The continued existence and potential expansion of the Islamic State undermines the legitimacy of the Middle East’s constitutional monarchies.
The Middle East and North Africa‘s constitutional monarchies are surviving the upheaval of the Arab Spring. Morocco and Jordan, two key US allies in the region, are popularly billed as constitutional monarchies. The two kingdoms are generally regarded as “islands of stability” in an imploding region that offer consistent support for US objectives in the Arab world, particularly in the realm of regional security.
Although these two kingdoms are separated by over 2,500 miles on opposite ends of the greater Middle East, they are frequently billed as being the same type of regime following a similar strategy of coopting challenges to their ruling system. States like Morocco and Jordan are key because, until now, they have managed to retain a qualitative advantage in the institutional capacity of their respective states, crystallizing the regime’s rule while preserving a sense of legitimacy. It is this model of the state, where the ruling regime is buttressed by legitimacy created from strong state institutions, that will lead to long-term stability in the Middle East.
Morocco and Jordan are held in high regard as examples of monarchies that will “fade” into a republican, democratic government over time through a commitment to a phased transitional process. These constitutional monarchies are believed to have the ability to slowly transition their societies into a more participatory form of governance, in an effort to co-opt instability and rebellion before it devolves into violence. This slow and methodical process of democratization is stated to be a safeguard for the security of these nations while undergirding the social contract between the monarch and the will of the people.
Accordingly, these two countries should represent the type of regime that can prevent the bloodshed and Islamist radicalization that is associated with the popular revolutions and counterrevolutions that have occurred in the Middle East since December 2010.
The popular legitimacy of the monarchies in Morocco and Jordan has traditionally been based upon a historical and cultural mechanism of deference to a ruler with a very specific type of sociopolitical credential. This is based upon the position of the monarch as a strong and rightly guided commander of their faithful Muslim subjects with ancestry from the Prophet Muhammad through the Alaouite Dynasty, in the case of Morocco, or from the prestige of holding direct descent from the bloodline and tribal lineage of al-Sharif — descendants of the venerated Quraysh tribe, which the prophet was a member of — in the case of Jordan.
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, according to this metric, is the Emir al-Mu’amineen (Leader of the Faithful) presiding over a strong state that has existed since the 17th century and which enjoys significant international backing and security assistance. Moroccans are believed to view the current king as being more tolerant of open political discussion than his father, enjoying wider popular support while still exerting dominant power over his country. Jordan’s King Abdullah II claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad through the Hashemite clan, a subgroup of the Quraysh tribe, whose rule extended from Jordan to Iraq and Saudi Arabia prior to the founding of the modern Jordanian state.
A fundamental element of Jordanian nationalism asserts the symbolic potency of the history of the Hashemite monarchy’s important and esteemed tribal lineage as the sociopolitical foundation of its kingdom. Despite the mounting internal economic and demographic and external political pressures that have been caused by the Syrian Civil War, the rapid growth of Amman as a regional center of commerce — and as the country of refuge for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict in neighboring Iraq and Syria — Jordan has thus far remained stable, indicating the potential for a long-term and enduring monarchical regime presided over by the Hashemite dynasty. Although Jordan operates an efficient and active internal security service, the economic and demographic pressure of high youth unemployment, widespread economic inequality and the growing antipathy of the monarchy’s traditional Arab tribal constituency toward it place increasing stress on Jordanian sociopolitics.
Emphasizing the importance of stability in Morocco and Jordan, in 2014, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) voted to expand its membership to include these two constitutional monarchies. The promise of much needed financial aid from the GCC could be enough of an incentive for both Jordan and Morocco to seriously consider joining. Most important to the GCC countries is that Morocco and Jordan are considered to have excellent security services, with long track records of aggressively confronting domestic Islamist and Salafist challenges to their rule. Both countries are also enthusiastic participants in the ongoing US-led coalition air campaign against the Islamic State (IS).
The Islamic State as a Legitimacy Challenge
The maturation of IS into a quasi-state, however, challenges the legitimacy of these two constitutional monarchical regimes. The leader of IS, the self-declared “Caliph Ibrahim” — aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Quarayshi — claims to have similar tribal lineage to the Prophet Muhammad and has self-styled himself as the Leader of the Faithful of the umma (global Muslim community). Baghdadi’s assertion is that his rule is an inevitably successful, divinely guided world mission that is authentic to the cultural and sociopolitical traditions of the Arab people. The cultural mechanisms of legitimacy that are cultivated by the Moroccan and Jordanian monarchies may not be a powerful enough argument against the appeal of the Islamic revolution led by IS’ caliph.
As a self-declared Hashemite with descent from the Prophet Muhammad, a religious scholar and a successful military commander, Baghdadi offers an alternative leadership role model for frustrated, politically active Islamists and Salafists in Morocco and Jordan. Baghdadi’s “Islamic State” continues to expand by building state-like institutions in eastern Syria, despite battlefield losses in Iraq that have for the time being curbed its growth there. IS’ setbacks on the battlefield in Iraq are more accurately described as operational, not strategic.
The militant Salafist group is slowly, but surely, accepting the allegiance of like-minded organizations throughout the trans-Sahara region, including Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in the Sinai, the Shura Council for Islamic Youth in Derna and the “Fezzan Province” militia in Libya. In time, IS’ ability to access the trans-Sahara network of smuggling and jihadist activity from Mauritania to the Sinai will give it another line of access to Morocco’s population.
For these reasons, Jordan and Morocco will continue to be important front lines to contain IS. Jordan is at an important location at the crossroads of the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, and it is positioned as Saudi Arabia’s northern flank against the expansion of IS. Morocco’s relationship to Europe in terms of its close economic ties to the European Union and diaspora communities in France and Spain represents the southern flank of Europe. Rabat and Amman are active security partners in trans-national security agreements impacting their wider regions of the Middle East. A successful containment strategy will necessitate bulwarks, like Morocco and Jordan, in order to limit the penetration of IS into Europe or Saudi Arabia, respectively.
A strong indicator that the foundations of these monarchical systems are less secure than they had appeared is the flow of jihadists from Morocco and Jordan into Syria to fight under Baghdadi’s command. Morocco and Jordan are some of the highest exporters of foreign fighters to Syria, with the former contributing 1,500 jihadists and the latter more than 2,000. There are a number of reasons why rural and urban Moroccans and Jordanians join IS, particularly disenfranchised youth. These include scarcity in economic opportunity at home, severe political discontent with their monarchical regimes, the search for adventure and a pan-Islamic desire to fight against what they view as the murderous Syrian government. A common theme in the foreign fighter phenomenon spanning multiple continents, however, is the growing potency of militant Salafism.
In Morocco and Jordan, where tough counterterrorism initiatives have landed scores of Salafists in prison, momentum generated from the Arab Spring and the success of IS-led military offenses have infused a new breath of life in Islamist political aspirations. In Morocco, prison has become a staging point for enhanced radicalization, enabling Salafist leaders to build deep networks that have since become epicenters of jihadi recruitment. In Jordan, existing Salafist hubs like Ma’an and Zarqa — two of Jordan’s most economically vulnerable areas that consequentially lie along historic routes of transit and commerce — continue to advocate for the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy. Jordan’s geographic proximity to IS’ frontlines and the challenge of accommodating Syrian refugees are additional sources of tension on the Hashemite Kingdom that can be used as recruiting tools for the militant group.
Jordan, for example, has already begun to experience domestic backlash, after an April 2014 amendment to its Anti-Terrorism Law quickly drew criticism that it could be used to silence political opposition in the media. Regardless, continuing to send jihadists to prison will not eliminate the problem and will only continue the cycle of radicalization and jihad. Jordan’s large youth population is also a likely target for IS propaganda efforts, undermining the monarchy’s legitimacy and using the promise of generous salaries as enticement to join the militant Salafist organization. Emigration of large quantities of foreign fighters to join IS and similar armed groups — like al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa in Syria — and the rejuvenation of large Salafist networks seem to suggest that bases of legitimacy are shifting from the old monarchical system to the new IS-branded Islamic caliphate.
The Potential for Destabilization
The most pressing challenge facing these regimes, however, is not the threat of jihadists returning home and setting up shop; rather, it is how these regimes will respond when they do. While Morocco and Jordan can increase security precautions and strengthen counterterrorism measures, doing so could inadvertently alienate seculars by undermining civil liberties and increase the call for domestic reforms. The increasing prevalence of security forces on the streets of cities such as Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakech in Morocco, and Amman, Zarqa, and Ma’an in Jordan, also can send another pernicious message: the monarchical regime is starting to lose control, and the caliphate’s power is ascending.
The potential for the destabilization of the monarchical regimes in Morocco or Jordan, or both countries, as a result of the long-term efforts of IS and its sophisticated propaganda efforts, presents a strategic dilemma for the United States and its allies in the greater Middle East. Cultural mechanisms of legitimacy that are cultivated by the Moroccan and Jordanian monarchies may not be a powerful enough argument against the appeal of the Islamic revolution led by IS’ caliph. Sooner rather than later, Baghdadi’s arguments will threaten the ideological, cultural underpinning of regimes throughout the region, including those of Morocco and Jordan.
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