Protests regularly punctuate public life in Jordan, but the national riots that exploded in November 2012 over the rising cost of fuel seemed especially concerning. Coming after two years of continuous protests by opposition groups demanding economic and political reforms, telltale signs of rebellion—burning tires on highways, anti-regime chants in the streets, crowds attacking police stations—suggested the onset of revolution in the Hashemite kingdom.

Jordan plays a vital geopolitical role for the United States and its allies. It is a peace partner to Israel, provides neighboring oil-rich Iraq and Saudi Arabia with a military buffer, and serves as a natural barrier against Syrian and Iranian interests. There is no question that regime collapse in Amman would unleash strategic volatility. Although Jordan’s King Abdullah II has not reacted masterfully to the past two years of opposition, his autocratic monarchy will most likely retain power.

This article provides context on Jordan’s current troubles, outlines the factors that have made this crisis particularly unstable, and finally establishes the five reasons why the regime will likely survive.

The “Jordanian Spring” began in late December 2010, when a confluence of political factors—another hollow parliamentary election, another ineffectual prime minister—converged upon a public already suffering from declining employment opportunities and rising living costs. Drawing inspiration from demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt, opposition forces quickly mobilized to launch protests against a stale autocratic system they saw as rife with corruption, closed to public participation, and commanded by a recalcitrant kingship.[1]

Among the first protesters were the powerful Islamist movement headlined by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front party, the professional syndicates and labor unions, and liberal youth activists like the March 24 Group, whose tech-savvy approach compensated for their lack of civic manpower.[2] By the fall, however, new opposition organizations from civil society had coalesced as well. Among them were the National Reform Front, a coalition of disgruntled political elites and social entrepreneurs, and more surprisingly tribal youth activists in the rural northern and southern governorates, who broke from the traditionally loyal stance of their elders to mount their own rallies for reform.

These forces have mounted a significant campaign of contentious politics—demonstrations, marches, occupations, boycotts, and sit-ins—resulting in more than 7,000 protest events during the past two years.[3] For a soft authoritarian kingdom that ended martial law in 1989 and prides itself on moderation and tolerance, such persistent strife has been troubling. The U.S. government has followed these events with caution, and initiated significant overtures, such as special visits by high-ranking officials or more recently the deployment of U.S. troops, to boost the regime’s confidence.[4]

Rebellious Signs
Forecasters of revolution argue that today’s atmosphere of opposition breaks from conventional protests in Jordan in several ways.[5] First, the royal family no longer enjoys insulation from critique. Despite the threat of arrest due to lèse majesté laws and suffocating security statutes, activists have criticized King Abdullah and Queen Rania for their perceived aloofness, spending habits, and resistance to reform.[6] Such practices would have caused regime crackdowns in the martial law era, when Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, ruled. Today, however, rumors about royal corruption or jokes about the king’s poor Arabic are fodder in public discussion. Indeed, some protesters compare Abdullah with other deposed dictators, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Mu`ammar Qadhafi of Libya, in a poignant reminder to the palace that change must come now.[7]

Second, although public protests have long been cherished by Jordan’s urban civil society, palace observers have been surprised at the spread of dissent into rural East Bank tribal communities long assumed to be bastions of monarchical loyalty. Bedouin and settled tribes supported the Hashemite family when they arrived in the 1920s.[8] Yet mass Palestinian migration changed Jordan’s demography due to the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967, rendering the East Bank tribes a minority. After the 1970 Black September civil war, anti-Palestinian bias saturated state institutions and the military.[9] In this context, the fact that the youngest generation of East Bank Jordanians has marched to demand reforms reveals that economic and political frustrations have boiled over into the regime’s social bedrock.[10]

Third, the reform concessions granted by King Abdullah have not satisfied opposition constituencies. The palace has executed several classic strategies of shuffling and liberalization in hopes of appeasing the public. For instance, it frequently sacked its prime ministers in response to popular frustration, with five having held the premiership since 2010 alone, and also created new laws that nominally expanded the boundaries of political freedom, such as revising the constitution.[11] Yet oppositionists are seasoned enough to recognize such shallow reforms.[12] Moreover, many public grievances are grounded in economic concerns that the cash-strapped government cannot resolve, such as the nearly 25% unemployment rate, the removal of subsidies on fuel and electricity, and stubborn inequality between rich and poor.[13]

With parliamentary elections scheduled for January 23, 2013, these signs point to continued turbulence. After all, it was the November 2010 contest that helped spark the Jordanian Spring, as electoral laws are engineered to produce conservative and quarreling parliaments that pose little resistance to royal fiat.[14] Distrust of the palace and parliament motivates many protesters, and some analysts might be tempted to fear the worst if the Islamists and other opposition forces follow through with their promise to boycott the upcoming elections, and then organize more street protests to decry the legislative body that results.

The boycott remains in full effect. When the Electoral Commission presented the final list of the 820 publicly registered candidates running for parliament in late December 2012, absent from it were the names of Islamists and other familiar opposition faces.[15]

Resilience and Survival
Yet for all these troubles, Jordan is little closer to revolution than prior to the Arab Spring. Five factors suggest that while social churn and political burn may claim the next few parliaments or appointed governments, the authoritarian backbone of the kingdom—the Hashemite monarchy—will remain in power.

First, Jordan’s security forces are robustly capable of stamping out any opposition that becomes extremely militant or directly attacks regime institutions. The Interior Ministry controls not just the civil police, but also the darak, or specialized riot police that have proven far more effective in containing crowds.[16] Beyond them is the army, under direct command of the kingship. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the Jordanian army has deployed violence on domestic soil to protect the palace before; it emerged bloodied but victorious during the 1970 civil war, and its tanks restored order when more violent fuel price riots erupted in April 1989 and August 1996. There are no signs the army will refuse to deploy once again if protests rage out of control. The military is a highly professionalized force with a powerful institutional culture of hierarchical obedience, organizational unity, and monarchical loyalty—a holdover of its imperial creation by the British, as well as early experiences defending the crown during the turbulent era of Arab nationalism.[17] While a robust coercive apparatus alone does not guarantee regime survival, it can make the task of opposition far more difficult, as in Syria, where a raging civil war costing some 60,000 lives has yet to depose Bashar al-Assad.[18]

Second, the actual number of protesters has not reached anywhere close to a critical mass. A few thousand demonstrators in a capital of two million is not enough to create a revolution, and most of the protests during the past two years have attracted just a few hundred participants—most being eager members of the organizing group, not the average middle-class urban citizen whose preferences have been the quintessential swing vote in more revolutionary Arab countries. What made Egypt’s Tahrir Square bulge with opposition was not when longstanding youth groups and other dissenting organizations mobilized diehard supporters; they had organized protests and demonstrations for years, with little effect. The tipping point came when citizens with no preexisting affiliation with any opposition group decided to join them.

Third, most protests have been loud but not violent. Even in the November riots, only a handful of public institutions suffered direct attack. In more typical episodes, ardent oppositionists march, demonstrate, and shout—but refrain from throwing stones, assaulting police officers, and escalating confrontations into direct violence. To date, only a few citizens have been killed due to the protest wave since December 2010, an impressive figure spanning more than 7,000 demonstrations, rallies, and marches.[19] There are two reasons for this. The first is the worsening violence in Syria. Wary of emulating the conflict there on domestic soil, and with many sharing close family ties across the border, many Jordanians self-moderate when confronting the police at protests, refusing to escalate confrontations into violence.[20] The second reason is that inversely, the regime has deliberately chosen to tolerate opposition activism rather than squash it outright, whereas the use of violence and repression has had the effect of radicalizing and hardening dissent in other Arab contexts.

Fourth, there is no coordinated nationwide opposition movement. Even in fragmented Libya, disparate militias and provincial councils managed to uneasily cooperate under the aegis of a transitional command during the civil war against the Qadhafi regime. Yet in Jordan, dividing lines have become the regime’s blessing in disguise, as longstanding mistrust over identity and religion continue to stymie opposition activists. For instance, Palestinian leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood and youth activists from East Bank tribes may both despise royal corruption, but they will likely never march against the regime in any large-scale and unified way.[21]

Fifth, oppositionists desire different types of reform. The most common demand articulated by opposition groups—seen on placards, published on websites, discussed in everyday discourse—is to end the rampant corruption linking prominent officials, including elites close to the palace, with questionable business investments and privatization deals.[22] Beyond the corruption issue, however, is a serious divergence of political goals. Islamists demand an immediate transition to democracy through constitutional monarchism, whereas tribal activists desire economic concessions in the form of jobs and development prior to any large-scale political change. Youth activists desire more transparency and accountability from the government, but give few policy suggestions to sustain these generalities while also remaining wary of the Islamist agenda.

The fuel price riots that rocked November should raise Western attention, but not because Jordan teeters on the brink of collapse. The demonstrations expose two paradoxical perspectives, namely the continuing inability of an autocratic regime to satisfy the reform demands from below, as well as the continuing inability of social opposition to overcome internal differences and confront the regime. The question is thus not whether the monarchy will maintain power, but rather how it will do so—through continued neglect and increased repression, or through the eventual implementation of economic and political reform that can gradually satiate the many sectors of protest in the Hashemite kingdom.

Dr. Sean L. Yom is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Temple University, and specializes in political development and regime stability in the Middle East. He travels regularly to Jordan.

[1] Marwan Muasher, “A Decade of Struggling Reform Efforts in Jordan: The Resilience of the Rentier System,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 2011.

[2] Zaina Steityah, “Talk of Reform,” Jordan Business, August 2011.

[3] “We Have No Other Choice—Ensour,” Jordan Times, November 15, 2012.

[4] Michael Gordon and Elisabeth Bumiller, “U.S. Military Is Sent to Jordan to Help with Crisis in Syria,” New York Times, October 9, 2012.

[5] See, for instance, Taylor Luck, “Spiraling Social Violence Pushing Country into ‘Danger Zone,’” Jordan Times, December 11, 2011; David Schenker, “As Jordan Stumbles, the U.S. Response is Crucial,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 19, 2012.

[6] Ethan Bronner, “Jordan Angered by Articles on the Discontent of Tribes,” New York Times, February 11, 2011.

[7] Labib Kamhawy, “Jordanians Without Freedom: Farewell to the Reform State,” al-Quds al-Arabi, August 26, 2012.

[8] For more on the colonial origins of tribal support for the Hashemite monarchy, see Mary Wilson, King Abdullah, Britain, and the Making of Jordan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

[9] The rise of anti-Palestinian nationalism in Jordanian state institutions is charted well in Adnan Abu Odeh, Jordanians, Palestinians, and the Hashemite Kingdom in the Middle East Peace Process (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 1999).

[10] Sean L. Yom and Wael al-Khatib, “Jordan’s New Politics of Tribal Dissent,” The Middle East Channel, Foreign Policy, August 7, 2012.

[11] Naseem Tarawnah, “Why the Process Matters More,” Jordan Business, November 2011.

[12] “Dallying with Reform in a Divided Jordan,” International Crisis Group, March 2012.

[13] Stephen Farrell, “Demonstrations Whisper of an Arab Spring in Jordan,” New York Times, February 9, 2012.

[14] Even though the parliament has little legislative ability, electoral laws are still biased against opposition forces in two ways. First, electoral districts are heavily gerrymandered, and mathematically favor rural districts populated by nominally loyal tribal communities over historically contentious urban neighborhoods where the Palestinian-dominated Islamist movement operates. Second, citizens may cast just one vote in their district, even if there are multiple seats. In practice, this privileges wealthy, conservative, independent candidates who can provide patronage in return for votes, and so they have more incentive once elected to fight over access to state resources rather than broader economic and political issues.

[15] Adam Nickey, “Jordan Gears Up for Parliamentary Elections,” Jerusalem Post, December 29, 2012.

[16] Sean L. Yom, “Jordan’s Stubborn Regime Hangs in the Balance,” The Middle East Channel, Foreign Policy, March 31, 2011.

[17] Robert Satloff, Troubles on the East Bank: Challenges to the Domestic Stability of Jordan (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1986).

[18] “UN Estimates More than 60,000 Have Been Killed in Syrian Conflict, Calls Toll ‘Truly Shocking,’” Washington Post, January 2, 2013.

[19] “We Have No Other Choice—Ensour,” Jordan Times, November 15, 2012.

[20] In personal interviews conducted in 2011 and 2012, opposition activists in both Amman and the tribal areas returned a common theme: when asked why they did not escalate their protests further to extract greater reforms, the most common response was the fear of internal chaos erupting as in neighboring Syria.

[21] Identity remains a controversial issue. Given that Palestinians already constitute nearly two-thirds of the populace, longstanding fears by tribal nationalists about Israeli plans to turn Jordan into a “substitute homeland” for all Palestinians make many East Bankers wary of trusting their Palestinian peers, even when they have a common cause.

[22] Bassam al-Badarin, “Elite Digging into the Files of Corruption, and the System Devours Itself,” al-Quds al-Arabi, February 13, 2012.

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