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Getting Past the Brink: Protests and the Possibilities of Change in Jordan

[Jordanian policemen prepare to disperse protesters blocking a main road during a demonstration against a rise in fuel prices in downtown Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, 14 Nov. 2012. Hundreds of Jordanians chanted slogans against the king and threw stones at riot police as they protested in several cities for a second day Wednesday amid rising anger over fuel price hikes. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)] [Jordanian policemen prepare to disperse protesters blocking a main road during a demonstration against a rise in fuel prices in downtown Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, 14 Nov. 2012. Hundreds of Jordanians chanted slogans against the king and threw stones at riot police as they protested in several cities for a second day Wednesday amid rising anger over fuel price hikes. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)]

On Tuesday, 13 November 2012, protesters took to the streets across several cities in Jordan. The immediate spark for the protests was the government’s announcement that it would cut fuel subsidies as a means of addressing its budget deficit and securing a two billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund. Such cuts are poised to generate price increases of fifty percent for cooking gas, thirty-three percent for heating gas, and fourteen percent on lower car gasoline.

Specific figures have been difficult to ascertain, but estimates for the Amman protest average at two to three thousand people, while those in Salt and other urban centers outside the capital number several hundred to a little over a thousand each. In addition, public transportation workers have blocked several roads in downtown Amman. The initial reaction of riot police and gendarmerie to the protests was a general strategy of containment without engagement. However, as protests grew on Tuesday, various clashes ensued around the country. During the early hours of the morning of Wednesday, 14 November, security forces violently dispersed protesters from the Jamal Abdel Nasser Roundabout (also known as Duwwar al-Dakhilliyyeh) area near the Interior Ministry, the main site of protests in Amman. As the second day of protests came to a close, security forces were preventing the reassembly of protesters in the area. Security forces also used water cannons and tear gas against protesters in Salt, Tafila, M’an, Irbid, and Dheban. Thus far, there is one confirmed death amongst protesters, and there are unconfirmed reports that in some areas, protesters have burned tires, thrown rocks, and attempted to set fire to government buildings. As these lines were written, it is late afternoon of the third day and several calls for re-assembling at different locations in Amman and elsewhere have been issued.

In the first official response to the protests, and in a direct challenge to protesters, Prime Minister Abdullah al-Nsour on Wednesday asserted in an Al Arabiyya interview that “it is impossible to backtrack” on the decision to cut fuel subsidies, claiming that the alternative to such cuts would be worse. He went on to claim that “seventy-three percent of the population would not feel one fils of an extra cost” in their daily lives because of other forms of financial support the government is allegedly set to offer. Beyond claiming that there would be “da’m” [support] for the “poor and middle class,” Nsrour failed to provide any details or explain how it made any fiscal sense to eliminate fuel subsidies if those cuts were going to be offset “by an amount that is greater than the increase in prices.”

One of the dynamics that journalists and analysts have been quick to highlight is the way in which the slogans chanted at the protests directly address and criticize the king:

Ya bitsalih al-hin, ya bi-tilhaq al-Abidine [Either fix it now, or follow Abdine [Ben Ali]]

Haza al-urdun urdunna wa-al-khayin yab'id 'anna [This Jordan is our Jordan, and the traitor should get away from us]

Hurriyyeh, hurriyyeh, mish makarim malakiyyah [Freedom, freedom, not royal handouts]

Hurriyyeh min allah, ghasban 'annak Abdullah [Freedom from God, against your will oh Abdullah]

Al-sha'b yurid isqat al-nizam [The people want the fall of the regime]

Yasqut, yasqut hukm al-az'ar [Down, down with the rule of the scoundrel]

Thus far, the demands of the protesters are unequivocal in their condemnation of the recent decision to cut fuel subsidies, as well as the dismal state of the economy, and the lack of political accountability and transparency. However, we should not confuse the presence within demonstrations and online discussions of calls for the fall the regime as representing the majority of forces currently mobilized, or those that could potentially become mobilized in Jordan. The fact is that at the same protest, some chants call for the king to take corrective action, while others call for his downfall. While grievances against existing policies are widely shared, the positions held by protestors towards the king, monarchy, and/or regime are much less coherent.

To take two examples, let us consider the official statements of both the Teachers’ Union and the Islamic Action Front (IAF). The Teachers' Union, which itself was formed amidst the mobilizations of 2011, has called for a general strike in protest of the announced cuts in fuel subsidies. However, when pressed by an Al Jazeera reporter to comment on slogans calling for the fall of the regime, the spokesman of the union declared that the union was "for reform" in Jordan and not for the fall of the regime. Furthermore, the leading opposition political party, the IAF, has issued a statement calling on the king to revoke the decision to cut fuel subsidies and to form a national salvation government. The fact that they continue to invoke the king as the final arbitrator of policy and cabinet selections should caution those who would believe the IAF has thrown its weight behind calls for the fall of the regime. While the position of other political, professional, and labor groups are yet to be fully articulated vis-à-vis these particular protests, it is fair to say that until now their positions, however uneven across the spectrum, have not departed from a longstanding reformist posture.

None of the above is to claim that a mass uprising against the regime is impossible in Jordan. Rather, it is simply to caution against assuming that such mobilizations are inevitable and will naturally flow from the current situation. Simply put, the possibility of such mobilizations depends on the ability of a range of actors to overcome dilemmas of collective action and strategic rationale.

In terms of the formal opposition, the groups that comprise it thus far remain committed to the reform game. The same can be said of professional and labor groups, even if their demands are to the left of those of the IAF and other formal political groups. (For an excellent analysis of the dynamics of the labor movement over the past two years and beyond, click here.) The issue to watch for is how radicalized will such groups become with respect to their own demands. They are most likely not going to put themselves out ahead of everyday people/protesters, as that would risk them being detached from popular will (which they themselves are trying to gauge) and thus not only isolate themselves, but make themselves susceptible to a regime crackdown. The IAF rejected the deputy prime minister’s request to withhold its support for and participation in the current demonstrations. This alone highlights the fact that groups such as the IAF are following “the street” rather than the other way around. At least in so far as it involves initial escalations of contentious politics and the demands vis-à-vis the regime. Could mass mobilization reach the level at which the IAF and other accomodationist groups can no longer play the reform game? In other words, can the situation reach a point where elite opposition can no longer afford rejecting or staying silent on the question of the downfall of the regime? Yes. However, the emergence of circumstances within which that point would be reached involve their own set of conditions.

[Jordanian policemen prepare to disperse protesters blocking a main road during a demonstration against a rise in fuel prices in downtown Amman, Jordan, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Hundreds of Jordanians chanted slogans against the king and threw stones at riot police as they protested in several cities for a second day Wednesday amid rising anger over fuel price hikes. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)]

This then raises the issue of whether alternative forms of political organization will emerge to direct and channel mass mobilizations. This is a pivotal issue, as previous cases have shown. Without everyday people turning out en mass and definitively demanding the fall of the regime, formal political groups and collective social groups on their own will not publicly call for the fall of the regime (if they do at all). However, such an emergence of alternative political formations depends on both the rapid development of (institutional) capacities to mobilize people, as well as the level of polarization vis-à-vis the regime (i.e., strategic calculations). Thus, the initial turn out of people across the country is a necessary, but not sufficient, step towards mass-based anti-regime mobilizations. 

The above two dynamics of formal political groups and potential alternative political formations, will ultimately be colored by the short- and long-term strategic calculations of individuals and groups that would make up the respective collective social actors. These calculations center on the perceived and real likelihood of a violent regime crack down, the imagined and/or real fears surrounding a potential Islamist victory, or even the potential for some form of widespread civil strife. Also important are perceptions about powerful external actors, such as the Gulf monarchies, the United States, and Israel, particularly in the ways in which they might come to the aid of the regime.

In the final analysis, there are three potential scenarios that are likely in Jordan. The first is that the regime game will continue to be in play, offering little in the way of structural transformation, but enough restructuring to allow for the dissipation of pressure. This, for now, seems the most likely scenario barring what is discussed above and below. The second scenario is the sacrificing of the king by monarchy/regime. Such a scenario would not be unprecedented in Jordan or other monarchies/regimes. It is worth noting that the critiques of the monarchy that have been voiced thus far have specifically targeted King Abdullah II rather than the Hashemites as a whole. However, King Abdullah himself has long taken steps to mitigate against such moves on the part of other elements within the monarchy/regime. Finally, there is the scenario in which the monarchy/regime in its entirety is toppled. This would be the most difficult task to accomplish, though it would represent the deepest levels of transformation (without really indicating what would come in its place).

Which of these three possibilities is more likely to occur depends on the level of polarization, and the rationale of calculation by various groups with respect to how they would fare in the status quo versus any number of potential day-after scenarios. Facile explanations of "enough is enough" or "the regime has run out of cards" ignores this fact. There has always been criticism, dislike, even hatred for the regime. The fact that the current situation has emboldened some to publicly voice such sentiments should not be lost on us. But neither should the fact that such sentiments, however much shared by the rest of the population, do not necessarily or uniformly translate into broad-based mobilizations or widespread demands for the fall of the regime. In other words, the possible outcomes depend largely on the circumstances in place, which in turn differently structure the rationale of various collective social actors that make up the Jordanian political field.

There are those that assert the existence of a fourth possibility, that what is happening might lead to a new status quo in which King Abdullah II (or the monarchy as a whole) could continue to rule, but in a manner that is much more constrained and on a route toward greater checks on its power and more parity in its relationships with parliament. This, in effect, is another way of claiming that the reform game is a viable option for meaningful transformation. Beyond the dismal empirical record of more than twenty-years of “reform” in Jordan and across the region, there are the socio-political facts that regimes do not willingly give up power and that formal politics offer limited avenues for structural transformation when sought from below. One need only consider the dilemma Egyptian activists faced in the aftermath of the fall of Hosni Mubarak when faced with the choice between electoral participation and contentious politics. It would be naïve to think that the current state of mobilization in Jordan (as it stands today) is enough to force the hand of the regime into meaningful change. Again, the protests could escalate and their demands could become more radicalized. But that is currently not the case, and the above discussion sought to explain why it is not necessarily inevitable.

It should be clear that the above does not represent a normative judgment on the desire of those wishing for the fall of the regime in Jordan. Rather, it represents an analytical caution against the claim that Jordan is "forever on the brink." As the third day of protests continues, one should note that getting to “the brink” will depend on a number of factors. These include, the ability of alternative forms of political mobilization taking hold, the ability to expand such mobilizations to incorporate important social and political forces, the radicalization of the demands in the resultant coalition, and the ability to sustain such a mobilization whereby the alternative to meaningful change becomes too costly for the regime in the long run rather than the short-term. Such abilities are not simply a function of will alone, but are informed by a series of institutional, strategic, and resource constraints. While such constraints are not impossible to overcome, and might be completely undone as a consequence of some unexpected contingent event, they are nevertheless significant and currently determinant.

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