Jordan’s King Abdullah II December 22, 2012
Jordan: Evolution or ...
injuries. More injuries were reported on 15th July. The demands of the protesters are also
increasingly focused on politic...
fear that reform could lead to the empowerment of Palestinians and thus the loss of their
privileges and eminent position ...
these interests.
This gives the teetering monarchy another option: external support for its economy and fiscal
policies. A...
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  1. 1. Jordan’s King Abdullah II December 22, 2012 Jordan: Evolution or Revolution? Posted on 26/10/2011 by Nick Jaques After Tunisia, Jordan was touted alongside the likes of Egypt, Libya and Syria as the latest state to see protestors spill onto its streets, swept up in the wave of the Arab Spring. Anything seemed possible: rattled, King Abdullah II reversed stringent economic reforms, reinstated a fuel subsidy, and sacked his Prime Minister and Cabinet. However, events soon slipped under the Western radar. Protests in Amman didn’t violently escalate and remained relatively small-scale; no Tahrir Square-type permanent camp emerged, no brutal crackdown was initiated. Nonetheless low-level ripples persist which, on top of a worsening economy, may yet continue to force more and perhaps significant political concessions from the monarchy. So what exactly happened in Jordan? And what does the future hold? Inspired by the movements in Tunisia and Egypt, protests first erupted in Amman and other major Jordanian cities in late January. As seen throughout the Arab Spring, the primary grievance was economic. On the back of a struggling economy weighed down by a deficit of $2 billion, inflation had risen to 6.1% in December 2010 and, in a pattern reflected across the Middle East, unemployment had become rampant; some even estimated youth unemployment to be as high as 50%. Led by the Islamic Action Front – the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition in Jordan – thousands demanded that the government control soaring food and fuel prices and reign in unemployment and poverty. This then fed into widespread political disillusionment: protestors also demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai. Crucially, and in contrast to other Arab Spring governments, the Jordanian monarchy responded quickly, granting almost immediate concessions. In a move that resonated with the public policy of Saudi Arabia and the other oil behemoths, the monarchy essentially paid-off protestors, announcing a $550 million plan to reduce prices and create jobs. This included salary increases for civil servants and the military, subsidies for food staples, and cuts to fuel taxes. A 6% tax on kerosene and diesel was slashed. These financial palliatives were then supplemented with political action. On 1st February King Abdullah sacked Prime Minister Samir Rifai and his Cabinet, replacing them with the ex-army general and old PM Marouf al-Bakhit. This was soon followed by promises of reform to the election law. Also importantly, and again in stark contrast to many Arab Spring regimes, the government was relatively moderate in its policing of demonstrations, preventing both a damaging international outcry and retaliatory domestic protests. This clever balancing-act from the monarchy proved enough in the short term to prevent calls for reform transforming into calls for revolution. The Jordanian protests never quite gathered the momentum or vigour seen in other Arab Spring countries and somewhat missed the initial revolutionary wave. However, they persisted. 7,000-10,000 reportedly demonstrated on 25th February and on 24th March a concerted effort was made to set-up a permanent protest camp. This drew a clear red line from the monarchy; clashes with police and pro-government demonstrators to send protestors home resulted in the first protestor fatality and over 150
  2. 2. injuries. More injuries were reported on 15th July. The demands of the protesters are also increasingly focused on political reform; their primary objective now is to strip the power to appoint governments from the King. In addition, many are dissatisfied with the new Prime Minister, calling for his removal; the Muslim Brotherhood argue that al-Bakhit “doesn’t believe in democracy”, pointing to parliamentary elections under his tenure in 2007 that were blatantly rigged. Others demand continued electoral law reform and sweeping measures against corruption. In response, the monarchy has continued to make political concessions to relieve pressure. A cross-party ‘National Dialogue Committee’ was formed on 15th March, tasked with recommending new laws to strengthen Jordan’s democracy. Formed from a cross-section of society, including ministers, civil society organizations, and political party representatives (although notably boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood), the committee proposed changes to the election and political parties laws and constitution. This has since been followed by numerous statements regarding reform and pledges of “evolution, not revolution”. However, there is a growing fear that meaningful change will not materialise. In a pattern familiar across the Middle East, once the initial fury of the Arab Spring had somewhat receded, ‘concessions’ in Jordan have become increasingly vague and infrequent promises. On 12th June, for example, King Abdullah crucially agreed to relinquish his constitutional right to appoint governments – instead they would be formed from a parliamentary majority. This landmark concession, however, was soon qualified; it wouldn’t be implemented for two to three years. Similarly, many criticized the National Dialogue Committee’s proposals as not radical enough and little more than noise has been made regarding curbs on corruption. The justification, Abdullah insists, is that only gradual and measured change is practicable given the nature of Jordanian society – sudden change would cause “chaos and unrest”. However, this fails to completely convince. Understandably, protestors are becoming increasingly disillusioned. On 11th October activists issued a statement expressing a “loss of hope in the reform process”; despite initially promising signs, neither its scale nor pace is now acceptable. Protests, meanwhile, are well into their tenth month – thousands continue to pour onto the streets every Friday after noon prayers. That this has happened is somewhat unsurprising. Promoting himself as a cautious yet genuine reformer, a view he has cultivated in the Western media, King Abdullah has been promising change for years. However, whether he is genuinely intentioned or not, tangible progress has been limited. The only result of the hyped ‘Jordan First’ campaign was a 6-seat parliamentary quota for women (in a 120-seat Chamber of Deputies), while the impressively titled ‘Jordanian National Agenda’ in 2005 was largely ignored. Abdullah insists that regional turbulence and old guard bureaucrats thwarted his early plans; however it’s an old excuse in the Middle East. The example set by his father, King Hussein, sounds familiar; on the back on an economic crisis in 1988-9, he initiated liberal reforms to placate protestors. These were simply rolled back in the 1990s on the crest of a surge in the monarchy’s popularity. Surprisingly though, the political demands of the protestors still do not extend to the monarchy’s total overthrow. They demand only reform, not revolution. Even the most radical – the Muslim Brotherhood – call only for a process run by a government that enjoys public confidence, as opposed to the current appointees. This is largely thanks to the special role the Hashemite monarchy plays in uniting Jordan. Unlike Bahrain with its religious divisions or Libya with its tribal rivalries, Jordan is in many ways relatively homogenous. It is small (with a population of six million), religiously united (92% Sunni Muslim), and the monarchy has carefully co-opted many potential opponents – notably the Bedouin tribes. The Kingdom is riven by one deep cleavage, however: between indigenous Jordanians and those of Palestinian-refugee descent. Some estimate that up to 60% of the Jordanian population is Palestinian, while the events of Black September 1970 (when the PLO attempted to overthrow the King) cast a long shadow. The monarchy cleverly plays the role of mediator across this divide, holding the country together. The King also enjoys particularly strong support from those Jordanians who
  3. 3. fear that reform could lead to the empowerment of Palestinians and thus the loss of their privileges and eminent position in society. Indeed, this prospect serves as a further dampener on democratising zeal. Moreover, King Abdullah is a canny political operator in his own right. Despite holding the most political power in Jordan, few hold him responsible for its troubles and he is largely given the benefit of the doubt on reform – people believe him and are prepared to give him more time. Meanwhile, personal loyalty is ensured through extensive patronage networks and highly personalized political relationships. He has even inherited a certain religious legitimacy – the Hashemites claim to be descendents of the Prophet Mohammed. “Whether some like it or not, King Abdullah is widely liked”, political scientist Naseem Tarawnah summarises. More broadly, as part of explaining the dearth of revolutionary calls in Jordan, one can also point to an interesting pattern across the Middle East. Arab monarchies – Jordan, Oman, Morocco (all of whom saw large protests), and even Bahrain – have all survived the Arab Spring. By contrast, many republics – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and potentially Syria and Yemen – have not. Two key characteristics shared by Arab monarchies can be posited to explain this. Firstly, the Arab monarchies share a relatively liberal political setting by Middle Eastern standards; they do not fit the mould of authoritarian regime. Despite languishing at 141st out of 196 countries in Freedom House’s 2011 ‘Freedom of the Press’ report, for example, Jordan was still ranked 5th out of the 19 MENA states. Oman and Morocco also came in the top 10, whereas Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen made up four of the bottom five. Similarly, Jordan’s intelligence service, although sprawling, is not the constantly threatening presence seen in Libya or Syria and even though criticism of the King is illegal, citizens are seldom prosecuted for it. Thus relatively fewer Jordanians protested to start with, and the protests were less fervent and more easily sated than in many of the Arab republics. Secondly, the prospect of political reform is much less threatening to monarchs than to authoritarian Presidents. Kings who abdicate some power are at the very least likely to be kept on as constitutional monarchs, guaranteeing wealth, social standing, and a leading political role for future generations. Presidents who abdicate some power, on the other hand, risk losing everything. Thus the republican regimes fought desperately for their very survival, whereas the Arab monarchs could tolerate concessions. Consequently, Abdullah was able to make early and significant concessions to placate protestors, preventing the initial protest ripple growing into a wave. However, he is still in real trouble. His current policy of fiscal appeasement is unsustainable, while Jordan’s underlying economic problems remain and are worsening. The country is struggling with record budget deficits and a vast foreign debt approaching 60% of its GDP. Inflation and unemployment continue to be rampant. “The economic situation, the financial situation, the foreign debt are tremendous”, said Taher al Masri, speaker of the Jordanian Senate. “The level of subsidies is unbearable.” Faris Sharaf, governor of Jordan’s Central Bank, resigned recently, many say partially in protest at the King’s financial handouts. Meeting these economic imbalances is essential to avoid Jordan’s bankruptcy. However cutting subsidies would further stoke unrest. The King would have to offer serious political palliatives as a sweetener for the resultant financial hardship, yet he is evidently reluctant to make significant and immediate changes. Several laws related to political reform are on the agenda of the upcoming session of Jordan’s Lower House, however whether they will prove enough to satisfy protestors as it is seems unlikely, let alone if they were combined with subsidy cuts and tax increases. Yet Jordan may be too important to fall. The phenomenally wealthy Gulf States – most importantly Saudi Arabia – see the Kingdom as key to their security; it insulates their northern flank from the destabilising waves of the Arab Spring and is a willing ally against Iran. It even shares many of their values: a monarchy, pro-Western outlook and political conservatism. Jordan also has a close relationship with the US given its strategic central location in the Middle East, bordered as it is by Iraq, Syria and Israel. Further, it is one of only two Arab states to have signed a peace deal with Israel – the other being the increasingly unpredictable Egypt – and thus forms a cornerstone of the regional security balance. Instability in Jordan threatens all
  4. 4. these interests. This gives the teetering monarchy another option: external support for its economy and fiscal policies. And indeed, this seems to be already happening. Jordan and the US recently signed grant agreements worth $359.3 million, over 50% of which will go to reducing Jordan’s budget deficit. Perhaps even more significantly, Jordan attended its first Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in September, along with Morocco; accession into the club seems imminent. In response to protests in two of its members earlier this year – Oman and Bahrain – the GCC agreed to provide each with $10 billion (and military support in Bahrain). Jordan can expect similar assistance if its troubles worsen. Thus, even though protests against limited political reforms are likely to continue, thanks to external support Jordan’s monarchy should stand a good chance of riding them out. We can expect at best a slow democratic evolution in Jordan, but even this is highly dependent on the King, given his position in Jordan – and his reforming record is questionable. An Arab Spring-style revolution, meanwhile, seems highly unlikely. Tags:
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