Jordan’s Sept. 20 parliamentary elections confirmed its status as one of the few non-oil producing Arab states to have escaped the chaos associated with the “Arab Spring.” An international observer delegation declared that “the elections took place in a largely peaceful atmosphere…most voters were able to cast votes without any significant impediment.” Despite the successful elections and widespread legitimacy of the ruling monarchy, Jordan continues to face daunting economic and security challenges stemming from regional instability.
Effects of Jordan’s New Voting Law
The elections for Jordan’s lower House of Representatives were held under a new electoral law designed to invigorate parliament by forcing candidates to run on lists rather than as independents. The election is a positive step, but only time will tell whether the reform will encourage more coherent parties based on political platforms rather than loyalty to family, clan or tribe. The monarchy remains the center of political authority in Jordan and recent constitutional changes have increased the king’s powers—he can unilaterally appoint the crown prince, the Constitutional Court, the speaker and all members of the Senate, as well as all top military and intelligence commanders.
The election has strengthened the most important of King Abdullah’s recent political accomplishments: taming the Islamists without using the repression that accompanied the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) from power in Egypt in 2013. Instead, the king lured Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood back into electoral politics (it boycotted the voting in 2010 and 2013) as a moderate Islamist party. Citing various fiscal irregularities, the government earlier this year outlawed the “old” MB organization—dominated by so-called “hawks” focused on anti-Israel activity—and transferred its assets to a more moderate group of MB “doves.” Concurrently, the government allowed the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF)—including both “hawks” and “doves”—to run for parliament. The IAF has learned from its Egyptian counterpart’s disastrous year in power; it ran as part of a broad-based civic grouping that replaced the traditional MB slogan of “Islam is the Solution!” with the more inclusive “Reform!” This coalition banished talk of Sharia (Islamic law) from its campaign rhetoric and added Christians, women and a sprinkling of secular candidates to its electoral slates.
Despite its nod to moderation, the IAF coalition won only 15 seats out of 130—far less than its 1989 high water mark of 22 seats out of 80. Tamer, a pro-government Islamist group, also garnered a few seats. Reserved spots on party lists for women, Christians and other minorities produced a greater number of legislators among these groups than in any previous Jordanian parliament. Most of the representatives, however, are from the pro-Monarchy political elite that has dominated all of Jordan’s parliaments. King Abdullah has already asked Interim Prime Minister Hani Mulki to form a new government; he will easily put together a compliant voting bloc.
A Pillar of Stability
Free parliamentary elections are not the key to Jordan’s success as a stable polity in a region wracked with violence, civil war and state disintegration, but are rather a positive outgrowth of the widespread legitimacy the monarchy enjoys among the population. Most Jordanians have scant regard for parliament: 87 percent of respondents told a pollster that the outgoing legislature had not accomplished “anything worthwhile” and turnout for this year’s election was only 37 percent. Rather, the Kingdom’s good fortune ultimately derives from the political capital the Hashemite dynasty has accumulated by governing Jordan effectively for nearly a century and more recently guiding Jordan through the turbulent Arab Spring.
A country that works. Unlike some of its neighbors, Jordan is not a failed state. The Hashemites have faced immense pressures: loss of the West Bank to Israel in 1967; war with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1970; and millions of refugees fleeing the Gulf War (1991), the Iraq War (2003) and the Syrian civil war ( since 2011) into Jordan. They have nevertheless built a state that supplies law and order and basic economic services, as well as educational and healthcare services, to most citizens, all without the oil wealth of the Gulf monarchies.
The Arab Spring’s bad example. The value of these achievements has skyrocketed as a result of the "Arab Spring". Jordanians, witnessing the chaos throughout the Arab world, appreciate more than ever the Kingdom’s relative order and tranquility. Jordan’s early "Arab Spring" protests quickly petered out as the country was inundated with Syrian refugees and challenged from without by ISIS. For most Jordanians, just treading water under these perilous conditions has been a positive accomplishment.
Jordan’s Security and Economic Challenges
Despite Jordan’s ability to provide basic economic and social services to its population and conduct free elections, it still faces significant security and economic challenges. Thanks largely to its effective security forces, Jordan has experienced less terrorism than its neighbors despite continued targeting by ISIS. In June 2016, ISIS detonated a car bomb near the Syrian border that killed seven Jordanian soldiers—the bloodiest terrorist incident in Jordan in over a decade. Amman is also keeping a tight lid on domestic extremism. The security forces regularly infiltrate extremist circles and, judging from the relative paucity of domestic jihadist attacks, appear so far to have foiled most plots. In addition, Jordan is replacing extremist imams with government-sanctioned preachers, although so far this has only occurred in a handful of mosques.
Jordan’s most daunting challenge is economic: it is reeling from the impact of caring for nearly one and a half million Syrian refugees, who now compose between 10 and 15 percent of the country’s population. In September, Jordan introduced primary and secondary education for all refugee children. Amman is embarking on this expensive initiative in the face of bleak economic realities: growth this year will likely be a modest 2.4 percent and Jordan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is over 90 percent—one of the highest in the world. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank consider that Amman has done a credible job of dealing with the crisis; Amman has just signed an IMF stand-by agreement for $700 million, which will pave the way for more assistance and help keep the Kingdom solvent for the next few years. The average citizen, however, is pessimistic: half of Jordanians describe the economic situation as bad and cite unemployment, poverty, and rising prices as the country’s major problems.
The United States and Israel play crucial roles
The United States and Israel are helping Jordan confront its economic and security challenges. The U.S.-Jordan Defense Cooperation Act expedites the transfer to Jordan of a wide array of defense equipment, a privilege granted only to NATO and America’s other closest allies. Washington has agreed to supply Jordan with a minimum of $1 billion in assistance yearly from 2015-2017. Congress has also appropriated over $1.6 billion in aid to Jordan this year, including $600 million from the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund—a clear signal of Jordan’s centrality in the battle against ISIS and other terrorist groups.
With Israel, King Abdullah is pushing ahead with several important joint infrastructure and economic initiatives. A $15 billion deal is in the works for Israel to supply Jordan with 45 billion cubic meters of natural gas over fifteen years; a secure source of natural gas will help the energy-strapped Kingdom, where the influx of Syrian refugees is boosting demand for energy by 7 percent per year. In addition, work will begin in 2018 on a 200-kilometer underground pipeline between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, which will feed the world’s largest desalination plant (crucial for water-starved Jordan), replenish the Dead Sea, and run a massive hydroelectric power plant. Finally, Israel and Jordan have revived a 1994 proposal for a joint Israeli-Jordanian industrial zone—Israel will build a new bridge over the Jordan River to support the zone, which will have factories on the Jordanian side and a logistics and transport center on the Israeli side.
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