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Islamist dilemma confronts Jordan

An election official tallies votes in Amman on Tuesday.

By Osama Al Sharif | Gulf News | 11 Jan 2012

Government's inability to find common ground with political opposition on the nature and pace of reforms is sowing the seeds for civil unrest.

The pro-reform movement in Jordan, a loose coalition of opposition parties, professional unions and youth groups, celebrated one year of popular protests and sit-ins last week, but there wasn’t much to celebrate. In spite of recent royal assurances that political reforms are on track, most Islamist and secular leaders of the pro-reform movement disagree.

In their view, successive governments, including that of Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh, which took over more than two months ago, have failed to accommodate the street’s main demand; regime reform that would allow for elected governments to be chosen by the people.

Jordan has been affected by the winds of the Arab Spring early on. The first demonstrations took place in a small southern town of Thiban, almost a year ago, composed largely of politically unaffiliated youth who were unemployed and frustrated with the lack of political and economic reforms. They were soon joined by opposition parties, including supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But when under the banner of the 24 March movement, hundreds of youth demanding the implementation of a constitutional monarchy in Jordan staged a sit-in at the Jamal Abdul Nasser (Ministry of Interior) Square and clashed with pro-regime supporters, resulting in them being forced out of the square, the nature of protests changed.

One man died in the melee. It was to be a turning point in the direction of the pro-reform movement. The coalition of opposition parties organised protests every Friday in downtown Amman and in other towns and districts of the kingdom. The main slogans called for urgent political reforms and an end to what they saw as widespread official corruption.

Thus Jordan became part of the seismic political wave that was sweeping across the region, but overall it has managed to keep its demands restricted to regime reform, thus avoiding a recurrence of what took place in Tunisia and Egypt.

Jordan’s Arab Spring is a unique one. For starters, King Abdullah II was quick to recognise the legitimacy of public demands. He followed his words with action by forming a royal commission to review the constitution and asking the previous government to engage in a broad dialogue with an all-inclusive committee representing the kingdom’s political parties and opposition figures.

The Islamists declined an invitation. They insisted on guarantees that included recognition of their main demand that future governments will be elected and that certain royal prerogatives be transferred to the executive and legislative bodies.

The Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), took to the streets both as a show of strength and to send a message that they will not be party to half baked reforms that fall short of their main demands. Jordan Islamists have been allied to the regime since the 1950s, and when political parties were banned in the early 1960s, the Brotherhood continued to perform as a charitable organisation.

It was in 1989, when parliamentary life was restored, that they were allowed to contest new elections, winning more than 25 per cent of the Lower House and presenting themselves as a power to reckon with. They briefly joined the short-lived government of Mudar Badran in 1991. Since then they had contested four more elections, but complained that the government has enacted a new election law only to limit their representation in parliament. Insisting that the election law was unfair to them they boycotted the last two legislative elections.

There is no doubt that Jordan’s Islamists remain the most organised and popular political power on the scene. For years they were ignored by the higher decision-making centres; the palace and the security department. But the Arab Spring has changed that policy.

Even though they chose to boycott the National Dialogue Committee and criticised its recommendations, Khasawneh decided to appease them. He has met their leaders, in addition to the head of a secular pro-reform bloc led by former prime minister Ahmad Obiedat. In return for making some concessions to them — they were recently given back control of a major charitable organisation — the Islamists promised to give the new government time to deliver on its promises of enacting reform demands.

Khasawneh, a former international jurist and an outsider to the political circles, has vowed to wage war against corruption while making sure that his government enjoys full sovereignty and independence in the public domain. He has praised recent constitutional amendments but declared that he is not bound to the recommendations of the National Dialogue Committee, especially with regard to the highly controversial election law.

But the Islamists are now complaining that Khasawneh’s government is not moving fast enough. They have resumed their weekly demonstrations and few weeks ago suffered a setback when tribesmen in the northern governorate of Mafraq aborted their sit-in and later ransacked the IAF’s headquarters. The Islamists accused security forces of allowing the attack to take place and failing to arrest the culprits. The following week they staged a huge demonstration in downtown Amman which included a paramilitary parade. In response, deputies and the government controlled press launched a vehement attack on the Brotherhood accusing them of threatening public order and inviting militancy.

As things stand now, Brotherhood hawks are taking the lead in attacking the government, while keeping to their minimum demands, while political figures, representing the tribes, are waging a war of words on the Islamists. It is not clear if the Khasawneh government is still in control or if has lost the momentum to the security apparatus.

Jordan’s Arab Spring has taken a different route. There is a feeling that the palace, while committed to political reforms, believes the main problem is economic. The Islamists, on the other hand, are under public pressure as the mainstream press, and pro-regime deputies, attempt to demonise them. The Khasawneh government is yet to take a stand amid a growing feeling that if it fails the country could be pushed into a downward spiral.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.



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