Al-Qaeda’s gift to Jordan’s King Abdullah

The ‘foiled’ al-Qaeda plot was a gift to King Abdullah, whose country is ‘forever on the brink’.

King Abdullah, Jon Stewart
King Abdullah's appearance on the Daily Show was met only with deference from Jon Stewart [Comedy Central]

The foiled al-Qaeda plan to attack multiple sites in Jordan was a gift to Jordan’s King Abdullah. While a western audience views the king as a moderate in a sea of extremism, Jordanians have grown weary of his empty democracy talk and revolving-door cabinets that never deliver on promises.

With increasing dissent among the regime’s loyal opposition as well as its traditional support base, and with Syrian refugees showing signs of unrest, the arrest of the al-Qaeda plotters inside Jordan provided a welcome diversion for the king. It refocused attention on domestic security and the regime’s ability to protect its subjects, and away from the unpopular presence of US troops in the kingdom and the widespread demand by citizens for real political reform.

A longstanding commitment to (talking about) reform

For years, King Abdullah has been selling the kingdom’s democratisation efforts to audiences at home and abroad. By all counts, external audiences have been far more receptive to this narrative. The king tells us that Jordan is already well ahead of the reform efforts sparked by the Arab uprisings, offering (with Morocco) a model for gradual reform, political stability, and the containment of Islamist extremism.

Indeed, anything one can say about the need for democratic political reform, King Abdullah has already said it. Greater rule of law? Check. An empowered parliament? Check. An independent electoral commission, a constitutional court, and greater freedom of expression? Check, check, check. These are not promises, they are things the monarch has already done. In reality, however, they don’t add up to meaningful reform. The “independent” electoral commission, for example, is appointed by royal decree.

During his recent visit to the Daily Show, King Abdullah told Jon Stewart that he hoped to see his own role in governing significantly diminished in the future – although perhaps not the immediate future. A lame and deferential Stewart failed to push back with even a single reference to well-documented problems in the kingdom, such as the recent law severely restricting freedom of expression on the internet or the arrest of peaceful protestors under anti-terrorism provisions that direct their cases to the military-dominated State Security Court (the protestors, who were accused of insulting the king, were released this week). As the interview extended beyond the scheduled broadcast to a web feed, I half expected Stewart to lean over the table and kiss the king’s hand.

The old joke goes that Jordan is situationed between ‘Iraq and a hard place’.”

King Abdullah (as well as Queen Rania) has been beautifully marketed to western audiences, who respond positively to his casual banter and American-accented English. Americans eat it up. In a media saturated with cartoonish images of bearded “jihadi terrorists”, here is a progressive, western-like leader who actually wants to move his country toward democracy, and not because he must do so to stay in power. This guy means it. He would do more, but it’s dangerous to move too fast, especially with religious extremists waiting in the wings. Wow, he even loves Nintendo. Finally, a king that you actually want to have a beer with!

Reform-starved Jordanians, however, are exasperated by such pandering to western and especially American audiences. They know that the joke is on them, because the circumstances for reform are never right when stability and security are held up as essential preconditions. The old joke goes that Jordan is situated between “Iraq and a hard place”. With the continued strangulation of Palestinians to Jordan’s west, the Syria uprising to the north, and Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the east, Jordan might be described more accurately as surrounded by hard places.

Sure, it would be nice to democratise, but in this turbulent political moment, who can blame King Abdullah for exercising extreme caution? Certainly not Washington, and the al-Qaeda plot provides additional justification for the slow pace of reforms. Israel and Saudi Arabia can relax, the status quo in Jordan is safe… for now.

Jordan specialists abuzz

Scholars who follow events in Jordan closely have for months been talking about the reality that Jordan has been deeply touched by the Arab uprisings. Not because the regime has had to confront a mobilised citizenry demanding its fall, but because of the gradual accumulation of too many crossed redlines to ignore, and cutting across many segments of society.

The “loyal opposition”, including the Muslim Brotherhood and its political branch, the Islamic Action Front Party, is pushing harder than ever for reforms that give an elected prime minister substantive power to enact reforms. Currently, the king appoints the prime minister, and the Royal Court is the real engine behind the political process. Public discussion of moving towards a real constitutional monarchy with diminished royal prerogatives began to increase following the absurd 2010 elections, and the call has become almost ubiquitous among all political parties as well as the professional associations.

 The Stream – Blackout in Jordan’s ‘Silicon Valley’

The regime’s “traditional support base” is also restless. It is made of up East Bank tribes and clans – essentially, non-Palestinian tribes – who see their interests intimately linked to the preservation of the regime and the patronage it offers. But those ties have been strained in recent years, particularly as the regime has advanced neoliberal economic reforms.

One result has been the emergence of a new stratus of urban economic elites who embrace a cosmopolitan ethos that is anathema to tribal conservatism. Tribal sheikhs have complained bitterly of being ignored and of having their loyalty taken for granted. Last year King Abdullah set out to strengthen those relationships, but his awkward visits demonstrated instead how out of step he is with their concerns and even values. Protests have erupted in many loyalist areas, with an unprecedented level of direct criticism lobbed at the king. Southerners have never been afraid to protest state policies, but they are now frequently crossing redlines, such as directly critiquing the king rather than targetting the prime minister or cabinet. 

In Amman, the familiar political parties and professional associations have dominated protests demanding political reforms. But even here, criticism of the king himself has stepped up. Palestinians, who make up a majority of the population in the kingdom, have so far not mobilised en masse, though they turn out to Muslim Brotherhood protests and are evident in other events as well. As the majority of the population, they know that to mobilise on a large scale would invite a harsh response from the Darak forces – the gendarmerie that acts as the regime’s riot police. If they ever do mobilise, it would be a serious game-changer. But as of this writing, such a movement is nowhere in sight.

Delicate balance

Despite these serious and growing grievances, Jordan has not seen a large-scale or united mobilisation. One key reason is because the groups protesting want very different things.

The loyal opposition is demanding an empowered parliament and elected prime minister, but not calling for an end to the monarchy. An articulate but small group of independent activists are raising the spectre of ending the monarchy, but they are finding only limited support.

 The Cafe – The king and the people!

The demands of the traditional tribal support base, however, are essentially the opposite: They want more of the regime, not less. That is, they have long functioned within a framework that ensures a privileged position for their regions and people in exchange for loyalty to the regime. Tribal elders support the peace treaty with Israel, for example, even though it is wildly unpopular among even large segments of the East Bank population. But in exchange for backing the monarchy on issues such as foreign policy, they expect jobs, subsidies, contracts, and other tangible paybacks. A regime that is following IMF instructions to reduce the bloated public sector, therefore, is seen as breaking a promise – indeed, a contract – with the regime’s support base. 

For these reasons, a nation-wide protest movement is unlikely to emerge. As angry as tribal elements are at the regime, they fear even more the empowerment of the majority Palestinian population. The kingdom has also absorbed some half-million Iraqis since 2003, most of who are unlikely to leave any time soon. The Syria refugees are carefully being contained in camps rather than absorbed into the population as the Iraqi refugees were. But the overall demographics of the population are unquestionably shifting to the detriment of East Bankers.

For now, the latter simply cannot imagine a Jordan without the monarchy to protect their privilege. But the noise coming out of those quarters is astounding, and Jordan specialists are on edge because it feels like something could really happen this time. Jordan is said to be “forever on the brink” but the breadth of dissent at this moment is really something apart.

It is within this context of heightened dissent across multiple sectors in Jordan that al-Qaeda’s plot – now that it has been foiled – was a gift to King Abdullah. Activists have suggested sarcastically that we will see “Security First” as the regime’s new slogan for the nation – a reference to the “Jordan First” campaign of the last decade and the more recent “We are All Jordan” campaign.

If King Abdullah really were the progressive and moderate reformer he performed as on the Daily Show, he would not let that happen. After all, if meaningful democratic reforms are halted, the terrorists have already won.

Jillian Schwedler is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge 2006).