Center for Strategic Communication

The sudden,
unprecedented resignation
by Jordan’s Prime Minister Awn Khasawnah last
week threw
a sudden spotlight
on the ongoing shortcomings of political reform in the
Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The deficient
new election law
rolled out last month, like every
step the King has taken
over the last year and a half, did too little, too
late to respond to the concerns of Jordanian citizens. Limited reforms have done little to stem a
rising tide of protest across the towns of the south, a deeply struggling
economy, loud complaints of corruption, and an intensifying edge of political
anger. Add in the potential impact of
the ongoing crisis in Syria or of a new escalation in the West Bank, and
concerns for Jordan’s political future seem merited.

Veteran observers of the region can be excused for rolling
their eyes ever so slightly at reports
of instability in Jordan
, of course. The Kingdom has seemed on the political brink virtually constantly for
many decades, its stability always questioned and the monarchy’s command
doubted (often, admittedly, by me). And yet the Hashemite monarchy
has survived.  Warnings about political
crisis in Jordan therefore sound just enough like boys crying wolf or Chicken Littles
shouting about falling skies. That long
history of frustrated protest and successfully navigated challenges should
caution anyone predicting a real explosion. 
But it would be equally wrong to dismiss the signs of a rapidly
escalating political crisis to which the Palace seems unable or unwilling to

This post previews a new POMEPS Briefing, "Jordan, Forever on the Brink,"
which collects twenty articles from the last three years explaining the nature of the
Kingdom’s political crisis, the shortcomings of its attempted reforms, and the
current political state of play. [[BREAK]]

The context of last year’s Arab uprisings adds urgency to
Jordan’s problems, but its political stalemate has been developing for many
years. The democratic opening, which
followed an outbreak of social protests in 1989, including press
liberalization, freely contested elections, and the crafting of a "National
Pact" for a democratic monarchical system, now seems a distant memory. Then-King Hussein began rolling back the new
freedoms in the middle of the 1990s, as he moved to conclude an unpopular peace
with Israel. A new
election law
designed to curb the power of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic
Action Front Party produced a series of weak, ineffectual Parliaments too often
early at the whim of the Palace

Since replacing his father, the current King Abdullah has
not behaved like a leader deeply committed to democratic procedures or credible
about reform. Palace officials often
argue that he is a true reformer frustrated by the slow pace of change, but if
so then he has remarkably little to show for more than a decade’s effort. He suspended Parliament soon after taking the
throne and ruled by emergency law for several years. Reform initiatives such as the National
Agenda disappeared without a trace. The political history of the last decade
has been a depressing litany of failed governments, incompetent Parliaments,
and frustrated civil society. The
last elections, in
November 2010
, ranked among the
worst in the Kingdom’s history

frustration has been exacerbated by grinding economic problems, which have
largely wiped out the middle class and badly hurt the poor. Cuts to government spending or the state
bureaucracy, meanwhile, tend to disproportionately hurt the East Bankers who
have generally been favored by the state for political reasons. The ostentatious new wealth on display in parts
of Amman only fueled the simmering resentment, as ever
more open talk of corruption
at the top permeated political society… and circulated freely through new social media and in every day conversation. I still remember being shocked a few years back at being regaled in public by near strangers with stories of Queen Rania’s new private jet and the backers of a new big dig in central Amman. Official efforts to censor and control such information are long since hopeless. 

The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings inspired
as much enthusiasm
and popular
protest energy
in Jordan as they did elsewhere in the region. Jordanian youth mobilized large protests,
while traditional opposition movements also gathered strength. Jordan’s impressive community of online
activists pushed the boundaries of public debate, with unusual criticism of
corruption at the highest levels — even (or especially) Queen
. Perhaps more troubling to the regime, discontent spread relentlessly
into the south as a protest culture took hold. Military
spoke out in unprecedented ways, signaling potential problems at
the very heart of the regime.   And Jordanian-Palestinian
identity politics
, always at the center of Jordanian politics and society,
played out in ever more intense forms.   

The King’s responses have been consistently behind the
curve, suggesting a failure to appreciate the full extent of the regime’s
problems. The dismissal of several Prime
Ministers in succession were dismissed as the mere shuffling of deck chairs
with little practical significance. The King’s
speech in June
disappointed activists hoping for more concrete and far
reaching promises of political change. Promised
constitutional reforms
compared poorly to even those limited changes
offered in Morocco. By November,
oft-promised reforms remained
largely "fictional
," in Sean Yom’s incisive verdict. More effective has been the traditional moves to polarize society around Jordanian-Palestinian conflict to divide and distract opposition — but even that strategy holds risks for the monarchy under current conditions. As Laurie Brand and Fayez Hammad recently
, "what exactly does the King understand?"  

Some hopes had been placed in the appointment of the
respected liberal jurist Khaswaneh as
Prime Minister. With his departure, that
hope too has been frustrated. The long
history of the regime’s surviving such frustrated hopes and failed reforms would
suggest that this too shall pass. But
Jordan’s Palace should not be so confident. The spread of protest into new constituencies, the rising grievances of
the south, the intensifying identity politics, the struggling economy, and the
pervasive fury at perceived official corruption create a potent brew. The violent dispersal of an attempted Amman
sit-in last March shocked activists and broke their momentum, but the protest
movement has proven resilient and creative. I would rank Jordan today only below Bahrain as at risk of a sudden
escalation of political crisis — at which point the impossible would in
retrospect look inevitable indeed.

Click here for the full POMEPS Briefing 11 "Jordan, Forever on the Brink."