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The Alternative Opposition in Jordan and the Failure to Understand Lessons of Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions

[ ["Dialogue." Image from unknown archive.]

In Jordan, no one seems to have learned from the lessons of Tunisia and Egypt. Especially not the “opposition,” which can be divided into the “official” opposition and the “alternative” opposition.

The "official" opposition—comprised of the legalized opposition parties and professional associations—still seeks weak reformist goals that constitute a continuation of its collapsing course that began in 1989 (the year marking the end of martial law in Jordan and the onset of the so-called “democratic era”). This official opposition is made up of three broad sets of groups: the Islamists, featuring the Muslim Brotherhood and their political wing the Islamic Action Front; the nationalists, including two Ba’thist parties (one connected to the Iraqi faction and the other to the Syrian faction); and the leftists, including the Jordanian Communist Party, the Popular Unity Party (affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), and the People’s Democratic Party (affiliated with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine). This official opposition (which resembles all the official oppositions around the Arab world) has been subjected to substantial and incisive criticism over the past two decades—particularly around their absorption into the regime structure and inability to deliver meaningful political change—and there is no need to expand here on this issue.

The “alternative” opposition that has presented itself as the option capable of filling the political void is not much better: (1) It has an “East Bank Jordanian” isolationist character; (2) it bases itself on a post-colonial identity that does not enjoy an internal consensus; (3) it resonates with the political authority’s identity propaganda (“Jordan First” and “We are all Jordan”, both regime-sponsored PR campaigns for the building of a “Jordanian national identity”). Also significant is the fact that this “alternative opposition” has close ties to the “old guard,” one of the two competing factions within the Jordanian regime that has been partially marginalized when the young King Abdullah II ascended to the thrown and introduced his own faction into the ruling elites comprised of young businesspersons (locally dubbed “the neoliberals”). The members if the “old guard” are no less “neoliberal,” for it was them who started the implementation of IMF reforms, the privatization drive, and the withdrawal of the state from its social roles.

Influenced by the protests in Tunisia—which were then at their peak—the first “Day of Rage” in Jordan (called for by the “alternative opposition,” to be further defined below) was launched on Friday January 14, 2011, with a modest gathering of some 500 people. The official opposition boycotted this event, but as the Tunisian revolution surged to success, they turned out in massive numbers the following Friday, January 21, 2011, raising the turnout to 10,000 demonstrators. On the third Friday (January 28), the number of demonstrators decreased. By the fourth Friday (February 4), the demonstration was divided into two separate parts: one held at the usual downtown location, while the other kilometers away at the office of the Prime Minister. The divisions will probably increase because of the presence of the “isolationist” element within the opposition forces, and the concentration of this element in the primary reformist demand presented by the “alternative opposition” (and later on adopted by the official opposition): removal of the Prime Minister Samir al-Rifa’i (who was sacked later as expected) and the formation of a “national unity” government.

What are the constituents of this “alternative opposition”?

Its main elements include the Jordanian Social Left Movement, the Jordanian National Initiative, the National Progressive Current, the National Committee of Military Veterans, the Jordanian Writers Association, the Nationalist Progressive Current, in addition to very small groups such as the Democratic Youth Union, the Philosophy Society, the Socialist Thought Forum, the Assembly of Circassean Youth, and the Association Against Zionism and Racism.

All the above-mentioned groups with the exception of the National Progressive Current, the National Committee of Military Veterans, and the Nationalist Progressive Current) form the so-called “Movement of the Jordanian People.” And all those groups (without exception) form "The Jordanian Campaign for Change – Jayeen,” and are closely allied at both the politics and logistical levels.

A brief review of these groups will give us a clearer idea of what they actually represent: Nahed Hattar, the current leader of the National Progressive Current, the previous leader of the Jordanian Social Left Movement, and one of the main figures of the “alternative opposition,” wrote an article--that has since been removed from the internet--in which he revealed he had had several “long brainstorming meetings” with the Director of the General Intelligence Department. He also wrote an article--that has also since been removed from the internet--defending this director after he left his position, describing him in both articles as “one of the symbols of the Jordanian National Movement” (6). Omar Shaheen, a current leader in the Jordanian Social Left Movement, wrote saying that those meetings came about with the consent and blessing of the movement. Furthermore, both the National Progressive Current and the Jordanian Social Left Movement were among the first who promoted the isolationist post-colonial identity as one on which a national liberation movement can be based.

Others share this isolationist vision. The Jordanian National Initiative, which calls for the crystallizing of a “Jordanian identity full and complete” as well as the formation of a Jordanian national movement that is separate from a Palestinian one. This is constructed to deal with “Jordanian society” and “Palestinian society” as separate isolated entities that share common interests. The first version on the Jordanian National Initiative’s website was decorated with the “Jordan First” and “We are all Jordan” symbols. The Jordanian Writers Association is one of the largest recipient of governmental funding through the Ministry of Culture and the Municipality of Amman, with most of its leaders and prominent figures being either employed in the government’s cultural and media apparatus or receiving an array of diverse benefits from it.

The leader of the Nationalist Progressive Current participated in the November 2010 parliamentary elections, which were considered a continuation of the fragmentation of the Jordanian social fabric into clans, families and regions and thus widely boycotted. The elections and the elections law were also regarded as constituting a knock-out blow to any possibility of genuine reform.

Perhaps most indicative of their identity politics, none of these groups seriously worked on integrating the Palestinian refugee camps within the initiative of the “days of rage.” The only time one refugee camp participated modestly (al-Baq’a camp in the first “Day of Rage”), it was disregarded in the call to protest issued by the Jordanian National Initiative, mentioning all other locations. Some organizations in the Jayeen coalition regard the Palestinians as reservoirs of neoliberalism and place them in class conflict with eastern Jordanians.

Another important aspect of the “alternative” opposition is that many of the organizations are different addresses for the same group of people. It can safely be said that the Jordanian National Initiative, the Jordanian Writers Association, the Socialist Thought Forum, the Philosophy Society, and the Assembly of Circassean Youth are all different faces of the same group of individuals basically organized in the Jordanian National Initiative, closely followed by the Democratic Youth Union and the Jordanian Social Left Movement.

The main problem with this “alternative” opposition is largely reflected in the initial and principal goal of its mobilization, and which was subsequently adopted by the official opposition: the removal of Samir al-Rifa’i and his cabinet as well as the formation of a “national unity” government. It is well known in Jordan that ministers are “executors.” They are not persons empowered to draw up policies and strategies. Demanding a ministerial change will yield nothing on the strategic level and is considered a subtle attempt by those who are demanding the change to replace the people they want to oust.

Absent—both then and now—are discussions on the legitimacy of political authority in Jordan. In fact, what happens is the opposite: both the official and the alternative oppositions consider the head of the political system to be some sort of moderating sage. This is despite the fact that constitutionally he is indeed the head of three centers of power—the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary. Both the official and the alternative oppositions call for “a change in policies, not a change in regime.” For example, the Muslim Brotherhood stated that “the Islamists in Jordan call for reform, not a total change. We acknowledge the legitimacy of the regime.” The Jordanian Campaign for Change (Jayeen)--that includes all the alternative opposition groups--stated that “the King is the only constant in Jordanian politics” and stressed his constitutional immunity.

As a result of these dynamics, what was expected eventually happened: the al-Rifa’i government was sacked, and an old guard figure, Ma’rouf al-Bakhit, a former general and a previous ambassador to Israel, was appointed Prime Minister (PM) and subsequently formed his cabinet. Also as expected, there was general relief in both opposition circles. The National Committee of the Military Veterans and the leadership of the National Progressive Current clearly welcomed the new PM. The spokesman of the Jordanian Campaign for Change (Jayeen) described the appointment as a “step in the right direction," while Mahdi al-Sa’afin (a young leader in both Jayeen and the Jordanian Social Left) stated that “the Jordanian Campaign for Change will give the assigned PM a chance to execute the reform program.” On the official opposition front, “the previous slogans for removing the government disappeared,” along with the sit-in by the Islamists and other legalized parties, as they opt to give the al-Bakheet government a “trial period.”

Leaders of the Jordanian National Initiative (Jayeen) and the National Assembly for Change met with Prime Minister al-Bakhit after having refused to meet with his predecessor. However, after  thugs atttacked demonstrators on February 18th demonstrators--as the police "failed" to capture a single one of them--those very same leaders apologized for conducting a meeting with the PM claiming that they "thought the PM had the authority to rule, then found out he did not." This is of course a misleading "apology" since everyone in Jordan knows who actually rules and that the PM and his cabinet are executors. This apology was followed by the prime minister's denunciation of the attack against protests and a promise to protect the next demonstration, which was indeed "protected" along with the distribution of water juice as was the case in the first demonstrations.

Do the participants in the Jordanian “days of rage” think that the ousting of a minister or a prime minister, or implementing some sort of governmental change, will be sufficient to make fundamental economic, social, and political change in the country? Do they remember the vast campaign against the former Minister of Planning Basem Awadallah, an official seized upon as the sole and primary reason for economic collapse and corruption in Jordan? Awadallah was fired, nothing changed, the economic situation continues to worsen, and prices continue to skyrocket. Later, Samir al-Rifa’i, the young newcomer to government from business, was demonized as being the one responsible for decades of corruption. His departure was—like Awadalla’s—played up as the magical solution to everything. It must not be overlooked that these processes of demonization indicate the isolationist tendency of the alternative opposition. Despite the presence of a large array of influential “neoliberals,” the ones selected for demonization are almost always from a Palestinian background and unconnected to large clans or eastern Jordanian families. In an unprecedented recent development, Queen Rania (who is of Palestinian origin) was targeted by clan figures as being a symbol of corruption and was compared to Laila Tarabulsi, the wife of the ousted Tunisian dictator Ben Ali.

If given the capacity to form a government, does the alternative opposition think that it can transform the country from dependence towards both sovereignty and independence, despite the fact that Jordan relies heavily on foreign aid, and can be as easily strangled as the Gaza Strip?

Within the existing formulas, whoever joins the government based on a local “national” agenda will have only one of two choices ahead: resignation, or “dealing with reality.” The reality of the Jordanian postcolonial state is structural subordination, corruption, and functionality. Forming or joining a government is the first step in joining the political elite whose rules and machinations have been set by the political authority, and are impossible to escape.

We should not forget that the political authority during the reign of the late King Hussein had the unique characteristic of absorbing the opposition. It even absorbed those who attempted coups against him, transforming them into ministers, ambassadors, and even directors of intelligence. The absorption of the opposition constituted an important pillar that disappeared during the new reign when priorities shifted towards the young business personalities loyal only to profit and disengaged from any regional or clan anchorage. Accordingly, the political authority in Jordan established a class identity, whereas the opposition is working toward diluting the class divide by trying to join the regime’s structure and push against the old guard and personalities that once more seek to tie the ruling elite to the traditional constituents of the regime. This will obscure the emerging class structure and tensions, resulting in prolonging the corruption and subordination cycles. The demand for a “national unity” government further reflects the desire of those excluded from the power structure to regain their positions inside it and get their share of the cake. It surely does not reflect a desire in a “total change” that remaining outside the power structure would help ferment. This is most recently indicated by the participation of Khaled Ramadan--of the Nationalist Current--and Khaled Kalaldeh--of the Social Left Movement--in the regime-sponsored "National Dialogue Committee.

To conclude: the “alternative opposition” lacks the basic requirement of being independent from the political authority; and it has adopted an isolationist discourse at the level of identity and at the scope of liberation. This isolationst discourse dilutes any real attempt for the identification and thus maturation of class conflict.

However, the lessons of Tunisia and Egypt did not fall on deaf ears, at least not when considering those of the political authority! It reintroduced subsidies for basic commodities previously de-subsidized; it announced an increase in the monthly wages of public-sector workers; and it hosted opposition figures in the state-owned television station. Moreover, it did not ban the “Day of Rage” demonstrations nor did it request permission for it to go ahead. There was no police presence during those demonstrations; in fact, some policemen distributed juice and water to the demonstrators.

The regime in Jordan has grasped the lessons from Tunisia and Egypt. The opposition has not!

3 comments for "The Alternative Opposition in Jordan and the Failure to Understand Lessons of Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions"

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Comprehensive and excellent analysis. Thanks.

Pete Moore wrote on March 23, 2011 at 11:08 AM
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Thank you for saying what many of us are afraid to say: there is no opposition in Jordan that represents a real alternative. That does not mean the regime is legitimate, but it does mean that the opposition is a bad and disastrous joke.

Firas wrote on March 24, 2011 at 09:23 PM
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Wow, this piece really goes beyond nearly anything I've seen in terms of explaining the dynamics of the opposition in Jordan. Thanks and hope to see more from you soon.

Jillian Schwedler wrote on March 27, 2011 at 08:41 AM

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