How Jordan’s King Hangs On
The monarch studied the Arab Spring and created a savvy plan to quell demonstrators without mass violence
Protests in the Jordanian capital Amman reached a boiling point last month when thousands of demonstrators called for King Abdullah’s ouster, prompting American experts to predict the regime was headed for collapse. Shadi Hamid at the Brookings Institution, among numerous others, said the Obama Administration’s support for Amman was “not on the right side of history.” Inside Jordan itself, a prominent activist predicted the king would ape ex-dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya by violently cracking down on the protesters.
All of this was grave news for the United States and especially Israel: One of only two Arab countries to have formal relations with the Jewish state, Jordan has long provided intelligence assistance, political cover and mediation with Palestinians and other Arab states, and calm along Israel’s longest border. As Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren recently noted in these pages, the overthrow of Jordan’s monarchy would be a disaster for the Jewish state. “Jordan is what keeps Iran out of our backyard,” he said. So, Israel and the United States braced themselves for the worst.
And yet, over the past few weeks demonstrations ebbed, the king pardoned most protesters he had jailed, and the monarchy proved once more, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that reports of its death had been greatly exaggerated. What accounts for the monarchy’s survival? Interviews with current and former Jordanian security officials, activists, and mosque clerics show that the kingdom paid close attention to the revolutions of the Arab Spring and formed a clear strategy to quell the demonstrators using a softer approach. It could afford to do so only thanks to a combination of Jordan’s distinctive politics, external support from the United States, and staunch solidarity from its fellow Arab monarchies—all of which the fallen regimes lacked. The latter of the three factors exemplifies a new power dynamic in the region that Western experts would be wise to notice.
Jordan watchers have been betting against the monarchy since 1958, when British diplomat Anthony Nutting wrote of the late King Hussein, then 23, “However much one may admire the courage of this lonely young king, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion his days are numbered.” Uncannily, all of Nutting’s grounds for pessimism then have been recurring ever since: In the 1950s, the lion’s share of the 700,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war who had settled in Jordan posed a threat to indigenous Bedouin and urban elites who backed the king. Two decades later, so did the 1967 refugees, many of whom fought a bloody civil war against monarchists in 1970. Concerns were more recently raised about Palestinian refugees from Kuwait in 1991, half a million Iraqi refugees after the 2003 war, and roughly 100,000 Syrians since last year. Nutting also worried, amid the Arabist military coups of the 1950s, that new juntas like Nasser’s Egypt and its Soviet backers would topple the kingdom. Later doomsayers said the same of Syria’s junta, which invaded Jordan in 1970. Just this October, Tablet noted that Syrian officials want to destabilize Jordan’s security.
But Jordan has consistently made lemonade out of lemons. Most Palestinians from ’48 and ’67 are citizens in Jordan today, fewer than one in eight lives in a refugee camp, and most “camps” have effectively become urban neighborhoods. Kuwait’s Palestinian refugees brought considerable savings and their professional and business acumen to the country, as did thousands of Iraqis who have remained in the country. The Amman-based Arab Bank, one of the largest financial institutions in the Middle East with a 2012 shareholders’ equity base of $7.7 billion, was established by a Jerusalemite family that migrated to Jordan after the 1948 war.
Since approximately 100,000 Syrians arrived last year, fleeing their own civil war, Jordan stuffed the penniless into prison-like camps in Mafraq, near the Syrian border—conditions so grating that thousands have returned to the flames back home, while wealthier Syrians have taken apartments in Amman and become fixtures in its upscale restaurants and boutiques. In other words, the monarchy has taken care to ensure that the Syrian influx does not destabilize Jordan.
As for supposed Syrian attempts to undermine Jordan’s internal security, good luck with that. “It’s wishful thinking by a desperate government and we are doing fine,” reports a mid-level official at Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate who declined to be named. The intelligence agency is staffed overwhelmingly by Bedouin and Circassian ethnics who countered Syrian saboteurs throughout the decades in which Damascus actually had the manpower to threaten Jordan; Assad has other priorities today. Among the Circassians, Majdi Kohof, who served the Jordanian agency in Moscow during the Cold War, told me the Syrian threat is “nowhere near as serious.” Concerns that fighting in Syria will spill into Jordan are also exaggerated: In my experience, it’s a relatively secure border, and American soldiers have joined local forces to safeguard it.
As demonstrations grew last month, the Muslim Brotherhood, which crucially swelled revolutionary ranks in Egypt, rejected calls for regime change. “We want systemic reform toward a constitutional monarchy,” R’hayyil Gharaybeh, the political chief of Jordan’s Brotherhood, told me. Decades ago the monarchy enlisted the Brotherhood to counter pan-Arab and pro-Soviet elements; it has since enjoyed legal status, periodic control over the education ministry, periodic dominance of the Islamic affairs ministry, and a presence in Jordan’s parliament (such as it is)—all incentives to back the system.
Most protesters today hail, paradoxically, from Amman’s traditional Bedouin power base. Their dependence on state jobs and disenfranchisement from the Palestinian-dominated economy make them more vulnerable to the corrosive impact of elite corruption. But they are a minority in the country. Among them, supporters of the king outnumber opponents. And even among the king’s opponents, as the New York Times has noted, many still support the monarchy as an institution but prefer that the king’s younger half-brother Hamza replace him. “Some of the Bedouin feel that he has the charisma of his father,” explains Sameer Baitamouni, a businessman and liberal activist now in the midst of establishing a new political party. “They figure that since his mother is American, he would also be well-liked in Washington. But this is not a serious group of people.”
“Visiting journalists see revolutionaries and think they represent millions,” Sheikh Mustafa Abu Rumman, an Amman mosque cleric, told me. “But the millions want reform, not revolution, as do most protesters themselves. In my mosque, barely any worshippers want to topple the king.” Abu Rumman preaches against calls for the king’s ouster, as do nearly all Amman clerics. (Mosques are subject to the authority of the monarchy’s Islamic affairs ministry.) Some oppose the regime, he added, but they are in smaller mosques in outlying northern provinces.
The king’s response to the protesters, meanwhile, was carefully calibrated. Whereas last year’s despots doubled down on repression, Jordan’s king had the latitude to try something different. “Police were ordered to let the kids vent,” Baitamouni explains. “They limited demonstrations without repressing them.” Ibrahim Issa al-Abbadi, a recently retired intelligence officer, concurred. Beatings and tear gas were minimally applied by comparison with Egypt and Tunisia, let alone Libya—and among three fatalities over the past three months, one was a civilian and two were police shot by protesters. The number of arrests may have been lowballed by the information ministry at 139. In any case, 113 were released last week.
Significantly, while imprisoned demonstrators were charged with various forms of sedition, the government hasn’t applied the legal ban on “raising one’s tongue against the king (Italat al-Lisan ‘Ala ‘l-Malik)”—even though that is precisely what some did. Abu Rumman, the cleric, explained: “The king chose not to interpret the protesters’ words literally, but to view them as exacerbated frustration at the slow pace of reform.” Longtime government detractors respected by ethnic Jordanians—notably Ahmed Abaidat, a minister under King Hussein who has been one of the government’s critics for over a decade—were enlisted to encourage protests for reform but to reject calls for regime change. And Sheikh Abu Rumman reports that his northern colleagues who slammed the king were neither arrested nor silenced, at least not yet.
Underlying the question of the kingdom’s viability lie conflicting theories about Arab monarchy. The fact that every regime that fell last year was a military junta while every kingdom has survived prompted some observers to argue that monarchies in traditional Arab societies are inherently more stable. A growing, rival intellectual trend holds that the kingdoms’ survival is a matter of circumstance, like oil wealth or staunch American support, and their demise may only be a matter of time. The latter voices are understandably looking to be vindicated, and perhaps one day they will. But another reason they may have to wait awhile is that Arab monarchies recognize the need to band together amid the winds of change and have taken steps, albeit haltingly, to do so.
In mid 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council, a coalition of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, invited oil-poor Jordan and Morocco to join as members and form a confederation of mutual economic and strategic support. Some of the same observers who question Jordan’s staying power today belittled the idea of Gulf Cooperation Council expansion then. But more recently, some have argued that the concept is both real and meaningful: It can provide a structure for wealthy monarchies to assist poor ones, while strategic cooperation among the lot of them can help stabilize the truly teetering regimes nearby. It has also been shown that Morocco and the Gulf are presently involved in mitigating Jordan’s challenges. Amid massive carnage in Syria and reversals on the path toward democratization in Egypt, who can tell which approach to political reform will prove most successful in the long run, and who will write off the benefits a monarchy might offer to its troubled neighbors and distant allies?
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