Explaining the Jordanian Regime’s Strategy

As the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 23rd, 2013 continue to approach, the regime’s behavior in the face of public disapproval triggered by decisions such as the fuel price increase may seem puzzling. King Abdullah’s reaction, in his interviews and public speeches indicate that the regime’s actions may be part of a broader strategy to retain the greatest possible degree of political power following the elections. The regime’s strategy, in short, appears to be to win the greatest possible legitimacy for the upcoming elections while marginalizing both the Islamist and reformist opposition groups. This would likely attract the strongest degree of popular support. In particular, they seek to marginalize the IAF by portraying the political situation as a binary one with the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood as the two main political alternatives.

The regime’s strategy appears to have three crucial components: First, limiting the scope of reform by seeking its implementation by the next parliament. Second, attempting to marginalize opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front or reformist groups such as the National Front for Reform. Third, attracting the support of other opposition parties to legitimize the election. Then, following the election, a new Prime Minister will likely be appointed from among the King’s allies in parliament, which means that the system of choosing the government is cosmetically different although in fact no real reform has been made. Where have we seen this before?

King Abdullah has stressed the importance of participation in the upcoming elections in numerous interviews and public appearances. In an interview on December 5th, King Abdullah said “The future of reform is in the hands of the Jordanian voters as they go to the polls early next year. They are the ones who will decide the composition of the coming parliament and government.” By setting stage for reforms to be implemented in the next parliament, the regime is ensuring that they remain limited in scope. The upcoming election will be boycotted by most of the opposition, while the parliament itself will be elected under an electoral law which sets aside most of the seats to be elected from districts that are drawn with unequal populations which favor the regime. Under this electoral law only 27 out of 150 seats will be elected from party lists, while the opposition including the Islamic Action Front demands 50 percent be elected this way. Needless to say, politicians are unlikely to support electoral reform if they benefit from it, so it creates another constituency opposed to fundamental reform.

Second, the regime has worked to marginalize opposition groups such as the National Front for Reform and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. The NFR is headed by a former Prime Minister and Intelligence Chief, Ahmed Obeidat, so the regime does not repress it in the same manner as the IAF, but it has been excluded by the regime failing to meet its demands for electoral reform. The Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, has been the subject of implicit attacks by King Abdullah during hisrecent dispute with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi over gas supplies to Egypt and Egyptian workers in Jordan, and a regime source stated that the actions of Morsi would have an affect on the way the regime deals with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. By opposing the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt he seeks to bolster his regime’s credentials in this way, and is aided by the recent protests in Egypt against Morsi’s decree and the constitutional referendum. This gives ammunition to the regime to say that the alternative is between the current regime and a Morsi-type government. With the recent events in Egypt the regime feels more confident in its attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood and the IAF and its ability to wait out their political boycott.

Third, the regime is seeking to legitimize the election by attracting participation of leftist and nationalist parties, which would provide for a token degree of opposition that at the same time lacks the support of the Brotherhood, and broadens the support for the regime. King Abdullah recently reached out to several of these parties in a series of meetings held at the homes of several political figures. Why did he do this? He did it because these parties are not a fundamental threat to the regime, and their participation also helps legitimize the election.

This, in short, is the regime’s strategy for handling the upcoming parliamentary elections and retaining the greatest degree of support. It is yet another cynical attempt to extend an authoritarian system and resist fundamental and necessary political reform. How much longer will King Abdullah’s tactics work on his people? We’ve all seen across the Middle East what happens when a leader underestimates the will of his people.

Jordan at a Crossroads

On Friday the National Front for Reform rallied in Amman under the title “A Popular Uprising for Reform.” The NFR, which is headed by former Prime Minister Ahmed Obeidat in Amman (which protested in front of the interior ministry without incident) attracted thousands of people and demonstrated that they is real demand for political reform – if the government is willing to accept it. There don’t seem to be many signs that they actually are, despite the fact that even retirees from the GID have called for political reform and condemned corruption.

The presence of security forces at the rally on Friday was heavy, although counter-demonstrations that were scheduled did not end up taking place. Prior to the demonstration, Obeidat met with the Prime Minister and sought a guarantee that the protesters would be protected. The demonstrations were attended by thousands of protesters, with AFP estimating that about 10,000 protesters attended. The protesters changed against the fuel prices, demanded reform, and the resignation of Prime Minister Ensour. Obeidat also called for a boycott of the general election under the current electoral law.

The fact that there is a degree of consensus about reforms is indicated by the position of the Islamic Action Front on the current political crisis. They have called for reconvening the previous parliament and for the government and opposition parties to engage in a dialogue that would produce a reformed electoral law and other measures.

These protests and others like them shows that the demand for reform is strong, and that the government should heed it. But they show little signs of doing so. The question then is why. Where is King Abdullah? Perhaps the answer can be found in the fact that he seems devoted to the affairs of every other country but his own. It is as though he believes that by disappearing from sight he can make people forget that in the end his word is the only one that really counts under the current political system.