For months prior to Jordan’s parliamentary elections, concluded on January 23, both the state apparatus and the opposition had been building up the contests as a moment of truth. The state presented the polls as a critical juncture in the execution of its strategy of gradual political reform; the opposition, riding the momentum of two years of concerted street protests, staged a boycott it hoped would delegitimize the whole endeavor.
The November 13 withdrawal of fuel and electricity subsidies has sparked vigorous demonstrations in Jordan, prompting renewed speculation about whether the wave of Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 has finally arrived in the Hashemite Kingdom. Indeed, amidst the rush of scholarly attempts to explain why uprisings did or did not occur in various Arab countries in 2011, Jordan is proving a stubborn case. Jordan fits nearly all the criteria for an uprising, but sustained protest has yet to take root.
Although Jordan may appear little affected by the Arab uprisings, as early as January 2011 Jordanians were in the streets for the same reasons Tunisians and Egyptians were: protesting against economic conditions and privatization of state resources, demanding the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet, and calling for political reform and an end to elite corruption. The protests persist, with marches nearly every week, and include traditional opposition groups like the Muslim Brothers and leftists, as well as self-proclaimed “popular reform movements” that are forming throughout the country. At least two umbrella organizations have emerged to bring these movements together.
Despite sharing some of the socio-economic and political problems that propelled uprisings in other Arab countries, Jordan remains an exception to the trend. And if it can be kept that way, much of the world inside the Beltway will celebrate.
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.
The Iran-Iraq war was fought entirely within the boundaries of the two combatant nations, but it was nonetheless a regional war. The war machine of Saddam Hussein’s regime was lubricated with billions of dollars in loans from the Arab oil monarchies, which were anxious to see the revolutionary state in Tehran defeated, or at least bloodied. Iraqi warplanes harried ships seeking to load Iranian oil at the Kharg island terminal and points south on the Persian Gulf coast. In 1987, the US Navy intervened to protect tankers and other commercial traffic from Iranian reprisals. These heated entanglements presaged the degree to which the war was to transform the political economies of many countries in the vicinity.
The school in Dahiyat Amir Hasan in East Amman is only half-finished, but even through the rubble and the clouds of concrete dust it is clear that the education there will be very different than in Jordan’s other government-run schools. The classrooms are spacious and positioned around multi-purpose areas that can be used for team teaching or supervised recreation. Downstairs there are science labs equipped with vapor hoods, sinks and Bunsen burners, and set up for students to conduct experiments in groups. There is a gym, an art studio and a music chamber — none of which facilities are standard in Jordanian public schools. The corresponding subjects, in fact, are often left out of the curriculum.
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.”
“Look at that!” said Muhammad ‘Asfour, an environmentalist and avid nature photographer, pointing to a picture of a boat and wooden staircase perched well above the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea. “Do you see how far they are from the waterline?”
“Angela” came to Jordan to work as a housekeeper because she is a single mother and needs to save for her children’s schooling. She paid a recruiter in the Philippines 11,000 pesos, about $234, “for the processing of my papers.” An hour before she went to the airport, she says, she signed a contract written in Arabic, a language she does not read. She did not see an English-language copy. Her recruiter told her she would receive $150 per month.
Ask any Jordanian in Amman about Iraqis in their country, and they will immediately tell you that Iraqis have driven up the prices of virtually everything in the capital. Apartments cost double what they did five years ago. The prices of food and gasoline have soared. Iraqis arrive with suitcases full of cash, drive around in expensive cars and make life much more difficult for Jordanians—or such is the widespread belief.
From time to time, the boring economic data regurgitated by Jordan’s amply staffed ministries offers up a tantalizing mystery. In the Monthly Statistical Bulletin (May 2004) published by the Central Bank of Jordan, for example, one learns that Jordanian export of refined oil products increased 46 times over from 2002 to 2003 — a trend that continued well into 2004. This is certainly odd, since Jordan has no proven oil reserves.
Jordan is the poster child for the Bush administration project of “transforming” the political order in the Middle East through free trade. If Jordan is any guide, however, economic liberalization does not lead inexorably to the diffusion of political power.
An avid enthusiast of Ariel Sharon and his unilateral disengagement plan recently opined that the plan “has one inborn defect: it has no vision, has no diplomatic horizon and is devoid of any ideological dimension.”  This view of the Israeli prime minister — tactically brilliant but lacking as a strategic thinker — is common but mistaken. Sharon clearly belongs in the pantheon of master tacticians in modern politics, but he does indeed have a long-term strategy — and disengagement fits right in.
When Washington cites examples of the potential for reform and democracy in the Arab world, Jordan is one of the first countries mentioned. For the first time since 1997, Jordanians went to the polls last month to vote for parliament, and by most accounts the elections went smoothly. Voter turnout topped 52 percent and stability was maintained, with a clear majority of the seats going to pro-government candidates. Islamists, though they later questioned the outcome, added credibility to the process by taking part in the elections rather than boycotting them. In the end they captured only 17 out of 110 seats, far fewer than expected. Jordanian women took a step forward, with six parliamentary spots specially set aside for females.