September has witnessed a massive – and potentially irreversible – shift in strategy among segments of Jordan’s opposition movement: A number of political activists are now openly and repeatedly calling for a limitation of the monarchy’s powers – with a small (though extremely vocal) minority even explicitly calling for the abdication of King Abdullah II.
In a strikingly blunt statement by the organizers of the Sept. 8 protest in East Amman’s Haya al-Tafileh neighborhood – who gathered in response to arrest of a number of fellow activists a day earlier and later reorganized on Sept. 11 and 13 at Amman’s Interior Ministry Circle and Second Circle – accusations struck at the king’s carefully curated international image as a modern, democracy-building reformer.
The organizers’ Facebook statement reads, in part: “You are disguised in the costume of freedom and democracy, while hiding inside of you is absolute fascism and control over the destiny of this country and the livelihood of its people. We can no longer be patient with this repression of our arrested sons, with no guilt other than demanding freedom and social justice for all Jordanians, and fighting corruption that is royally sponsored.”
Abdullah II has tolerated Jordan’s street protests in the past; the monarchy has even scapegoated a few of its institutions as targets for public discontent – namely, the Parliament and the prime minister. But the monarchy itself (and the intelligence and security forces backing it) has been off-limits to public rebuke.
Criticism of the king, however, has gradually mounted over the past year: Abdullah has had to solicit more and more foreign aid from the International Monetary Fund and his backers in the United States and the Gulf to overcome economic shortfalls and a record budget deficit. The monarchy has failed to deliver on meaningful political reform – at the heart of these protests – and patience in the street for tangible reforms has long been running out. This has led to an increased questioning of whether the king is part of the problem, rather then part of the solution.
September’s crackdown on criticism of the monarchy comes as no surprise; over the past year there has been a tightening squeeze on activists. In January, an 18-year-old from Madaba was given a two-year sentence (later pardoned “by royal decree”) for burning a poster of King Abdullah in public. In March, protesters in Amman were arrested for chanting anti-monarchy slogans. A journalist and an editor from a local online news outlet, Gerasa News were arrested this past April when an article implied that the king had actively interfered in parliamentary corruption proceedings.
Even the constitutional changes Abdullah approved to limit the responsibilities of the State Security court to high treason, espionage, drug trafficking, and terrorism are being subverted. Activists arrested this past September have been charged with terrorism-related offenses – rather than crimes of conscience – and have thus lost rights to trial in the civilian court system.
To date, as many as 15 activists have been detained for lese majeste – slandering the royal family – among other charges. As documented by Human Rights Watch, activists are being arraigned by the State Security Court – traditionally an institution sympathetic to the views of hard-liners in the kingdom’s security and intelligence apparatus. Many of them are young, liberal and secular Jordanians, which partially explains the almost reckless abandon with which some groups are attacking the monarchy.
These are not the directionless, disaffected Arab youth implicated in anti-regime violence in revolutionary Egypt, but rather the well-educated, Facebook-savvy liberals akin to key Egyptian activist and Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim. They may not appreciate U.S. foreign policy in the region, but they admire America’s democratic institutions and believe that elements can be incorporated into Jordan’s own political system. Several opposition leaders are even dual U.S.-Jordanian citizens – including 25-year-old activist Abdullah Mahadin, who was arrested on Sept.11 and remains in detention.
The passage of a draconian press and publications law targeting the abundance of online media outlets is yet another manifestation of the regime’s regression in the face of increased demands for reform. Independent media outlets must now be registered with the government – requiring a hefty fee equivalent to around $1,400 – and sites will now be held responsible for remarks made in comments sections. In one disturbing provision of the law, outlets must keep records of all electronic data related to comments for six months, presumably to allow Jordan’s intelligence service to locate and prosecute individual commentators.
What remains to be seen is whether the traditional opposition bloc of the Islamic Action Front (IAF) – Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political party – will join the criticism of the monarchy and pledge its organizational might to this new vocal contingent. The IAF has the ability to rally thousands of protesters in the streets, but the organization owes its existence to political expediency and strong survival instincts. If the IAF feels that ramping up rhetoric against the monarchy could lead to its destruction via a government crackdown, it will likely stay on the sideline.
While the IAF has shown a willingness to negotiate with the monarchy in the past, it has maintained a call for boycott against the parliamentary elections well before September’s arrests. A statement from IAF head Hamza Mansour has made it clear that it will not cave to pressure from the regime, despite the king’s remarks that such a boycott will render the party irrelevant:
“We are boycotting the elections to show our opposition to an election law that is regressive and out of line with international standards for elections. This law attempts to restrict the opposition in general, and the Islamic opposition specifically ... If the government is willing to change the election process whereby the people can be the decision makers when it comes to the formation of the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament, as well as the choices of government ministers, we are ready to participate.”
While Mansour’s statement lacks the passion witnessed this month from the emerging group of vocal activists, the refusal of the IAF to budge on its advocacy for a true constitutional monarchy is indeed promising. Despite the fact that they are being incarcerated at an alarming rate, the abdicationists among the secular opposition have shifted the entire nature of the reform debate in Jordan. IAF leaders can now casually discuss shaving away the powers of the monarchy, while King Abdullah has pointedly referred to himself as a “constitutional monarch” in two recent high-profile interviews. Eventually, he will have to prove his willingness to limit his own powers, which could mean leading a transition to an elected prime minister and upper house of Parliament – rather than royally appointed ones.
If this new brand of vocal, anti-monarchy opposition hopes to truly pressure King Abdullah into turning promises into actual reforms, there is no doubt that they will need the support of the IAF to gain ground. To a certain extent, the IAF is already behind them. Previously, the Muslim Brotherhood had been willing to take part in the zero-sum politics of the parliamentary electoral reform process, but recent statements from party heads indicate that it is no longer willing to play the game it has long decried as rigged.
Even with strong words from youthful activists and the passive support of the IAF, the hodgepodge of secular activists behind September’s protests have yet to build the critical mass of public support necessary to truly challenge the king. Their ability to maintain momentum is blockaded by a patient, deliberate security apparatus that is wily enough to show restraint at public events covered by the international media – while also discreetly arresting key advocates of abdication out of the spotlight.
Despite the perception of high drama, September may pass as yet another anticlimactic moment in Jordan’s quest for reform. In recent months, Jordanians have watched in horror as Syria has descended into civil war, with refugees streaming across their border in the tens of thousands.
In this light, the future of this small but vocal group and their chance of gaining momentum look rather bleak. The elections – now pushed back until the beginning of 2013 – are at least something to distract from the difficulties of day-to-day life and the missed opportunity for reform. For most Jordanians, no matter how flawed they believe their political system to be, it beats dodging bullets.
David Fox is an Amman-based report writer for the Quds Center for Political Studies and a freelance journalist and blogger. Katrina Sammour is an administrator at the King Hussein Cancer Foundation. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.