The Muslim Brotherhood led more than 15,000 chanting protesters through central Amman Friday demanding an end to corruption and far-reaching political reforms to give Jordanian voters a bigger role in shaping the country’s future.
The number of marchers was well below the 50,000 organizers had predicted, but the event took place without a major security problem. A group supporting King Abdullah had planned a march at the same time, but decided to call it off to avoid possible violence.
Jordan’s role in the Arab Spring movement has been muted compared to the social and political upheavals in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and neighboring Syria. Friday’s event, a demonstration held in front of Al Husseini Mosque in central Amman, was being billed as the largest in Jordan since the beginning of the Arab Spring.
Measuring the success of the Amman protest
“Let’s say it’s less than they wanted,” said David Schenker, a scholar from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who met with Prime Minister Fayez al-Tarawneh the day before the protest. “I think … it’s not about the quantity, it’s the quality.”
One measure of the rally’s impact, Schenker said, was the participation of bloggers and other new media journalists and of members of al-Hirak, a small group of tribalists formally loyal to the monarchy.
The thing that undoubtedly worries the kingdom is whether there is a growing of the Hirak, this tribally based opposition -
For several months, Hirak leaders have called in hundreds of anti-corruption protesters for regular Friday protests, but the numbers had declined in recent weeks when many of its leaders were arrested, Schenker said.
Journalists are now operating dozens of blogs and web sites accusing the government of corruption and repression of free speech. They are challenging a new national law requiring that print and new media operations register and get government licenses. More than 50 online journalists have refused to register.
Friday’s rally organizers planned it so that Hirak representatives and journalists would take the lead in the event, leaving a Muslim Brotherhood member to speak last.
“The Brotherhood doesn’t want to be seen as the spearhead of this movement,” Schenker said.
“The thing that undoubtedly worries the kingdom is whether there is a growing of the Hirak, this tribally based opposition,” he said.
Corruption is a major target of protesters
Demands for an end to corruption have played a big role in previous demonstrations and continue to fuel widespread frustration with the monarchy and the government, Schenker said.
“It’s not that the king has to open up the political system entirely to the Islamists,” he said. Modest reforms would help ease public fears, “but at the same time he has to do something about the corruption in the kingdom.
“The palace reaction has not been satisfactory to assuage the genuine concerns on the street,” Schenker said. “There is a great disparity between the rich and the poor in the kingdom and there is a lot of conspicuous consumption and people see it. There is a $3 billion deficit this year out of a $9.6 billion budget and people say, ‘Hey, where did the money go,’ and people say, ‘Hey how come the king just bought a new $440-million plane?’
“This is an issue that resonates throughout the kingdom I think across, whether they are Palestinians, East Bankers or Jordanians,” he added.
Pushing toward a constitutional monarchy
The Muslim Brotherhood’s political agenda is highlighted by two reforms that would push Jordan toward a constitutional monarchy.
The Brotherhood is arguing for changes that would take away the king’s power to select the prime minister and the members of the upper house of parliament. The Brotherhood also proposes that members of both houses of parliament be popularly elected and elected parliamentarians would then choose the prime, who in turn would create his own cabinet.
“There’s been a real dearth of political parties,” Schenker said. “And so what the Brotherhood wants … is that the largest bloc in the parliament to be able to choose the government.
A number of political activists are now openly and repeatedly calling for a limitation of the monarchy’s powers
“The king and the traditional power centers in the kingdom oppose this because this is really one step closer to a constitutional monarchy… The king has spoken about a move to a constitutional monarchy but this is clearly not something he is prepared to do… The bottom line is people want more representation,” he said.
More and larger protests to come?
Demand for change and the resulting conflict experienced during Arab Spring movements in other countries has been more muted in Jordan, but that may be changing.
“A number of political activists are now openly and repeatedly calling for a limitation of the monarchy’s powers,” David Fox and Katrina Sammour write in a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace paper called Disquiet on the Jordanian Front
, published at the end of September. The say that in the last month, Jordan witnessed “a massive – and potentially irreversible - shift of strategy among segments of Jordan’s opposition movement.”
Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan who is now vice president of studies at the Washington, D.C. offices of Carnegie, had recommended long-term economic and political changes, including penalties for state security agencies that interfere with daily political life.
“The dilemma cannot be solved through elections in accordance to a law that lacks national consensus,” Muasher wrote in an article for Al Ghad, an independent Arabic daily published in Amman. “It will only deepen the crisis.
“It is time to admit the country is going through a deep political and economic crisis.”