Jordan currently ranks among the highest recipients of US foreign aid worldwide, both in absolute terms and particularly so on a per capita basis. Besides military and economic support, Jordan has over the past years also been the target of a whole plethora of US democracy-promotion interventions. As a result, there are probably only a few Jordanian state institutions that have not in one way or another been the target of external attempts at some form of capacity building and institutional engineering. Those that have include ministries, courts, the parliament, the Independent Electoral Commission, and several political parties. Given the substantial amount of US funding for such projects, and recurrent claims that Jordan has supposedly been undergoing a process of gradual “political liberalization” since 1989, one cannot but wonder what exactly alleged US democracy promoters are actually doing when “promoting democracy” in the country.
The recent country-wide protests against the income tax draft law and subsidies cuts as well as in favor of more meaningful participation in political and economic decision-making processes provide another opportunity to reflect on US-funded initiatives and their questionable effects on political activism in the country. Comparing US attempts at alleged democracy promotion with the recent protests highlights important differences in both approaches and the key actors. In fact, such comparison reveals the extent to which many US-funded programs in the country are about the disciplining of democratic demands and shaping them such that they become compatible with existing authoritarian power structures. This is an important factor in explaining how the recent protests were led in-part (and at least initially) by what is perhaps the only major established political institutions in the country that have thus far remained immune from external assistance: Jordan’s professional associations.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) is perhaps the most prominent US institution in Jordan vis-à-vis the domain of “democracy promotion.” In 2012-13, NDI’s Jordan Office had a total of fifty-seven full-time employees and, according to one employee, was running on an annual budget of fourteen million US dollars. NDI Jordan’s flagship program is its youth political participation program, which it established in late 2011 seemingly in direct response to the country-wide (and regional) protests of that year. NDI itself considers the program “one of the largest and most successful NDI programs in the Middle East.” At its core are the Ana Usharek and Ana Usharek + (Arabic for “I participate”) initiatives, under which thus far over thirty thousand students have been trained at twenty-eight Jordanian universities. The courses effectively provide participating students with what NDI considers basic information on democracy, human rights, elections, and political parties, as well as with technical assistance in implementing advocacy campaigns.
According to NDI, “Ana Usharek students are able to gain skills for conducting meaningful and respectful debates with their peers, helping them to become active citizens who participate in the political process.” The rather questionable assumption behind NDI’s program is that processes of democratization in Jordan can be encouraged via more education about democracy and via more participation in the existing regime-controlled political processes and institutions. Most of the campaigns supported by the program actually depoliticize questions of democratization and center on very specific issues such as fighting communal violence, establishing a school newspaper, developing a mobile phone application to raise youth awareness on Jordan’s constitution, and so forth. Some campaigns have been organized with the direct support of state institutions, such as the King Abdullah II Fund for Development (KAFD), for which the recently appointed Prime Minister Omar Razzaz worked as chair of the board of trustees between 2012 and 2014. Ultimately, campaigns as such only help the regime in portraying itself as a democratizing force and in shifting blame for authoritarianism onto Jordanians’ supposedly inadequate political culture and recalcitrant nature. Since 2013, KAFD has for instance ironically been running its own democracy empowerment program called Dimuqraṭiy. Jordanian universities are one of the most monitored and controlled public spaces in the country, and have historically been infiltrated by the security services. An interviewed NDI Jordan official, however, refused to see the stifling of speech and participation via—for instance—the many restrictions that go along with Jordanian Armed Forces and Royal Court scholarship programs as in any meaningful way limiting the effect of NDI’s programs. Such an approach stands in contrast to the reality that protestors at the March 2011 sit-in at the Ministry of Interior directly spoke out against such practices. Yet the topic seemed of no major concern to NDI Jordan staff.
Turning Authoritarianism into A Matter of Culture
After Jordan’s 2013 parliamentary elections, one non-Jordanian NDI employee was genuinely annoyed when he explained to me that some of his Jordanian staff had—due to the marginal importance of Jordan’s parliament—decided to boycott the elections: “You know this is the twenty-first century. Do not give me that bullshit . . . Nobody gives you democracy. You have to win it. You have to fight for it . . . Whenever people complain, they just complain because they just want to sit [at] home . . . and watch TV and want democracy to somehow give birth to itself.” Clearly, viewing the boycott as an intentional and politically astute decision vis-à-vis the relevance of electoral procedures and representative institutions in the country did not cross this NDI staffer’s mind. Such disdain is not unique within that milieu.
With stability maintenance as the overarching objective of US foreign policy toward Jordan, US-funded democracy promotion programs in the country are first and foremost about the disciplining of Jordanians’ democratic demands. Or, in the words of the already earlier quoted NDI employee: “If the only tool they know is protests and street violence, then I do not have high hopes for this country . . . because sooner or later . . . you are going to have a critical mass on the streets and that is it: a new revolution, which is not always bad; but there are better ways to do this transition to democracy.”
Pursuing such “better ways,” democracy promoters try hard to channel public discontent into more easily manageable forms, such as into NDI’s above-described programs. This effectively occurs via an implicit two-step logic that first renders invisible Jordan’s deeply authoritarian system of rule and then locates the cause of a “democracy deficit” in an alleged authoritarian culture of the population. The project of democracy promotion in Jordan is therefore not about challenging authoritarian institutional arrangements, but instead about training Jordanians, who are supposedly too apathetic and/or ignorant about democracy. Eberhard Kienle once noted that “there is no empirical evidence that the dissemination of values and norms actually contributes to democratization.” It would seem that it nevertheless importantly allows for the portrayal of democratization as still requiring a lot of external assistance, training, and “longer-term efforts beyond a five-year program,” as remarked in a recent NDI youth political participation programming guide.
Reproducing Authoritarianism behind a Façade of Democratization
Most Jordanian political activists are highly aware of the ways in which external democracy promoters help reproduce Jordanian authoritarianism behind a façade of democratization. Regime loyalists and sympathizers make constant talk of the alleged danger of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood “hijacking” protests and other mobilizations. Yet it is arguably the case that such a danger very much exists in the case of US democracy-promoting organizations. In fact, some deem not allowing for this latter danger to be a regrettable dynamic. As one staffer lamented during a late-2012 interview: the hirak had made “themselves immune from assistance.”
While the two most recent aid packages announced by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar will help alleviate the immediate fiscal crisis in Jordan, they of course fail to address Jordan’s uneven and unequal integration into the world economy and the regime’s decisions therein as the root cause behind the country’s chronic budget deficit. Somewhat similarly, US democracy promotion in Jordan should be seen as a deliberate attempt at disciplining popular demands for more representation and participation, without however challenging the deeply authoritarian structures of power that shape Jordanian politics. It is for good reasons that whenever large-scale protests against the Jordanian regime take place they are organized by those Jordanian groups, organizations, and institutions that are ignored by US democracy promoters and/or that resist external efforts at democracy promotion. The very purpose of US democracy promotion in Jordan is not to stand up for democratic ideals and confront authoritarian power structures in the country, but instead to discipline popular demands for representation and participation and make them seemingly compatible with authoritarianism.
 For an analysis of US and European attempts at parliamentary strengthening see Benjamin Schuetze, “Marketing Parliament: The Constitutive Effects of External Attempts at Parliamentary Strengthening in Jordan,” Cooperation and Conflict 53, no. 2, 237-58.
 See for instance Curtis Ryan, “Jordan’s Unfinished Journey: Parliamentary Elections and the State of Reform,” POMED policy brief (March 2013).
 NDI and USAID, “Ana Usharek–Empowering youth at Jordanian universities to play an informed role in Jordan’s political & decision-making processes,” Newsletter 6 (December 2014), 2.
 NDI and USAID, “Ana Usharek–Empowering youth at Jordanian universities to play an informed role in Jordan’s political & decision-making processes,” Newsletter 5 (April 2014), 6-7.
 Interview with F, democracy promoter working in Jordan, Amman, 29 January 2013.
 Interview with F, democracy promoter working in Jordan, Amman, 29 January 2013.
 Daoud Kuttab, “Islamists Boycott Fails in Jordan’s Elections,” Huffington Post, 24 January 2013.
 Eberhard Kienle, “Democracy Promotion and the Renewal of Authoritarian Rule,” in Debating Arab Authoritarianism, edited by Oliver Schlumberger, 239.
 Interview with T, democracy promoter working in Jordan, Amman, 21 November 2012.