Opinion |

Could the Authoritarian Kingdom of Jordan Become a Democracy, With America's Help?

Lurching between economic crises, an attempted royal coup and rising popular discontent, Jordan has inaugurated (another) reform program. This time, America should step up and sponsor a democratic transition unprecedented in the Arab world

Marwan A. Kardoosh
Marwan A. Kardoosh
Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks at a news conference after talks at the Chancellery, in Berlin, Germany this year
Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks at a news conference after talks at the Chancellery, in Berlin, Germany this yearCredit: HANNIBAL HANSCHKE /AP
Marwan A. Kardoosh
Marwan A. Kardoosh

If you look closely, the essence of most good stories is, in some form or another, repeated time and again. Malleable in form and steadfast in plot, a well-conceived story transmits the settings, characters and events just as effectively in print as on screen, stage or in a musical (given the right choreographers and directors). Creative adaptation alongside artistic integrity can dramatically alter the landscape and players.

In Jordan’s case, the political narrative is thinly spread out on a marginally different landscape every few years. Grandiose reform plans, proposed with a regularity surpassing any other country in the region, with old goals, never achieved, and recalibrated rhetoric: enhancing democratic principles to ensure fair and free elections; promoting institutional integrity and transparency; pursuing greater efficiency through the activation of appropriate mechanisms; and placing more emphasis on economic, educational and social reforms.

The same adjectives about these reform programs litter the various Jordanian news sites: harmonious, clear, seamless, transparent, competent and serious (and some good adverbs: decisively, responsibly). In the art of politicking, this is not much of a revelation, but the element of surprise in Jordanian politics is never what matters. It is the level of sheer predictability.

In the latest reconstruction, a 92-person Royal Committee to Modernize the Political System unveiled an ambitious framework of political reforms. The council proposed a decade-long roadmap of ongoing democratization, beginning with sweeping new laws in the areas of elections, political parties, women, youth and corruption, to be undertaken in a reportedly methodical and open approach.

Men pray inside a mosque during the holy month of Ramadan in Amman, Jordan Credit: MUATH FREIJ/ REUTERS

Outwardly, much appears to be happening in Amman’s political theater, with some arguing that this royal commission could finally transform the authoritarian kingdom into a constitutional monarchy over the next ten years. Other things being equal, this means the Hashemite monarchy would only have symbolic authority, and the political system would resemble countries like the UK. Of course, for this to happen, stronger political parties would be required – a chronic weakness in Jordanian politics, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front being a notable exception.

Critics might well ask how on earth such a grand plan can ever work without the buy-in of a maximum number of Jordanians, and without ensuring inclusive representation. It might sound strange: How do you assure a population that the shift from being subjects of an autocratic monarch to being participants in a democracy will actually benefit them?

But the query isn't strange in the context of Jordan's bifurcated population, where a change to the status quo could be highly threatening. The issue of representation for Palestinian Jordanians (making up two thirds of the population) and for-Transjordanian tribes (constituting the rest or about 33 percent), the two demographic groups that constitute the population of Jordan, has long been the third rail in Jordanian politics.

Though, on paper, the Jordanian Constitution guarantees equality for all citizens, in practice the state abides by old prejudices that favor tribes as the social foundation of Hashemite rule. The Transjordanian tribes have much more to lose from any change in the status quo.

A young boy carries a replica of the Dome of the Rock mosque and waves a Palestinian flag at a march in the streets of Amman, Jordan last month in solidarity with Palestinians in JerusalemCredit: - - AFP

Sean L. Yom and Wael Al Khatib, writing recently in America’s Project on Middle East Democracy, identified more factors that threaten to disrupt and slow down this hoped-for progress.

There is also widespread public apathy borne from the failure of past pro-democracy initiatives. Indeed, in a September 2021 poll by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, 68 percent said they did not trust the latest royal reform commission and only 17 percent believed it would achieve desirable political change. While mass apathy is not the cause of Amman’s political system’s doldrums, it is nonetheless its sharpest indicator.

Two features make the current episode somewhat different. The commission was borne in rather dire circumstances, assembling in the tense months following the April 2021 crisis with then Prince Hamzah, accused of fomenting a coup against King Abdullah II. That case contrasted internal palace disagreements against rising levels of popular anger over worsening authoritarian abuses, widespread corruption and widening economic inequality.

This, more than any past discontent, highlighted the urgency of reform within the royal establishment.

The situation is so extreme and critical – politically, economically and otherwise – that it now seems "normal" for the monarchy to give up its power, prestige or sources of wealth, or at least some of them. This seems to be the only way to save the Hashemite regime, as staying on the same trajectory will spell doom and gloom for the King and his henchmen.

A Jordanian man reads a local newspaper headlined with the latest, highly censored news about the palace crisis at a kiosk in the capital Amman this monthCredit: KHALIL MAZRAAWI - AFP

The committee also knew the task was important. Bearing the name Royal Committee to Modernize the Political System, its call to arms lay in the word modernize, a nod to the acceptance that Jordan’s political system was no longer in tune with society. Its members, numbering 92 in total, created one of the biggest royal committees in existence and contained many in ideologically opposite ranks, although youth activists (hirak) were never included.

In a departure from previous versions, proceedings were not private. The committee conducted its many discussions with members of civil society, like the professional syndicates, known for their regular opposition to the state, showing a surprising degree of openness in its consultations. Finally, in a departure from reform talk of the past, the committee inserted a meaningful time horizon to its plans: democracy for Jordan within ten years.

That is an ambitious timeframe, not least when young people in Jordan are still afraid that the state, fixated on security, will upend its promises. If getting the public to believe in the reforms demands steady commitment from the regime’s upper echelons, then fighting for those reforms demands constant grassroots energy from social actors, particularly the youth.

But activists believe that for all its liberal swagger, the regime's current move toward democracy could easily be upended by interference from other powerful sources, like the security services, who want to preserve the status quo.

Jordanian protesters in 2018 shout slogans outside the Prime Minister's office in the capital AmmanCredit: Raad Adayleh/AP

Jordan’s society skews very young: Two out of three Jordanians are under the age of 30. Since the Arab Spring a decade ago, it has been this millennial generation that has led the opposition on the ground.

Its well-supported campaigns, or hirak, don’t do things conventionally or timidly: they interrogate election results; turn a blind eye to some so-called "political" parties; and cross the Palestinian-tribal divide in their quest for justice and equity. They even show a higher degree of openness to women’s participation and leadership, certainly more than the low level to which Jordanians are accustomed. Notwithstanding, some have been arrested and charged and no hirak activist was asked to join the royal commission.

That the security branch has endorsed the reform committee has resulted in more questions than endorsements. For most hirak campaigners, moves toward reform are suspect and will surely reveal themselves as a ploy to defang their activism by coercing them to join "official" parties that can be controlled from above.

Credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS

Young Jordanians' concerns go beyond politics towards the economy. Last year, during repeated COVID-19 lockdowns, youth unemployment, namely those below 30, reached a scarcely believable 50 percent, with that number reaching a shocking 75 percent among young women.

Jordan is no stranger to financial emergencies, corrected only by substantial foreign assistance. The leadership has no ready answer for unemployment, the high cost of living, and declining standards of living. The regime’s reform play therefore replaces economic comfort with a political agenda. This exchange is doomed to fail if Jordanians feel that newfound political rights do not automatically mean they can protest and criticize what is happening around them. Disappointingly, the proposed reform laws say almost nothing about basic freedoms or expanding civil rights.

The tactics of the hirak and other younger generation voices are now to pretend nothing has been offered, to maintain the impetus of their criticism on the streets and in social media, pre-empting any letup on the reform process. By invoking the King directly, and shining a light on repeated abuses, the hirak is probing what this future Jordan will be like: Lofty promises, or tangible room for social and civic dissent, and campaigns to change peoples' everyday lives at the most basic level?

Credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS

While Jordan’s censored, mouthpiece media proclaimed the reforms as game-changing news, many Jordanians refused to buy it. They've seen this narrative before: when economic or political crises inflame public discontent, the state seeks to regain mass confidence by apologizing for its errors and omissions, then appoints a faceless committee to formulate dramatic reforms that ultimately turn out to be nothing but pacifying window-dressing.

Unlike in times gone by, both sides are necessarily invested in this change. The authorities in Jordan know that what's worked as survival strategies in the past – performative but cosmetic reform processes – won't work for a discontented public fueling a rising opposition. And the skepticism of opposition activists is justifiable, thanks to the grim track record of reform, let alone the failures of fair representation and basic freedoms.

Jordan now stands at an important juncture in its short history. These sweeping reforms will catalyze an astonishing trajectory of democratization, or else retrench the existing autocratic and oligarchic system – and retrench intensified popular discontent.

Credit: Mohammad Hannon / AP

How it proceeds from here will depend on political will from above and popular pressures from below. According to Yom et al., there is a third factor, however: Whether America gets involved.

While Washington cannot, and should not, believe it can singlehandedly implant democracies in foreign lands, it also cannot stay silent when new democratizing political openings emerge.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, the U.S. has been Jordan’s primary Western ally. While the ties have ebbed and flowed, the years following the Israeli peace treaty in 1994 have seen the two parties form a much closer accord. King Abdullah II was the first Arab leader invited to meet Presidents Obama, Trump and Biden after their respective inaugurations.

Meanwhile, Washington pumps record annual aid into Amman, amounting to $425 million in military aid and almost $1.1 billion in economic aid, the latter coming in direct cash grants that ensure the Jordanian treasury avoids the insolvency with which it continually flirts.

And the 2021 U.S.-Jordanian Defense Cooperation Agreement paves a way for expanded U.S. military presence on Jordanian territory, with the upside being that the kingdom remains safe from external threats.

King Abdullah II of Jordan meets the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week in Washington, DC, trip that will take in meetings with lawmakers, President Biden and his administrationCredit: Kevin Dietsch - AFP

Rather than keeping a studied silence about the prospects of Amman walking towards democracy, the U.S. can encourage the reform agenda with explicit support. Regular meetings, including diplomatic tete-a-tetes and aid-based incentives, can keep the regime engaged, oppositionists interested, and the reform agenda central to Jordanian daily discourse.

Surely the Biden administration would be interested in sponsoring the first and only deliberate, consensual, timetabled and peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy in the Arab world.

We are compelled to read and re-read the best old stories, drawn along by the transient hope of a different ending from what we know to be inevitable tragedy or disillusionment. Will Jordan's democracy story fall into this same well-trodden, predetermined narrative, constrained by the historical precedent of serial reform failures? Will the Hashemite monarchy adapt, thrive or struggle to survive?

Too many Jordanians are jaded readers of this tale: they now have a ten-year horizon in which to brace for another anti-climax, entrenched autocracy or an unlikely transformation.

Marwan A. Kardoosh is a development economist with 22 years of experience working in the Middle East and North Africa

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