Evolution not Revolution To Spark Jordan Reform
In the past few weeks there has been general, although somewhat minor, discussion as to whether Jordan is next on the revolutionary list of the Arab world, following in Tunisia’s footsteps. Much of that discussion has been generated by people who are not Jordanian and/or understand fairly little about Jordan, and while I did recently attempt to address the statement as to why Jordan is not Tunisia, it seems many misunderstandings continue to exist and persist, specifically in the context of increasing protests in the Kingdom. Those reading or watching the news have seen much of the opposition take to the streets every Friday, calling for the fall of the government and, more specifically, lower prices. Such scenes have fueled the perception that Jordan is now facing a political crisis such as that of Tunisia and that within a few weeks, the King and Queen will be “palace hunting in Jeddah” as one recent tweet ridiculously put it.
As a Jordanian who believes this country requires some massive changes and reforms; as a Jordanian whose writings have focused largely on the problematics and possible solutions to the elements we are facing as a people and as a country, and, as a Jordanian who believes that much of this can be accomplished – I would say that any notions of an approaching overhaul of the Hashemite presence in Jordan borders on fallacy. And those who continue to encourage this perception have only demonstrated the degree to which they are out of touch with the long-standing traditional Jordanian societal system as well as the Jordanian street.
Whether some like it or not, HM King Abdullah, is widely liked and the Hashemite established is widely accepted and/or respected within Jordan. There are those who will disagree with me, and I am sure some of them will be along shortly to voice their own discontent, but my statement is based purely on the majority. Be they of Jordanian origin or Palestinian origin or Circassian origin or what have you, these loyalties are widespread, and are enough to sustain the status quo. There are those who will claim otherwise, and those who will attempt to split tickets over the demographics and claim that Jordanians of Palestinian origin have no loyalty to the crown, and those people would be sadly mistaken. Whether some like it or not, this is simply how things are.
I should emphasize that this is not some sycophantic defense of the monarch. There are others who take care of that job on a daily basis. This is simply a statement of realities on the ground as I see them.
Now, the source of this relationship between the people and the monarchy has many reasons and factors. It is difficult to succinctly dissect them all, but here are a few that attempt to explain why the Hashemite establishment isn’t going anywhere in the context of recent events.
First, the monarchy is not seen as an isolated figurehead but an intricate part of a delicate system where societal balances must be maintained. Jordanians recognize that what maintains the stability in this country is the presence of the Hashemite establishment and all that comes with it. Moreover, the monarchy’s interwoven system has undeniably created an environment where way too many people are dependent on its existence and/or benefit from its existence, whether directly or indirectly. This ranges from top-level officials to the average person waiting outside the Royal Court with an ordinary request, such as getting a son or daughter in to university – to be fulfilled by the King. Subsequently, this has meant that too much is at stake for too many people should this system disappear tomorrow. I should also emphasize the fact that a great deal of the country is educated and brought up to be loyal to the King. Indeed, loyalty to the King is seen as loyalty to the country. They are intertwined and people some times have difficulty separating the two.
Then there’s the dynamic which has been established to allow people to feel marginally empowered. The government, appointed by the King, is largely seen and accepted as an official straw man. It is a figure that is established to carry out the King’s vision and, when things go wrong, it is a figure the masses attack in an effort to voice their concerns about current affairs. The monarchy remains a thick red line, and people avoid attacking it, but few seem to feel the need as the state “allows” them to manifest their wrath upon the government, and this has become acceptable. Everyone knows it is the King who appoints the government, but this is the dynamic that has been set up to allow people to vent out accordingly without massively disrupting the balance – and it is a dynamic that people have largely accepted and I don’t personally see it disappearing any time soon.
Some of the slogans I’ve read or heard cheering on or flattering the King stem from the belief by some that the King is seen as being “on their side” and it is therefore the government who is to blame for bad policies. This perception or belief, whether it is real or simply part of the theatrics, is demonstrated whenever a dramatic political event initiated by the King takes place, such as the appointment of a new government or the dissolution of a parliament.
All of this and more can be seen manifesting in recent protests on the streets of Jordan, which brings us to current events.
These protests need to be framed correctly as it seems many, specifically the international media, has placed them within the context of a Tunisian like build-up to an overthrow of a regime. One needs to recognize that these protests are, by far and large, probably some of the most peaceful protests we have ever experienced in Jordan, specifically within the last ten years. They are well managed by their respective organizers, and the security apparatus has done little to interfere with them, even going so far as to hand out water to protesters at a recent rally – something that has never happened. To anyone who has been on the ground, one can see that the protesters are calm and the security forces are unfazed. They’ve seen worse; a lot worse.
We have seen a lot more “chaos” during protests related to the Palestinian issue, including the last war on Gaza, the Jenin massacre and the the second intifada, to name but a few that emerged over the last decade. These protests are unlikely to get violent and are taking place simply because the state allows them to. The state is following its traditional policy of allowing the people to vent out in times of high frustration, and thus allowing them to “wear themselves out” before closing the lid on things again. Think of it as a steam cooker. During such times, the state is often seen bypassing its traditional rule of granting permissions and licenses to every single protest, and simply “allows” them to take place, technically, illegally. Such a policy falls in line with the general approach to maintain balances within the Kingdom, and have worked in the past when emotions ran much higher than now.
We should also recognize that the people themselves have no alternative to the status quo, nor are they all that interested in such a thing. They are not on the street calling for democracy or an overthrow of the entire system, or even the monarchy specifically. They are not demanding freedom of the press, freedom of assembly or freedom from the yoke of tyranny. Their demand is boiled down to one specific thing: a better financial situation. Ordinary people want to be able to afford living in one of the most expensive Arab countries per capita, on a salary that is one of the lowest in the Arab world per capita. In other words, it’s about the bread, and in Jordan, bread comes before freedom.
To add to all this, no political party in Jordan or even any political organization, has any real power to create and/or contribute any critical mass to this entire situation. The Islamists will show up and wave their flags, and they will be joined by the socialists and professional associations, but most of these groups will, in their typical fashion, clash with one another and end up fracturing the cause. It should also be recognized that these protests present an opportunity for various concerned parties to vent out their own frustrations and deal with their own issues. In the past year we have seen teachers, veterans and right-wing “Trans-Jordanians” beginning to become increasingly vocal about the affairs of state, and some of these people are noticeable actors in, and orchestrators of these current protests. Moreover, the Islamists are already demonstrating their own agenda, using these protests to demand political changes that could help empower them and solidify their own base, which has been fractured in recent times due to constant party infighting and self-marginalization from mainstream political affairs. In other words, everyone has their own agenda and there may not be enough collective force around the same issue of the economy to help sustain these protests, or lead them to the desired finish line.
So, how will this end?
However it ends, it will not be in revolution – in my opinion.
As I suggested earlier, the resignation of the current government (followed by the appointment of another) may be a bit unlikely this time around given that the Rifai cabinet has seen too many changes since its inception, and will send too many signals of instability. Jordanians, for some odd reason, have a thing for being the causation for a government to resign, and see any problem, no matter how small as requiring the resignation of a minister or an entire cabinet. But, in any case, if the Rifai government does depart, it will do so quietly, months from now, after things have calmed down, so as to not appear as if it were a direct result of the protests (another signal of instability). I could be wrong about this, but that’s my read of things on that front.
In the meantime, the government will follow its traditional policy of appeasing the masses, specifically with a slew of price reductions and raises in various sectors (specifically public sector employees), until people calm down, which one can except to happen fairly soon. If the Jordan team had progressed in the Asia Cup the end of the protests could have happened even sooner.
What Jordanians are looking for is not a revolution but an evolution of the state. People are looking for reform that is not macro and philosophical, but is tangible – as in, food-on-the-table tangible. Better jobs, higher wages, better education for the kids, good schools, safer neighborhoods, lower prices, lower taxes, better modes of affordable public transportation, etc. These are the things that matter to the average Jordanian and to the ordinary protester. This is what we see written on signs and chanted by the crowds.
As for the Jordanian state. While I do not see it as under any threat from the people, it must adjust to the new status quo. The emergence of a population that sees and hears and reads the events transpiring throughout the Arab world, with Tunisia being no exception. What happens post-protests is what will matter. My assumption and fear is that the state will see these events as an anomaly, and depend too greatly on the support that the monarchy has. Instead, this should be seen as an opportunity to pursue a path of reforms once outlined in the country’s National Agenda, which needs updating but remains a solid blueprint for change. This needs to be recognized as an opportunity to move forward all the more, and not just another incident that requires short-run solutions to mitigate the current storm. Improved transparency and communication are the state’s first stop on that path, followed by aggressive strategies that will yield positive changes.
Jordan needs to prove that not all evolutions mandate revolution.