THE ROLE OF JORDAN IN MIDDLE EAST'S STORM
Jordan hardly ever appears in the Middle East's war bulletins or in the news on the daily instability afflicting the region. This does not mean the country hasn't played and still does play a significant role in the Arab world.
The Jordanian spring
Jordan was only marginally involved in the so called Arab Spring. On January 14 2011 the first protests lead by left wing parties took the streets of Amman and of other cities in the Hashemite kingdom against price rises of subsidized goods like bread. Demonstrations continued for several days and targeted the government lead by PM Samir Rifai.
On February 1 2011, king Abdallah gave in to protesters and replaced the Prime Minister with a former general, Marouf al Bakhit. The decision did not put an end to the rallies, now addressing the request for more political freedom and economic reforms. In March and April 2011 the rising tensions lead to clashes between loyalists to the monarchy and demonstrators.
On the anniversary of King Abdallah's rise to the throne on June 12 2011 the monarch announced he would give up, the following year, his right to name the Prime Minister and the government (now handed over to the Parliament) and new electoral and party laws. A few days later, on June 15 2011, stones targeted the royal cortege crossing the city of Tafileh. On June 29 the Muslim Brotherhood organized a gathering of about 30 thousand activists asking for political reforms.
Clashes erupted in Kerak in August 2011 while a Committee for Reforms proposed constitutional modifications deemed insufficient by protesters. These included limiting the jurisdiction of military tribunals to the sole crimes of espionage and terrorism. In October the clashes between loyalists and reformists continued. Demonstrators, with the support of 70 out of 120 parliamentarians, demanded the removal of the Prime Minister. King Abdallah agreed once again and on October 17 2011 nominated Awn Shawkat Khasaweneh to replace Bakhit.
From this moment onwards Jordan's internal turmoil eclipsed in the face of the crisis in Syria. On November 14 2011 King Abdallah publicly asked Bashar al Assad to step down following the popular revolt against his regime. A few days later (November 21), the Hashemite monarch offered his support to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a visit to the West Bank.
Incidents and protests against the Jordanian government continued, but with diminished resolve. The Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Muslim Brotherhood's party in Parliament, organized a rally in December and tried to occupy the PM's office. For the first time loyalists clashed with islamists, with the latter trying, just like in Egypt, to claim the leadership of the people's unhappiness and their demands for reform.
Protests also decreased following the King's support to the Syrian people against the Alawite regime and to the Palestinian struggle in the attempt of re-opening a dialogue with Israel (in January 2012 the first meeting between the Israeli envoy Yitzhak Molcho and his Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat took place in Amman under the aegis of United States, UN, Russia and the EU) have spared the Hashemite kingdom the traditional arguments used by the Muslim Brotherhood against other tyrants in the region. Furthermore, it should not be underestimated that the Jordanian monarchy is a direct descendant of the Bani Hashem tribe to whom also Prophet Mohamed belonged.
In April 2012 PM Khasawneh stepped down and was replaced by Fayez Tarawneh (the fourth change at the head of the Executive in less than a year). The following month the "Independent Electoral Commission" began to prepare the elections. Initially expected for the end of the year, the vote was postponed to January 2013 due to delays in the registration of voters.
The late King Hussein of Jordan
King Hussein, who lead Jordan from 1952 (after his father Talal abdicated) until his death in February 1999, incarnated his country's true soul. He was courageous, as his enemies knew, in times of peril, he lead his people with charisma, he was feared and respected by his Palestinian or Middle Eastern counterparts through his mix of military boasting (he was a pilot who drove his own planes personally and loved acrobatic squadrons) and love for women (he was always accompanied by beautiful wives. Rumors claimed he would offer a golden Rolex to the hostesses he had had an affair with) both having a strong popular impact. King Hussein was more of a military chief than a politician as some of his political and military mistakes prove: Jordan's involvement in the 1967 war with Israel when he lost the West Bank; his failed participation in the 1973 war that could have offered a bargaining chip; his initial support to Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War.
Nevertheless, Hussein always found a way out of the most intricate situations with skill and courage. On the internal front, whenever protests broke out for social and economic reasons, he was the only person capable of facing the Beduin chiefs and hostile tribes exerting all his authority (it should suffice to remember the "Bread revolt" in Ma'an in 1989).
King Hussein has ruled without the excesses of other absolute monarchies in the region. Political dissent was definitely opposed or marginalized, but without any ruthlessness. The General Intelligence Directorate (G.I.D. or Dairat al-Mukhabarat al-Ammah) that granted the regime's security was known for its efficiency, rather than for its cruelty. Before any resolutive intervention dissidents would be admonished, dissuaded or even arrested. Only in September 1970 in his fight against the Palestinian Fedayn who put his reign at risk did Hussein show his ruthlessness.
His strength lay in the Arab Legion, an army composed of Beduins only, and in a personal guard of Circassians, descendants of those tribes from the Caucasus that had been chased out by the Russians at the end of the 18th century and had settled in the Ottoman Empire in Transjordan and later served the Hashemite dynasty.
King Hussein was also known for his generosity. He personally respected the Italian hospital in Amman where he was born. He was the one who adopted all the abandoned children that the nuns collected and fed. When news reached him that the Italian acrobatic squadron of the "Frecce Tricolori" - whom he admired - had crashed and several pilots were killed, he was spotted crying in public. He was a personal friend of Amedeo Guillet, a general and later a diplomat who had fought the British undercover in Ethiopia during World War II with an army of Eritreans, Ethiopians and Yemenis that earned him the title of "Devil's lieutenant". He could appreciate courage and grant honor to his enemies. The people could criticize his reign, but the man Hussein was widely respected.
As we've mentioned, King Hussein also had a complicated sentimental life. He married four times: his first wife was Egyptian (Sharifa Dina bin Abdulhamid) with whom he had a daughter, Alia, and from whom he divorced in 1956; the second wife was British (Avril Gardner), she gave birth to four children (Abdallah, Feysal, Aisha, Zein) before divorcing in 1971; the third wife was Palestinian (Alia Bahen bin Toukan), she died in an air crash in 1977 and gave birth to a boy (Ali) and a girl (Haya); his last wife was a Lebanese woman, Elizabeth Halaby, who converted to Islam and gave birth to four children (Hamzah, Hashem, Iman and Raiyah). Such a complex family line posed some problems in determining who could take over the throne.
The Jordanian Constitution states that the heir should be the first male son of an Arabic and muslim woman. Ali, son of the third wife, was the one. Born in 1975, he was too young to become king and during the 80's and 90's his role was taken over by Hussein's brother, Hassan.
Regardless of his lack of charisma and of the perplexity within the Royal Court, during the last stages of his fight against cancer King Hussein had designated his brother as his successor. But some of Hassan's premature moves whilst his brother was still alive convinced Hussein to rush back home and designate, the day before his death, his son Abdallah as his heir. Abdallah was the first male son, even though his mother was neither Arabic nor muslim.
These events posed some serious doubts on whether the Hashemite Kingdom could have withstood Hussein's death. With regard to several aspects, Abdallah is very similar to his late father: he is an helicopter pilot, parachutist, special forces freak, he is courageous and loves women. What was worrying was not his charisma, but his lack of political skills whom his father had refined during his reign and that his son had never tested. Question marks arose also on the role of the defenestrated uncle Hassan.
Until now, events have proven Abdallah capable of managing his reign with sufficient resolve and moderation thanks to the help of his wife of Palestinian origins.
King Abdullah of Jordan
Abdallah's skills in managing the Hashemite kingdom now face a series of external and internal challenges across the region and within his reign.
On the internal front, the challenge pertains the powers attributed to the king and what he will be willing to concede to his opponents. Following 2011's protests and clashes, Abdallah has set up two organisms: a Committee for National Dialogue (created on March 14 2011 and comprising politicians, journalists, activists and jurists and lead by a loyalist like Taher Masri) charged with drafting new electoral and party legislation and a Royal Commission for the Revision of the Constitution (created on April 27 2011). Both organisms have presented their proposals.
Regarding political parties and the electoral system, the new law grants a functioning multi-party system. Yet, parties cannot be based on ethnic, religious or racial criteria. They cannot operate inside the judiciary or the military and are banned from receiving financing from abroad. The State will fund their activities. Jordanians clearly fear Saudi, Iranian or Gulf money that could destabilize their social and political system. The reforms also grant the inviolability of party offices, of their documents and communications.
Parliament was also modified and increased from 120 to 140 seats (123 elected at a district level, 17 elected nationally) with a quota for women (15 seats as opposed to 12 before the reform). At least theoretically, the new law provides more room for political representation and diminishes the royal action span. The truth is Abdallah was capable of blocking the aspirations of his most dangerous enemies, the IAF and the Muslim Brotherhood. Votes at a district level favor loyalist tribal candidates thus impeding the Brotherhood from piloting consensus at a national level where they are more influential.
Furthermore, the monarch has also introduced another element in his favor: the new law grants for the first time voting rights to the security forces who represent 10% of the population and who support the royal house.
The effectiveness of Abdallah's strategy was proven by IAF's boycott of the Parliamentary elections held on January 23 2013. Against the Muslim Brotherhood's expectations, there was a high voter turnout (56,6%, greater than in 2010 when the IAF participated). This was a checkmate to the Brotherhood's attempts to take over Jordan at a time when they rule over Egypt, they play a key role among the Palestinians (through Hamas) and could become the leader in Syria in the near future.
The Jordanian king now faces a Parliament full of conservatives and tribal chiefs. The islamists have 17 seats claimed by the "Muslim Center Party" (Hizb Al-Wasat Al-Islamiya), a splinter faction of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has tried to foment the protests, but their show of strength has turned into a show of weakness. This does not mean the Islamic danger should be underestimated.
Constitutional reforms have also proven king Abdallah's political skills: grant with one hand and control with the other. Control is provided by a Constitutional Court (replacing the High Court for the interpretation of the Constitution) whose task is to verify the constitutionality of laws proposed by government or approved by Parliament. Yet, the 9 members of the Court, who run on a 6 years non-renewable mandate, are all appointed by the king.
Furthermore, Jordan's legislative system is bicameral. Senate is composed of 60 members, all appointed by the monarch. Every law has to be voted by both branches of Parliament and then ratified by the king. And this crucial procedure was not modified by the recent constitutional reforms.
On the external front, Jordan borders with Syria ravaged by civil war, Israel with its interventionist aspirations and a politically precarious and unstable Iraq. The country is socially and physically in contact with the Palestinian issue, while on the opposite bank of the Red Sea Mohamed Morsi's Egypt is still in turmoil. Iran's nuclear ambitions sparking fear in Tel Aviv and in the Gulf monarchies are not far. Plus radical Islam funded by Wahabis is getting hold of the entire region.
Any of these issues could potentially put the stability of the Hashemite kingdom at risk. After all, Jordan is a small State dependent on international subsidies and Saudi oil sitting at the epicenter of a social, political and military storm whose outcome is unpredictable.
The most urging problem is Syria. Over 340,000 Syrian refugees are on Jordanian soil and the conflict could spill over the border. There is a risk of terrorism and of Syria's chemical arsenal falling in the wrong hands. It is not perchance that Benjamin Netanyahu recently traveled to Amman to meet King Abdallah and discuss the issue. In early December 2012 Israel asked the authorization to violate Jordan's air space and strike Assad's chemical deposits. Abdallah's balanced approach to Syria is not appreciated by Qatar or Saudi Arabia. But there are 380 km of good reasons why the Hashemite kingdom wants to avoid danger. At the same time, Amman allows the US to train Syrian rebels in a secret base.
If the region is full of trouble, Jordan and its king play a crucial role in negotiations across the Middle East. And this is where king Abdallah's strength lies: his search for dialogue, his role as an intermediary between Israel (the peace treaty was signed in 1994) and the Arab world. Jordan is also traditionally in favor of the United States and its foreign policy, they are in good terms with almost all the regimes in the region and now that its internal turmoil is over it is an island of peace surrounded by sea storms.
Both nationally and internationally Abdallah has followed his father's footprints. Hussein calmed protests by replacing Prime Ministers and appearing to concede facade reforms. On the external front he talked to everyone, even with Israel when they were still the number one enemy of the Arab world. It seems that this approach still pays off.
Jordan's role in the region
Now that internal protests are over, Jordan has regained its role as a moderate and stable country in the Middle East. Hussein's legacy to Abdallah grants the Hashemite kingdom's survival because it allows Jordan to be the only credible interlocutor both for Israelis and Palestinians and for all those other crisis that erupt in the Middle East and in the Arabian peninsula.
Stability for Jordan has always come through a complex system of relationships. A small country without any desirable resources (apart from phosphates), surrounded by turbulent (Syria), bullying (Israel), unstable (Iraq) or religiously and financially dangerous countries (Saudi Arabia and its Wahabism and the historical rivalry between the Saud and the Hashemites) has been capable of refining its political skills and of overturning its geographical weakness into a role of indispensable negotiating partner.
On the internal front, the heterogeneous composition of its population split between Palestinians and Transjordanians has lead to vulnerable situations in the past (like during the Black September when Palestinian militias were chased out by Hussein's Arab Legion). The issue is now apparently solved thanks to the dialogue between the ANP under Abu Mazen and king Abdullah. Time has also smoothed the differences between Beduins and Palestinians, with the latter considering Jordan not just a temporary hosting site, but their homeland.