The Jordanian kingdom could have emulated its Moroccan counterpart’s shift towards Islamist-dominated parliamentary politics. That would have brought Amman into line with the “Arab Spring” capitals and secured it an influx of Gulfi money to save it from the worst financial crisis in its history. But the state’s instincts prevented the launch of a political reform process that could have led – via a deal with a Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-liberal alliance – to a fundamental transformation of its identity and structure, effectively setting Jordan up as the de facto alternative Palestinian homeland.
The king may have been thinking about making such a deal. It would have solved his problems. But he hesitated. He proceeded in that direction with the government of Awn Khasawneh, and then retreated.
This was a formative and historic decision, not a procedural move. It was thus not the king’s choice. The deal in question would have entailed a confrontation with the bureaucracy and the political dismantling of the army and security agencies – the “countervailing forces,” as the Islamists and liberals describe them. But an even greater impediment was the emergence of a Jordanian popular movement with radical national and social aspirations which was slow to develop but has steadily been turning the East Bank Jordanian public into a major political factor in the country.
The demands of the Jordanian popular movement are not for the liberal reforms that have become associated with the “Arab Spring.” Rather it wants the reversal of neo-liberal economic policies, the prosecution of the corrupt class that is accused of plundering the state’s assets, the restoration of the public sector economy and services, and the implementation of a national development plan for the country’s impoverished and marginalized provinces.
Over the course of the past two years, efforts were made to conclude a compromise between the regime and the popular movement based on meeting social demands. The thinking was that this would have strengthened the regime’s hand in facing up to the MB challenge. But these efforts ran counter to the vested interests of the comprador groups and the alliance of the corrupt, and ended in failure.
The so-called ”social solution” could have gone some way to resolving the state’s financial crisis through the recovery of plundered assets and the income from privatized industries, while redistributing wealth and funding improved public services via a variable taxation rate on incomes and profits. This option has been discussed seriously in the press and at public meetings, and is advocated in popular slogans.
But the popular movement also has national demands related to resolving the question of Jordan’s identity, especially sensitivities relating to the large Palestinian community in Jordan. These demands were deemed unattainable because they ran contrary to the country’s obligations under the Wadi Araba treaty with Israel. The Jordanian popular movement quickly discovered that it could not achieve its aims without clashing with Israel and the US. This has unleashed a new wave of anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist sentiment in Jordan, which the Islamists have been countering by beating the drums of war against Syria.
The Jordanian regime was left suspended in mid-air, unable to pursue either of the two options open to it for reinforcing the role of the state.
On the international front, Jordan came under growing indirect US and European pressure in the second half of 2011 to follow in the footsteps of the Arab Spring. At the same time, Saudi Arabia came up with the idea of throwing Jordan a lifeline by making it a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The proposal underlined how vulnerable the kingdom’s regional position had become following the fall of Hosni Mubarak and the collapse of the “moderate axis.” But all was then put on hold by the dramatic developments in Syria. American pressure for “reform” and Saudi rescue efforts both ceased, and were replaced by heavy pressure from the Gulf states for Jordan to open its borders to Syria-bound weapons and militants, and to prepare to involve its army in the war.
Amman has so far held out against any intervention, which is opposed by the state bureaucracy, army and security agencies on the one hand, as well as the popular movement. The two sides effectively joined forces in opposition to reforms that entail producing an Islamic variant of the alternative Palestinian homeland, and to MB and Gulf demands for intervention in Syria – which would risk both expanding MP and Salafi influence and compromising the Jordanian military, which has become the sole guarantor of the country’s integrity.
Jordan turned once again to the IMF to obtain a loan of $2 billion, indispensable for the functioning of a state whose debts already amount to around $20 billion. The Fund may show some understanding this year that the country cannot comply with all its conditions for fear of a popular backlash. But what about the following year? The budget deficit for 2012 is close to $5 billion, to which another $5 billion will be added in a few months time for 2013.
Recent discussions between Jordanian officials and the Americans, Saudis and Qataris have indicated that Jordan refuses to join any military intervention in Syria. But what about intelligence cooperation? Jordanian intelligence chief Faisal al-Shobaki recently paid two visits to Washington (in July and August) where he met with CIA director David Petraeus. Was it a coincidence that each trip was followed by a major event in Syria?
After the first visit came the bombing of the national security headquarters in Damascus. This coincided with a mysteriously-timed visit to Amman by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, while King Abdullah was away on a visit to the US. Shobaki’s second visit was followed by the defection of Riad Hijab and his flight to Jordan.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened. Sources say that during his last visit, Shobaki, who strongly opposes military intervention in Syria, met the heads of the Israeli Mossad and Turkish intelligence along with Petraeus. Some sources say the latter was hoping that the defection of Hijab meant the demise of the Syrian regime might be imminent, and wanted to consult with regional spy chiefs over the aftermath. They all reportedly agreed to place their land, naval and air forces on alert to intervene in Syria in the event of the regime’s collapse, under the pretext of safeguarding its chemical weapons.
While the palace may be indecisive about how to rise to current challenges, the decision to continue resisting the Gulf states’ extortion amounts to an acknowledgement: that the big decisions in Jordan are made by the state and not by the regime.
Therefore, if there is really an anti-imperialist and pro-resistance axis in the region, it should note that the Jordan which is taking shape today is, objectively, a potential member. It should also seek to revive the crucial role once played by Iraq in the country, which since the demise of Saddam Hussein has been desperate for cheap oil and bilateral economic cooperation. That would also deal a major blow to attempts to deepen the Shia-Sunni schism. Such a move would reflect awareness and foresight, and should not have any attached pre-conditions.
Whether this happens or not, and whatever the difficulties, setbacks and possibilities may be, Jordan has passed the test of statehood. It remains an open question whether the Jordanians will succeed in taking ownership of their state.
Jordan’s Islamists thought that riding the wave of the Arab Spring would constitute their shortest route to power. The state’s efforts to bring them into the government or a national dialogue committee did not bear fruit. But with the appointment of Awn Khasawneh as prime minister, an alliance developed between the government and the MB which the state found intolerable. Topping that alliance’s agenda was the goal of dragging Jordan into a political and military confrontation with Damascus.
The Brotherhood had decided in coordination with Khasawneh, who was sacked in April, that it needed to bolster its influence in the town and governorate of Mafraq, due to the importance of the area for any intervention in Syria. On January 23, it organized a rally in the town as part of efforts to strengthen its presence. But this antagonized local clans. Clashes broke out between the two sides, which ended with the MB’s local headquarters being torched and its members leaving town.
The blow dealt to the MB made it focus even more strongly on Syria. MB sources say the movement took a strategic decision to concentrate on attacking Syria as a way of shoring up its domestic position. Its behaviour and activities since the Mafraq incident have borne that out.
The Jordanian regime views developments in Syria from a domestic perspective. It is well aware that the rise of the MB to power in Syria would tighten the noose around its own neck. It also knows that the anti-Syrian alliance would have no qualms about delivering Jordan to the forces which it is using to batter Syria. Its struggle with the MB leaves it in a quandary, stemming from very real fears over the consequences of going along with Syria’s adversaries.
At the same time, the regime finds it impossible to turn down requests for security and intelligence assistance, especially from the US.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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