah’s response to the regional uproar has been to retreat inward. On the heels of demonstrations in Amman and other cities, he dismissed the cabinet and promised a new clutch of ministers more responsive to popular demands. But while presenting a reformist face, he moved to reappoint a hardliner, Ma‘rouf al-Bakhit, the prime minister to whom he turned when the kingdom faced its worst-ever terror attacks, on high-end Amman hotels in November 2005. A retired general, ex-head of a top security agency and former ambassador to Israel, Bakhit could be relied upon to crack down on radical Islamists and fiddle with legislative elections to prevent the less militant Muslim Brothers from repeating the electoral successes of sister organizations in Egypt and Palestine. Importantly to a king who reputedly has a penchant for gambling, Bakhit also signed off on Jordan’s first casino. “A puppet,” spat a retired army colonel when asked about the new prime minister.

Bakhit’s first steps in office suggest a counter-reformation more than a liberalization. Within days of his appointment on February 1, the authorities hacked into dissident blogs and closed down websites, sent hired thugs to disperse peaceful opposition protests and placed Layth Shubaylat, a veteran Islamist critic, under permanent police guard. The official news agency, Petra, released diatribes against journalists who questioned royal integrity. Diplomats consider the new cabinet more reactionary than the last.

Initially, though, the appointment of Bakhit seems to have worked in restoring calm. The street protests, never all that impressive, have subsequently failed to acquire Bahraini — let alone Egyptian — proportions. The police responded to the demonstrators with handouts of water bottles rather than truncheons. East Bankers, the term for Jordanians of non-Palestinian descent, have cheered Bakhit’s return. The kingdom’s Palestinian population, perhaps the majority though figures are proscribed, did not rebel. And the Muslim Brothers, too, the country’s largest organized opposition movement, appear at least partly mollified by the king’s decision to grant them an audience, the first such meeting since he ascended the throne in 1999.

But in back rooms, the backbiting is louder than ever. The protests that erupted across the kingdom marked less an uprising than the collapse of a legally sanctioned taboo that rendered the king inviolable and untouchable. Recent weeks have seen an outpouring of criticism — fair and foul — as resentments pent up for a decade found release. The first protests broke out in southern Jordan, focusing on rising prices, corruption and stagnant wages in the public sector, and blaming the country’s ruling class. Unrest rapidly spread to other locales and across social boundaries, including among men who once served in the army. “Soldiers are like other citizens,” says Gen. ‘Ali Habashna, a member of the National Committee of Military Veterans, which claims to represent 140,000 pensioned security men and counts several ex-generals among its ranks. The Committee has called on former law enforcers to break the law by demonstrating without a license. “They’re also hurt by the government. Tunisia and Egypt have opened their eyes.”

Uppity East Bankers

The most vocal protests came from Jordan’s East Bank tribesmen, a pillar of Jordan’s security regime since the Hashemites first rode into the kingdom in 1917. In return for their support, East Bankers have looked to the monarch to provide job opportunities and other patronage. But, under King ‘Abdallah, cracks have emerged in the pact. Privatization has eroded the public sector, long the employer of first and last resort for East Bankers, while the private sector has reaped growing profits. The fact that many of the beneficiaries were Palestinians — after the Black September revolt of 1970, many had their avenues to the public sector blocked — only heightened East Bankers’ ire. In what has become a turbid current in Jordanian politics, the East Bankers perceive a fall from grace as a more sophisticated, globalized nouveau riche, made up particularly of Palestinians, rises. Symbolizing the change, tribesmen rant that that no sooner had they brought their tributary trays of mansaf, the lamb rack doused in yogurt that is prized as Jordan’s national dish, than the king began eyeing his Rolex, in marked contrast to the respectful manners of his father.

Not surprisingly, much of the vitriol is focused on the king’s wife, Queen Rania, who is denounced as an outsider, because of her Palestinian origins, and supposed to be a ringleader of the East Bank’s dispossession. In one petition reflecting the hostile new discourse, three dozen tribesmen lambasted Rania’s lavish lifestyle, portraying her as Jordan’s counterpart to the wife of deposed Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, through whose relatives much of the country’s business was channeled. The petition accused her of expropriating state land to build her own school, diverting monies from the kingdom’s overstretched budget to finance birthday parties in the Wadi Rum desert, and using her influence to appoint favorites to senior positions or win citizenship for Palestinians, particularly those married to Jordanians. (One bureaucrat who began on a government salary parachuted in to run the king’s diwan, leaving office as a crony capitalist with a luxury house he sold for millions. Similar tales abound: a health minister who contracted work to his own pharmaceutical company, a manpower minister who employed his own migrant worker agency and an irrigation minister who watered his own date plantation.) “Sooner or later,” warned the petition, Jordan would be deluged by “the flood of Tunisia and Egypt due to the suppression of freedoms and looting of public funds.”

The dam at Dhiban, the town 43 miles south of Amman where the protests first flared up, offers a vivid illustration of the upturned hierarchies. Not only did the dam’s construction inundate fertile tribal lands, residents gripe, but it channels water away from the surrounding fields to Amman for the swimming pools of the rich. Local cultivators (with the exception of a former minister) are banned from using the dammed water for irrigation, leaving nearby pastures parched. Farmers who once grew tomatoes have been forced to sell. The inhabitants of Dhiban seethe at the collapse in land prices: While they move to the cities, their town has attracted an influx of “settlers” — Palestinians from the cities buying plots for country homes on the cheap. Privatization of the nearby phosphates factory has further led to the substitution of foreign for local labor, deepening Dhiban’s economic crisis and these East Bankers’ fear of slipping from their once paramount status. Even the gatekeeper of the dam is Palestinian. “We’re a minority in our own country,” says Muhammad Sunayd, a government official who led the first revolt.

The king’s first remedy was to buy off the protesters. As part of an emergency $550 million economic package, he raised government salaries and pensions, and partially reinstated subsidies on fuel and food. But the pay hikes — a meager $30 per month — did little to offset the increases in taxation that the state has also imposed. And the royal attempts to address the complexities of a modern economy with tidbits of noblesse oblige sparked more political demands, for instance, calls for greater representation commensurate to the rising tax and utility bills. “We’re not after candies,” said a leftist opposition leader.

Having failed to dim the outcry, ‘Abdallah resorted to the Hashemites’ time-honored safety valve of dismissing the prime minister. (Jordan’s four kings have changed premiers 72 times.) The move went some distance toward mitigating East Bank anger. Bakhit’s predecessor, Samir al-Rifa‘i, had all the traits East Bank populists despise. He was of Palestinian origin (though he and his father were born in Jordan); he inherited his title (his father was also a prime minister); he ran a private business (Jordan Dubai Capital); and his fiscal austerity measures earned plaudits from the International Monetary Fund, whose recommendations are viewed in Jordan as having instigated the decline of the public sector.

But the tactic has only partly worked. Rather than dull the edge of East Bankers’ demands, the measures have galvanized the protesters to up the ante. A new spate of demonstrations in Dhiban called for more than government jobs, expanding its slogans to include the restoration of lands, or wajihat, that tribesmen claim were assigned to them under the British Mandate. Despite their general approval of Bakhit’s appointment, protesters briefly cut off the country’s two main highways linking Amman to the south.

West Bankers, Too

Ironically, the offspring of the Palestinian fighters who led the 1970 revolt against King Hussein now find themselves among the king’s most ardent defenders. Having reinvented themselves as businessmen, they led a real estate boom in Amman, turning the Jordanian capital into the most populous Palestinian city in the world. In their luxury homes, businessmen drown their sorrows over the billion dollars that brokers say Jordan’s stock exchange has shed during the turmoil in North Africa, and warn of the threat of mobs breaking out of the impoverished suburbs if the protests escalate. “How stupid these people are,” wrote Mahir Abu Tayr in the official daily al-Dustour. “Can’t they see that destroying Jordan would destroy their homes and livelihoods as well?”

The absence of Palestinians in the initial protests was a common East Banker refrain. Palestinians, complained East Bank activists, care more about foreign issues, such as Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza, than local ones.

The truth was rather different. If Palestinians were quiet, it was largely because their leaders were too traumatized by the 1970 crackdown to intervene in domestic politics. Even when they raised their voices at football matches — supporting Wihdat, the eponymous team of the Palestinian refugee camp in central Amman — they risked being clobbered by East Banker forces. The darak, the gendarmerie created by King ‘Abdallah shortly after he ascended the throne, wounded scores when Wihdat fans celebrated their victory over Faysali, a mainly East Banker side, in October 2010. If Palestinians have championed foreign issues, it is largely because they are safer.

Even so, Palestinians tentatively joined the January protests as they spread north. The Society of Muslim Brothers, which for many Palestinians has served as their political voice, lent the demonstrations support, broadening their thrust in tandem to demand that the king relinquish some of his absolute powers and entrust the people — not himself — with choosing the prime minister. In addition, they demanded proportional representation in place of the current election system of constituencies, which is grossly gerrymandered in favor of the predominantly East Banker south. (A parliamentary constituency in Tafila, a southern town, encompasses a few hundred voters, while one in Amman is home to tens of thousands.) Some also demanded citizenship and voting rights for the estimated million-plus Palestinians resident in Jordan who lack both.

The collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian political process and widespread despair of Palestinian statehood any time soon have increased Palestinian demands for realization of equal rights inside Jordan. The latter feeling has been deepened by Al Jazeera’s release of Palestinian negotiators’ records. “Jordan has lost its defensive buffer of a Palestinian state,” says ‘Urayb Rantawi, director of the Amman-based al-Quds Center for Strategic Studies and a sometime royal adviser. “People are no longer waiting. They want their rights now.”

As with the tribes, ‘Abdallah’s seeming disdain for the Muslim Brothers, particularly compared to his father, has fueled the antagonism. Soon after assuming power, ‘Abdallah exiled the representatives of Hamas from his kingdom, and banned membership in that organization, a particular affront to the Brothers’ Palestinian rank and file. He banned the Brothers’ preachers from the mosque pulpits, and padlocked mosque doors between prayer times to thwart subversive public assembly. Bakhit’s reappointment revived memories of his first term, when anti-Islamist measures and vote rigging peaked following the Amman bombings. As a measure of their disenchantment, the Brothers’ political wing, the Islamic Action Front, boycotted the November 2010 elections. As in Egypt, their absence weakened parliamentary credibility and the legitimacy of the establishment’s governing structures.

By the time the protests reached Amman, Islamists, unions, teachers, leftists and white-collar groups had joined in alongside army veterans and tribal chiefs. Middle-class youth who had shrunk from activism sloughed off their fear of Jordan’s efficient, omnipresent mukhabarat — at least on Twitter. Journalists who had previously not only switched off their phones but removed the batteries and SIM cards before whispering court gossip now voiced criticisms with their names publicly attached. “People power in Egypt and Tunis opened our mouths,” said a pharmacist in Wihdat. Beneath a royal portrait, a leading Brother predicted a collision, and the spread of a Tunisian “virus” to the Arab heartlands. “Tunisia’s revolution is like the French. It will hit the Arab world and topple rulers in the same way the French Revolution did in Europe,” said Zaki Bani Rashad, politburo chief of the Islamic Action Front.

Certainly, a bird’s-eye view of Jordan’s demonstrations would have noted certain similarities with Tunisia’s. Both protests began in the south and focused initially on economic issues, acquiring greater political import as they progressed to the north. What the protests lacked in quantity, remarked one participant, they gained in their qualitative spread.

Worryingly for the king, the demonstrators’ demands were echoed in the salons of some of his closest advisers and the complaints became increasingly personal. Despite the likenesses of the ruling couple hanging in their headquarters, leading Muslim Brothers echoed tribal criticism of Queen Rania, sniping that she preferred to spend Ramadan sunbathing on a yacht off the Italian Riviera than in a mosque. The jibes have yet to reach the level of loathing that overthrew North Africa’s leaders, but the royal image has been badly tarnished. In the south, Bedouins hung portraits not of the king, but of Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator who once showered them with handouts. And the banners celebrating the king’s January birthday, which normally bedeck the kingdom’s towns, were few and far between in 2011. Loaded with ambiguity, the crowds protesting outside Amman’s Egyptian embassy chanted, “Down with Mubarak,” but also with oppression and tyranny region-wide. And more are holding the king directly responsible for the discontent, not only his ministers. “We are asking questions we never uttered before,” said Jihad Barghouti, a veteran leftist leader.

Cards Left to Play

How will the king handle the widening gap between ruler and ruled? Some senior officials predict a Gorbachev moment wherein the monarch opens up the system to preempt the street in setting the pace. But even the king’s own proxies wonder about his ability to change course, noting the past instances of paying lip service to reformist agendas while repeatedly opting to rule by decree. “Political change in the Arab world is linked to regime change,” said Rantawi, who the king appointed in 2002 to draw up a reform program, only to find his recommendations shelved.

Much of the outcome depends on the opposition groups’ success in maintaining a semblance of a united front, and King ‘Abdallah’s in splitting them. The parlous state of the kingdom’s economy, amidst rising fuel prices and mounting public debt, has done much to give Jordan’s rival halves something akin to a common cause for fairer distribution of power and wealth. Tribal leaders in the south spoke of coordinating protests with refugee camp representatives. In the decade since ‘Abdallah took over, Jordan’s per capita GDP has grown from $1,650 to almost $4,000. But the gap between haves and have-nots has widened, and while the rich speak of tightening belts, hundreds of thousands of others have fallen below the poverty line. With a two-pound packet of meat costing 9 dinars (over $12), even those with jobs speak of a struggle of survival. “We haven’t had meat for two months,” said a once middle-class father of four.

While restored subsidies offer temporary respite, businessmen and economists fear that Bakhit will further ease subsidy cuts, thus reversing the fiscal discipline and budget pruning of the Rifa‘i government, deepening deficits which had hitherto doubled and exacerbating Jordan’s long-term economic malaise. “This government can be expected to shift its priorities from sound fiscal management to sound security and stability,” said one of the king’s proxies, noting that in his previous term Bakhit had upped government salaries to buy off dissent. Compounding these concerns, much of the Gulf investment Jordan had attracted prior to the global recession has been repatriated. Cranes hang idle over unfinished tower blocks, including the landmark redevelopment of downtown Amman’s ‘Abdali neighborhood.

The king has many cards left to play. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, whose populations are mostly drawn from a single “ethnic” stock, Jordan’s polychrome composition makes the citizenry susceptible to policies of divide and rule. Many Jordanians still hold to the nursery-rhyme diktat of keeping hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse; without the royal linchpin, warn many of the king’s men, the country could descend into civil war. Moreover, fear of the not-so-secret police continues to induce compliance. The government’s refugee affairs department running the Wihdat camp bars any resident from talking to a foreigner without permission. Jordanians seeking employment in banks or even as taxi drivers are required to produce a clean bill of health from the mukhabarat. Taxi drivers protest their loyalty to the king almost before citing their fare. But there is a recognition that they do so “not out of love, but out of fear,” says a veteran Palestinian activist.

Should the discontent grow, regardless, where might King ‘Abdallah look next? However awkwardly, the king has already initiated a tentative overture to the Islamists. Much as his father relied upon them as a strategic reserve against a Nasserist-inspired Egyptian tide, he could yet engage them fully. By empowering their disenfranchised followers, particularly Palestinians, such a gambit might help still discontent, as well as attract capital back from the Gulf. But the price would be to weaken further East Banker influence on the governing structures and to lend credence to those who claim Jordan is evolving into a Palestinian state. This move might also impair the king’s strategic orientation toward Israel and, more broadly, his Western patrons, at a time of greater royal need. For all the damage done to the West’s credibility in the region, that is a shift the Westernized ‘Abdallah is unlikely to undertake unless desperation sets in.

How to cite this article:

Nicolas Pelham "Jordan’s Balancing Act," Middle East Report Online, February 22, 2011.

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