"We shall cut the hand sent against the reforms and against the Muslim Brotherhood. I wish to Allah that the leadership of this country will go in the right direction, or else its fate will be the same as the fate of five other Arab leaders" (A Muslim Brotherhood young guard leader during a mass protest in Amman, in an interview to al-Jazeera, December 12, 2011.)
Jordan is one of the first countries where Arab Spring riots broke out. Thus far, King Abdullah II managed to keep the revolution in the first phase of street rallies, with minimal bloodshed. Jordan’s king enjoys special Muslim prestige because of his Hashemite ancestry (said to be part of Muhammad the Prophet’ lineage) and the fact that the Jordanian royal house is the only one among regional Arab regimes that sanctioned Muslim Brotherhood activity by law.
Generally speaking, the most stable regimes during the Arab revolution period are royal houses (Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) and principalities (the Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.) Bahrain is the exception because of the impassioned Shiite majority in its midst. Yet Jordan is the most sensitive of those states because of the economic distress and high unemployment rate maligning the country in recent years.
Jordan’s royal house traditionally relies on veteran Jordanians and Bedouin tribes, preferring them to the country’s Palestinian majority. However, privatization and the failure of the king’s economic policy provoked unrest among some of his traditional supporters, who also joined the protest against corruption and rising prices.
King Abdullah II made an effort to cope with the riots in his country cautiously. He dedicated parts of his speeches to the importance of social reform and pledged in the media to promote government and economic reforms. However, the reforms he needs to undertake are very difficult and threaten his ongoing rule in the country. One indication of the crisis is the replacement of three prime ministers.
The king cannot improve the economic situation as Jordan lacks natural resources and the kingdom is wholly dependent on foreign aid, mostly from the United States. Abdullah is also unable to implement the reforms demanded by the protestors, as such changes would make him lose power and turn the royal house into a symbolic body only, just like Britain’s royal house.
The rising power of Islamic movements in the Arab world currently threatens the royal housel’s survival. The Islamic movement’s power in Jordan has grown in recent years, and the raising of the voting threshold left the Islamic Action Front as Jordan’s largest and most organized party. It now constitutes the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. In the 2003 elections, the party won almost one-quarter of parliament seats. Even though Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, expelled Hamas activists from Jordan in 1999, the Action Front remained the leading legal opposition group.
Another "Black September?"
The latest changes in the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Jordan should be of great concern to the king. The movement’s radical leader, Hammam Said, was recently elected for a second term. Said, who hails from Jenin, symbolizes the Palestinian, more radical part in the movement. After his election, the movement’s hawks defeated its doves. This change, which took place recently, ensures an ongoing rift between the Islamic movement and the king’s regime.
During the riots, the Islamic Brotherhood showcased its power by bringing thousands of supporters out to the streets. The group’s gripe combines demands for social justice and democratization with protest against Israel. The Action Front clashed with the regime before, when it boycotted the elections for six years in the wake of the peace treaty with Israel.
It appears that the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood raised the alarm in the king’s palace. The Jordanian royal house has a difficult history of coup and takeover attempts, always on the initiative of the Palestinians. In a bid to bridge the gaps with the Islamic movement, King Abdullah met with its chairman and even initiated a historical meeting with Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashaal.
However, these efforts did not prompt a change in the Muslim Brotherhood’s position. Jordan’s king understood well that the Islamic movement’s demand for democratization is a veneer for its desire to take over the country via elections.
There is no doubt that Jordan’s security apparatuses are the means for the king’s survival. The Muslim Brotherhood’s demand for separation of powers and limiting the authority of Jordan’s internal security service hides its aspiration to operate freely and put an end to the close monitoring of its activity at offices and mosques.
It appears that the decision to operate against the Islamic movement was made in May. The king appointed the conservative Fayez al-Tarawneh as temporary prime minister. Tarawneh served as prime minister and defense minister during King Hussein’s era and was part of the negotiations team with Israel. Meanwhile, regime thugs took part in dispersing the latest protests in the country and some Muslim Brotherhood offices were torched in several cities, while security forces were significantly reinforced to prepare for further escalation.
Will the king continue to pursue the restraint policy, which allows the Muslim Brotherhood and the country’s Palestinian majority to grow stronger? And when protests escalate and spin out of control, will the king have to follow the path of the “Black September” massacre, as his father King Hussein did in 1970? There is no doubt that Abdullah’s regime is facing a critical crossroads.
Dr. Yaron Friedman is a graduate of the Sorbonne. He teaches Arabic and lectures about Islam at the Technion, at Beit Hagefen and at the Galilee Academic College. His book, the Nusayri Alawis: An Introduction to the Religion, History and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria, was published in 2010 by Brill-Leiden