Jordan likes to promote itself as an island of stability in a region in turmoil, and in 2011 the country largely lived up to that reputation. While elsewhere the winds of change shook or toppled one regime after another, Jordan’s King Abdullah II managed to weather the storm and today sits as firmly as ever on his Hashemite throne. That is not to say his rule was not challenged. Encouraged by events in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of Jordanians hit the streets in the first weeks of 2011 to demand reform. In contrast to his Arab counterparts, however, Abdullah did not opt for a violent response. Instead, he proved himself a skillful juggler of (empty) promises, while playing give and take with the country’s domestic forces, always careful not to upset his foreign allies.
Demonstrations are officially banned in Jordan, yet Abdullah allowed people to gather and vent their frustrations, albeit under the watchful eye of an overwhelming police force. Standing among the protesters one day in February, it was impressive to see the finesse with which the regime managed to mold and manipulate the crowds. Friday had become the “day of rage” in Jordan and, after prayer, some 5,000 people would gather with flags and banners in front of the Al Husseini Mosque in downtown Amman. They would then march in a straight line of about a kilometer to the edge of the Municipality Square. The street between mosque and square, however, as well as the square itself, were hermetically sealed off by a sea of blue uniforms and the rally was preceded by a small, yet loud group of pro-Abdullah demonstrators.
Abdullah furthermore pleased the crowds by axing then Prime Minister Samir Rifai, who was widely disliked for pushing through a free market agenda. In addition, Abdullah reinstated subsidies, raised government salaries and established a parliamentary committee to formulate a set of democratic reforms. As opposition leaders were invited to partake in closed door sessions, the Friday demonstrations gradually lost momentum. By May, few objections were raised when Jordan — though hundreds of miles from the Persian Gulf — filed a request to become a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (perhaps not the region’s leading pro-democracy club). The move was warmly welcomed by Saudi Arabia, which rewarded its backyard neighbor with a $400 million grant.
A similar calm reigned this summer when the parliamentary committee’s proposed amendments were made public. They rather modestly called for an independent constitutional court, an independent electoral commission and the enhancement of civil liberties, including a ban on all forms of torture. Within the reforms the king maintains most of his considerable powers. He retains the right to appoint and dismiss the country’s prime minister and upper house of parliament, though he can no longer do so twice in a row for the same reason. Big deal. In October, he exercised his prerogative once again, sending home his second prime minister in a year. Out went newly appointed former general Marouf Suleiman al-Bakhit and in came lawyer Awn Shawkat al-Khasawneh. Once again Abdullah knew how to please the crowds.
Bakhit had done his job. Just weeks earlier, the lower chamber of parliament had passed “his” ironically named anti-corruption law, which actually targets accusations of corruption “without solid facts” with fines of up to $84,000. Bakhit had already showed his undemocratic colors when in May he had instigated a criminal defamation case against journalist Alaa al-Fazza, who had dared to publish an article about a Facebook group supporting the reinstatement of former Crown Prince Hamza over King Abdullah’s son Hussein. Fazza was jailed for “working to change the constitution by unlawful means.”
Today, Jordan’s “day of rage” still exists. Every Friday, the police routinely seal off the whole of downtown Amman, even though little actual rage remains. Up to a thousand people, nearly all members of the Muslim Brotherhood, still gather, shout and march. Most passersby, however, are more interested in shopping, while the few police who are there seem more relaxed. The pro-king choir still precedes the masses, yet even they shout less ferociously. Political reform in Jordan? Ah well, maybe next year.