The following is the first installment in a two-part interview on the history and politics of the Jordanian regime. The interview was conducted during the first two weeks of August 2012 with Tariq Tell, a Jordanian scholar and activist. In this first part, Tell discusses the history of the Hashemite regime and Jordanian state formation as well as the broad outlines of the political field that such a history has engendered. In the second part (click here to access) Tell discusses the positions of various contemporary socio-political forces towards the Hashemite regime and outlines important areas for much-needed further research on the history and politics of state building and regime-society dynamics in Jordan.
Ziad Abu-Rish (ZA): Discussions about politics in Jordan tend to view the regime as a cohesive unit. How do you conceptualize the nature of the Hashemite regime? What are its social bases, as well as its internal socio-political or institutional fault lines?
Tariq Tell (TT): Hashemite Jordan is something of a paradox. It was created by colonial fiat as part of the “Sharifian solution” to the post-WWI disorder. It was then consolidated as a separate entity as a result of Britain’s need for secure communications with Iraq, as well as a stable buffer on the eastern frontier of Palestine. The result was a dependent polity that was based on an imported dynasty that soon lost its historic base in the Hijaz to Ibn Sa`ud and was expanded around a colonial security structure. While no more artificial than the other entities that emerged from the post-Ottoman carve up of the Fertile Crescent, the Emirate of Trans-Jordan (1921-46) lacked a center, the kind provided by old imperial capitals, religious centers, or confessional havens such as Damascus, Jerusalem, and Mount Lebanon. At the same time, its economy and administration were dominated by a group that local idiom once cast as aghrab (strangers): merchants and bureaucrats who filtered into the East Bank during late Ottoman period.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the regime was able to survive the waning of Britain’s moment in the Middle East while managing the annexation of Central Palestine after the first Arab-Israeli War (1948). With US support, a “royal military dictatorship” was consolidated after the final departure of the British in 1957. The power of the monarchy rested on the control of the military and was increasingly exercised through the mukhabarat (intelligence services), a department that effectively became the executive arm of the Palace after martial law was imposed in the wake of the June 1967 War. Notwithstanding bouts of harsh repression (most notably during the suppression of the left-leaning and pan-Arab Jordanian National Movement in 1957-59, as well as the dismantling of the PLO’s state within a state in 1970-71), the rough edges of Hashemite autocracy were for the most part artfully disguised by a quasi-constitutional façade and a modernist discourse that emphasized the regime’s alleged commitment to peacemaking, development, and democracy.
In spite of its origins as an instrument of imperial or neocolonial control, the Hashemite regime has proven to be unexpectedly resilient. During the 1950s and 1960s, an enforced alliance with the military and the rural middle class allowed the construction–in a similar fashion to the Nasserist or other radical populist regimes–of a cohesive base among the East Bank’s peasant majority. The term “peasant” is a more accurate description than “tribal Trans-Jordanians” or the “Bedouin.” This social alliance–institutionalized by means of a bloated bureaucracy and an overgrown military—allowed King Hussein to see off the pan-Arab and Palestinian challenges to his rule while cementing an authoritarian bargain based on the exchange of political loyalty for public sector jobs and patronage. The cost, however, was external dependence as outside financial support was necessary to fund the militarized welfare system that guaranteed East Bank livelihoods and the cohesion of the regime. Fortunately for King Hussein (and King Abdullah II after 1999), Jordan’s geopolitical centrality in the Arab east virtually guaranteed a flow of strategic rents and developmental aid, as did its pivotal role in various peace processes and negotiations in the four decades after 1948.
While regional power politics supplied the regime with a flow of aid, the patrimonial methods of the Hashemites—and the corruption and cronyism that accompanied them—brought repeated fiscal crisis and budgetary insecurity. Matters were compounded by the nature of the policy-making coalition that had attached itself to the monarchy during the mandatory period, one in which rural East Bankers (give or take a few wealthy or well-connected shaykhs or Palace favorites) had a subaltern role as compared to the bureaucratic and mercantile aghrab clustered in Amman. Together with the emphasis of development agencies and donors on the absorption and settlement of the Palestinian refugees, this produced a widening divergence between the regime’s “ethnic security map” and its development plans. The result was a lasting and entrenched policy bias (only briefly disturbed by the rise of a reformist “populism from above” between 1960-71) that favored the urban centers of the northwest and the Jordan Valley while neglecting the East Bank hinterlands and the dry grain farming and agro-pastoralism that were once the mainstays of the local economy. By the late 1980s, this cumulative bias had produced a pattern of uneven development in which the South, Mafraq, and Bani Hamida districts, as well as the Badiya areas, lagged behind the capital on almost every indicator. There were larger absolute numbers of poor people in eastern Amman and al-Zarqa, but the incidence of poverty and its severity was greatest in the Trans-Jordanian heartlands.
An economic fault line had emerged that ran alongside an older national-regional divide, prominent since mandatory times, between the regime’s rural (or at least once-rural) Trans-Jordanian base, and the urbanaghrab. The tensions in the monarchy’s social base came into the open once accumulating debt precipitated an exchange rate crisis and IMF-directed structural adjustment in the late 1980s. As the state’s ability to deliver services and support was pegged back, contentious politics migrated to the East Bank hinterland. For the most part, such politics took the form of austerity riots against neoliberal economic retrenchment and prime ministers identified with the Amman elite (notably Zayd al-Rifa`i and Abd al-Karim al-Kabariti). The result was a new geography of popular protest–exemplified by Hayyat Nisan in 1989 and the 1996 bread riots in al-Karak–that seemed to reverse the historical polarities of Jordanian politics. Where King Hussein’s security forces had once battled demonstrators drawn from the populous “mixed” towns of northwest Jordan (and of course the West Bank before 1967), they now confronted rioters hailing from regions that had historically been bastions of loyalty to the monarchy.
While these “troubles in the East Bank hinterlands” were often spectacular, they were easily contained by the regime. Most of the outbreaks are best seen as “signal revolts” aimed at attracting the attention of the Palace rather than contesting its rule. They remained confined to small southern clan communities where the political party opposition—including the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamic Action Front (IAF)—had little mass appeal and failed to either generate nationwide mobilization or derail the march of economic liberalization. However, the “troubles” were nonetheless significant. They advertized a fissure between the Amman-based elite and the popular base of the monarchy, essentially between the aghrab and once-rural East Bankers now largely transplanted to the military and the bureaucracy. It can be argued that the “liberal bargain” promulgated after 1989 was geared towards bridging this divide, as King Hussein tried to use parliamentary (over)representation to redirect state patronage towards the hinterlands. However, this fault line grew wider once the Wadi Arabah Accord with Israel failed to produce a peace dividend, raising instead the specter of permanent Palestinian settlement on the East Bank and accentuating fears of the “alternative homeland conspiracy” (al-watan al-badil). In this context, seats in the legislature proved a poor palliative once the regime began to fully pursue privatization and neoliberal restructuring of the state after King Abdullah II came to power in 1999.
ZA: Could you offer us a broad outline of the Jordanian political field and an overview of the different elite and non-elite social forces that make up the Jordanian political landscape?
TT: Despite high levels of urbanization and formal educational attainment, the vast majority of Jordan’s population remains a recently transplanted peasantry. In the case of “Jordanians of Palestinian origin,” they were forcibly driven from their land by Zionist apartheid. Much of the population is still in the grip of a rural ideology that was molded and reinvented by colonial and post-colonial state-building, and divided along “tribal,” regional, and communal lines. Regime strategies–most importantly a practice of “dynastic modernism” that has been careful to manage rather than resolve identity-based differences–have worked to entrench these vertical solidarities. Also important is a political economy dominated by external rents and employment in the public and service sectors (rather than agricultural or industrial production). The result is a segmented and fragmentary political field, populated by communitarian assabiyyas as opposed to social forces organized horizontally along lines of income or class. Working class cohesion is weakened further by labor migration and the presence of an underclass of foreign guest workers. Moreover, the contours of the national community are contested and the frontiers of the state unsettled. Formal politics in Jordan are still pursued under the umbrella of the 1952 constitution, a document promulgated when Amman was in control of central Palestine. A quarter of a century after King Hussein’s disengagement from the West Bank, and nearly two decades after the signature of the Wadi Arabah Peace Accord with Israel, Jordan’s western border has still not been fixed and the fate of the Palestinian refugees on the East Bank remains uncertain.
The elite is better described as Hashemite than as Jordanian, clustered around a once- immigrant core whose origins lie in the Hijaz and the urban centers of Greater Syria (Mandatory Palestine in particular). Despite a common attachment to a Hashemite dynastic state, it has always been divided along lines of confession, ethnicity, region, or communal origin (Christian or Muslim, Circassian or Arab, Damascene or Nabulsi, Palestinian or Trans-Jordanian), as well as locality or kinship. Notice must also be taken of the divide—largely neglected in the academic mainstream—between a rural East Bank nobility that rooted its politics in the local “tribal” order, and the largely urban aghrab. The latter now include the descendents of the “external elite” (the term is Philip Robins’) of Levantine colonial functionaries who collaborated with British rule, as well as the “Ammani” bourgeoisie that emerged from the waves of migrant and refugee flows into what was once southeast Syria between 1851 (when the Ottoman Tanzimat fist began to intrude on the steppe marches of southeast Syria) and 1991. A further layer to the aghrab–one whose long-term implications are still unclear–has been added by the wealthy Iraqis who have settled in western Amman since 2003.
A “nativist” nationalism (the term is Joseph Massad’s) opposed to the wealth and influence of the aghrab, and wedded to the idea that “Jordan is for the Jordanians” has been a staple of East Bank politics since the early 1920s. However, both individually and as a group, the “aghrab” have long-since forged multifarious links (including financial and marital ties) with elements of the “indigenous” Trans-Jordanian elite. The latter include tribal landlords who consolidated large estates in Ottoman times, “peasant investors” made suddenly rich by the land booms that accompanied the inflows of aid and refugees, and a “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” that has managed–whether by acumen or graft–to turn political influence into moneyed wealth and forge business partnerships with the commercial classes. The expanded elite that emerged has been invested in the Hashemites’ Zionist connections since the early 1930s, and today forms the main prop of the otherwise unpopular peace treaty signed by King Hussein in Wadi `Arabah in 1994.
Beyond the elite, the mass of the population (whether Palestinian or Trans-Jordanian in origin) remains deeply hostile to Israel. However, the key social forces are also divided along broadly communal lines–into a predominantly Trans-Jordanian statist assabiyya forged by employment in the military and the public sector, and networks of skilled artisans, sub-contractors, and small traders whose identity politics are more ambiguous or more circumspect. This largely Palestinian petit bourgeoisie dominates social life in eastern Amman and is also influential in Irbid. However, Palestinian sentiment is most apparent, and socio-political solidarity most cohesive, in the refugee camps (in particular those set up after the June 1967 war). While it is tempting to define these groupings as “national classes” (following Michael Mann), it should be stressed that they have for the most part been classes “in” rather than “for” themselves. Each communal bloc is internally segmented along lines of locality and clan (some observers also divide the Palestinians according to the date they settled on the East Bank, distinguishing the 1948 refugees from the 1967 nazihin or even those driven out of Kuwait after the 1991 Gulf War). Combined with well-honed regime policies of cooptation and repression, these intra- and inter-communal divisions have meant that popular mobilization on a national scale has remained limited since 1957. Even at the height of the so-called “Arab Spring,” we have seen nothing comparable to the supra-communal left or pan-Arab-led mobilizations of the Nasserist era.
Oppositional politics have always faced a formidable obstacle as a result of the centrality of the state to the livelihoods of the vast majority of Trans-Jordanians. Historically, this has supplied the regime with what amounts to an East Bank Phalange, ever ready to rally in defense of monarchical rule. One example of this was the assault on demonstrators in Jamal Abdul Nasser Square on 25 March 2011. Independent political organization is also constrained by the defection (at least as far as party politics are concerned) of an urban (and in its majority Palestinian) middle class of “aspiring cosmopolitans.” Since the 1970s, the latter have chosen exit (often literally, in the form of migration to the gulf) over voice. Today, for the most part, they eschew radical politics in favor of NGO-based activism and the blogosphere—focusing predominantly on pan-Arab, Islamist, or Palestinian issues—or otherwise pursue particular interest-based politics through business networks and professional associations. Since 1993, political activity at the national level has been further hindered by both the over-representation of traditional bases of support and the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV)—or “one man one vote”—electoral laws. These gerrymander elections in favor of the East Bank hinterlands, and provide incentives for voting along extremely narrow lines of kin or clan.
As a result of entrenched vertical schisms at both the elite and mass levels and because of the regime’s refusal to abandon the “one man, one vote” system, the Jordanian political landscape remains fragmentary even after two decades of (cautious) “liberalization.” On the party political plane, we find: the Muslim Brotherhood alongside more radical Islamist groups (including Hizb al-Tahrir, Salafists, and semi-clandestine Jihadists); diverse Ba`thists and pan-Arabists; the rump of the Jordanian Communist Party; offshoots of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP); as well as a variety of “centrist” groupings that amount to little more than the personal followings of regime big men or tribal notables. Only the Brotherhood and its Islamic Action Front (IAF) offshoot have an organized mass following. This is in its vast majority Palestinian and concentrated in eastern Amman, al-Zarqa, and the Irbid qassabah. With deep-rooted ties to the Palace and the mukhabarat, the Brotherhood has historically found it easier to mobilize its supporters for elections (whether for parliament, municipalities, student bodies, or professional associations) than for truly oppositional action in the street. In the case of the latter, an East Bank vanguard is usually necessary to confront security forces that are predominantly Trans-Jordanian.
Petite bourgeois or petty capitalist in its economic outlook, the Muslim Brotherhood has, until the last two years at least, shown little interest in the East Bank hinterlands. It has offered only token opposition to neoliberal reforms, even when allied with ostensibly anti-capitalist party forces on the political left. In the spring of 2010, for example, its leadership turned down calls for support from public sector teachers campaigning for higher wages and a national union. Perhaps as a result, the past five years have seen the migration of oppositional Trans-Jordanian nationalists, labor activists, as well as the more secular or left-leaning youth on both sides of the communal divide to social NGOs and professional organizations. Notable here are the Social Left (al-Yasar al-Ijtima`i), the teachers committees that first appeared in the governorates in 2010, the retired service men’s committees, and Jayyin. In my view, it is these networks and the social forces that they have tried to support (i.e., public sector workers and army veterans) that have played the pivotal role in the current hirak (the local name for the street protests that have become a staple of the Jordanian political scene since the winter of 2011).
[This post is the first installement in a two-part series. Click here to read Part 2.]