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Last updated: May 6, 2013
Hisham Bustani: Jordan – a failed uprising and a re-emerging regime

“Up to now, the regime has been successful in absorbing the movement and fragmenting it”

There is no doubt that the November 2012 events in Jordan dubbed Habbet Tishreen by many activists in recollection of its 1989 counterpart, the April Uprising, or Habbet Neesan, are unprecedented. Although both were triggered by an increase in the prices of oil derivatives, the 2012 version seems to have been much more radicalized in its approach to the ruling regime, especially the Hashemite monarchs/family and the king himself.

Before 2012, it was the virtue of the ultra-brave to publicly criticize the king and the royal family: they usually spoke with evident hints and innuendo, but without going the full route to directly uttering the name of the king. Criticizing the king and the royal family was simply not tolerated under Jordanian law, and it is still punishable by one to three years in prison. The law incriminating this sort of criticism has perhaps the world’s most absurd name for any legislation: literally, the ‘Law on elongating one’s tongue about the monarch’!

I was not one of the brave ones, but while others directed their criticism to ‘the government’, I have always referred to “the political authority” in my articles, making a point that governments do not rule in Jordan, they are mere executives, and the decision-making lies somewhere else, in spaces on a higher level: The Royal Court and the General Intelligence Agency (Mukhabarat).

All the Power to the King

Constitutionally, the king in Jordan holds absolute powers, and at the same time, he remains unaccountable. The country is often falsely referred to as a “constitutional monarchy.” The most recent of these references came in King Abdullah II’s interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, September 25, 2012. A kingdom with a constitution that gives absolute powers to the monarch cannot be called a constitutional monarchy; it is rather a medieval rule-by-divine-right state. Just check the list below and you’ll get a feel of what I am referring to:

1 - The King appoints the prime minister and ministers and dismisses them (article 35 of the Constitution).
2 - The king ratifies the laws and promulgates them (article 31 of the Constitution).
3 -The king issues the orders for holding parliamentary elections (Article 34-1 of the Constitution).
4 - The king has the power to dissolve the parliament (article 34-3 of the Constitution).
5 - The king appoints and dismisses the upper house of parliament (articles 34-4 and 36 of the Constitution).
6 - The king is the supreme commander of the armed forces and all the security apparatus (article 32 of the Constitution).
7 - The king appoints the judges of the constitutional court (article 58-1 of the Constitution).
8 - Judges of the civil and sharia courts are appointed and dismissed by a royal decree (article 98-1 of the Constitution).

And complementing all those powers:

9 - The king is immune from any liability and responsibility (Article 30 of the Constitution).
10- The criticism of the king is criminalized (Article 195 of the Penal Code).

Abdullah II: Weak performance and detachment from old guards

The late King Hussein was all-powerful, and he was able to concentrate all political might into his hands and manipulate the internal Jordanian scene. He was untouchable, and so were all the king’s men.

King Abdullah II, a last-minute stopgap choice called upon to replace the then regent to the throne Prince Hassan (Hussein’s brother), is weak. He was not trained to be king, nor does he have the innate substance of politicians. He spent his princely days at the wheel of speeding cars (he was a champion of the Jordan Rally in the 1980s and 90s) and puffing-up of the special operations battalions in the Jordanian armed forces. He introduced his own men into the game. The new king’s men were no different than the old except in one thing: both were corrupt, both were neoliberal (let us but recall that World Bank and IMF reforms started in the late 1980s in Jordan, and that was the cause of the 1989 April Uprising). Yet significantly, the Western-educated business-efficiency-oriented new guards lacked the support of social structures: the tribes. They had no social depth.

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The old guard (while in power) maintained huge social connections with their tribes, many of which were designated leaders of their tribes. And for that reason, a small part of the corruption benefits funneled down to the social infrastructure in different forms (jobs, university scholarships, direct aid, etc). This was very important for the stability of a clientele state like Jordan.

Whereas the notorious 1993 one-man-one-vote elections law (still in effect today) tremendously strengthened the tribes and turned them from social units into political ones, the continuous detribalization at the top of the regime’s bureaucracy was doubtless placing the regime on a collision course with the tribes.

By detribalization here, I do not mean ‘Palestinization’. Many of the new guards are of eastern Jordanian descent, but they lack tribal connections and influence. They are more Westernized (thus dubbed ‘the digitals’), and did nothing more than to complete the privatization of the public sector that had already started under King Hussein and the old guard; but the corruption they maintained did not seep to the bottom.

Global economic crash and the Arab Spring

Things started to get uglier with the global economic crash. There was no money handed out for free anymore. Now the post-crash motto was ‘everyone for himself’ (after all, even the EU is considering kicking out Greece!). There was no extra money to finance corruption. Suddenly, all the real-estate projects sponsored by the Gulf regimes came to an abrupt halt. Amman became cityscape studded with unfinished building projects, jobs were lost, and having everything privatized, the government went broke with a debt of over US$22 billion that was mainly used to finance corruption. The wave of increasing taxes and de-subsidization of basic commodities (including petrol derivatives) accelerated. More and more people became impoverished; finding people making a living out of picking up leftovers from the trash became a usual scene in Amman; the heaps of trash themselves became a common (and evil-reeking) scene in a city that boasted its cleanliness for decades. This was due to the inability of the Amman municipality to buy new garbage trucks, and that was the same municipality that boasted its surplus of cash a decade ago! 

As the regime went broke, something else erupted: the Arab spring. Jordan’s protests were nothing like what other Arab countries experienced, since it was elitist (comprised of the regular activists, “opposition” politicians and political parties), small (except when the Muslim Brotherhood participated), benign (demanding “reform” rather than the removal of the regime), and lacking a unified common objective.

Gradually, the government managed to increase prices bit by bit with successive decisions, which were largely below the radar screen of public attention. But the last increase was a whopper, and was duly noticed. Prices for fuel (including gasoline and diesel used for heating) increased significantly. The price of a gas jar (used for domestic cooking and heating) increased from JD 6.50 (US$ 9) to JD 10 (US$14), a 54% increase in fell swoop. All impacting heavily on the poorer socioeconomic strata, and in addition, and since the costs of electricity and transportation are dependent on petrol derivatives, the increase automatically triggered a similar increase in the price of almost all commodities. Now popular rage exploded. But once again, the explosion was absorbed.

A politically barren landscape

Politically Jordan is a terrain, which in a sense is burned to the ground. The regime has played its cards well over the years. The ‘classical’ opposition was subdued starting in 1989 by incorporating them into the regime’s fabric through a process of ‘legalization’, ‘infiltration’, and then further subduing them by ever tighter laws restricting their activities. The social fabric is fragmented by regime-fabricated and regime-sponsored divisions along a divide based on citizens of eastern Jordanian origins vs. citizens of Palestinian origin. Those of eastern Jordanian origin are further divided into regions, tribes, families, etc. The ‘internal conflicts’ that result from these divisions are sparked by trivial issues based on narrow interests, again: something rather characteristic of a clientele state.

The ‘alternative’ opposition, portraying itself as ‘more radical politically’, was in fact worse than the classic opposition. Whereas the old opposition parties drew on the broader ideologies of internationalism, pan-Arabism and Islamism, the ‘alternative’ opposition based itself on an isolationist Jordanian identity; patriotism was the most prominent feature of a new self-proclaimed ‘left’.

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This went along well with the regime’s plans of building a “Jordanian identity” in theory: in 1989, the regime insisted on ‘Jordanizing’ the classic parties, insisting that they must be exclusively local and must cut all ties with the Arab and international arena. In 2002, the regime initiated a huge PR campaign under the slogan ‘Jordan First’, and then ‘We Are All Jordan’. This served to trap the political scene in a fabricated identity based on the colonial-grounded ‘state’: an identity that is divisive (useful to recall that a large proportion of Jordanian citizens are closely tied to Palestine and the Palestinian struggle), chauvinist (based on narrow patriotism, blind loyalty to the king and the royal family, hailing the security apparatus and the flag), and futile (since one cannot build a liberation project based on a colonial-based functional state with a colonial/regime-fabricated identity).

In practice, the regime opted for subdividing the people along tribal and regional lines through its continuous adoption of the “one-man one-vote” election law.

The opposition, accused of being ‘Palestinian’ by the regime and its proponents, fell in the trap, and became obsessed with proving its Jordanian authenticity, its Jordanian roots, its Jordanian programs, and even its Jordanian dialect and dress code! Even the Islamists started having these identity-based conflicts which increased to the point where Rohayyel Gharaibeh, a prominent leader of the Islamic Action Front, led the formation of a current inside the Islamic movement based along the Jordanian/Palestinian division line.  

The opposition, and thus any ‘extended’ spontaneous protest, lost any overarching potential. It became easy to label, to manipulate and utilize, and thus to contain. It was playing on the home ground of the regime.

Why did the November events fail to mature into a full-blown uprising?

1 - The upsurge was relatively large, but not massive. Unlike the previous protests in Jordan, the November events were not exclusively elitist in origins, but the number of people who turned out, although large, did not reach the critical mass needed to hold ground. This is partially due to the Palestinian/Jordanian divide and the fact that the Jordanian identity remains unsuitable as an overarching identity.

2 - It lacked serious conviction. People dispersed and went home. They did not occupy squares. They did not hold ground. This is because they did not achieve critical mass, and they did not agree on the single achievable goal of bringing down the regime. Some segments of the protesters did raise that slogan, but many ‘opposition’ forces and figures were against this and declared their pro-regime position very loudly. The vast majority of the main players in the regime and the strands of opposition wanted the regime as such to stay. They do not have an alternative plan. The old guards probably wanted a change at the apex of power to finalize their power grip, but nothing more. A change in seats, not a change of regime.

3 - The opposition organizations sold out the protests. The Islamic brotherhood declared that they did not want the regime to leave, stressed that they were only reformists (and thus are against a revolutionary option), and made it clear many times that the slogan ‘The people want to bring down the regime’ (which was chanted many times in the November events) does not represent them. Khaled Kalaldeh, the former leader of the Socialist Left (a ‘radical’ group of the alternative opposition) declared the same thing. And even before the November events, the classical Leftist/pan-Arabist parties declared that they would participate in the upcoming elections, which were still to be based on the notorious Jordanian-style ‘one-man one-vote’ law which was the reason for boycotting the previous elections!

These elections were propagandized by the regime on a wide scale as Jordan’s equivalent to the Arab spring, and did every trick possible to insure a wide participation. Embarrassed by the November events, those parties declared that they would ‘suspend’ their participation! Self-proclaimed opposition figures became some sort of a mouthpiece for the regime: Soud Qubeilat (a former political prisoner and a former president of the Jordan Writers Association) wrote an article supporting participation in the regime-sponsored elections based on the same law that was unanimously opposed by the opposition. Muwaffaq Mahadin (another self-proclaimed opposition figure and the current president of the Jordanian Writers Association) went as far as promoting the regime’s “state and security first” rhetoric, which is often used to justify political repression.

Nahed Hattar, another self-proclaimed opposition figure, publicly declared his connection with Muhammad al-Thahabi the Head of General Intelligence Department (the Mukhabarat) and promoted him as a “patriotic figure” in an article published in the Lebanese paper al-Akhbar. Al-Thahabi has recently been convicted in a corruption case and is serving time; he was also known for paying journalists in what was known as al-Thahabi’s list, a list of mukhabarat-sponsored journalists that neither were investigated by the government nor by the Journalists Association, for obvious reasons!. Hattar is the master theoretician of the isolationist ‘Jordanian identity’ and is well-known for his negative views regarding Jordanians of Palestinian origin. He was also one of the staunchest supporters of the regime’s elections, calling the protesting groups to join it.

4 - The division regarding Syria, which is a huge divide in Jordan. This reflected a lack of unity and trust between the different opposition groups and activists who were active on the ground. Vocal supporters of the Syrian regime – who include all the ‘leftist” and pan-Arabist parties, many of the “opposition” figures and writers (such as all those mentioned in point 3 above), and others – reproduced their theoretical positions on the Arab post-colonial states and took back their early support of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, and adopted a new pro-state, anti-chaos rhetoric. This of course was extended to Jordan, so they were a ‘push’ factor countering the possibility that the November events might expand into a full-blown uprising. Many of those figures and parties perceive Jordan’s ‘stability’ to be closely bound up with the stability of and support for the Syrian regime.

5 - External factors: Jordan is historically known as a buffer state. It shields Israel (the West’s most valuable and most vulnerable ally in the region) from its ‘hostile’ Arab surroundings. With the rise of Iran as a regional power, the buffer function took on an extra dimension: Jordan now shields the ‘Sunni’ Gulf States form the ‘Shiite crescent’, a hypothetical area that extends from Iran in the east, running through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon in the west; the term itself was first mentioned by King Abdullah II himself. Jordan has continuously maintained its stability within the explosive region it is located in. This is not the result of blind chance. The buffer function of Jordan is very valuable to Israel, the US, the EU, and the Gulf states.

These key players ensure (through a combination of financial aid and a security-based approach) that things will never get out of control in Jordan. Bahrain recently called on the Gulf States to help Jordan in its crisis. The Gulf States will not tolerate the fall of a monarchy by means of a popular uprising; this is a direct threat to them and a direct inspiration to their people. This is why they offered Jordan and Morocco (the only non-Gulf Arab monarchies) membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

A step forward despite the failure

Two major advantages were achieved by the November events in Jordan. First, the taboo of criticizing the king and the royal family was broken. The chants in the November demonstrations were unprecedented since 1989; they were clearly directed at the king, the royal family and the regime. Some of the demonstrations called for a republic in Jordan.

Second, the people have now an easier access to the street for demonstrating their grievances.

Up to now, the regime has been successful in absorbing the movement and fragmenting it. The old guard, with its deep social connections and thus strong nexus with some of the protest movements and opposition figures, constitute the most successful of the regime’s wings. They succeeded in eliminating the new guard, putting many of them as scapegoats on corruption trials, while immunizing themselves against corruption allegations. They now rule the scene.

Prospects for the future? There are none. Jordan is like Lebanon, inherently designed to be void of any context for independence and sovereignty. Any movement aspiring for liberation in Jordan must build its strategy on a wider regional scheme that involves (at a minimum) Palestine and Syria, if not the Gulf and Iraq as well. Any other perspective will be entrapped and easily manipulated. The protests of November 2012 are only the latest in a series of proofs of this.

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