How Jordan’s King Hangs On
The monarch studied the Arab Spring and created a savvy plan to quell demonstrators without mass violence
Most protesters today hail, paradoxically, from Amman’s traditional Bedouin power base. Their dependence on state jobs and disenfranchisement from the Palestinian-dominated economy make them more vulnerable to the corrosive impact of elite corruption. But they are a minority in the country. Among them, supporters of the king outnumber opponents. And even among the king’s opponents, as the New York Times has noted, many still support the monarchy as an institution but prefer that the king’s younger half-brother Hamza replace him. “Some of the Bedouin feel that he has the charisma of his father,” explains Sameer Baitamouni, a businessman and liberal activist now in the midst of establishing a new political party. “They figure that since his mother is American, he would also be well-liked in Washington. But this is not a serious group of people.”
“Visiting journalists see revolutionaries and think they represent millions,” Sheikh Mustafa Abu Rumman, an Amman mosque cleric, told me. “But the millions want reform, not revolution, as do most protesters themselves. In my mosque, barely any worshippers want to topple the king.” Abu Rumman preaches against calls for the king’s ouster, as do nearly all Amman clerics. (Mosques are subject to the authority of the monarchy’s Islamic affairs ministry.) Some oppose the regime, he added, but they are in smaller mosques in outlying northern provinces.
The king’s response to the protesters, meanwhile, was carefully calibrated. Whereas last year’s despots doubled down on repression, Jordan’s king had the latitude to try something different. “Police were ordered to let the kids vent,” Baitamouni explains. “They limited demonstrations without repressing them.” Ibrahim Issa al-Abbadi, a recently retired intelligence officer, concurred. Beatings and tear gas were minimally applied by comparison with Egypt and Tunisia, let alone Libya—and among three fatalities over the past three months, one was a civilian and two were police shot by protesters. The number of arrests may have been lowballed by the information ministry at 139. In any case, 113 were released last week.
Significantly, while imprisoned demonstrators were charged with various forms of sedition, the government hasn’t applied the legal ban on “raising one’s tongue against the king (Italat al-Lisan ‘Ala ‘l-Malik)”—even though that is precisely what some did. Abu Rumman, the cleric, explained: “The king chose not to interpret the protesters’ words literally, but to view them as exacerbated frustration at the slow pace of reform.” Longtime government detractors respected by ethnic Jordanians—notably Ahmed Abaidat, a minister under King Hussein who has been one of the government’s critics for over a decade—were enlisted to encourage protests for reform but to reject calls for regime change. And Sheikh Abu Rumman reports that his northern colleagues who slammed the king were neither arrested nor silenced, at least not yet.
Underlying the question of the kingdom’s viability lie conflicting theories about Arab monarchy. The fact that every regime that fell last year was a military junta while every kingdom has survived prompted some observers to argue that monarchies in traditional Arab societies are inherently more stable. A growing, rival intellectual trend holds that the kingdoms’ survival is a matter of circumstance, like oil wealth or staunch American support, and their demise may only be a matter of time. The latter voices are understandably looking to be vindicated, and perhaps one day they will. But another reason they may have to wait awhile is that Arab monarchies recognize the need to band together amid the winds of change and have taken steps, albeit haltingly, to do so.
In mid 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council, a coalition of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, invited oil-poor Jordan and Morocco to join as members and form a confederation of mutual economic and strategic support. Some of the same observers who question Jordan’s staying power today belittled the idea of Gulf Cooperation Council expansion then. But more recently, some have argued that the concept is both real and meaningful: It can provide a structure for wealthy monarchies to assist poor ones, while strategic cooperation among the lot of them can help stabilize the truly teetering regimes nearby. It has also been shown that Morocco and the Gulf are presently involved in mitigating Jordan’s challenges. Amid massive carnage in Syria and reversals on the path toward democratization in Egypt, who can tell which approach to political reform will prove most successful in the long run, and who will write off the benefits a monarchy might offer to its troubled neighbors and distant allies?
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