Apr 26, 2012 | 13:02 GMT

7 mins read

Jordan: Caught Between the Muslim Brotherhood and the East Bankers


A pro-regime faction tabled a bill in the Jordanian parliament April 17 to outlaw parties based on religion — a veiled attempt to ban the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Forty-six of 83 lawmakers voted to add the item to the country's draft political parties law.

Despite appearances, deliberations over this bill do not mean the regime is engaged in a zero-sum game with the MB. Instead, the threat to ban the MB is part of an intensifying bargain between the Hashemite regime and the MB as the monarchy tries to manage the country's simmering unrest. Amman wants the Islamist movement to stop exploiting the unrest to reverse the changes made to Jordan's electoral laws over the past two decades, which have prevented the MB from realizing its true electoral potential. The regime has several tools it can use to manage the MB and the overall unrest, but its bargaining position could weaken.

Since the MB's inception in the late 1940s, the Hashemites and the MB have had a strong working relationship. The monarchy and the MB aligned in the 1950s and 1960s to contain Nasserite and leftist forces, and the MB remained loyal to the monarchy in the 1970-1971 civil war between national armed forces and Palestine Liberation Organization militiamen. Through much of the 1970s and 1980s, political parties were banned in Jordan, but the MB was allowed to operate as a registered charity.

The turning point was the 1989 parliamentary elections (the first one held after 1967 and as part of a major political liberalization initiative), in which members of the MB won 22 of the 80 seats in the lower house, becoming the single largest bloc in parliament. Emboldened by its electoral success, the MB pushed for greater authority for parliament, and it strongly opposed the state on several foreign policy issues, especially Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

To contain the MB, in the early 1990s the regime changed the electoral law so that redistricting made it increasingly difficult for the urban-based Islamist movement to sustain its presence in parliament. As a result, in the 1993 vote, the MB — which had formed the IAF after the 1992 legalization of political parties — won just 16 seats. The MB and IAF, along with liberal and leftist groups, boycotted the 1997 elections after the regime failed to heed their demand to revise the electoral law. Five years later, the IAF negotiated with the monarchy about its participation in the elections, fielding only 30 candidates for parliament despite 30 additional seats created by a new electoral law. The IAF won only 18 seats. The 2007 elections were worse for the Islamists, because they won only seven seats after the regime, reacting to the 2006 rise of Hamas, cracked down on the MB's civil society institutions. The MB boycotted the 2010 elections after the government adopted a redistricting plan that allowed the minority rural East Bank tribal people to take as much as 85 percent of the seats.

Trouble Among the East Bankers

Due to regional unrest that began in early 2011, Jordan's monarchy has been forced to change strategy. It remains fearful that the MB could strengthen because of the momentum like-minded Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria have gained in making political advances, and thus the regime wants to check any potential gains the MB could make. More important, though, the palace needs to address its significantly weakening support from its traditional power base, the East Bankers. The decline in support from the tribal East Bankers is threatening Jordan's foundation.

The East Bankers' resentment toward the regime has been building since shortly after King Abdullah II's ascension to the throne in 1999 and his move toward liberalization. The largely rural-based East Bankers, who make up roughly 40 percent of Jordan's population, have long dominated the country's public sector, security forces, civilian bureaucracy and other areas of public life. Over the years, though, the East Bankers' position has declined due to losses in the agricultural sector, reduced public spending, privatization of state-owned enterprises and corruption.

The East Bankers have continued to dominate the legislature, but this has not offset their concerns about a loss of position due to what they see as the Palestinian majority increasingly gaining privileges at their expense. Jordanian citizens of Palestinian descent have, over the decades, embedded themselves in Jordanian mainstream life, focusing on settling in urban areas (especially Amman) and eventually taking over a large portion of the private sector. This, along with the king's marriage into a family of Palestinian origin, has given the Palestinian-Jordanians more influence.

The MB-Hashemite-East Banker Dynamic

In many ways, the tribal discontent converges with the MB's grievances with the state. The East Bankers and the MB both oppose the way in which the monarchy has disenfranchised them. Further, a sizeable portion of the MB leadership is from the tribes. Most of the MB's core, however, is in the urban areas, and this is the basis for the two camps' divergence on how to address the problems of governance. The MB wants a level playing field in terms of electoral laws, which would mean scaling back tribal strength in the lower house. The tribes, meanwhile, see the monarchy's alignment with Palestinian-Jordanians (who are also urban dwellers) as a major problem.

The king needs to balance the East Bankers and citizens of Palestinian descent, especially given the unrest among the East Bankers. The MB's membership and constituency contain a large component of Jordanian nationals with Palestinian backgrounds. Thus, despite their points of contention, the regime and the MB have some shared interests regarding the East Bankers. Both need to align with the East Bankers, but the Islamists want to use the tribal-driven unrest to exact concessions from the monarchy.

Unlike demonstrations in other countries in the region, the protests in Jordan have been small. Rallies of more than 5,000 people have been rare, while many demonstrations have been staged by a couple of hundred protesters. For the most part, the East Banker protests have occurred in rural areas, but they have remained steady and widespread. There is a growing trend toward publicly insulting the king and his wife, Queen Rania — something unheard of until recently. With a few exceptions in which pro-government attackers targeted demonstrations in Amman and villages in the south, the approach toward the unrest has been largely passive. Only one protester has reportedly died during more than a year of agitation — a sharp contrast to what has happened in every other Arab country that has experienced public uprising.

The MB and East Banker protests have overlapped to a degree, but the MB did not join the protests until after the king appointed Marouf al-Bakhit as prime minister in early February 2011. This likely was the trigger for the Islamists, since they had some bitter experiences with al-Bakhit in 2006, during his first stint as prime minister from 2005 to 2007.

The Next Steps

Although the Hashemites take comfort in the fact that the unrest is not growing — at least not yet — they cannot ignore its persistence and the growing resentment toward the monarchy. This is why the palace wants to align with the MB. Former Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh, who resigned April 26, returned control late last year of the Islamic Center Charity Society, a major charity the government took over in a 2006 crackdown, to the MB. The Islamist movement reciprocated by scaling back its participation in protests but rejecting an offer to join the government.

Furthermore, the MB is still boycotting elections until the government reverses the redistricting that prevented the Islamists from securing a number of seats in parliament commensurate with its social capital. This is likely why the state encouraged the move to outlaw parties based on religion — to undermine the Islamists' position of relative strength. The Hashemites might be willing to make concessions, as was the case ahead of the 2003 elections when the palace allowed a substantial number of the Islamist members of parliament to be of Palestinian origin.

However, there are two factors limiting how much the regime can give. First, although the government needs the country's most organized political force to avoid the general uprising, it needs to make sure the MB does not become a threat in parliament where, if it has a significant presence, it can align with other forces to demand greater powers for the legislature, especially the authority to appoint a prime minister. Second, if it gives too much to the MB, the palace risks further alienating the East Bankers. 

Given the MB's strategy rooted in pragmatism and gradualism and the regime's tradition of bargaining with the Islamists, a deal is likely to be made that will satisfy both the MB and the monarchy. The two sides' differing reasons for working with the East Bankers — the regime needs to contain the unrest while the MB wants to use it to shape the monarchy's behavior — mean that any deal between the MB and the monarchy will be the beginning of a long-term renegotiation of the terms of their relationship. The regime is not yet on the defensive, but over time its bargaining power is likely to weaken, as it needs to make concessions to both the MB and the East Bankers, and the two opposition forces will be playing off one another. 

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