The following is the second and final installement 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 second part, 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. Click here to read Part 1, where 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.
Ziad Abu-Rish (ZA): What is the position of the different socio-political forces vis-a-vis the regime (King Abdullah II in particular and the Hashemite monarchy in general)? What topics dominate the agendas of these groupings and how do they impact on the cohesion of the regime?
Tariq Tell (TT): All the key socio-political groupings accept a constitutional ceiling for their politics, and even the majority of opposition activists accept that the regime should be reformed rather than replaced. There has always been a smattering of republican sentiment on the left–and more has surfaced in East Bank circles in the course of the present hirak, most notably from the tribal nationalist Ahmad `Uwaydi al-Abbadi—who was briefly imprisoned after a characteristically outspoken call for an indigenous alternative to the Hashemites. However, the public consensus seems to be in favor of some form of constitutional monarchy in which a Hashemite king—but not the dynasty as a whole, as the discourse of regime loyalists tries to suggest—acts as the linchpin of the regime coalition, and regulates the differences between Jordan’s contending regional and communal groups.
The attitude of both oppositionists and loyalists towards King Abdullah II is much more ambiguous. King Abdullah II was quite obviously unprepared for power when the line of succession was abruptly changed in his favor in 1999. He does not appear to have—at least when operating in Arabic—his father’s charisma or common touch, and his lack of King Hussein’s political skills was graphically illustrated during the recent departure of `Awn al-Khasawneh from the premiership. Khasawnah and his sympathizers were allowed to portray the former’s resignation—which may well have been a gambit—as a legitimate reaction to monarchical intrusion on a constitutionally-sanctioned mandate granted by parliament (‘al-wilayah al-`amma). A politician once intimately involved in the Wadi Arabah negotiations, and who had spent most of the past decade in the International Court of Justice at the Hague, was turned overnight into an opposition icon. King Abdullah II has also been tainted by association with politicians perceived as corrupt by popular opinion, most notably ex-premier Samir al-Rifa`i, the former chief of the Royal Court Basim Awadallah, and the family and maternal relatives of his wife Rania al-Yasin.
In Trans-Jordanian circles, the King’s standing has been damaged further by the perception that Queen Rania is unsympathetic to East Bankers and has used her influence to further Palestinian interests. The Queen hails from Tulkarem on the West Bank and was raised in Kuwait, where the Palestinian community was historically a bastion of support for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). On some accounts, she appears more a partner in rule than a royal consort, drawing almost monarchical power from a network of NGOs and business interests and from the patronage conferred by highly-paid jobs in her gift in a battery of quasi-governmental agencies. The Queen and her associates are invariably portrayed as lobbyists for the reduction of the deficit of rights (huquq manqusa) that King Abdullah’s Palestinian subjects labor under in parliamentary life and the military. Despite the fact that King Abdullah II has so far displayed neither the dynastic interest nor personal obsession that made King Hussein so reluctant to jettison the West Bank, Trans-Jordanian nationalists view the alleged free rein given to Rania and her coterie as the thin end of a wedge ultimately aimed at establishing an alternative homeland (watan badil) for Palestinians on the East Bank.
The evidence mustered in support of these allegations is tenuous at best, as would be expected in what is still a basically authoritarian regime. Nonetheless, the attack on the King’s motorcade in al-Tafilah in the spring of 2012 is only the most visible sign of a marked slippage in King Abdullah’s authority among East Bankers. Indeed, the more open political debate precipitated by two years of popular hirak has revealed a considerable number of Trans-Jordanians who would prefer to be ruled by a different Hashemite. Many fear the “Palestinization” of the monarchy once the King’s eldest son, Hussein, ascends to the throne. This is a prospect that has been highlighted in recent weeks by the media circus that accompanied the Crown Prince’s eighteenth birthday. It is possible to find East Bank elites and non-elites who openly express a preference that Hamza (King Abdullah’s younger half-brother, and eldest son of Queen Nour, the late King Hussein’s US-born fourth wife) be restored to the succession line. It should be recalled that Hamza was removed from this position five years into King Abdullah’s reign in apparent disregard for King Hussein’s dying wish.
For the moment, these discontents pose little immediate threat to King Abdullah II. There are as yet no public fissures among the Hashemites, and Hamza has carefully distanced himself from active involvement in politics. However, there were hints of half-baked intrigue by a handful of his mother’s acolytes during the early phases of the current crisis. Beyond the Palace circle and the royal family, the King’s position has been secured by the deftness with which his security forces have contained the current hirak, and divided or isolated its different wings. Generous financial support (or at least lavish promises of aid) from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have also allowed King Abdullah II to placate public sector workers and army veterans with salary increases and bonuses. While conciliating popular demands with ad hoc grants or promises of political and constitutional reform, the Palace has been able to play on deep-seated differences between the Islamist and Trans-Jordanian nationalist wings of the opposition. Ranging from disputes over the priority and sequencing of reform to Amman’s relationship to the Palestinian territories and the West Bank, these divisions reveal deep-seated disagreements over Jordan’s national identity and conflict over the boundaries of its political community.
Trans-Jordanian nativism still looms large in the national imagination of East Bank activists. A considerable number seem to have drawn inspiration from the call issued in May 2010 by the National Committee of the Retired Servicemen’s Association for legal or constitutional disengagement from the West Bank, and an end to the “soft transfer” of Palestinians across the Jordan River. Beyond apprehension at the prospect of al-watan al-badil (the alternative homeland) however, East Bank priorities are socio-economic rather than political. Their demands revolve around a more dirigiste alternative to neoliberal reform and a development policy that preserves the public sector and diverts wealth and resources from Amman. Both the Retired Servicemen and the hirak’s local coordination committees have supported calls for a return to the 1952 constitution. However, it should be noted that political reform is seen as a means to an end: tackling the high level corruption seen to lie behind Jordan’s current economic problems; undermining the Amman-based cabals that colluded in the underdevelopment of the hinterlands; and–above all–curbing the perceived influence of Queen Rania. Indeed, the 1 May 2010 manifesto warned that monarchical power could only be exercised legitimately through a cabinet mandated by parliament, asserting explicitly that the King’s prerogatives could not be transferred to his relatives.
By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood has historically been predominantly Palestinian in composition, and pan-Islamic in aspirations and strategy. The Hamas oriented “hawks” who now dominate its leadership (many of them, ironically enough, East Bankers) are heavily invested in the intra-Palestinian struggle with Fatah, and in the rivalry between the internal and external wings of the Islamist movement. They in effect view the East Bank as an Islamic thaghr or fortress, a secure refuge to which the movement can retreat if the pressure in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) grows too intense, or in the event of a long-term truce with the Jewish state. Therefore, the Brotherhood has rejected disengagement from the West Bank for strategic and organizational reasons (the latter a function of overlaps in institutions and personnel with Hamas in the Palestinian areas). In May 2010 it lent its weight to a motley “pan-Jordanian” coalition mustered by former prime minister and mukhabarat head Ahmad `Ubaydat. Islamists, pan-Arabists, communists, former members of the PFLP and the DFLP, as well as former ministers and supporters of the Wadi Arabah Accord lent their support to a petition that tried to counter the Retired Servicemen’s call for disengagement with assertions about the indissoluble unity of the two banks
On the domestic front, the Brotherhood and the IAF have prioritized political rather than economic change. The past two years have seen them collaborate with both `Awn al-Khasawneh and `Ubaydat’s “National Salvation Front” in pursuit of reforms that would produce a prime minister appointed by parliamentary majority and replace the SNTV with an electoral law that reflects the weight of the Islamists’ urban voting blocs. At the time of writing, the IAF (and its allies in the political party opposition) plan to boycott the parliamentary elections scheduled for November/December of 2012. This is despite the good offices of Khalid Mish`al, and the fact that King Abdullah II intervened personally after the latter’s recent visit to Amman to dilute the “one man, one vote” formula. Provisions for a limited national list had already been appended to the draft electoral law sent for parliamentary approval by the new cabinet of Fayez al-Tarawneh. Upon the King’s intervention, its numbers were raised from fifteen to twenty-seven parliamentarians out of a total of 140. However, this proportion was still seen by the Islamists and their supporters (as well as by most with a progressive opinion) as too low to offset the basic SNTV formula.
The consternation in regime circles after the Islamists and their allies announced their planned boycott (cabinet leaks spoke of some ministers–including Prime Minister Tarawnah–advocating the use of the escalating crisis in Syria as an excuse to impose martial law) is a sure sign that King Abdullah’s position is less comfortable in the long or even the medium term. Given Jordan’s parlous public finances and yawning external deficit, an economic crisis that undermines the state welfare system—which guarantees East Bank loyalties—cannot be discounted. This would give renewed impetus to the hirak, and fuel protests by public sector workers and army veterans at a time when the Palace has done little to meet popular demands on disengagement, corruption, or economic restructuring. King Abdullah II is widely seen to have missed the chance to involve the opposition in meaningful political reform, and his room for maneuver in the space between the two communal blocs is in any case narrowing. Brotherhood successes in the elections for the new teacher’s union, the increasing prominence of its supporters in hirak coordination committees (as in al-Tafilah, Hayy al-Tafaylah in central Amman, al-Salt, Jarash, `Ajlun, and al-Shawbak), as well the care that Khalid Mish`al took to distance Hamas from schemes for an alternative homeland, are all signs that Islamists are finally seeking a base in the Trans-Jordanian heartlands. With the tide of regional events running in their favor, the danger for King Abdullah II is that they will find East Bank nationalists as well as regime defectors–Khasawnah and `Ubaydat are the most obvious candidates–willing to collaborate in building the kind of supra-communal coalition that confronted King Hussein during the high tide of Arab radicalism.
ZA: Much of the analysis on Jordanian politics has focused on movements and personalities based in Amman. What is your sense of the politico-economic mobilizations that have characterized regions outside the capital city, such as the south, both prior to the Arab uprisings and since? How can analysts better integrate the dynamics of popular mobilization in these regions into narratives about contemporary politics in Jordan?
TT: Until the late 1980s, Jordan’s Hashemite kings loomed larger than its people in the scholarly imagination, and most work on the country focused on its role in regional politics and the Question of Palestine. This focus encouraged concentration on high politics and the state, with a corresponding neglect of societal actors and local context. At least in political science, the upsurge in interest in “political liberalization” and structural adjustment during the 1990s failed to bring about a real shift in focus. Research remained fixated on formal politics and the dance of the elites in Amman. Prime attention was given to parliament and the press, organized political parties (the Muslim Brotherhood and the IAF in particular), elections and electoral laws, professional associations or business organizations, and the political economy of privatization and trade reform. Even researchers who began to work on social movements concentrated (at least in their published work) on demonstrations organized by the traditional opposition on such issues as Iraq or Palestine. Only passing attention was given to the contentious politics of the East Bank hinterlands, despite widespread recognition that it was Hayyat Nisan that had set in motion the regime’s fitful experiment in “democratic reform.” Matters were compounded during the current hirak by a media bias–Arab as well as Western, with Al Jazeera being the chief culprit–that tended to give prime coverage to demonstrations or sit-ins with an Islamist component, while neglecting those mounted by the Trans-Jordanian nationalist opposition.
Having said this, we should also admit to significant counter-examples. There has always been some political research–most often European rather than Anglo-Saxon—that has looked beyond west Amman. Indeed, two young scholars whose doctoral work focused on Ma`an and Tafilah have written cogently on the present hirak. Even North American political scientists have begun to show an interest in municipal government and the building blocks of local politics, notably the kin groups deployed since 1989 to fill the gaps left by the retreat of state welfare. This necessarily brings engagement with a longstanding tradition of anthropological research, pioneered by the late Richard Antoun in al-Kura, and amplified by the work of the Faculty (in its heyday the Institute) of Anthropology and Archaeology in Yarmuk. These local studies can now be given historical depth, thanks to a sea change in the writing of Jordanian history. Over the last two decades, there has been a shift from ruler to ruled, and from high politics to socio-economic change. This process has thrown new light on the social support of Hashemite power, and the dynamics of contentious politics ranging from the broad Pan-Arab mobilization led by the “Jordanian National Movement” in the 1950s, through the oppositional current that culminated in the five Jordanian National Congresses held between 1929-1933, to such popular uprisings as the `Adwan-led Harakat al-Balqa’ in 1923 and the Karak Revolt of 1911. All of these episodes, it should be stressed, loom large in the symbolic universe of the activists who lead the ongoing hirak.
My own sense of the politico-economic mobilizations outside Amman draws on these countervailing trends in the study of Jordan. Most pundits first took notice of the upsurge in street politics during the nine consecutive weeks of protest that culminated in the regime crackdown of 25 March 2012. However, I would argue that the ferment in Jordan pre-dated the “Arab Spring,” and was underway well before Islamists took to the streets in earnest in the winter of 2011. Popular mobilization began with a strike by port workers in Aqaba in late 2009, and escalated as government teachers and day workers began to agitate for a national union and better working conditions the following spring. The process was given an overtly nationalist-political slant by the intervention of the ex-servicemen (in my opinion, almost certainly egged on by disgruntled sections of the East Bank elite, locked in struggle with neoliberals close to the Palace). The 1 May 2012 manifesto, and subsequent papers on the economy and defense, galvanized Jordanian politics, particularly after the Retired Servicemen’s National Committee endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood’s call for a boycott of the November 2010 elections. In January 2011, the military veterans spearheaded multiple demonstrations (on some estimates they involved up to 30,000 activists) that drove Prime Minister Samir al-Rifa`i from office. Ironically, this occurred only weeks after the new parliament had al-Rifa`i him a record vote of confidence. Coming at the same time that a revolutionary wave was sweeping eastwards from Tunisia, the hasty change of government gave new impetus to the street, and set in motion the “reform” process that King Abdullah II and his advisors hope will culminate in stabilizing parliamentary elections before the end of 2012.
The current hirak was in its initial phases predominantly Trans-Jordanian. Even after the spring of 2011 it has been at its most potent in the developmentally marginalized governorates of the South, `Ajlun, and the North East. Therefore I would argue that the overall pattern of the unrest in Jordan during 2010-2012 can be most usefully understood in terms of the shifting patterns of political contention first advertised by Hayyat Nisan. As in 1989, the current wave was, for the most part, socio-economic rather than political in motivation. People took to the streets in anger at the uneven distribution of the fruits of development, driven by a sense that historic rights and entitlements were being eroded by structural adjustment. However, and in contrast to 1989, neoliberal reform was now the policy of choice for the Palace, rather than a necessary expedient imposed by the IMF. Privatization was pushed further by King Abdullah II, who also began to reconfigure the armed forces, downsizing artillery and armor in favor of units geared to peacekeeping, internal security, and asymmetric warfare. This aligned the interests of the military (and, in particular, the retired servicemen displaced by the process) with those of public employees threatened by the restructuring of the state sector. Coming at a time when fixed incomes were being squeezed—by the inflationary (but for Jordanians largely jobless) boom that followed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and by the 2008 food and commodity price spike–the result was an escalation in the scale and intensity of the “troubles in the East Bank hinterlands.” Moreover this occurred when the ongoing struggle between the Palace-supported neoliberal faction and the Trans-Jordanian “old guard,” as well as the steady alienation of the Brotherhood from an electoral process distorted by SNTV, had thrown up powerful interests ready to usher a once localized ‘moral economy of protest’ onto the national stage.
Jordan’s fragmented political field, the tact with which King Abdullah’s security forces handled the ferment, and perhaps the practical difficulties of mobilizing large bodies of protesters in a sprawling de-centered city such as Amman, ensured that the hirak failed to achieve the sustained levels of mobilization seen elsewhere in the region during the “Arab Spring.” After peaking in the winter of 2011, collective action settled down to a pattern of regular Friday demonstrations, a few hundred to one-thousand strong at most, spread across multiple sites ranging from al-Tafilah and al-Karak in the south, through Dhiban in the Bani Hamidah district, to al-Mafraq, Irbid, and central Amman. The movement failed to generate a unified leadership, taking its direction instead from local coordination committees (tansiqiyyat) bound together by loose networks of (mostly young) activists who communicated by social media and electronic news sites or bulletin boards. These quasi-institutionalized protests went hand in hand with a wave of spontaneous strikes and street actions (more than four thousand were recorded in 2011 alone) that raised a welter of economic demands, ranging from higher wages and the restoration of worker’s rights forfeited during privatization through the creation of new municipalities in the hinterlands to the return of “tribal’ lands appropriated by the state or the Amman elite.
Many commentators view the escalating slogans of the hirak as indicative of change that goes beyond the modest scale of the weekly demonstrations. Left-leaning East Bank nationalists speak of a Gramscian shift (istibdal tamawdu`) that has breached the glass ceiling that protected the monarchy from criticism and is sundering the hegemonic bonds that tie Trans-Jordanians to the throne. The rash of wildcat protests highlights another significant process: the spillover into the public sphere of a subterranean current of resistance that has proceeded in tandem with (and, in some cases, even preceded) the troubles in the hinterlands. Involving subaltern actors from both sides of the communal divide, it is marked by a resort to the “weapons of the weak,” including pilfering and sabotage (in particular the theft of electricity and water after privatization raised their tariffs), popular humor and gossip about misdeeds in high places, or the spread of subversive rumors by means of a tradition of pamphleteering that is now migrating to the electronic media. These strategies stretch further to include “collective non-compliance” with official designations of landed property and a “quiet encroachment” by bureaucratic mafias (often bound by the bonds of trust fostered by common kinship or locality) on the lower rungs of the state apparatus. With the erosion of state support systems and the accompanying decline in real incomes, these methods have also spilled over into criminality–a pattern of racketeering, smuggling, and at times outright banditry (unfortunately for the most part asocial) that has created twelve or more security “black spots” (bu’arr amniyyah) in Eastern Amman and such “tribal” centers as al-Lubban and al-Shunah al-Junubiyyah.
In order to take the full measure of these parallel prongs of the Jordanian hirak, I would argue that a disciplinary shift is needed, from an elitist political science fixated on formal politics to a populist political anthropology that lays bare the everyday survival strategies of ordinary Jordanians. Hopefully, it would be one informed by the new social history of Jordan. This can reveal the enduring power structures and institutions within which these subaltern strategies are pursued. Analysts have to attune themselves to the micro-politics of popular resistance as well as the sloganeering of the tansiqiyyat. This does not simply entail looking beyond Amman, or un-packaging the localized political economies of the troubled hinterlands. It also requires a shift of focus—from formal to informal politics, from the articulate English speaking salons of western Amman and the offices of organized political parties to clan guest houses, mosques, and sports clubs in the small towns of the South, Jabal `Ajlun, and the Northeast. Working in such venues, researchers can tease out the attitudes and ideologies laid bare during meetings for tribal conflict resolution, festivity, condolence, or commemoration. It is these often “hidden transcripts” that have been the drivers of a broad spectrum of popular protest— ranging from the hidden “atomistic” activity geared to earning a living wage to the organized demonstrations and public purposive collective action that has hogged the limelight during the current hirak.
A final step is needed in order to integrate the mode of analysis suggested above into the larger narrative of Jordanian politics. The historical and anthropological approach being advocated here has to be brought back from the hinterlands and used to elucidate the political sociology of the largely Palestinian population of Eastern “Greater Amman” and central Irbid, as well as the political economy of the small enterprise sector that sustains them. Key questions here will concern the factors that kept the vast majority of this group back from the fray during the last two years, and the fate of the traditions of popular resistance that took them into the street so regularly during the 1950s and 1960s. Answering such queries will allow us to form a better view of the future prospects of the hirak and, in particular, whether it will spill out of the hinterlands and achieve the levels of popular engagement seen elsewhere during the “Arab Spring,” and in Jordan during the high tide of mid-twentieth-century Arab radicalism.
[This post is the second installement in a two-part interview. Click here to read Part 1.]