Last week, protests broke out in Jordan after a government decision to raise fuel prices. While protests have been taking place in Jordan for almost two years now, for the first time there is major involvement from Jordan’s Palestinians, with open calls for toppling the regime. With the future of Jordan’s King Abdullah in jeopardy, so is regional stability a,s well as Jordan’s peace with Israel. Pro-Western forces have critical options to consider.
The protesters, last week, started openly to call for the king to step down. The Independent noted that previously the protests had been “peaceful and rarely targeted King Abdullah II himself,” and reported that this time crowds “chanted slogans against the king and threw stones at riot police as they protested in several cities.” Al Jazeera, as well, reported that protests have been taking place “across the width and the length of the country,” with “most chanting for toppling the regime.” Several of the king’s photographs – regularly displayed in public places in Jordan – were set on fire. What came as a surprise in the recent protests, according to Al Jazeera, is that Palestinian refugee camps have been also participating to the fullest. These protests apparently broke out in the Al-Hussein refugee camp, close to Jordan’s capital, Amman. Protesters were seen calling for toppling the regime. In another protest, Al-Hussein refugee camp protesters chanted: “Our god, may you take away our oppressor. Our country Jordan has existed before the Arab Revolution,” referring to the revolt against the Turks by which Jordan’s king’s great grandfather established the Hashemite kingdom.. Al-Hussein refugee camp protesters eventually marched into lively Douar Firas area near central Amman, where they were attacked by the fearsome Jordanian gendarmerie.
The gendarmerie officers were even harsher in the Al-Baqaa refugee camp, Jordan’s largest, where protests broke out for the first time, and slogans targeted the king with demands that he step down. Protesters reportedly burned tires, blocking the highway which borders the camp and connects Amman to Northern Jordan. The Jordanian news website Ammon published a video showing an al-Baqaa refugee camp leader calling for “calm” within camps in Jordan, while admitting that the refugee camp’s leaders, usually favored by the regime over the Palestinian public, were not able to form a public committee to reach out to protesting youths. The Palestinian-dominated Jabal Al-Nuzha camp has also been the site of regular protests, with demonstrators also calling for toppling the king. Other Palestinian-dominated areas are witnessing first-time protests as well, including Al-Ashrafiah, the Hiteen refugee camp and the broader East Amman. It is not the Palestinians alone who are protesting against the king. “East Bankers” in Northern Jordan had generally kept away from the protest movements until last week, when the residents of Irbid, the biggest city in Northern Jordan, started calling for toppling the regime. Other major protests have been taking place in several parts of the country. Tensions ran high in the southern city of Kerak, an East Banker-dominated city. A known opposition leader in Kerak, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was expecting serious escalation from the regime, and alleged that Jordanian police were cracking down on protesters and arresting their leaders. His claim was consistent with footage that appeared on YouTube, exhibiting parts of the unrest. He also claimed that southern Jordanians “have made up their minds, they will not tolerate the king any longer …it is too late for him to make any reforms.” The Muslim Brotherhood too organized a protest, in the city of Rusifay, east of Amman. Their demonstration, critical of Abdullah’s Prime Minister, Al-Nosuor, but with no criticism of the king or calls for toppling his regime, simply demanded that fuel prices be reduced. On November 18, the popular Jordanian news website, Al-Sawt, published an article entitled: “Will the Muslim Brotherhood get the price for its realism and positivity during the fuel-prices protest?” In the article, editor in chief, Tarek Dilawani (also a seasoned journalist for the Jordanian daily, Ad-Dustor), claims that the Jordanian regime had “an arrangement with the Muslim Brotherhood not to surf the tide of the protests, and to keep their demands fixed on peaceful reform of the regime.” Nonetheless, the supposed arrangement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hashemite regime has not worked. It has not stopped protests by either Palestinians or East Bankers. As The Independent recently wrote: “The protesters…were led by activists that included the secular Hirak Shebabi youth movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and various nationalist and left-wing groups.” It is therefore possible that the Muslim Brotherhood is only a part of the opposition, and not “the opposition.” On 20 November, the Muslim Brotherhood-formed National Reform Council held a public conference attended by the Brotherhood’s most senior Jordanian leaders. In the conference, Zaki Bani Rushied, the head of the Brotherhood’s political party, the Jordanian Islamic Action Front Party, addressed the media: “The people of Jordan have chosen to reform the regime; people can choose to topple the regime or reform it, and here in Jordan we have chosen to reform the regime.” The Muslim Brotherhood does not seem to want the regime to fall, but rather to change in a manner that gives them control over the government as occurred in Morocco, where King Mohammed VI appointed Islamists to form the government. Further, the Muslim Brotherhood may not be confident that, if the regime falls, it can dominate future elections. The current protests have shown that, contrary to what it has always claimed, the Muslim Brotherhood does not have full control of the Jordanian opposition. Its members therefore would apparently prefer King Abdullah to hand them control over the government. The current situation in Jordan raises concerns for pro-Western forces, including Israel, and rightfully so. With all its shortcomings, the Hashemite regime has kept Israel’s longest border worry-free for the last forty years. If the king falls, will the future regime in Jordan keep the peace treaty with Israel, and the borders calm? While the protests show that the Muslim Brotherhood does not have full control over the Jordanian opposition, if the King falls, the Muslim Brotherhood will be the only group that is financed and organized enough to win any future elections. Even if the Brotherhood does not win a landslide victory, it will be the group most able to influence Jordanian politics, and which has connections with Iraq and Iran – both anti-Israel and anti-West – thereby forming a major bloc of fundamentalism and terrorism. Those interested in sustaining peace between Israel and Jordan, as well as global forces keen for peace in the Middle East, have the option of either supporting the King or supporting secular opposition forces in Jordan who might come to power should the king fall. In a recent article, Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, opines there may still be time to help the King of Jordan, by pushing him “to enact meaningful reforms,” “ensuring that international donor funds continue to flow,” and “providing security guarantees that he [the king] will not go the way of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.” These might be the few steps necessary to keep the king in his place; still, these steps might be unlikely to take place now under the current US administration, which, perhaps inadvertently, at worst assisted the Islamists in taking over Egypt, and at best did nothing to offer the Egyptians a pro-democratic alternative. Those interested in keeping Jordan calm, peaceful, and out of the hands of Islamists should either support the king significantly, or find a quiet plan B to support the secular opposition in Jordan. As the active opposition figure Kamal Khoury, a Palestinian Christian, said, “The seculars in Jordan are strong in their numbers and following, they just need financial and media support to dominate the arena.” Dr. Khalid Kassimah, an East Banker opposition member residing in exile, stated: “The non-Islamist Jordanian opposition is no more in disarray than the Syrian secular opposition once was; minimal Western support might work wonders here; and I would not be surprised if a Jordanian opposition council is to be established in exile just as was the case in Syria.” Raed Khammash, an East Banker and well-known anti-Hashemite opposition member, active against the regime on social media networks, said, “I believe the opposition’s success lies within the refugee camps, as they make up the majority of the population. Whoever cares for Jordan should establish contact with their leaders”. It seems the situation in Jordan is moving towards change at a faster pace than before. There ought, therefore, to be some serious effort to establish contact with, and examine the potential of future support for, the secular opposition’s heads within the refugee camps, the Hirak Shababi (Youth Movement) and seculars within the East Bankers’ opposition.