On Tuesday, February 1, 2011, Prime Minister Samir al-Rifa’i submitted his resignation and that of his cabinet. Such developments come in the wake of three consecutive Fridays, wherein protesters throughout Jordan decried the existing economic conditions and called for the resignation of Samir al-Rifa`i’s government. The persistence of protesters week after week and the subsequent resignation (i.e., dismissal) of al-Rifa’i’s entire cabinet – despite various government attempts to appease the public – have led many to lump Jordan within the broader wave of social and political unrest that has swept the Arab world (most notably Tunisia and Egypt). However, a close examination of the social mobilizations underway in Jordan and their immediate political consequences should cause us to question such a comparison. In short, absent any attendant structural changes in the political economy of Jordan, the dismissal of Prime Minister al-Rifa’i, his Cabinet, and (if at some point) the parliament, should not be seen as a transformation in the Jordanian status-quo but rather an affirmation of it.
While the focus of protesters in Jordan has shifted from government increases in the prices of subsidized commodities to the overall economic policies of the Jordanian state, the demands have almost-exclusively been for the resignation of Prime Minister Samir al-Rifa’i and the downfall of the government that was formed around him in the aftermath of the 2010 Parliamentary Elections. Such demands contrast sharply with those in Tunisia and Egypt (not to mention Algeria and Yemen), wherein mobilizations have been centered on bringing down the regime as opposed to just the government. Thus, while Husni Mubarak’s speech the night of Friday January 28th (wherein he announced the dismissal of the government) came as a major disappointment to the Egyptian people and fell far short of the demands of protesters, such a move in Jordan could possibly satisfy the majority of publicized demands of that country’s recent social mobilizations. Which is not to say that similar demands will not remerge once the new government proves itself to offer little in the way of anything fundamentally different.
The outgoing cabinet was formed around the royally-appointed Prime Minister in the wake of the November 2010 Parliamentary Elections, which featured the boycott of the leading opposition party – the Islamic Action Front (IAF) – and various allegations of voting fraud, in addition to significant problems vis-à-vis the representativeness of the election system in place. The former Premier and his Cabinet were thus appointed in an attempt to bolster the legitimacy of the existing political system and the discourse of reform that surrounds it. While the dismissal of the al-Rifa’i government might be interpreted as a set back to the regime’s attempt to legitimize its ongoing program of “political reform,” there is little indication that such developments threaten the regime and its process of upgrading authoritarianism.
In Jordan, the dismissal of the government – or the parliament – is part and parcel of the existing repertoire of governance in Jordan. In November 2009, King Abdullah II dissolved the Jordanian Parliament (elected in 2007) and called for early elections to be held on November 2010. Such an act represented the second time in which the King summarily dismissed parliament since his ascension to the Hashemite thrown in 1999. Consequently, absent any attendant structural changes in the political economy of Jordan, the dismissal of Prime Minister al-Rifa’i, his Cabinet, and, if at some point, the parliament, should not be seen as a transformation in the Jordanian status-quo but rather an affirmation of it.
Further evidence of the persistence of the status-quo in Jordan is the recent appointment of Ma’rouf al-Bakhit as Prime Minister. Since his retirement from the Jordanian Armed Forces in 1999, al-Bakhit has held various positions in the civilian (primarily diplomatic) state apparatus. Most notably amongst these, he was appointed as Prime Minister in the aftermath of the 2005 Amman bombings. Emphasis on Al-Bakhit’s military background seeks to address several concerns facing the regime at this current juncture. His appointment will probably win over the National Veterans Committees (for reasons related to both his military and tribal background), whose membership have become quite vocal in their criticism of previous governments. Al-Bakhit’s military background hopes to also quell public criticisms of government corruption within the context of privatization measures that have proved to be little more than rent-seeking opportunities for the officials involved. This is of course based on the assumption that members of the armed forces are more "professional" than civil servants and private sector personalities. Furthermore, al-Bakhit’s experience with the Premiership in the face of one of Jordan’s most notorious security threats (the 2005 Amman bombings) is a testament to his ability to attend to security concerns amidst increasing economic dislocation and its attendant social mobilizations.
The problem in the Jordanian status-quo is not one of personalities, but rather structures. In addition to the issue of the failure of Jordan’s economic development model (both at the level of vision and implementation) to adequately attend to the needs of the Jordanian population, the structure of political participation continues to be characterized by a logic of regime security rather than genuine popular representation. This is not withstanding the fact that in King Abdullah II’s recent “Letter of Designation” to the newly appointed Prime Minister Ma’rouf al-Bakhit, the Monarch instructed the Premier to “take speedy practical and tangible steps to unleash a real political reform process that reflects our vision of comprehensive reform, modernization and development.” However, barring some unforeseen contingencies, it is not expected that such reforms will fundamentally alter the distribution of political power in Jordan.
To be certain, the appointment of al-Bakhit has come with an important shift in the publicized position of the regime: the specific mention of the need for consensus on a new election law. This is clearly in reference to the broad-based criticism of the 2010 Election Law, which resulted in the active boycott by several political groups and low voter turn-out in the major urban centers during the 2010 Parliamentary elections. In this sense, the regime seems to be looking ahead and pre-empting what has not yet happened in Jordan: a shift in the publicized demands around which popular mobilizations are being organized from economic grievances to political claims (as has happened in Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen). But such a shift, should it happen, does not necessitate calling for regime change.
This dynamic of pre-empting any publicized political demands on the part of the recent social mobilizations speaks to a broader dynamic of a top-down regime-managed political reform strategy. Within this strategy, there is an important representation at play – one that reinforces the logic of regime security: an alleged separation between the regime and the government. Recently illustrative of this separation are official statements that were part of a series of meetings between the King and different branches of government in the week preceding the protests of this past Friday (January 28). The semi-official Jordan Times quoted the King as saying, “I do not want to hear anyone saying there are directives from above . . . The directives are clear and so are their channels: Everyone is directed to serve the country and the citizens, in accordance with well-defined and announced programs.” However, it should be noted that such a separation has also animated the recent popular mobilizations in Jordan. IAF Secretary General Hamzah Mansour recently brought this point home when he stated that “there is no comparison between Egypt and Jordan. The people there demand a regime change, but here we ask for political reforms and an elected government.”
The political implications of such a separation are made evident when juxtaposed to the reality of the institutional relationship between the regime and the Jordanian National Assembly, which is comprised of an elected lower house (Majlis al-Nuwwab – Chamber of Deputies) and a royally-appointed upper house (Majlis al-A’yan – Assembly of Senators). Within this relationship, and irrespective of the laws governing the election of the lower house, legislation by the elected branch of parliament is subject to rejection, amendment, and/or approval by the appointed branch of parliament. Furthermore, draft legislation is first referred to the Lower House by a royally-appointed Prime Minister, while final legislation (after passing both the Lower and Upper Houses) is subject to the approval or the rejection of the King. Such a dynamic between the regime and the government speaks to a much more complex set of relations that undergird the Jordanian status-quo than attempts to frame the recent Cabinet resignation offer.
In conclusion, the Monarchy in Jordan continues to be a red line in terms of both protest rhetoric and institutional change. The red line of institutional change is indicative of the fact that the process of political reform has been initiated from the top, designed to provide limited yet structurally-consistent outlets for political pressures, and is underlined by a logic of regime security. The red line of public rhetoric – while created by law and enforced by the threat of violence – is maintained by everyday practices of speech and dissent. This was also the case in both Egypt and Tunisia until a critical mass of citizens felt they had nothing to lose and that negative legitimacy (i.e., this might be bad, but it could be worse) was no longer the operative logic. Without this red line being crossed (and such thresholds tend to be reached as a result of both structural processes and contingent events), comparisons between Jordan and Tunisia/Egypt are limited. As of yet, many in Jordan are not willing to risk what they currently have (limited as it may be) for what might come in its wake. Rather than ignore this glaring difference and lump all Arab authoritarian states into one category, we might do well to expend our energies exploring the legacies of relations between different socio-political groups as well as the state building strategies that were predicated upon them as vital resources in the persistence of the existing logic.