Learning all the wrong lessons in Jordan

King Abdullah’s regime is cracking down on protesters who want reforms and, perhaps, a constitutional monarchy.

Jordan protests [Reuters]
Jordan protesters are calling for reforms, not the downfall of the country’s monarchy [Reuters]

The Jordanian government, which is a close ally of the US, has learned the wrong lessons from the revolutions sweeping across the Arab world. Instead of opening up, the government has cracked down on an emerging movement of peaceful youth demanding reforms and democratic freedoms.

Jordanian youth emulated their peers, particularly those in Tunisia and Egypt, by calling for an open ended sit-in to put forward their demands and aspirations. It took just 24 hours for the government to unleash its thugs, armed with stones, and riot police to break up the gathering. More than 100 people were injured and one killed as the government announced a ban on sit-ins it said “could disrupt life” in the capital.

In doing so, the Jordanian government has made the same mistake as other regimes that have faced social upheaval: It responded with violence and threats, thus alienating wider segments of society and fueling more anger and frustration.

This reaction is not only a mistake but marks a major misreading of the situation. Unlike in other countries, in Jordan there has been a consensus in support of the continuity of the Hashemite monarchy; for while Jordanians are determinedly demanding change, it is not regime change but rather changes in the regime that they seek.

Conflicting interests

Even the young people who started the March 24th movement, as they call themselves, made it clear that they supported King Abdullah but rejected the security services’ domination of the country’s media and political sphere.

The crackdown and subsequent celebrations by self-described “loyalists” clearly signal that some forces within the country oppose change, lest they lose their grip on power.

Jordanians are not calling for the downfall of the regime, merely for freedom and justice. The people’s demands are clear: A new electoral law – to replace the archaic law that limits the representation of the opposition – free and fair elections, an end to rampant corruption in the upper echelons of government and a representative and accountable government.

But these demands would require the sort of fundamental changes the regime has signaled are off limits. The Jordanian government is specifically concerned about rising calls for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, which would entail reducing King Abdullah’s powers so that the king would no longer appoint or dissolve governments or disband parliaments – prerogatives he seems reluctant to give up.

For many young people, empowered by the achievements of youth in other Arab countries, it is difficult to accept that Jordanians should not be able to elect their own government.

The king has already promised a new era and the government has started a national dialogue, even accepting the need to discuss necessary constitutional amendments that could be a prelude to a more representative, if not quite an elected, government.

So the crackdown on protesters came as a surprise and seemed to signal a return to the type of siege mentality that has defined previous Jordanian governments – perhaps motivated by a fear that the sit-in would lead to the creation of a mass movement challenging the king’s executive powers.

Demographics of change

Its accusation that the Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential opposition group in the country, had stirred up the protests appeared to be intended to split the population by appealing to fears of the supposedly Palestinian-dominated Brotherhood among Jordanians of East Bank descent. And in so doing it has succeeded in deepening an already simmering crisis and further undermining social cohesion within the country.

Jordanians of Palestinian origin constitute around half of the country’s six million people and this dynamic partly explains why Jordanians have shied away from calling for regime change; for the Hashemites are widely seen as guarantors of stability in the face of Israeli extremists’ calls for the establishment of a substitute Palestinian state in Jordan.

King Abdullah, unlike many other leaders, has so far not been the target of the Jordanian people’s wrath. The fact that the regime is far more tolerant of dissent than neighboring countries, like Syria, has certainly helped. But Jordanians aspire for better and cannot confine themselves to merely comparing their situation with those worse off.

Last Friday’s bloody showdown has dealt a serious blow to national unity and further undermined the government’s declared commitment to economic and political reforms. A tense and suspicious atmosphere now prevails and threatens an otherwise strong potential for peaceful and democratic reforms.

The Jordanian people have spoken, loudly and unequivocally, but they are no longer sure that they are being heard.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

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