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Reform Not Revolution: The Arab Spring in Jordan360°ANALYSIS


Despite facing serious political and economic problems, Jordan is not on the verge of regime change. Divisions within the opposition and an interest in reforming the current political system prevent a fundamental challenge to Amman's Hashemite monarchy.

Many observers comment that Jordan may be about to experience the same popular upheaval that swept away ruling regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen during the Arab Spring, and which currently threatens Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria. It is indisputable that Jordan faces severe political and economic problems, which mirror the grievances that motivated mass uprisings elsewhere in the region. However, the chances for regime change in Jordan are slim. While ensuring its long-term stability requires Jordan to find solutions to its difficult political and economic problems, the country’s underlying political and social configuration is likely to maintain the status quo for the foreseeable future.

Protests Gaining Little Traction

A number of events over the past two years might support the idea that the survival of Jordan’s monarchy has been jeopardized. For example, the kingdom has witnessed many protests since early 2011, with demonstrators demanding substantive economic and political reforms. In November, the government’s decision to lift fuel subsidies angered many Jordanians as it raised the cost of fuel and gas, resulting in widespread demonstrations that many believed the government would be unable to contain. Moreover, King Abdullah's frequent cabinet reshuffling — Jordan has had five different prime ministers in the past two years — might be considered a sign of desperation from a monarch who has no real vision for reform.

Most recently, the country’s new electoral law generated widespread dissent among citizens demanding fair political representation. The law fell far short of Jordanians’ democratic aspirations, and consequently, many wondered if the parliamentary elections held under that law last month would finally motivate citizens to demand regime change.

In each of these cases, however, popular dissatisfaction has failed to develop into the kind of widespread unrest that has prompted regime change elsewhere in the region. Jordan’s protests have generally been scheduled events, hardly uncontrollable mass demonstrations. They have lacked the sustained occupation of public space seen elsewhere and are remarkable more for their organized nature than for their revolutionary feel. Even the protests and riots that followed the government’s decision to remove fuel subsidies fizzled out after a week or two.

The same goes for the recent elections. While many Jordanians believe that the 17th parliament will be yet another do-nothing legislature, popular reaction to the election results has been characterized more by apathy than by unrest. Those who argue that Jordan is “on the brink” would be hard-pressed to explain why these events have not resulted thus far in the revolutionary moment that many have predicted.

A Historical Precedent

As seemingly durable regimes fall throughout the Middle East and North Africa, it might be tempting to conclude that Jordan’s domestic turbulence sets the Hashemite monarchy on a similar trajectory. However, placing Jordan’s current political situation in historical context reveals a number of similarities between the present crises and threats that the monarchy has faced previously.

In the late 1980s, for example, Jordan experienced similar domestic unrest in response to the economic pressures that resulted from the International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment program. Additionally, riots that occurred in 1996 over the government’s decision to remove bread subsidies sparked concerns over the regime’s vitality. Even frustrations over political representation are nothing new: Jordanians have been demanding a strong legislature elected on the basis of a fair electoral law since the 1920s, long before their country formally obtained independence from Great Britain in 1947.

Of course, Jordan’s political and economic difficulties should not be dismissed; however, history illustrates that such crises have generally been the rule rather than the exception. The monarchy has found a way to survive previous periods of political turbulence, casting doubt on the idea that regime change is an inevitable, or even likely, outcome of Jordan’s present political crises. This is not to suggest that Jordan’s monarchy is invincible; rather, these points draw attention to the factors that have allowed the ruling regime to survive despite frequent crises and threats to its rule.

Jordan’s Fragmented and Pacified Opposition

At present, the factionalized nature of Jordan’s political opposition makes it unlikely to threaten the regime’s supremacy. The challenges of the last two years have come from disparate groups that generally share similar grievances but are nonetheless distinct in identity, bases of support, and aims. This has made it difficult to give the reform movement coherence or a common leadership.

For example, support for the Islamist movement — led largely by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) — comes heavily from Palestinians in the urban centers of Amman and Irbid. Islamist demands have focused on political reform. These include a new election system that provides greater representation for urban areas; an elected government, including parliamentary selection of the prime minister; a strengthening of ties with the Palestinian Territories; and a reduction of the internal security forces’ political influence.

The Hirak, by contrast, is a highly decentralized movement spread across Jordanian towns and villages. Its origins lie in the dissatisfaction among East Bank Jordanians on predominantly socio-economic issues, though it has broadened a bit beyond this group over time. Hirak supporters are particularly frustrated by the lack of development efforts outside of Amman and the neoliberal economic policies under King Abdullah that undermine the traditional patronage system of resource distribution.

The local committees of the Hirak are diverse in membership and orientation. What unites this movement, however, is its tribal, Trans-Jordanian roots and the fact that those involved come from what has long been the monarchy’s traditional base of support. They lament the perceived disregard for the kingdom's tribal foundations, and the more nationalist elements of the Hirak diverge sharply with the Islamists and leftist groups on Jordan’s relationship with Palestine by advocating various levels of disengagement. They are similarly wary of what they consider to be the growing economic influence of Jordan’s Palestinian population and would hesitate to advocate drastic political reform that might grant that group greater political power.

Trade unions, professional associations, and leftist groups similarly contribute to the demand for reform. For example, journalists from newspapers, broadcast media, and online media have mobilized in opposition to state interference of the press. Topping their list of grievances is a new press and publications law that extends restrictions and registration requirements for Jordan-based online news sites. Public teachers have likewise been emboldened, ultimately unionizing, mobilizing for higher wages, and striking temporarily against increases in fuel prices in November.

While this framework paints only a basic picture of the complex political field in Jordan, the challenges facing a sustained campaign of mass mobilization are clear. The differences in the opposition groups’ identities and political goals are cleavages that reinforce one another. Without a unifying call to topple the monarchy, it is more appropriate to think of multiple oppositions instead of a single, unified movement against the regime.

Furthermore, the monarchy has taken advantage of these cleavages in its long-employed divide-and-rule strategy. Increasing public sector wages, permitting teachers to unionize, and promising development funds for areas outside of the capital are some of the ways the regime has for now pacified key segments of the opposition.

The IAF and constituencies that constitute the Hirak have willingly participated in this pacification historically. The IAF has heretofore played the role of loyal opposition, which Jordanian politics expert Dr. Curtis Ryan refers to in his book, Jordan in Transition, as a "winking relationship" with the government that has been quite close and mutually beneficial. Rather than replace the regime, moreover, the Hirak movement in the south has merely sought to remind those in power of the need to be responsive to their traditional base of support. Tempered by these relations, as well as by the grim reminders from Syria and Egypt that wholesale regime change can be an uncertain and dangerous undertaking, there is little impetus for a full-scale revolutionary effort.

Short-Term Stability, Long-Term Challenges

Despite the skepticism that Jordan will be the next domino to fall in the Middle East, there are significant challenges confronting the regime that could impact its medium- and long-term vitality. Empowered by Islamist advances elsewhere, the Muslim Brotherhood is standing firm on specific political demands that recently led to an election boycott and a promise of more protests. Another wave of Syrian refugee migration into the kingdom is placing further pressure on Jordan’s already strained economy. The potential for state collapse and sustained violence on Jordan’s northern border raises serious security issues. Finally, Jordan’s economic reliance on rents and development aid from the United States and the Gulf is not sustainable, and continued dependence without economic development will threaten the regime’s ability to continue to placate its tribal support base in the event of economic crisis.

In the short term, however, those anticipating a Tahrir Square moment for Jordan should not hold their breath.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.