Why Not Jordan?

by Pete Moore | published November 13, 2012 - 7:56pm

The November 13 withdrawal of fuel and electricity subsidies has sparked vigorous demonstrations in Jordan, prompting renewed speculation about whether the wave of Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 has finally arrived in the Hashemite Kingdom. Indeed, amidst the rush of scholarly attempts to explain why uprisings did or did not occur in various Arab countries in 2011, Jordan is proving a stubborn case. Jordan fits nearly all the criteria for an uprising, but sustained protest has yet to take root.

If social media and Internet access drove the revolts, then Jordan should have already had an upheaval, for it ranks well ahead of Egypt and Libya and is comparable to Tunisia in Internet penetration. Some have argued that the building blocks of protest were increases in literacy rates and average number of years of schooling. Yet from 1980 to 2010, Jordan ranked ahead of Egypt and Tunisia in rate of increase in years of schooling (see p. 169 of Filipe R. Campante and Davin Chor, “Why Was the Arab World Poised for Revolution?”). Maybe, as some economists have argued, declining socio-economic opportunities spread the spirit of rebellion. If so, then, again, Jordan should have seen a revolt, as it suffers from some of the Arab world’s highest rates of aggregate unemployment, youth unemployment and underemployment compared to educational achievement (again as noted by Campante and Chor). In Jordan, as elsewhere, neoliberal reforms failed, wages stagnated and inequality rose.

What about the corruption that so animated popular anger across the region? Jordan arguably stands at the head of that line as well, with no shortage of open accusations of royal corruption and the involvement of numerous government officials in suspicious development projects. Recent corruption investigations are widely perceived as picking the low-hanging fruit while the juiciest goes untouched.

Egypt’s long history of protest is credited with paving the way to 2011 there, but Jordanian society has hardly been quiescent, especially since 1989. Another popular candidate for social scientists trying to explain why some countries witnessed mass uprising and others did not is regime type. So, setting aside the Bahraini case, it is said that monarchies experienced no sustained protest while the republican regimes succumbed. As the argument goes, monarchy may impart advantages, say, special claims to authority or direct family control of political institutions, that help to discourage the unrest that overthrew presidents in Egypt and Tunisia. For most observers of Jordanian politics, however, the Hashemites’ claim to authority is at best deeply contested; the Hashemites in no way operate like the larger, corporate ruling families of the Gulf. Few, outside Washington perhaps, credit King ‘Abdallah II with much leadership skill.

So why no uprising in Jordan? One answer is that what started in 2011 may not be over, regardless of the outcome of the current demonstrations. For the last year the Jordanian ruling class and society have been on edge, precisely because of many of the factors listed above. The almost comical turnover of cabinets, four since February 2011, is expressive of these tensions. Prior to the November 13 cuts, officials had announced slashes of fuel and electricity subsidies (costing over 6 percent of GDP), and then pulled back at the last minute, hardly suggesting a crafty regime in secure control. Still, few are now predicting an outbreak of sustained protest. Weekly Amman demonstrations by what Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani terms the “alternative opposition” draw only a few hundred participants and remain isolated. The Islamic Action Front has put many more people in the streets on occasion, but failed to follow through or to articulate the revolutionary demands that emerged elsewhere in the region.

A second answer recognizes that revolutionary moments are highly contingent. While Jordan may share the structural attributes of the Arab uprisings, the intangibles seem to be missing. Historically, successful challenges to authoritarian rule require cross-cutting social alliances that converge to become unstoppable forces. Something has to galvanize those alliances. In Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, there were discrete cases of state abuse of youths -- Mohamed Bouazizi, Khalid Sa‘id, the graffiti-scrawling teens in Dir‘a -- whose fates ended up vitally important to many people other than their immediate families. Sympathy carries political power.

As yet, there has been no such spark in Jordan in 2011. Certainly, there is no shortage of people abused by Jordanian authorities, but the very deep divisions within Jordanian society and political movements seem to have impeded the evolution of broader linkages. Of course, these divisions do not well up from some foundational political culture; the Hashemite regime has cultivated them assiduously. And that is why the simple East Bank/Palestinian divide so often employed to explain all things Jordanian is insufficient. These identities are themselves subdivided by class, region and place of origin.

So what about the chances for an uprising in the near future? Here there are grounds for pessimism.

For one thing, there are negative examples. The spread of protest in 2011, as in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, unfolded as one society demonstrated possibilities to others. Opposition movements could model their strategies after the successes of their neighbors. Today, the opposite dynamic is at work. The turmoil in Libya, Syria and Bahrain stands as a warning to prospective protesters; the more “positive” examples of Tunisia or Egypt now seem like a distant dream. Moreover, the threat of spillover of violence from Jordan’s neighbors, Palestine, Iraq and now Syria, only seems to deliver short-term economic boosts, allowing the regime to muddle through.

Then there is the US role. Washington’s goal is to preserve the status quo, whereby Jordan is a “safe zone” in a sea of unrest. Over the last decade, the US Embassy in Amman has embedded itself in Jordanian politics to an unprecedented degree, even helping to write the country’s draft income tax law in 2009, according to USAID Fiscal Reform Project officials I interviewed in Amman in May. Former CIA director George Tenet was not making an idle boast when he said (as related in Bob Woodward’s State of Denial) that “we created” the Government Intelligence Directorate, Jordan’s fearsome security service, “and now we own it.” The US Army has maintained a low-profile base in the country for some years and, according to the New York Times, another US base, ostensibly to support Jordan’s handling of Syrian refugees, has now been opened. Finally, there is the county’s extreme dependence on external revenue flows mediated by Washington and its Gulf allies.

It’s no wonder, then, that in public opinion polling conducted by the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies in 2008, Jordanians ranked the US as the third most important obstacle to democracy in Jordan. Those same polls showed an average of 75 percent of respondents feared criticizing their own government. No matter how hapless the Hashemite regime may appear, very weighty interests have its back.