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Jon Stewart's Theater of the Absurd

[Screen shot of [Screen shot of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."]

Soon after King Abdullah II ascended the throne of Jordan in 1999, he began using media and advertising campaigns to distinguish himself from his father King Husayn and to present his policies to his subjects.  While for decades King Husayn’s picture appeared all over the country – garbed in bedouin, military, and Western costume – almost immediately, Abdullah trumped his father in sheer size of display by propping up an enormous poster of himself along University Road in Amman. He followed that act by erecting the largest flag pole in the world on a summit in the capital; the project seems to have been so successful a replica now dominates the skyline over the town of Aqaba. In the years since, he has plastered the country with multimillion dollar campaigns for “Jordan First” and “We Are All Jordan,” developed by the global ad agency Satchi and Satchi. Abdullah and Queen Rania have also used American television shows to sell themselves and their image of Jordan to American viewers. Gaining American support has now become a multimedia project, as the two seek to present themselves as moderate Middle Eastern leaders struggling to modernize their country and remain as allies of the US government. 

The latest act in this scenario saw King Abdullah make a return appearance to the Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Tuesday night, 25 September, 2012. Stewart afforded Abdullah the rare honor of extending the interview through two segments of the on-air show and then posting nine additional minutes to the show’s website. In this three-act play, Abdullah presented a coherent thesis about his role in the Middle East in general and in Jordan specifically. In this performance, buttressed by Stewart’s startling acquiescence, Abdullah is the wise elder statesman guiding the young people of the region toward a democracy that mimics the successful one built in the United States. He is a father figure recognizing that his people will make mistakes as they proceed but willing to stand in to protect them from the extremists who could lead them astray. However, this story only makes sense if performed in front of a narrowly targeted audience:  one made up of Americans who know little about Jordan and for whom the image of Abdullah has become familiar and comforting. Both his vocabulary and themes he outlined come straight from a simplified reading of American political history and play on frequent explanations of Arab behavior discussed in the American press.

In the opening act of the play, Jon Stewart sets the scene by explaining that Jordan is a “constitutional monarchy” and King Abdullah quickly concurs with this assessment. No one with real knowledge of Jordan’s monarchal system would characterize it as such. Although Jordan has a constitution, which ostensibly could restrict the monarch’s powers, in practice the monarchy in Jordan has been above the law.  Furthermore, the constitution gives the monarch wider-ranging powers over other branches of government, such as the ability to dismiss parliament and government cabinets at will. Indeed, calls for the introduction of an actual constitutional monarchy were some of the most provocative statements made by Jordanian reformers in early 2011. It was only with the growth of a pro-reform movement, and the ability of activists to overcome their fear of official repression as a result of broader regional developments, that frank discussions began about minimizing the king’s powers. Notwithstanding these small openings, discussions of this topic continue to be repressed as seen with arrests of political activists and journalists.  For example, a journalist from the online news outlet Gerasa was arrested for reporting about the alleged interference of the king in a parliamentary corruption investigation concerning a former minister.

With no knowledge of this reality, Stewart applied the mantle of constitutional monarch to Abdullah in Acts 1 and 2, and with it, granted him the authority to analyze the events of the Arab Spring and to explain the reasons why he has been able to maintain his throne throughout these turbulent years. In his answers, Abdullah checked off talking points recognizable to the American policy establishment: “the republics are going through a much tougher version of this than the monarchies, funny enough;” “as young men and women aspired to political reform, those who were more organized like the Muslim Brotherhood sort of hijacked the movement;" but “in a way that is democracy.” During the course of the on-air portion of the interview, Abdullah and Stewart mapped out the three main groups they saw involved in the Arab Spring:  enthusiastic but rash young people who need to be guided properly, moderates such as Abdullah who know the way but also understand that young people must be persuaded to accept their lead; and extremists who do not put their country first. 

Abdullah addressed the mistakes he feels the republics have made and, by doing so, accepted the common trope in the American media that the Arab monarchies have been more stable because their subjects have natural loyalties to them.  According to Abdullah, the republics of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia jumped into elections so quickly they have not been able to codify new constitutions defining their governmental structures and this mistake has led to instability.  Jordan, on the other hand, has avoided this problem by following the same path as its fellow monarchy, Morocco, in adopting a gradual reform process that has seen the promulgation of a new constitution prior to the calling of new elections.  Included within this document in Jordan is the introduction of a constitutional court, an independent elections commission, and additional protections for civil liberties.[i] While laying out constitutional rights familiar to an American audience, these reforms were in fact minimal and failed to address the most serious grievances put forth by reformists and members of the political opposition.  Most importantly, the king’s prerogatives were not curtailed in any meaningful way; he has the ultimate power over the pace and direction of all governmental changes.  For example, the independence promised to the new elections commission is debatable given the fact that members were appointed by royal decree.  Furthermore, one of these constitutional amendments, the right to a civil trial, has already been violated.[ii]  In just the past month, over fifteen political activists have been arrested for challenging Abdullah’s policies and for calling for his powers to be minimized.  The arrested activists, who have been engaged in peaceful protest for months, have been charged under terrorism provisions and as such will be tried in front of a military security court.[iii]  Abdullah’s statement in the interview that he recognized that the reforms had not gone far enough is disingenuous to say the least given the repressive countermeasures his government has enacted.

Another major blemish upon the Jordanian regime and monarchy is the passage of a new publications and press law just this month, with wide powers to censor the Internet and especially online news outlets which have been invaluable for providing information that is critical and independent of the regime.[iv] Indeed, as one Jordanian blogger put it, “Do you know why King Abdullah likes being on the Daily Show? It's because a show like that is illegal in Jordan.”[v]  Completely absent from the story told on the Daily Show is the dire financial straits in which Jordan finds itself.  The national debt has ballooned in the past few years and the regime remains dependent for survival on financial handouts from the Arab Gulf countries and the United States.  These handouts come with substantial conditions as the Jordanian government must follow the dictates of these foreign donors; rarely do these dictates address the needs of the Jordanian citizenry.  At the same time, Abdullah has expended little serious effort to address the rampant corruption that has been the most consistent grievance of his political opponents.  Indeed, the seeds were sown for the current political upheaval as early as 2008, as government critics began to openly condemn the corruption associated with the privatization of public resources.  Many of the benefits accrued directly to the royal family.

Act 3 was devoted to specifically Jordanian issues, and here Abdullah presented himself as the sage and patient monarch trying to guide his people through the treacherous waters of democracy.  His performance could be deemed a success as long as no facts were added to the discussion.  According to Abdullah, the elections set for the end of the year are to be monitored by the newly formed independent elections commission and the newly elected parliament will form its own government for the first time in the country’s history.  As he said on the show, “what we call the Arab summer is going to be the hard work because this is for the first time in my country’s history where parliament will have to form government, so how do they form government, how do they pick a prime minister in coordination with the king and the king steps back.”  Legally speaking, the right to form a government is still the king’s prerogative and not one of the rights accorded to parliament in the new constitution.  In response to repeated demands from the many members of the opposition that parliament, and not the monarch, form the government, the king reportedly said in 2011 that he would “consult” the parliament about the formation of a new government at some future time.  An advisor to Abdullah stated in October 2011 that a “consultation mechanism” would be designed to facilitate this power-sharing process.[vi]

However, given the regime’s track record of rigged elections under King Abdullah and his father, and the utterly unsatisfactory electoral reforms recently enacted, Jordanians have little hope that the upcoming elections will produce a parliament with any kind of independent power. Since coming to the throne, Abdullah has dismissed governments without parliamentary input and has passed important pieces of national legislation while parliament was out of session. As a result, he has not earned the trust necessary for Jordanians to believe in his latest promises. Indeed, all pro-reform and opposition groups currently say they will boycott the upcoming elections for this reason.

To buttress his image as a mature and moderate leader, Abdullah continued to make clear throughout the interview that the real issue is not the regime’s failure to introduce substantial reforms, but Jordan’s political immaturity. As he told Stewart, Jordan does not have institutions such as those in the United States that clearly define political positions: “Now, as Americans especially in this year you definitely know where you stand on health and taxes. For most Jordanians they have no concept of what that means vis-à-vis left, right and center. So, if you can understand that we are so far at the start of this issue, where, how do Jordanians identify what it means to be left of center or right of center.” Abdullah’s hope is that the thirty-odd political parties that currently exist in Jordan will be winnowed down to “two, three, or four, representing left, right and center.” This statement ignores the fact that Jordan frequently had eras where vibrant political parties called for meaningful change, but the king and his father squashed them by martial law and state repression. It also fails to take into account that the two-party system in America has become ossified; this system can only be a viable model in a simplistic reading of American political history. In Abdullah’s estimation, all the Jordanians need is a political right, left and center modeled after a largely mythical United States and democracy will unfurl.

When Stewart asked Abdullah if Jordan had a Muslim Brotherhood, Abdullah provided a history of the organization’s existence in Jordan that played upon the political dichotomies he relied upon throughout his performance on the show. He was the moderator who sought compromise within a new political system of parties arrayed to the left, right and center; the Muslim Brotherhood rejected this type of American success story because its members failed to work in their country’s interest. Abdullah pointed out that, unlike in most countries, but again in step with the monarchy in Morocco, the Jordanian monarchy did not declare the Muslim Brotherhood illegal or force it to function underground. Instead, “we have had them in government, we have had them in the senate, we have had them as part of everyday life. They probably represent politically about twelve percent of the political makeup of Jordan.”  What the king fails to mention is that after an overwhelming victory for the Muslim Brotherhood in 1989 (the first parliamentary elections after the end of marital law) the regime moved to limit and restrict the Brotherhood’s electoral successes by crafting an electoral system designed to maximize kin-based voting and minimize representation of more densely populated areas, where the Brotherhood had its base. All the evidence – such as elections of the teachers’ union and labor syndicates more broadly – point to the fact that the Brotherhood continues to enjoy considerable support in Jordan.

After assuring Stewart that the Muslim Brotherhood had little popular support, Abdullah accuses the members of refusing to participate in the upcoming elections for fear of a poor showing: “They do not want to be part of the political scene this time around and the reason why I believe they do not want to is because they’re not going to do well.”  He decries the Brotherhood’s decision to work for change via the streets; he wants them to “get elected and come under Congress and then be part of Congress to change because the change is going to come in the next four years so be part of the system to do the change because if you are going to be on the street you are not going to be able to affect that change and unfortunately they have taken the decision to bow out and I think it will be a tragic loss for them.”  In order to hew to the simpler narrative that the irrational Muslim Brotherhood is the only opponent of his reforms, Abdullah continually fails to mention that nearly all of the existing political parties and opposition movements are boycotting the upcoming elections because of the regime’s failure to seriously reform the electoral system and transfer real power to the parliament. 

After stating his frustration with the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdullah stopped, sighed and moved to the climax of his play. “You have the Founding Fathers and no way can we be any, you know, this is a very humble step for us but this is the step, this the critical crossroad for Jordan to get it right is the next four years.”  Jon Stewart built on this idea that Jordan was being founded anew by these reforms: “what seems nice about that and what seems like a wonderful opportunity there is the ability for the Jordanian people to tell their own story,” in much the way the Americans were able to do two hundred years ago. Stewart contrasts this with the example of the Iraqis, who he says had to contend with an American invasion claiming to bring democracy. “It does not give that country a wonderful story to tell about its own founding and it seems like we have the American revolution and we stood up to the British and we are very proud of ourselves and it seems that Jordan has that opportunity, Egypt has that opportunity, Tunisia, it seems like Iran has that same pride. Iraq does not seem to have that, maybe that has changed over the last few years.” To make the claim that entirely new histories were being written for these countries because of the events of recent years, Stewart ignores decades, if not centuries of events. More problematically, however, he equates the empowerment and excitement felt by participants such as those in Tahrir Square in Cairo with the policies of King Abdullah in Jordan. He builds on Abdullah’s reference to the American Founding Fathers to position the king as a Jordanian revolutionary leader.  While few in Jordan’s opposition are currently calling for overthrowing the king, the closer analogy would see that Abdullah is to Hosni Mubarak as Jordan’s political opposition is to the protestors in Tahrir Square.

To make what he hopes are the proper changes for Jordan, Abdullah hopes that he can sit in a room with “senior Jordanians and capable Jordanians” who are willing to be honest and straightforward with each other so a new government can be built that will not need the monarchy in the same way as in the past.  According to Abdullah:

The relationship, in a way the monarchy is the watchdog and the safeguard between the monarchy and the people. The people need to govern themselves and the job at least of the monarchies in our part of the world is to be there if things go very badly, to be able to step in on behalf of the people, the moral authority of the monarch if things go wrong. And obviously we are in the process of transition, so how do we get the people to step into the position of power. So the challenge that we have at the end of the year is me encouraging the coalitions to come together and form government and how do we do it in such a way that they then become solidified and to create left, right and center so it is trial and error. 


After this soliloquy, Stewart suggested that “perhaps that humility though is what earns you the authority from your people to be that countervailing force and to be that stabilizing force.” Abdullah responded by saying, “it is going to be trial and error, there os going to be -- it is going to be a bumpy road. But you know as I said from the beginning of the Arab Spring, what we want to achieve is left, right and center, two to five political parties as quickly as possible. That sounds very simple but getting there is going to be the challenge.”

Throughout the interview, successful reform is premised on accepting one vision of the American governmental process as the only correct one. Political parties must be arrayed “left, right and center;” politicians must sit in “Congress” ready to work for meaningful change. The Jordanian people must become engaged in the political issues of the day in order to understand how a proper political party system functions as in America. Abdullah stands in for the American Founding Fathers as he launches a Jordanian revolution that will give birth to a new state where the people wisely and maturely govern themselves. In this new system, he hopes to merely stand by the side ready to protect his people if necessary. Jon Stewart has spent much of his career skewering the American political process but left these images largely unquestioned. Instead, he aided and abetted Abdullah as he presented a simplistic vision of America as the best and most viable model for the Jordanians seeking to reform their government. He never asked why Abdullah considers an array of political parties “left, right and center” as the only direction Jordan and the Arab world should take, especially surprising given how divisive those positions are in America today. 

The interview’s internal cohesion also relied upon an acceptance of stereotyped and simplistic definitions of such terms as “moderate,” “extremist,” “Muslim Brotherhood,” and “constitutional monarchy.” Abdullah and Stewart used those terms throughout the interview with meanings that only hold resonance in a narrow American political and media context. A moderate is someone who supports American policies in the Middle East; an extremist opposes them and, by extension, the good of his country. The Muslim Brotherhood is inimical to American and moderate policies; a constitutional monarchy allows the people to practice their sovereign rights while the monarch retains few legal rights to intervene in the governmental process. Young people fueled the Arab Spring but moderates must now guide them toward the light. King Abdullah presents the perfect interlocutor between the Middle East and America because he has proved that he is one of “us” as he speaks with our vocabulary and replicates our institutions. The repetition of words, such as “left, right and center,” the comparison with the Moroccan monarchy, and the constant positioning of Abdullah in opposition to “extremists” and the “Muslim Brotherhood” placed him in the American camp. Abdullah and America are the tried and true, mature guides, while the young of Jordan and the Arab world struggle to find a direction. In this play at the Daily Show, Abdullah is a tireless reformer who wants only the best for his people, but who understands that they have to learn how to govern themselves as the Americans did over the last two hundred years.

As for Abdullah’s presentation of the Jordanian political scene, and Stewart’s wholehearted acceptance of this narrative, it is an unreservedly whitewashed version of what has been transpiring in Jordan since Abdullah took over the throne. It completely ignores the repression that Jordanian political activists have witnessed as they have sought to institute the reforms Abdullah now claims are in place. The Muslim Brotherhood has not been the strongest opponent of the king in the last couple of years, reflecting the fact that one of the greatest challenges to the monarchy today is not from the Muslim Brotherhood, but from newly organized political activists from all over the country, including many from the monarchy’s traditional base among tribes, the military, and Jordan’s Jordanian subjects. The Muslim Brotherhood is a useful specter for an American audience, but the claims made by Abdullah do not describe the Brotherhood’s actual position in Jordan or the widespread opposition movement that has emerged to challenge the king.  

What is perhaps most disturbing about Jon Stewart’s role in this performance, is that many Americans look to him for “real” news – serious critique albeit delivered in a tongue-and-cheek fashion.  But clearly the buck stops here for Stewart.  Monarchies are fine, as long as they look like us and talk like us, watch Star Trek, and know a little bit of American political history.  Abdullah stayed true to his script throughout the interview and Stewart responded as the script-writers had hoped and planned.

Watch Jon Stewart's three-part interview with King Abdullah below:







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