Jordan’s Uncertain Future
Public protests erupted throughout Jordan in February of this year. While security officials in Amman are well accustomed to demonstrations within the city limits, the February protests also reached further out into the tribal regions, leading some to think that these small tremors of unrest are signs of a larger movement to come. Like the liberal Islamists and social progressives in Iran and other middle-eastern countries, forward thinking Jordanian urbanites criticized the government along with their tribal compatriots and demanded change in the political system. The February protests were not large, but they were symbolic.
When the Arab Spring first erupted, many viewed Jordan as a vulnerable nation. Jordan’s widespread unemployment, decades of government corruption, and rising energy costs created fertile ground for the seeds of protest. King Abdullah averted a major crisis, however, by offering small concessions to those who criticized the government. These trivial appeasements (namely the firing of corrupt officials and the continuation of funding for popular projects) placated discontented troublemakers but failed to impress those who called for deeper social, economic, and governmental changes.
Despite Jordan’s internal differences and precarious border relations, the desire for governmental reform has developed among all Jordanians. From the city-dwelling liberals to the traditional tribesman, Jordanians primarily desire one major reform: the restructuring of the monarchy to an English constitutional system. Abdullah has continuously said that he supports reform and intends to push continually for more in the future. Skeptical political analysts doubt the king’s promises and label them as “the appearance of reform.”
Predicting Jordan’s long term reaction to the Arab Spring is difficult. For a while, Jordanians have watched in muted horror as images of battered and bloody bodies color their televisions – the victims of ruthless demonstrations in surrounding countries. The substantial increase in violence around Jordan has rendered many hesitant to take forceful action against the government. If history is to be trusted, however, a small amount of governmental reform only fans the flame of desire for significant and lasting change. If the Jordanian government fails in its attempts to reform, the citizenry will likely adopt more drastic measures of coercion.
Jordan: A Brief Snapshot
Since the late 1940’s, Jordan has been the eye in a hurricane of political and religious tensions ripping through its neighboring countries. War, civil unrest, economic decline, and resource shortages in the region have hacked at Jordan’s stability. It is, however, still hailed as one of the most stable middle-eastern countries. Jordan’s main economic artery does not rely solely on petroleum production. Instead, enterprising Jordanians have expanded into textiles, auto manufacturing, and various other large scale production ventures. This economic diversity has led to steady economic increases since the 1980’s and contributes heavily to its current stability. Recently, however, unemployment rates in Jordan have hovered just above 13%, the highest in Jordan’s recent history. This level of unemployment has further angered those who already despise government corruption.
Other social factors also contribute to Jordan’s stability. Public literacy has bounded into the upper 80th and 90th percentiles since the 1980’s. Large government expenditures on public education have both increased literacy and advanced higher education. Public health has also improved.The average lifespan in Jordan continues to climb. Public sanitation makes appreciable gains each year and the government recently announced an enormous undertaking to improve access to water.
Despite these measurable advances in social well being, the political climate in Jordan has been heating up since the early 1990’s and, as recently as last year, King Abdullah began introducing reforms. Although covered briefly earlier, it is helpful to note what specific changes Abdullah made and when. On October 17 2011, King Abdullah fired his government. Popular discontent and legitimate pressure from the National Assembly to enforce new anti-corruption laws coerced Abdullah into firing the Prime Minister less than a year after firing the previous Prime Minister. Former Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit was replaced by 61 year-old Awn Khasawhneh, a judge at the International Court of Justice. Bakhit was accused of lagging in his efforts to institute political reform and was heavily criticized for his poor enforcement of the anti-corruption laws. Gatherings of political leaders and advisers on the anti-corruption committee were even protested at one point, with demonstrators throwing rocks and firing guns.
As stated earlier, these political changes by Abdullah are minimal and hardly sufficient for those who truly desire reform. In fact, the new Elections Law might force Abdullah into action sooner than he anticipated. The new law, pushed forward by reformers, was supposed to adjust proportional representation at the national level. However, the Senate reapportioned a mere 10 seats for the opposition parties. The same amendment increased the size of the Senate from 140 to 150 seats, further marginalizing the already paltry increase of seats for the opposition. The failure to make substantive changes in this amendment will provoke a swift and harsh response from the citizenry. Retaliation may take the form of increased political pressure through massive boycotts and demonstrations. Jordan has, through this amendment process, wasted valuable time and the opportunity to satisfy the demands of the reformers before those demands increased.
Jordan and the Syrian Civil War
Many, including some US departments, assume that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will be killed soon. Conversely, some geo-political analysts predict that Assad, while living in constant mortal danger, will weather the social turmoil and political violence. The solidarity of his regime and his tight military control forecast success for Assad in repelling the revolutionary insurrection. Historically, Syria’s regime has maintained a vice like grip on military leadership, coercing it into loyalty and exploiting its forced submission. The civil disruption and violence in Syria has had serious ramifications for its close neighbors like Jordan. Jordan’s biggest threat from Syria is not found in a missile silo or in revolutionary propaganda, it is found wrapped in shoddy clothes, often bleeding, and hobbling across the border in the dead of night. Slight domestic unrest and recent water shortages have not stopped thousands of Syrian refuges from flooding into the northern Jordan. As conflict rages just across the border, Jordanian officials, UN programs, and other relief organizations have scrambled to address the dramatically rising number of refugees.
In the past few weeks alone, over 18,000 refugees have crossed into Jordan. The elderly, crippled, and orphaned slip through the border along with families seeking respite from the violence in Syria. Officials approximate that half of the current Syrian refugees are children, many of them without parents. The number of overall refugees is expected to grow exponentially within the next week. Reports indicate that thousands of refugees are camped close to the border, patiently waiting to cross under cover of night. It is estimated that 2,000 refugees pass into Jordan every evening.
Some fear that Jordan’s compassionate yet ill-planned reception of refugees will instigate a retaliatory response from Syria. Most believe, however, that domestic turbulence will distract Syrian attention from the tens of thousands of refugees it hemorrhages with each revolutionary heartbeat. Jordan’s most imminent threat from the refugee situation is the economic strain produced by a sudden massive outflow of humanitarian aid and the pressure to care for waves of homeless and helpless innocents. Most of the refugees enter Jordan with no personal belongings besides the clothes on their backs. With no place for them in the Jordanian economy, the Jordanian government and international aid organizations have become responsible for feeding, clothing, housing, and medically treating the vast numbers of Syrians fleeing the civil war. The Syrian refugee problem is only compounded further by the number of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees already seeking shelter in Jordan.
A secondary threat posed by the Syrian unrest is the possibility of total structural collapse from the Syrian government. If Assad is killed or the regime collapses, internal power vacuums could implode social structures in a matter of weeks, even days. If there is no clear power in Syria, land grabbing by power hungry neighbors and opportunistic religious groups would create a mess that requires time, money, and human life to sort out. Similarly, Syria’s stash of chemical weapons would be accessible to the highest bidder or fastest gun hand, a nightmare scenario for both Jordanian officials and the Obama administration. A relatively stable middle-eastern power, it is possible that Jordan could face serious threats from both state and non-state actors who acquire chemical weapons.
The Royal Family
King Abdullah is the second monarchical figure of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan since it was established in 1952. His father, King Hussein, was a beloved and well recognized figure in his own country and abroad. Until his death in 1999 he was heralded as a figure of moderation and peacefulness throughout times of difficulty during his nearly 50 year reign. He successfully negotiated agreements with Israel and was acknowledged internationally for peacekeeping efforts during the Gulf crisis in the early 1990’s.
While King Abdullah might have inherited the authority of the crown from his father, he did not necessarily inherit the affection of the Jordanian people. He has attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps as a peacemaker and negotiator and has achieved success in some endeavors. His most recent troubles are not from outside threats but from internal strife. The Royal family has avoided the inter-family strife and power struggles that often plague Monarchic patriarchal units, especially those with brotherly fractions and multiple claims to kingship. The Royal family’s most pressing issue is how to confront the demand for governmental restructuring. King Abdullah should guard against immediate large reforms but should perpetuate his father’s legacy of peacemaking and accept the reforms necessary to prevent further disturbances.
Although some have speculated that the Hashemite history and legacy will ensure the continued stability of Jordan, history indicates otherwise. The Arabic world does not have the European equivalent of the “Divine Right of Kings” that protected the reign of some of the worst European monarchs until well into the 17th century. In the Ottoman empire, Sultans often surrounded themselves with non-Muslim bodyguards after so many of their predecessors were assassinated by their own Muslim bodyguards at the bidding of a religious leader. It was not unheard of for a bodyguard to assassinate their own ruler upon their own convictions that the ruler was not carrying out the will of Allah. One does not have to look far into history to find examples of assassinations of leaders in the Arabic world, the 1981 assassination of Egyption President Anwar Sadat by fundamentalist army officers is an obvious example. If extremists think that King Abdullah is not ruling in accordance with the will of Allah, the Hashemite name will be no protection.
The Hashemites had also already had a violent history. The family ruled various parts of the Arabian Peninsula before being driven out by the Sauds. The Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq extended from 1932 until 1958 when it was overthrown by a military coup. The king and many members of the royal family were executed. Nearly every royal family in the Arab world claims a lineage linking them with the prophet. The Hashemite family themselves trace their ancestry back to Muhammad’s great grandfather. This has not protected the royal family in any time from deadly political upheavals. Jordanians loved King Abdullah’s father. Some of this loyalty transferred to Abdullah when he took the throne after his father’s death. This loyalty will die, however, as soon as the people of Jordan think that the king is no longer acting in the best interest of the country.
To a large extent, the Jordanian people have been less publicly willing to take extreme or violent measures in their reform efforts. The dangerous mixture of political unrest, the Syrian situation on the Northern border, and economic hardships will certainly reinforce the progressive reform movements in Jordan. It is highly unlikely, however, that Jordan will ever succumb to complete political breakdown. Even if politically inspired demonstrations eventually use more extreme violent means to achieve sweeping reforms, it is likely that Jordan will retain its basic governmental structure and social system in the face of a worst case scenario. Jordan has overcome difficulties and its reputation for stability is not unfounded. It is reasonable to hope and anticipate that despite hard times the political system will accept pressure from reformers and adjust relatively peacefully.