Jordan’s Arab spring: To ‘spring’ or not to ‘spring’?

King Abdullah II must address chronic problems of good governance, draconian media laws and general corruption.

Jordan’s monarchy is pro-American, fluent in English and supportive of ‘unabashed Westernism’ [GALLO/GETTY]

Exeter, United Kingdom – Jordan is one Arab state where demonstrations have been sustained since the December 2010 riots in Tunisia. What is most striking about Jordan’s durable pro-reform rioting, however, is its polyphony.

Amid such a noise, disunited tribes, Islamists, students, retired army officers and former establishment figures are united in their cry for greater freedoms and reform of a decaying monarchy.

Jordan’s “Arab Spring” remains a long way away, but the protest current that has taken root refuses to fade away until the king and queen do more than sell “hope”, “image” and “rhetoric”.

This first article discusses dissent from within formerly establishment forces/voices.

Jordan’s protest movement

Five specificities define Jordan’s dissent:

  • Dissidence is decentralised, minimising opportunities of its control or management by political society or centre in the capital, Amman
  • Tribes enter the fray of pro-reform dissidence, switching sides in support of societal demands for reform
  • The king and queen, especially the latter, have ceased to be sacrosanct
  • Republican murmurs are out in the open, even if not a cry that rallies huge support
  • Former establishment figures and voices have assumed anti-establishment postures

This latter political aspect introduces an important dimension to protests in Jordan.

Royal heritage

There were the days of the late King Hussein. With an abundance of charisma, statesmanship, cunning, versatility and sound knowledge of locale, neighbourhood and world he was a political animal par excellence. His book Mihnati [“My profession”] gives insights into how he steered the ship of state in the unchartered waters of a bygone Middle East.

He personified the kingdom and in his “king of the people” image, Jordanians saw the living persona of monarchy, country and continuity.

Those were days when Jordanians were more royalist than the king.

King Abdullah II belongs to a different league of new Arab rulers who brought youth, public diplomacy, fluency in English, image and unabashed Westernism, particularly pro-Americanism, in all key issues shaping both Arab-Arab and Arab-Western relations.

With a native-sounding English, and unfettered access to the chancelleries of power in the West, King Abdullah fits more the profile of a global diplomat than “king”, making any Jordanian foreign minister a (luxurious) tautology.

King Abdullah II epitomises royal language, and his queen regal image. Their framed portrait adorns many a wall all over the kingdom.

But like all ageing frames, dust or cracks obscure clear vision, especially when doubt creeps into the eyes of the beholder.

Today there is doubt and the outward image cannot fix the cracks inside the minds of a restless citizenry, eager for substantive reform – and weary of the cosmetics of politics and political leaders.

Polyphony: Maps of dissent

The profiles of dissent are legion but interlocking, feeding off a history of intermittent protest and a break-up of state-society relations. Like other states from within the Arab spring geography, dissent in Jordan is cumulative.

The maps of resistance from below reflect this specificity. Take, for instance, al-hirak al-islahi al-urduni, the Jordanian Reform Movement, a socio-political current. It is made up of diverse protest groups and organisations, new and old.

Today each province contributes local voices and forces to Jordan’s “Arab Spring”, each with varying degrees of coherence, organisation and stamina. But some stand out either for the distinction of their message or by virtue of political weight.

It is both political weight and message that distinguish al-jabhah al-wataniyyah li al-islah [“Reform Nationalist Front”] as among the most significant permutations engendered by Jordan’s pro-reform protest movement. It includes nationalist and establishment figures whose careers were marked by long service of king and country.

Ahmad ‘Abidat (b. 1938) was prime minister (1984-85), chief of intelligence (1974-80) and interior minister (1980-84). He first warned of rampant corruption in the 1980s. He left, but corruption deepened. He was president of the committee of the National Charter in which all parties participated after the 1989 elections.

He was among the senators who resigned in protest at the 1994 Wadi Araba Treaty with Israel. He returned to politics to preside over the National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR), created by King Abdullah II at the turn of the millennium.

Nearly 400 personalities from various political currents make up the movement, including names such as Layth Shbilat, the vociferous independent opposition.

An anti-corruption political manifesto

The movement’s manifesto, al-mashru’ al-watani li al-islah al-siyasi al-shamil wa muharabat al-fasad, indicates it is dedicated to the twin goals of reform and the fighting of corruption.

The strategies are similar to those deployed across the Arab Spring geography: protests, lectures, public forums and social networking with various Facebook and Twitter groups and lists keeping up continuous debate on and pressure for reform.

King Abdullah II obliged and gave ‘Abidat the opportunity to present his case and to lobby for reform directly.

This was partly motivated by the substance of the message ‘Abidat has propagated since the onset of protests. The gist of it is that Jordan is in the midst of a 12-year-old crisis – i.e., since King Abdullah II came to power.

For ‘Abidat, reform calls for a new social contract: democracy, social justice, a bigger role for civil society, the free and fair election of government – all call for desperate attention by state and society.

‘Abadat is a quasi anti-corruption crusader. Corruption, according to him, has downsized the state, causing decay to legislative, executive and judicial powers and eroding the citizenry’s trust in the system. He argues that Jordanians will neither forget nor forgive corruption, given the modesty of resources in the kingdom.

The corruption issue includes hundreds of millions of dollars belonging to the late Saddam Hussein that appear to have disappeared without a trace.  

Republican murmurs

It is from within the establishment that powerful messages are being encoded into Jordan’s season of ongoing protest. The most noticeable shift is the rise of dissent from zones formerly considered among the fixed bedrock of support for the monarchical system (such as within tribes and groups of officers).

This trend points to the corrosive effect of lack of substantive reform and corruption on deference and “loyalty” to the centre – and in this case the monarchy as a “given” in Jordanian politics.

Like ‘Abidat, Ahmad ‘Owaidy al-‘Abbadi (from the ‘Ababeed clan) hails from a career serving the state. His Cambridge PhD in political science (1982) gives him scholarly pedigree, making his Jordanian National movement (al-Harakah al-Urduniyyah al-Wataniyyah) credible enough to add value and quality to the hectic and eclectic protest movement in the country.

Indeed, the man is eclectic, combining a number of skills and experiences, all of which explains his political boldness and maverick profile. He has tribal lineage, a former career as a police officer (from which he retired at the rank of colonel in 1987), he was a political prisoner who was outspoken against corruption, and was elected for two terms to the National Assembly (1989-1993; 1997-2001).

Dr ‘Abbadi is known for being controversial and argumentative, someone who defends his views using even his fists if need be – with foes and allies alike. Many Palestinians hold a grudge against the man for espousing views such as that they should be given special passports and not allowed permanent residence (tawteen), and often box him in the “normalisation” camp.

He is awaiting trial for voicing what may be considered the first informal “republican manifesto” in the kingdom. He spoke in public against Hashemite rule, noting that the next system would be republican – which has landed him in trouble with the powers that be, for voicing political views which are not widely supported. He expressed these views in public, peacefully and in front of the office of the prime minister, in the presence of retired officers, among others.

The knee-jerk reaction by the security forces displays lack of confidence. What is needed is decompression not oppression – even when views are controversial or go beyond “red lines” such as the utility of the monarchical system.

His arrest early in February at his farm near Amman drew tribal support, and, as a result of his detention, 200 individuals organised themselves into Ahrar Abbad, demanding his immediate release and threatening a campaign of public disobedience that has not so far developed much steam.

Monarchy or democracy

Time has come for King Abdullah II to press his ministers and aides not to stifle the march of democratic reform.

It demeans both the monarchical institution and the monarch, when the King declares to the US Congress, as he did in late 2011, among other world leaders, his plans for democracy and democratisation, but little of what he says is taken seriously by his entourage or those he entrusts with the task to work with society to map and execute reform.

Partially, as a result, the monarchy as a system – and with it the king – are today being challenged, and, in fact, not taken seriously. And juggling various prime ministers is no solution to chronic problems of good governance, draconian media laws and general corruption and a lethargic pace of reform.

King Abdullah was correct in telling Bashar al-Assad in Syria to step down for failing to reform and respond to his people. Touche. Unlike Assad, however, King Abdallah II still has the luxury of time and support closer to home.

The Arab Spring has had one consistent lesson: A leadership that fails its citizenry will not succeed in retaining power indefinitely. Monarchical presidents have been ditched. Monarchs themselves have been exempt – that has been, so far, an exception.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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