Jordan: Arab Spring washout?

A neo-Islamist group hopes to bring the rain and reinvigorate the Arab Spring in Jordan.

In the run-up to the 17th parliamentary elections in Jordan, campaign posters flood the streets of Amman [AP]
In the run-up to the 17th parliamentary elections in Jordan, campaign posters flood the streets of Amman [AP]

Amidst the fog and heavy storms of political life, the seeds for the clarity of direction in Jordan’s Arab Spring are being sown.

A new Islamist voice is setting the agenda for a new beginning for the kingdom’s Arab Spring in 2013. What ideas are they proposing in order to facilitate substantive democratisation?

Cleansing the past

Continuing with the metaphor, the deluge from the heavens above has offered openings for a new current, with torrential rain sweeping everything on its way. No doubt some Islamists view this as some kind of heavenly message, as if endorsing their displeasure with the January 23 elections they are boycotting.

The softest element in nature always wreaks havoc hardest. Call it “cleansing” if you will, with Amman and its environs’ streets awash with election banners, posters and signs. Defeat comes early to a process that would not bring anything new under the skies of a kingdom long eluded by substantive reform.

The slogans and the faces of their candidates peeled off from the walls of buildings rushed in the racing waters to the ignobility of gutters, unreliable sewers and muddy sideways. Sadly, many a poster with lofty slogans promising unfulfilled democracy and justice floated like papier-mache moulded by rain into nothingness. As if the missing letters in the words ranging from democracy, dignity, to social social justice begged for restoration. The missing letters were like the blanks that must be filled by the incomplete political alphabet of Jordan’s cosmetic democratisation..

However, where is there water, there is hope.

 Jordan’s King Abdullah dissolves parliament

Coinciding with the downpour, an emerging split with Jordan’s formidable Islamist movement has poured more water on water, so to speak. Under the label “Zam Zam”, the sacred water from the Masjid Al-Haram’s well in the Holy City of Mecca, a group of neo-Islamists has launched an ambitious reformist agenda.

The symbolism could not be more powerful. The initiative’s messages are both overt and covert. Overtly, it dilutes existing undertakings by government and civil society to re-open the electoral process to vote the country’s seventeenth parliament. The sixteenth achieved little or nothing with the usual squabbles between the prime minister of the day and the house resulting in political sclerosis. And in square with Jordanian political ways, PMs are hired and fired until the whole system atrophies, and parliament is dissolved. The sixteenth parliament served only half of its four-year term.

The authors (including Mohammed Al-Majali and Abd Al-Ghani Tabbakhi) of Zam Zam equally intended their initiative to re-think the impasse of Jordan’s dynamic but un-productive Arab Spring. With neighbouring Syria in the throes of a vicious civil war which threatens national unity, the Zam Zam initiative comes, without a doubt, as a response to developments they wish not replicated in Jordan. To an extent, it waters down demands from Jordan’s Arab Spring protests that have thus far yielded but more defiance from below without matching government response.

However, Zam Zam makes for smooth sailing for an increasingly embattled monarch almost without bold and new ideas to rejuvenate his power. The initiative, if embraced, would contain Arab Spring-style protest. It favours peace-meal, and peaceful democratisation through collective bargains jointly negotiated by state and society.

Ultimately, Zam Zam seeks some kind of “truth”, by, as it were, pulling the rug from under the established Islamists by advertising themselves as the “new kid on the block” of political Islam: The initiative declares a new modus operandi of doing Islamist and democratic politics in Jordan. Zam Zam is partly a response that participation, not boycott, matters – almost certainly a message of disaffection with the decision by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front (IAF) not to contest the January 23 elections.

New ideas for neo-Islamism

Jordan’s formidable Ikhwan are diverse, and boasts at least four currents. Three of these share a platform of “moderation” – favouring gradual, peaceful and bargain-based political reform, in conjunction with the government, not without or against it. These include the acculturation trend (wasat), Hamas, and the Islamist elders whose rhetoric has been for more than three decades to straddle a middle path. Of course, the content and pace of reform all three trends envisage differ from time to time. Generally, however, there is a core unit which is numerically and politically superior whose enduring influence partly accounts for the ups and downs of Jordanian politics, especially in its conduct of politics vis-a-vis the government of the day, the monarch and external relations, including the US.

The Zam Zam initiative emerges from within the wasat branch of Jordan’s Ikhwan. So it offers at once a breather to the monarchy, a revisionist challenge to the Islamists in general, and a breath of fresh air for Jordan’s Arab Spring – namely the youth and region-based protest groups still far from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Zam Zam according to its authors stands for an “initiative of national reconstruction”. It aims for methodical and systematic change through five phases: Consecutively organisational and mobilisation in the initial two phases, especially in terms of recruitment of cadres and membership with stress being put on clean and credible nationalist figures and activists, including new blood – youth, male and female. The third phase is constitutive, laying down the internal laws, including a manifesto, for launching the project. The fourth and fifth phases, respectively, aim to launch the new political project and to seek participation in national institutions and partnership with the government.

Whilst defining itself as an “Islamist nationalist framework”, the initiative broadens its political horizon in terms of reaching to all forces and voices within Jordanian civil society, who share Zam Zam’s reformist platform and key values: Toleration, cooperation, partnership, moderation, open-ness, peacefulness, and participatory principles.

Thus Zam Zam’s key four objectives frame democratisation through: 1) partnering in the reconstruction and protection of Jordan’s security (which would naturally appeal to the King); 2) fighting corruption and corrupt people (in line with Arab Spring ideals); 3) championing democratic government within a Civil State with Islamic values forming a key reference (again a middle path that obeys Arab Spring demands and panders to language used by the country’s civil society and the King); and, 4) deepening the values of freedom, social justice and dignity (Arab Spring slogans echoed by Jordanian protests for nearly two years).

The strategies proposed are all peaceful and include use of media, education, think-tanks, and encouraging youth civic engagement, including full participation in state institutions and government.

A key defining feature of the proposed democratisation initiative is that for the first time there is a vision that is positively disposed to working with others instead against any party from within society or the state. The initiative is bold and positive and shuns relegating anyone in Jordan to the sphere of treason or disbelief.

It will remain to be seen whether Zam Zam can take a king far down the path of reform, where others, in the past, have failed. At a time when the kingdom is flooded from above by rain and below by sentiments of defiance and protests, Zam Zam brings water to the king; whether he will drink it is a space to be watched.

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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