Why Jordan’s Protests Could Not Be Sustained

Jordan Protests: Shock Absorbed, the Regime Will Not Fall

[Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) speaks with Jordan’s King Abdullah upon his arrival in the West Bank city of Ramallah 6 December 2012.(Photo: Reuters – Yousef Allan/ Handout)]

By: Hisham Bustani, writing in  http://english.al-akhbar.com, December 6, 2012

There is no doubt that the November protests in Jordan were unprecedented. They were a first in terms of mass, explicit slogans directed against the King and the Hashemite monarchy, with some demonstrations even calling for the establishment of a republic in Jordan.

While this is clearly a watershed in the development of the opposition movement in Jordan, the regime has successfully been able to absorb the shock of the protests and will not fall in the foreseeable future.

King Abdullah II: Weak and Vulnerable

In contrast to his father – the powerful and politically savvy King Hussein – Jordan’s current king has proved a weak monarch. Upon taking the throne, King Abdullah II introduced his own advisors and high-ranking officials into the regime. In many important respects, the new king’s men were no different from their predecessors: both were corrupt and willing to implement neoliberal economic policies. But there was one key difference. The new Western-educated, business-oriented elite lacked the support of important social structures: the tribes.

During their time in power, King Hussein’s old guard maintained extensive social connections with their tribes, ensuring that a small part of the proceeds of their corruption trickled down to tribe members in different forms such as jobs, university scholarships, and cash benefits. The notorious Single Non-Transferable Vote electoral system introduced in 1993 (and still in place today in thinly-disguised form) further strengthened the tribes, turning them from a social unit into a political one.

A Co-opted, Fragmented Opposition

When it comes to opposition, the regime has played its cards well over the years. The traditional opposition was subdued starting in 1989 through a process of legalization, infiltration, and co-optation, and then further subdued by laws aimed at restricting its activities. Moreover, the social fabric is fragmented along a divide which is fabricated and sponsored by the regime, pitting citizens from East Bank Jordanian origins against those from West Bank (i.e. Palestinian) origins. Those from East Bank Jordanian origins are further divided into regions, tribes, and families.

A new “alternative” opposition has emerged over the past five years, purporting to be more radical than the traditional opposition. While the old opposition parties drew on ideologies of Internationalism, Pan-Arabism, and Islamism, many activists in the “alternative” opposition base their political discourse on an isolationist Jordanian identity, with patriotism a prominent feature of this new self-proclaimed “left.”

This suits the regime quite well. In 1989, the regime insisted on “Jordanizing” the traditional opposition, insisting that it must be exclusively local and cut all ties with the Arab and international partners, while in 2002 the regime initiated a huge PR campaign under the slogan “Jordan First,” and then “We Are All Jordan.”

The promotion of Jordanian nationalism worked to trap the political scene in a fabricated identity based on colonial-made “state” borders, an identity which is divisive considering the large percentage of Jordanian citizens who are closely tied to Palestine.

The opposition, accused of being “Palestinian” by many in the regime and its proponents, fell into the trap and became obsessed with proving its Jordanian authenticity, its Jordanian roots, its Jordanian programs, and even its Jordanian dialect. Thus, this opposition and its associated spontaneous protests lost the potential to mobilize a large segment of the masses and became easy to label, manipulate and thus contain.

An Economic Catalyst for the Protest Movement

The global economic crisis has posed a major challenge for the regime. The government’s crippling debt has accelerated a long-established trend towards increasing taxes and removing subsidies on basic commodities. In Amman, the sight of people sifting through garbage bins to find food and sellable scrap has become commonplace over the past few years, as have heaps of uncollected garbage pile up in the streets because the municipality can no longer afford new garbage trucks.

The price hikes announced in November 2012 increased the price of different fuels (including gasoline and diesel used for heating) by a range of 14 to 54 percent, while the price of gas canisters (used for domestic cooking and heating) increased by 54 percent. Because the costs of electricity and transportation are reliant on petroleum derivatives, the increase automatically caused price increases in almost all commodities. This provided enough impetus for protesters from various opposition factions to take to the streets.

Why Did the November Protests Fail to Become an Uprising?

First, while the protests were relatively large, they were not massive. The number of people who turned out did not reach the critical mass needed to hold ground. People went home. They did not occupy squares. This is partially due to the Palestinian Jordanian divide, the inter-tribal divides, and the fact the Jordanian national identity is one which cannot unify a large segment of the population under one banner.

Second, protesters did not share the single goal of bringing down the regime. While some did raise that slogan, many “opposition” forces and figures declared their pro-regime position very loudly. The Muslim Brotherhood declared that they do not want the downfall of the regime and stressed that they are only reformists, making it clear that the slogan “The people want to bring down the regime” does not represent them.

Khaled Kalaldeh, a former leader of the Social Left (a “radical” group from the new “alternative” opposition) made a public declaration to the same effect. Moreover, before the November protests, the traditional opposition of leftist and Pan-Arab parties declared that they would participate in the upcoming elections, promoted by the regime as Jordan’s equivalent of the Arab spring. Only after the protests did they shyly declare that they would only “suspend” their participation.Prominent “opposition” figures became mouthpieces for the regime: Soud Qubeilat wrote an article supporting participation in the regime-sponsored elections. Nahed Hattar, a self-proclaimed opposition leader, transformed into the biggest supporter of the regime’s upcoming elections, calling the protesting groups to join it, while another self-proclaimed opposition leader, Muwaffaq Mahadin, went as far as promoting the regime’s “state and security first” rhetoric, which is often used to justify political repression.

It is clear the vast majority of established players in both the regime and the “opposition” want the regime to stay. And while it is true that some members of the old guard want a change in the top position, this is driven by a desire to increase their influence, nothing more.

Third, the Syrian uprising has played a role. Vocal supporters of the Syrian regime among the opposition (including all the “leftist” and Pan-Arab parties) have adopted a new pro-state, anti-chaos rhetoric which extends to Jordan. Many of these figures and parties perceive Jordan’s “stability” as part of the stability of and support for the Syrian regime.

Fourth, the role of external actors is never far from the surface in Jordanian politics. Jordan has historically been known as a buffer state shielding “Israel” (the West’s most valuable and vulnerable ally in the region) from its “hostile” Arab neighbors. With the rise of Iran as a regional power, this buffer function took an extra dimension: Jordan now shields the “Sunni” Gulf monarchies and sheikdoms from the dubiously conceived “Shia crescent.” This function is very valuable to Israel, the US, the EU, and now the Gulf states.

Through a combination of financial aid and a security-based approach, these key players have continued to ensure that things stay under control in Jordan. Moreover, the Gulf states will not tolerate the downfall of an Arab monarchy due to a popular uprising; this is a direct threat to them and a direct inspiration to their people.

The Future?

The November protests achieved two things. They have broken the taboo surrounding mass public criticism of the king and royal family, and given people more encouragement to demonstrate in the street.

However, it is clear that these protests will not lead to the downfall of the Jordanian regime. Among the regime’s elite, the old guard now rule the political scene. With their deep social support base, they are the most strongly connected to the protest movement and key opposition figures. Thus, they have emerged as the most successful of the regime’s wings and have succeeded in marginalizing the new guard, putting many of them on scapegoat corruption trials, while immunizing themselves against corruption allegations.

What is the future for movements seeking to overthrow the Jordanian regime? In the immediate future, none. The borders of Jordan, like those of Lebanon, were designed by colonial powers to ensure dependence, not liberation. Any movement aspiring for liberation in Jordan must build its strategy on a wider regional scheme that involves (at the very least) Palestine and Syria, if not the Gulf and Iraq as well. Any other approach is easily manipulated and neutralized. The protests of November 2012 are only the latest in a series of proofs of this.

Hisham Bustani is a writer and activist from Jordan. He has published three volumes of short fiction in Arabic.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar’s editorial policy.

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