Jordan Plays Defense: Will it Be Enough?

King Abdullah II: Can he play defense?

Talk of the wave of change sweeping the Arab world sometimes makes it sound as though every country in the region has experienced seismic political upheaval.  Many haven’t, including Jordan.  But according to a recent New York Times article, the small kingdom’s peace may be short-lived.  The reasons for popular restlessness should by now be clear; the question, in Jordan’s case, is why nothing happened sooner.

In 1998, Glenn E. Robinson described the forethought and skill displayed by the Jordanian monarchy in pursuing a strategy of defensive democratization: “The regime undertook sufficient reform to ensure its political longevity, but without altering the core structures of power in Jordan.”  What was this reform, and will it see the monarchy through the Arab Spring?

Jordan is unique in several respects.  Its monarchy comes from the once-powerful Arabian Hashemite clan, ousted by the Saudis; it lacks the capacity to exploit much of its energy resources, unlike other Arab monarchies; it has made peace with Israel, despite the many “West Bank Palestinians” it hosts; and it is a staunch American ally.  It also lacks the epochal cities of which other Arab states can boast: Marrakesh, Aleppo, Baghdad, Cairo, Jeddah, Beirut.  Jordan is also smaller than any of the states that have thus far shown their rulers the door (none of which are monarchies); it has 60% of Tunisia’s population, and less than a third of Syria’s or Yemen’s, and less than a tenth of teeming Egypt’s.  Jordan’s population (6.3 million, 2.5 million of whom live in Amman) is smaller even than Israel’s.

Jordan’s small, tribal (yet urban and educated) population, lack of clear geographic or economic nerve centers, and U.S. backing may help explain the durability of its monarchy.  But the Hashemites have been anticipating, outpacing, and pre-empting liberalizing forces in Jordan for decades.  To them, the Arab Spring is just another season.

In 1970, Jordan crushed the PLO and drove it into Lebanon in what became known as “Black September” or, as the government poetically remembers it, “the era of regrettable events.”  Since then, however, its style has been more subtle.  Like the Egyptian regime, King Hussein tolerated the Muslim Brotherhood as an anti-leftist bulwark while banning other political parties and suspending parliamentary sessions.  Thus began a show of pluralism which ultimately strengthened the monarchy.

Parliament was reconvened in response to unrest in 1989 stemming from the decline of aid transfers from rich Arab neighbors, which had paid for subsidies and welfare programs Jordanians had come to depend on.  King Hussein’s call for elections may seem more like “reactive” than “defensive” democratization, but it pre-empted calls for systemic, regime-level change and created a new arena in which political energy could be expended, full of new targets at which to direct it.  In 1992, the King had a National Charter written, and new elections were held in 1993.

More recently, King Abdallah II (Hussein’s son and Jordan’s fourth Hashemite king) has granted still more concessions: prominent political figures and businessmen are on trial, and key subsidies remain untouched.  Also, Jordanians have witnessed the turmoil in Iraq and the bloodshed in Syria.  Not everyone wants to rock the boat.

Still, calls for systemic change are more audible than in recent memory.  “Our main purpose is to return authority to the people and to have a monarchy similar to that in Britain, a constitutional monarchy,” said a former Parliament member at a recent anti-regime protest in Karak, long a regime stronghold.

Can the monarchy last?  Can it oversee a peaceful transition to democracy?  The Hashemites have played this game skillfully, without some of the benefits other monarchies enjoy.  But the people are saying things they have never said before.

Update: My friend Jason Stern hears similar rumblings in Jordan.

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