Jordan no longer quiet

Piecemeal reforms and police state keep lid on growing unrest

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Nothing ever happens in Jordan, it is often said, yet 2012 has been an altogether eventful year, which prompted some pundits to wonder if the country could be the next Arab state to fall. That, for now, seems a little far-fetched, although it is clear not all is well in the Hashemite Kingdom —  neither economically, nor politically.

Tensions most recently boiled over when the government of newly-elected Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour in November announced a series of price hikes for, among other things, household gas, fuel and public transport. Jordan is facing a $5 billion budget deficit and strict austerity is required to secure a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Following the cabinet’s decision, thousands of people hit the streets to protest. In violent clashes in the north of the country, dozens of police officers were wounded and a demonstrator was shot dead. In May, similar measures were met with a comparable wave of protests, which forced King Abdullah II to “freeze” the fuel price increase introduced by Jordan’s previous government.

Keeping an eye on Jordanian politics is like watching a Mexican soap opera, as ministers and prime ministers roll on and off the screen like bad lovers. The latest power shuffle took place in October when King Abdullah replaced Fayez al-Tarawneh with Ensour, the country’s second prime minister in 2012 and its fifth since the first Arab uprising started in Tunisia in late 2010. 

The change was triggered by the “Friday to Rescue the Nation” rally organized by the country’s main opposition group, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing. Some 20,000 people called for freedom and “real” reform in what is now known as the biggest public manifestation in the history of Jordan. Sure, 20,000 does not seem an awful lot, but Jordan started from scratch: until early 2011, all public gatherings and demonstrations were banned.

Meanwhile, change at the top is unlikely to impress anyone. King Abdullah has played this joker a bit too often during his 13-year reign, with disappointingly little result. What is more, nearly all top officials stem from a tiny inner circle of tribal elite. Often they have been in the driver’s seat before.  

Take “newcomer” Ensour. The 73-year-old previously was, among other functions, minister of planning, minister of education, minister of foreign affairs and minister of industry and trade. His 63-year-old predecessor, Tarawneh, had already been prime minister in the late 1990s, and twice served as chief of the royal court. No one, certainly not the IAF, expects these dinosaurs to herald a new dawn for Jordan, even though Ensour during his inauguration appeared a man of good intentions. “The main challenge is holding free and fair elections,” he said. 

Easier said than done, and his words did not impress the IAF, which immediately reinstated its intention to boycott the elections scheduled for January 2013. The same is true for several leftist and pan-Arab parties. And who can blame them? The new election law, adopted last summer, did introduce some cosmetic changes but is still tainted by the same old ills. In short, voting districts greatly vary in size, and favor rural areas to guarantee the tribes a parliamentary majority over the, predominantly Palestinian, urban masses. For example, Kerak, with a population of 200,000 is entitled to 10 seats, while Zarqa, with a population of one million, gets 11. In addition, the first is divided into six voting districts, the latter into only four. “If nothing changes, the new parliament will simply institutionalize polarization and political crisis rather than offering a mediating role and way out,” American scholar Curtis R. Ryan wrote in Jordan Business. 

And if that is not enough, Jordan has other concerns. With its northern neighbor Syria in turmoil, the country has already accepted more than 100,000 Syrian refugees, some 40,000 of whom live in Camp Zaatari. Finally, the kingdom detained 11 Jordanian Islamists in October, allegedly for plotting to bomb Western targets in Amman.

Shortly after, Washington sent some 100 military advisers to Jordan.With their help, the Jordanian army and security forces, regarded among the region’s best, will do whatever it takes to keep the region’s ultimate buffer state afloat. However, it remains to be seen for just how long the way of the gun will be able to keep increasingly restless Jordanians in line.


Peter Speetjens is a Beirut-based journalist currently on assignment in Jordan


Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Brazil.