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May 27, 2012

Is Jordanian Uprising a Threat to King Abdullah's Rule?

by Cecily Hilleary

Every Friday since late 2010, small groups of protesters have been gathering across Jordan to air complaints about basic things like rising prices and high unemployment in the kingdom. Fearing a full-scale uprising similar to the one that has gripped neighboring Syria, King Abdullah II early on began promising fundamental reforms. But the protests have begun to escalate, and some analysts fear that if the king doesn’t deliver soon, Jordan’s “peaceful” Arab Spring could go from a simmer to full boil.

Sean Lee Yom, assistant professor of political science at Temple University, says the protests include Jordanians of a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. He also says he is surprised at the level of “vitriol and dissent” aimed at both king and queen. “It’s unprecedented in the kingdom which has been ruled by the same family since 1950,” says he.

In February 2011, a group of Bedouin tribes published an open letter to the king, accusing his wife, Queen Rania, an ethnic Palestinian, of corruption. The 36 signatories called on the king to return “to the treasury land and farms given to the [queen's] Yasin family.” They also called for the introduction of modern election laws to ensure free and transparent voting in the kingdom. And, they warned that if their calls were disregarded, Jordan could be thrown into the same kind of chaos as has been witnessed in other countries affected by the Arab Spring.
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"It’s not that they demand ethnic purity in the royal family,” says Yom, “except that they see [Queen Rania] is Palestinian and they see a very lavish lifestyle, and they hear reports about massive corruption in the state, and there are not enough jobs and the governments are ineffective and the parliament does nothing but bicker.”

This has come as a shock to the monarchy, says Yom, because tribesmen in Jordan’s heartland have always been the kingdom’s political backbone.

Economic woes

Jordan is a small country with few resources, which relies heavily on foreign aid. Since inheriting the throne in 1999, Abdullah has made economic development a priority. Jordan joined the World Trade Organization and signed a free trade agreement with the United States. But these steps have offered little protection from the global economic slowdown and resulting rise in oil prices. Regional instability has reduced gas imports from Egypt. The United Nations estimates that Jordan now hosts more than 30,000 Iraqi refugees and 2,000 asylum-seekers from the Horn of Africa. An additional 30,000 Syrians have now fled to Jordan, further straining its resources.

Syria is one of Jordan’s biggest trading partners, but the unrest there has cut trade in half; Syria is also an important conduit for Jordan’s economic relations with Turkey and Europe, which have also been impacted. More than 14 percent of Jordanians are said to be living below the poverty line and more than 12 percent are unemployed, even though unofficial statistics put the latter number at 30 percent.

Rising ethnic tensions

Jordan has a population of 6.5 million, more than half of whom are Palestinians, refugees from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars or their descendants. Demographics are a very sensitive subject in Jordan. For one, some, including factions in Israel, have suggested Jordan as a Palestinian homeland alternative to the West Bank and Gaza – a vision that has been deemed unacceptable by both Jordanians and Palestinians. Fear of being outnumbered has also led to a rise of nativist sentiment among Jordan’s tribes, which seek to protect and preserve Jordan for “real Jordanians.”

"These conservative tribal Jordanians,” says Yom, “because of the 1970 civil war and a host of other historical legacies, will never, ever accept that their country is majority Palestinian and will do everything in their power to make sure that the monarchy represents the tribal communities before it represents the Palestinians.”

Only few Palestinians are participating in the protests, which may explain why Jordan’s Arab Spring has been so small in size. That is not to say, however, that Palestinians don’t have anything to complain about. While some of them have attained prominence and affluence, in general, they face ongoing discrimination and have little access to positions of political power.

Early on in his rein, King Abdullah acknowledged that Palestinians have been marginalized and vowed to change this. At the same time, according to Human Rights Watch, Jordan has arbitrarily stripped thousands of Palestinian Jordanians of their citizenship over the past few years, depriving them of basic rights to education and health care. In 2010, Jordan’s interior minister denied revoking anyone’s citizenship, saying Jordan had merely "suspended" giving out social security numbers “pending reunification of families" in the West Bank. Some suggest Jordan is trying to control and minimize the demographics of the Palestinian population in an effort to ward off any prospects of being designated a Palestinian homeland.

Ironically, hosting a large Palestinian refugee population has worked to the benefit of Jordan’s economic development. The Migration Policy Institute says Jordan receives large amounts of development assistance from the international community to subsidize refugees.

Reform

For the past year, King Abdullah has managed the crisis in his kingdom by addressing protesters’ individual concerns. When Islamists, leftists, nationalists and others protested against the government of former prime minister Samir El-Rifai in October 2010, Abdullah sacked him and his government and appointed a new premier.

“Throughout the year when small-scale protests broke out,” says Yom, “within traditionally loyal tribal towns like Tafileh and Karak, Abdullah responded by visiting these towns and giving targeted promises and pledges.” For example, after meeting with tribal leaders in Karak in June 2011, Abdullah instructed the authorities to create a craftsmen’s zone, build free housing for the poor, and open the door to young people's recruitment into the armed services and security institutions.

Also in June 2011, King Abdullah made a series of big promises which Yom says go far beyond addressing individual grievances: “The promise of a future constitutional monarchy in which the parliament, rather than the court, would appoint the government…, the promise of a completely new election law that would be more fairly representative, as well as a far more transparent government…that would eradicate corruption and allow for equal participation.”

Missed opportunities

In October, 2011, Abdullah appointed former Hague Court judge Awn Shawkat Al-Khasawneh as prime minister of Jordan, replacing Marouf al-Bakhit who had earlier been accused of corruption. Al-Khasawneh was widely viewed as a “clean” politician.

But according Amer Sabaileh, a blogger and political analyst who teaches at the University of Jordan, Al-Khasawneh missed a “golden opportunity” to institute reforms.

“He had his chance for six months and he didn’t deliver anything,” Sabaileh said. “From the first day, he was blaming other powers for interfering in his government, which was not true because at the very end, he took no steps on the ground to show his willingness to reform.”

For example, says Sabaileh, Al-Khasawneh did not even travel to rural areas to visit his constituents, nor did he connect with the people in any other way. "He didn’t meet with any politicians, political parties or what we call the ‘New Popular Movement.’”

In late April 2012, King Abdullah appointed a new prime minister, Fayez Tarawneh, and tasked him with implementing a new electoral law in time for a parliamentary poll later this year. But Sabaileh is skeptical that even Tarawneh will be able to deliver.

“I don’t think change is linked to people,” Sabaileh says. “Change is linked to [government] policy, it’s linked to willingness, it’s linked to a real reform agenda and proof on the ground… No absolute monarchy can remain an absolute monarchy. This is what history proves. Jordan has been governed in the same way for 90 years. It’s impossible to keep running the country with the same old faces.”

The prospects

So, whether King Abdullah will be able to offer the changes some of his people demand and stave off Jordan’s Arab Spring remains an open question. Will he turn his promises into concrete steps or will they remain declarative in nature? Sabaileh, for one, is skeptical. He says good intentions have never been enough to protect regimes.

Still, Yom believes that the signs of any type of large-scale uprising aren’t there yet.

“The indicators that political scientists pay attention to, if we’re trying to project a revolution in a country that’s ruled by a monarchical dynasty, are the slogans,” he says.

“Are they turning from, ‘We want reform, we want policy changes, we want our king to rule differently,’ are they turning from that to ‘We want a different king’ or ‘We want a different regime?’”

Right now, says Yom, most Jordanian critics still believe that the king has a right to rule and that the monarchy has the legitimacy to rule Jordan. But at the same time Yom believes that Abdullah needs to step up to the plate and do the right thing by his citizens. If he doesn’t, says Yom, everything could change.