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Middle East Report N°118 12 Mar 2012
Something is brewing in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. It is not so much that protests have been spreading since 2011; the country has experienced these before and so far they remain relatively small. It is, rather, who is behind them and from where dissatisfaction stems. East Bankers – Jordanians who inhabited the area before the arrival of the first Palestinian refugees in 1948 – have long formed the pillar of support for a regime that played on their fears concerning the Palestinian-origin majority. That pillar is showing cracks. The authorities retain several assets: popular anxiety about instability; U.S. and Gulf Arab political and material support; and persistent intercommunal divisions within the opposition. But in a fast-changing region, they would be reckless to assume they can avoid both far-reaching change and turmoil. Ultimately, they must either undertake the former one or experience the latter.
The season of Arab uprisings neither engulfed Jordan nor entirely passed it by. Frustration had begun to bubble up in 2010; the following year, a series of protests of modest size but not modest significance brought together a wide popular spectrum: East Bankers, but also citizens of Palestinian origin, Islamists as well as unaffiliated youth. Those who took to the streets had various grievances, but at their core they were expressing anger with the state of the economy, ostentatious corruption, unaccountability and the concentration of power in the hands of the few.
In the past, it was relatively easy for the monarchy to play on a fault line that has come to define the Jordanian polity, that separating East Bankers from Palestinian Jordanians. The former believe they are the country’s genuine inhabitants and fear usurpation of their traditional dominance by the more numerous citizens of Palestinian origin. Their support for the monarchy has stemmed in part from their over-representation in the public sector, the security services and – by dint of gerrymandered electoral districting – parliament. Conversely, Palestinian Jordanians have felt marginalised, shut out from key state positions and at times treated as disloyal; the memory of the bloody 1970 civil war in which Palestinian groups were defeated by regime forces also informs their perception of central authorities and contributes to a lingering sense of exclusion.
Divisions between the two communities have economic, social and political overtones: East Bankers generally are rural, while Palestinian-Jordanians typically hail from urban centres; the former dominate the public sector, the latter are present in private businesses; and the powerful Islamist movement tends to be more Palestinian-Jordanian than East Banker. This time, too, as protests developed, underlying communal tensions did not go unnoticed. East Bankers at times portrayed Palestinian-Jordanians as greedy capitalists, unpatriotic citizens or worrying Islamists. In turn, Palestinian-Jordanians have been skittish about taking the lead in demonstrations, fearful of a nationalist backlash.
Today, however, it has become much trickier for the regime to contain the protests by dividing the protesters. East Bankers increasingly are fed up too. Their rural strongholds have suffered from the near collapse of the agricultural sector and sharply curtailed public spending that began in the 1990s. Their habitual source of strength – their ties to the state – has been severely damaged by the wave of privatisations that began in the mid-1990s as well as by sky-rocketing (and largely unpunished) high-level corruption. The net result of both dynamics has been to shift resources away from them and toward a new, narrow private sector elite with privileged access to the palace. As a result, many East Bankers have reached the conclusion that addressing their economic grievances will require political change, including deep constitutional and electoral reform. At the same time, the powerful Islamist movement has shown itself to be pragmatic in its demands.
This has not erased communal divisions; to an extent, it reinforces them, as East Bankers can blame their hardships on corruption and privatisation, which they associate with the largely Palestinian urban economic elites. But it has undermined the regime and led to unprecedented attacks by its East Banker, rural and tribal constituency. Some cross-communal coalitions have emerged around specific demands for political reform, challenging the hegemony of identity politics. Most East Bankers and Palestinian-Jordanians are still not united in their anger, but they are simultaneously angry. That is a start.
The regime has responded in time-honoured fashion. The king has shuffled cabinets and then shuffled them again, using prime ministers as buffers to absorb popular discontent. He has charged committees to explore possible reforms, but these remain largely unimplemented. Too, the authorities appear to have sought to exacerbate communal antagonisms. Several demonstrations have been attacked by individuals resorting to explicitly divisive slogans and seeking to stir up anti-Palestinian feelings or, in some cases, inter-tribal rivalry. The regime has resisted creating independent investigations, making it hard to establish authorship. But the level of organisation and the fact that thugs were neither arrested nor held to account raises suspicions.
So far, this mix of tactics arguably has worked. Protesters have failed to reach critical mass, and images from Syria almost certainly dampen the appeal of a protest movement, lest it trigger chaos. But these are poor substitutes for tackling the causes of anger. A far wiser course would be to deal seriously with the issues that unite all those – East Bankers and Palestinian-Jordanians alike – whose impatience is fast growing. A credible electoral reform that provides fairer representation of urban centres would be a huge start. While some East Bankers are reluctant to see urban areas acquire greater political weight, increased government attention to rural socio-economic needs would go a long way in allaying those fears. Other steps would resonate widely: narrowing the State Security Court’s jurisdiction (before ultimately abolishing the institution altogether); ensuring tangible accountability for corruption and human rights violations; granting genuine powers to parliament by giving it a lead role in choosing the prime minister; establishing an elected Senate; and ending – or at least dramatically reducing – the political role of unelected bodies, the security services prime among them.
There is always the temptation for the regime to wait and to postpone. But the gradual disaffection of the monarchy’s core constituency coupled with efforts to unify opposition ranks by transcending debilitating divisions could portend a new chapter in the Arab uprisings’ unfolding drama. And by then, it would be too late.
Amman/Brussels, 12 March 2012