Foreign Policy: Don't Forget About Jordan The protests rocking the Middle East took a turn in Jordan on Wednesday, when King Abdullah was persuaded by the revolts to dismiss his cabinet. Sean L. Yom of Foreign Policy argues that though there is unlikely to be any real overthrow of power, the situation in Jordan is just as pivotal to U.S. foreign policy as the events in Egypt.

Foreign Policy: Don't Forget About Jordan

Jordanians protest against the naming of the new Prime Minister, Marouf Bakhit, in Amman, Jordan on Wednesday. King Abdullah dismissed his government in response to protests in Jordan inspired by those in Tunisia and Egypt. Salah Malkawi/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

Jordanians protest against the naming of the new Prime Minister, Marouf Bakhit, in Amman, Jordan on Wednesday. King Abdullah dismissed his government in response to protests in Jordan inspired by those in Tunisia and Egypt.

Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

Sean L. Yom is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University.

King Abdullah of Jordan celebrated his 49th birthday this past Sunday, and his reign turns 12 years old on Feb. 7. Neither anniversary could fall at a more unpropitious time. As popular protests roil the Middle East, with Tunisia's dictatorial incumbent ousted and another in Egypt on the way out, observers have wondered whether the Hashemite Kingdom will be the next to catch revolutionary fever. With Jordan's lively blogosphere and independent press insinuating about the "contagion" effect, the monarchy has also been squeezed by its increasing inability to extract consent. For several weeks, weekend protests have punctuated urban life, with thousands of demonstrators cheering the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts while demanding the dismissal of the king's cabinet led by Samir al-Rifai — a Harvard-educated technocrat from a prominent East Bank family. Yesterday, they finally received their wish. In an ironic twist of history, Abdullah dismissed Rifai, mirroring his father Hussein's sacking of Rifai's father, Zeid, from the premiership in response to rioting in April 1989. He brought Marouf al-Bakhit, a career military officer who previously served a two-year stint as prime minister, back to office.

The Hashemite monarchy now faces an extraordinary challenge. Though the U.S. media has focused on the drama of nearby revolutions, the absence of Anderson Cooper in Amman should not connote that Jordan matters any less to U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the fate of its pro-Western regime holds more consequences for American interests than any Arab state not named Egypt and Saudi Arabia — something better ruminated now than at the eleventh hour.

The kingdom is Israel's other peace partner and remains the keystone to a two-state Palestinian solution. It reliably backs American initiatives, from the invasion of Iraq to the anti-Iranian containment strategy. Its intelligence services have provided vital services during the war on terror, something rarely exposed. In return, Jordan has received enormous economic and military aid from Washington, reaping more than $7 billion since 2000 and enjoying $660 million in annual support through 2013. It has also welcomed democracy-promotion programs, a contradiction that begs scrutiny. Above all comes diplomatic intimacy: It surprised few that King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to visit President Obama in April 2009.

The Hashemite regime has been in full-crisis mode for weeks, but its economic problems are long-standing. Despite pursuing market liberalization in the 2000s, which envisages converting the public-sector-dominated economy into an investment-friendly haven for technology and services, there are not enough viable jobs. More than two-thirds of the unemployed are under 30, and more than half of these jobless have university degrees. In addition, middle- and lower-income households — the social classes at the heart of the Arab world's mobilizational wave — have chafed at heightening living costs, with inflation in 2010 hitting more than 6 percent. Already facing a huge fiscal deficit, the bloated state can do little more. It pays $4.7 billion annually to nearly 800,000 public employees and pensioners, alongside nearly $1.4 billion for subsidies on goods and housing — which will devour this year's $8.5 billion budget.

Yet it was the November elections that catalyzed the current opposition upsurge. The 2007 parliamentary contest saw representation for the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamic Action Front Party, the leading opposition force, fall from 17 to 6 seats due to significant fraud. That experience helped hawks ascend to leadership positions in the MB and IAF, raising the stakes in their democratic reform demands. The November 2009 dissolution of parliament marked a potential turning point, as the king was able to promote Rifai to push through economic liberalization measures while recalculating its strategy for the next elections.

The chosen strategy backfired. Last May, the much-anticipated royal reformulation of the Elections Law drew instant criticism. Though it enhanced female representation, untouched were the perverse SNTV balloting system and district malapportionment, which both Islamists and secular reformists — such as Marwan Muasher's 2005 National Agenda Report — had recommended overturning. More troubling was a new "subdistricting" statute, a complicated maneuver that reinforced the predominance of conservative candidates like tribal elders, wealthy businessmen, and service deputies. Little wonder that the IAF boycotted the hollow contest, a decision made with nearly 75 percent support of its membership. Further, the fact that just one quarter of mostly Palestinian Amman bothered to vote gives good reason to weigh the claim by Hamzeh Mansour, IAF secretary-general, that national turnout did not exceed 30 percent. Even if the official 53 percent tally was cooked to minimize the boycott's impact, consider the implication: It means one out of every two "non-Islamist" voters stayed home on Nov. 9, despite the months of glitzy marketing campaigns urging mass participation.

How did the Rifai government collapse so quickly? The first sign of trouble came when the new parliament presented its Christmas gift, providing a record 111 votes of confidence for the cabinet. Despite the quick passage of a $169 million subsidy measure to lower fuel and food prices, Friday, Jan, 14, saw protest marches in Amman and smaller cities like Irbid, Zarqa, and Karak. This "day of anger" did not evoke hard-line demands, as demonstrators channeled their frustrations about the lack of economic and political opportunities on parliament while avoiding attacks on the monarchy. Neither were they violent. The most pertinent fact instead was the participants' diversity. With the IAF and the professional associations holding a Sunday protest, the Friday marches drew a variety of Palestinians and East Bankers, including leftist activists, urban professionals, university students, military retirees, and civil pensioners. Two days later, the IAF led its parliamentary sit-in, with protesters targeting the high cost of living and reiterating demands to sack Rifai and dissolve parliament.

The last few weeks reveal a spiral of concessions followed by countermobilization. The Jan. 20 passage of a $422 million package of more subsidies and civil salary raises could not obscure statements made days earlier by Mansour, who suggested that the prime minister needed to be elected rather than appointed by the king — an affront to the palace's authoritarian supremacy, though still one that fell short of attacking its legitimacy. The following two Fridays saw the continuation of this informal opposition coalition, with the IAF vowing to continue leading the peaceful rallies. Multiple charm offensives, including a campaign by Rifai to reach out to opposition groups and personal visits by the king to poorer constituencies, did little to palliate the fury. Neither did last week's royal chastising of parliament to explore the possibility of more political reforms; as many Jordanians note, the legislature has little independent authority and could not undermine royal power if it tried. Reforms originate from the palace.

It is thus tempting to see the cabinet dismissal as an embarrassing concession, especially in light of other regional events. The IAF had begun dialoguing with the government days earlier, so perhaps this could commence the process of winning back their support and returning them into the fold. The protesters had also embraced the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts enthusiastically, a worrying fact that weighed on a special security committee convened by the king. The smart money, however, is to see the regime's move as strategic.

Rifai's dismissal is not unprecedented. Prime Ministers are the shock absorbers for the palace; during bad times, they draw popular fire while the king maintains a safe distance, acting as deus ex machina to reboot the system as necessary by shuffling governments or calling for elections. The Rifai clan knows this all too well. Samir also suffered from the curse of privilege during a time of austerity. The scion of a wealthy East Bank dynasty, he represents an elite political class that no longer resonates with lower-income East Bank and tribal Jordanians who have become dislocated under the kingdom's neoliberal putsch. Signs of friction between the palace and these historical pillars of loyalty surfaced in recent years; former ministers publicly lambasted the government's privatization efforts several years ago, and military veterans last summer ridiculed the influx of Palestinian technocrats and businessmen into the state.

Rifai's fall sends a subtle hint to the opposition that the regime's tolerance for further dissent is running short. Abdullah previously anointed Marouf Bakhit after the November 2005 Amman hotel bombings, and the next two years saw the imposition of new draconian constraints on public life, such as regulations that eviscerated legal opposition parties and slapped new press restrictions. The ignominious 2007 elections unfolded at the end of his tenure. Further, given his tribal background, Bakhit's return sends a reassuring signal to East Bankers: By his own words, he is one of them — a fellow son of the military, the bedrock of the Jordanian state.

Laurie Brand is right. Because even sustained protests transmit their rage against cabinets and parliaments rather than the throne, it is unlikely that today's opposition will morph into the massive revolts that toppled Ben Ali in Tunisia and are now encaging Mubarak in Egypt. Further, even ardent critics grudgingly concede a measure of respect for the Hashemite dynasty as a historical institution. They frame their democratic ambitions in gradualist rather than radical overtones; few insist that the king suddenly abdicate power. This is for good reason: The Jordanian monarchy is no house of thuggery. It refused to enact violent crackdowns against the peaceful marches because it plays chess, not checkers. It knows when to dialogue with dissenting groups and when to suppress them, when to mollify irked supporters and when to neglect them.

Yet the persistence of this autocracy does not guarantee internal stability. Caught between the chiliastic winds of regional contagion and the task of extracting consent from reluctant citizens, the Hashemite monarchy needs to start considering real reforms in order to foreclose future opposition. Bakhit's reappointment at prime minister is neither a meaningful concession nor a positive portent; further Friday protests have been promised. The real solution is to re-engage its citizens on issues that matter. It could start with the one systemic flaw that triggered this winter's crosscutting discontent — the stagnant electoral system, which has long resulted in parliaments that have little incentive to clash with the palace and generate meaningful debates. The palace cannot control the global economy, but it can reconfigure its institutions. How many happy anniversaries it celebrates in the future will depend on how it responds to this gauntlet.