En passant in Jordan: The king’s dilemma

The King of Jordan must make a tough choice – reform, or let popular resentment reach a tipping-point.

King Abdullah II of Jordan Visits Germany
King Abdullah II must be hoping to defuse tensions and mend his fortunes [GALLO/GETTY]

Exeter, United Kingdom – What defines a King’s dilemma in Jordan? King Abdullah II could offer substantive reform that may create a democratic multiplier effect and win over the public, through inclusiveness and accommodation. Or he could let the people’s desire for genuine reform build to an explosive point of no-return.

Top-down, solely state-led political management is no longer available in any Arab state – not even in states which buy off political loyalty. Meanwhile, bottom-up society-driven pressure, struggle and resistance is a narrative still in the making, with varying degrees of utility and usefulness.

Undoing this dilemma in Jordan would be proving politics to be the art of the possible. There are challenges, however.

The common element in the pathology of crisis-stricken Arab polities is an absence of the full benefit of impartial feedback to presidents and kings. The deferential style of statecraft is not congenial to effective political management. Often the rot exists within the inner circle: it functions to reproduce itself by placing the ruler in a state of political “quarantine”; no contact with the “venom” of the plebeian masses and their problems. Thus the problems in need of urgent solution through wider deliberation and action remain shelved or hidden.

 Unemployment and Jordan’s youth

To an extent, this advisory cast is fixed and inflexible as it seeks a monopoly over access to the plum jobs. Literally, this is a “class” made up of modern-day “courtiers” without funny clothing/robes or other regal paraphernalia. A study of this cast would also likely reveal hereditary access and practices.

It is challenging to deal with this cast when it is entrenched as part of the equation of rule and misrule. Perhaps less so in Jordan today, but the Rifa’is and the Majalis have historically ensured a share in power, no matter how diminutive. One of the earliest victims of the Arab Spring’s arrival in Jordan was the dismissal of Samir Al-Rifa’i, son of one of the longest-serving diwani figures in Jordan’s political history: Zaid al-Rifa’i.

As if there were a troika in Jordan: King, the courtier class and the intelligence services, each of which has its own input into the political transcript of the state of play and affairs in the Kingdom.

Two remarks are in order:

  • To an extent, King Abdullah II has begun to rely on independent research teams – but the extent to which they are heard cannot be ascertained with precision.
  • The absence of credible aides from the royal family – as in most Arab systems, the lead-ruler cannot be overshadowed by potential hopefuls or competitors. Where has Prince Hamza been? Why has Prince Hassan been relegated to full political retirement (maybe for his own good after his recent public outbursts)?

Jordan’s Arab spring: Myth or reality?

There is sustained unrest and the potential for more of it – even if a ranting princely retiree is in denial. Its momentum is higher, thanks to the Arab Spring’s domino effect. Mocking or denying the Arab Spring (as in Prince Hassan’s recent tirade against opposition and Jordan’s protesters) will not ease the unrest.

One of the biggest challenges is honesty. Period. There are things that cannot be swept under the rug. Rampant corruption is one of them.

There are things that cannot be swept under the rug. Rampant corruption is one of them.”

Some of it points to alleged malpractice by Queen Rania – something yet to either be proven or disproven. Tribes stand on either side of the allegations, and denial alone has neither eased unrest nor repaired the queen’s image. At least, one step in the right direction is that her extravagant  birthday parties are a thing of the past (after public outrage about the queen’s Wadi Rum razzle-dazzle 2010 August birthday). The king has for a long time, and correctly, banned members of the royal family from engaging in business activities.

The saga of millionaire Khaled Shaheen involving unproven complicity of high-placed people in his release from jail and escape overseas on false grounds of ill-health was eventually contained through his re-detention. It is understandable why fallout from corruption is huge in an impoverished country where graduates find no work for years and struggle to make ends meet.

Slogans in a Jordan protest openly display contempt against corruption. There was even a specific reference to a lack of transparency in business transactions, involving the licencing of a GSM mobile provider. Concerns over land sales and concentration of ownership, including by the king, are on the rise.

An official anti-corruption authority or commission has been busy addressing these issues. A senior former intelligence chief was taken to task for money laundering, and is awaiting trial.

However, in the pursuit of a solution to one problem, some approaches aggravate others. Law 23 is a case in point. It was proposed by the anti-corruption authority and voted by the lower house of parliament in late 2011. It renders the reporting of unfounded corruption risky business. If defamation can be sustained in a court of law, a journalist reporting corruption can find herself/himself set back a hefty sum of between 30,000 and 60,000 Jordanian dinars ($40-80,000).

Society strikes back

The virtual world opens up endless possibilities and struggles shift to un-policeable techniques. When face-to-face does not yield results, Facebook becomes a logical choice and site of struggle: Facebook tajjammu’ [Facebook Rally] being a good example. It is deployed for the purpose of targeting and liquidating the corrupt – in the virtual world of course. 

Hence a fitting name used to wage an anti-corruption campaign: Al-hamlah al-shakhsiyyah li-ightiyal’ shakhsiyyat al-fasideen raddan ‘ala al-maddah 23 [“The personal campaign for the assassination of corrupt individuals as a response to article 23”].

The campaign views parliament’s approval of article 23 to be an attempt to gag journalists and protect those suspected of corrupt activities. Through recourse to Facebook, the campaign names and shames corrupt personalities. Queen Rania’s brother, Majdi Al-Yaseen, was mentioned throughout the campaign.

Basically, the intention is to hold public trials in the virtual world since earthly justice is not near (and divine justice appears somewhat delayed). These public trials include – in theory at least – confrontational protests such as sit-ins in front of the workplaces of those targeted.

Decentralisation of Jordan’s Arab Spring

One feature of Jordan’s protest movement is struggle from the margins – not the capital city – which still draw the largest crowds most Fridays. This has meant three things:

  • Networking, organisation and mobilisation takes a breather in the periphery and focus on local issues without, of course, losing sight of the larger national picture.
  • Once on the margins, the usual bargaining approaches used to co-opt, defuse, resolve or control become less available.
  • The state gets a breather too: There is no risk of worrying about huge crowd management, risk of confrontation and violence, and the threat of a permanent “occupy” campaign in the central public squares. 

So, questions calling for desperate answers are being used by those on the outskirts to mobilise for a convergence upon the centre – in order to create a fixed “critical mass”. This is yet to happen in Jordan. Partly, the “orderly” protest is owed to a strategic choice by key protest groups not to escalate. They have been happy putting out feelers and sending messages – something typical of Jordan’s political culture (I spent time there during my doctoral fieldwork with the Islamists in the early and mid-1990s). Plus, Jordan’s Islamists, amongst others, favour non-confrontation with the state. This will not change.

There is a durable and polycentric protest movement in Jordan. To belittle the Arab Spring … misreads an important pan-Arab political map.”

However, the point is that there is a durable and polycentric protest movement in Jordan. To belittle the Arab Spring – as Prince Hassan did lately – misreads an important pan-Arab political map, which will not downsize an important development in Jordan, whereby society is parley-ing with the state.

The al-hirak al-sha’bi fi al-shamal, a coalition of protesters from the province of Irbid, still hold their Friday weekly meetings and marches. Al-Salt is another place with its own active protest movement.

So does the rally of Tafilah, tajammu’ ahrar al-tafilah. One significance here is the banner raised to reveal anti-corruption slogans pointing the finger at the royal family. This was a first. The demands are real and echo cries along the lines of radical constitutional change, reforming the kingdom’s security forces so that they are removed of public life, popular sovereignty, a free judiciary; and a trimming of the king’s powers.

This is the territory where objects were hurled at the king’s posse. Ahrar al-Tafilah [“Tafilha’s Free”] wrote to King Abdullah II to voice all kinds of concerns about the state of political play. It is here also where powerful clan chiefs seem to be unhappy with corruption, the absence of development and reform.


The group calling itself 24 adhar [“24 March”] 2011, which includes a measurable segment of youth (high school and university students), have used the slogan al-sha’b yurid islah alnizam (the people want to reform the system). Note they do not use the word “overthrow” the system. This movement kick-started its protest campaign in March 2011, through gatherings in Nasser Square, also known as the square of al-dakhiliyyah (interior ministry).

The initial reaction by the security forces was ill-thought through, and led to one fatality. Also, thugs (the ever ubiquitous baltagiyyah) are deployed ruthlessly, often with police doing nothing to protect the public. This eventually changed; police began to give soft drinks to protesters, in some instances. The symbolic protest opposite the ministry was aimed at conveying a powerful message about opposition to iron fist tactics used by the mukhabarat (intelligence services). The king was not mentioned in these protests.

Generally this group campaigns on the basis of seven key demands: a representative parliament, an elected government, genuine constitutional reforms, combating of corruption, tax reform, banning police and security forces’ violence and promoting national unity.  

Another group takes the name of a month, 15 nisan – April 15 – still proactive. It is worth mentioning the tajammu’ al-taghyeer min ajli al-islah, or rally for reform. It became an association for change – jamyiyyah al-watniyya taghyeer. Its first manifesto called for severance of ties with Israel. The reasoning seems to place blame of absence of reform on the kingdom’s peace treaty with Israel. That is, the treaty is thought of as a kind of bribe in return for tolerance of a non-democratic system.

Corruption is present in their demands – especially return of allegedly stolen public lands – and they stress the importance of Jordanian-Palestinian relations and solidarity.

The role of Islamists

What is certain is that Jordan is part of the Arab Spring’s geography of peaceful and sustained protest. The role of Islamists is important and deserves a special account.

There are two ideas to conclude with.

Prince Hassan’s outburst gives one a strong sense of deja-vu: The late Gaddafi defying his people: “Who are you?” The rest is history. There lies a big lesson for the highly learned and cultured Prince Hassan (whose outburst is no more than storm in a cup of tea, and comparison with Gaddafi is unfair): Questioning Jordanians about their “forebears” – literally, grandfathers – is out of line.

Here comes the role of King Abdullah II: To ask his ministers, public servants and aides a different question – “What are your achievements?”

This is a good place to begin fixing the king’s dilemma, and the mammoth task of mending the fortunes of a king, a kingdom and a great people.

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).