The Middle East Channel

Identity and the Jordanian elections

The period of Arab uprisings that began in winter 2010 to 2011 has brought myriad changes to the region. However, one perennial constant is the willingness of official and semi-official elements in Jordan to manipulate identity issues in order to stymie meaningful reform. Indeed, given the past history of the Jordanian government, the most recent developments could be viewed as simply boring, were they not so deeply cynical and destructive.

The newest chapter in this ongoing saga of who is a Jordanian -- native East Bankers, certainly; Jordanians of Palestinian origin, not so much or perhaps not at all -- has come in response to the upcoming parliamentary elections. With only a few exceptions, most notably in 1956 and 1989, elections in Jordan have been highly controlled affairs, in which the outcomes have been largely cooked beforehand, either through changes in the electoral law (as in 1993), or through outright fraud (most notably, but certainly not exclusively, in 1997 and 2007). On occasion, when it is argued that "regional conditions" are problematic, elections have been postponed, as in the early 2000s, and in many cases some of the most significant opposition forces, most recently the Muslim Brotherhood, have decided to boycott rather than play the palace's or security forces' game. 

King Abdullah's response to the domestic impact of the winds of discontent sweeping the region has been to call for several key "reforms." The most important among them has been amending the constitution and revising the electoral law -- all in the context of the usual palace response to domestic unhappiness: the dismissal of four prime ministers in less than two years. Among the 2011 constitutional amendments, the most potentially significant for the holding of elections was the establishment of an independent electoral commission to oversee the process of registration and voting, chaired by the respected former Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah al-Khatib. However, the electoral law itself, for which there had been great hopes of significant change, was modified only at the margins. The primary opposition demand had been the return to a multiple-vote system in place in 1989, which allowed electors to vote not only for a tribal or clan candidate, but also for other candidates who might represent a more political or ideological choice. Instead, the one-person, one-vote system, which was first implemented in 1993 to reduce the representation in parliament of Islamists, was amended only to the extent that now 27 seats are set aside for national lists, while the total number of parliamentary seats was increased from 120 to 150.

This designation of national list seats, along with the increase in the number of seats in several urban districts, was a kind of consolation prize for Jordanians of Palestinian origin (JPs). This is because they are heavily concentrated in these districts, they are seen as the primary constituency for more ideological parties (especially the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamic Action Front), and because the current configuration of electoral districts and the seats allotted to them significantly underrepresents JPs in parliament. This underrepresentation is but one aspect of JP second class citizenship, and there have been increasing calls, indeed unparalleled ones, since the beginning of what the king likes to call the "Jordanian spring" to redress this citizenship deficit.

That kind of reform, however, is an outcome that certain segments of the Transjordanian population find intolerable. Indeed, it was apparently members of the so-called old guard and other "traditional powers" that were responsible in 2011 for pressuring the National Dialogue committee, which was looking into possible changes in the electoral law, to ignore calls for allowing Jordanian expatriates (the majority of whom are JPs) to vote from abroad. More dangerous, however, have been increasing calls from the more extreme voices in these sectors for actually disenfranchising JPs altogether. Some calls have come from ultra-nationalist retired military officers; others have come from Transjordanians who otherwise fancy themselves "leftists." (Only in Jordan could those who call for discriminating against fellow citizens, indeed, for depriving them of their already second-class citizenship status, be considered leftists simply because they criticize neoliberal economic policies.) 

Historically, the justification for concern about full integration of JPs into Jordan derived from the fear that the Israeli government would use such a development to claim that Jordan was in fact the Palestinian state, and that therefore there was no need for a "second Palestinian state" in the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, in 1989, it was rumored that Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasir Arafat had urged JPs not to participate in the elections, precisely for this reason. Over time, the concern that Israel would stymie a peace settlement on the grounds that a Palestinian state already existed in Jordan (known as the alternative homeland, al-watan al-badil), has been transmogrified into an expectation among some Transjordanians that Jordan will become largely free of Palestinians in the context of a two-state solution. Zionist policies and threats over the years have played a major role in heightening Jordanian sensitivities regarding the alternative homeland (al-watan al-badil) scenario. Yet, it is also the case that the al-watan al-badil threat is trotted out virtually any time one political faction or another seeks to discredit a particular political or economic proposal. The threat has been used most recently implicitly to call into question the legitimacy of JP political rights, and has, thereby played a major role in the relative absence of Palestinians (except as part of the Muslim Brotherhood) from opposition demonstrations.

The elections scheduled for January 23 have been billed by the palace as a centerpiece in the king's reform process which is received so warmly during his appearances on the Daily Show and in interviews with the western press and diplomats, (although Abdullah also regularly stresses in such settings that Jordan and Jordanians are not yet ready for full democracy). He and other officials have repeatedly insisted that the January 2013 elections will be free and fair as a way of reinforcing his commitment to real reform and securing domestic legitimation for his approach through a respectable turnout. The first step toward ultimately claiming success required securing sufficient registration numbers, and when potential voters did not initially flock to register -- in part because the Muslim Brotherhood had announced its intention to boycott the elections, but also, likely, because of past experience with fraud and the futility of the exercise -- repeated exhortations were made, many arms were likely twisted, and ultimately, the deadline was extended and the vote postponed by two months.

It was certainly a sign of the regime's desperation that, during the process of trying to legitimize the vote through respectable voter inscription, the state turned to JPs, the sector which it has often otherwise found expendable; the sector which has seen arbitrary passport withdrawals continue, despite claims of royal opposition to the practice. In need of support, government officials targeted the JP refugee camps, urging the camp leadership to mobilize the residents to register. Ultimately the national registration numbers reached 2.3 million, well beyond the government's 2 million goal.

Now, with only days remaining before the vote, the palace and the government are keen to ensure a robust turnout, and to do so they need JP support. To that end Prime Minister Abdallah Ensour recently met with a delegation of mukhtars and other notables from the refugee camps who issued a statement urging camp residents to participate in the upcoming vote. That expression of citizenship was welcomed by, indeed, certainly solicited by the government. Yet only a few days earlier, Nsour had referred to refugee camps residents as Palestinians, not Jordanians. Those statements were no doubt intended to resonate well with the Transjordanian sector of the population eager for the ultimate evacuation of these JP camp residents from "their" country.

The elections on January 23 offer insights into a variety of critical issues facing the kingdom, the most important of which is what they portend for the development of real citizenship, regardless of social class, gender, religion, or communal origin. A betting (wo)man would be well advised to place her or his money on an outcome of little to no serious change, in no small measure because the actions of the palace speak louder than its words. The election law virtually guarantees that the same set of forces that have participated in the regime's strategy of minimal or cosmetic reform will once again be elected. Indeed, the palace's policy seems aimed today, as it has been in most previous elections, at avoiding uncertainty of outcome. Yet uncertainty is a central part of any true democratic process.

The continued instrumentalization of JPs (and of Transjordanians, but that is a story for another day) is just one manifestation of the lack of serious commitment to reform, a form of debilitating legal-political corruption deliberately aimed at undermining the possibilities for real national unity to address the daunting political and economic challenges ahead. Sadly, proclamations of commitment to reform notwithstanding, there is little reason to think that the decades-old strategy of promoting national disunity as a pillar of regime maintenance will be revisited or revised any time soon.

Laurie A. Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor and Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. Fayez Hammad is lecturer in the Department of Political Science and the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California.


The Middle East Channel

Algerian troops and militants standoff in gas field siege

A standoff unfolded between Algerian troops and an estimated 20 militants at the Tigantourine gas plant in In Amenas, Algeria. The militants have taken dozens of hostages, including American, European, and Japanese citizens, as well as many Algerians. The gas field is jointly operated by BP, the Norwegian company Statoil, and Algerian state oil Sonatrach. According to Algerian news, 15 foreigners escaped on Thursday and between 30 and 40 Algerian hostages had been released, mostly female translators. But these reports have not been verified. Mokhtar Belmoktar, a top commander for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is believed to be leading the attack. Two groups supposedly reporting to him have taken responsibility: the Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade and the Signed-in-Blood Battalion. The attackers are demanding an end to French military operations in Mali. Additionally, they are demanding safe passage out of Algeria with the hostages, but the Algerian government has refused to cooperate.


According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 106 people were killed in government raids in Homs this week. The dead had been shot, stabbed, or possibly burned alive, and many houses were set on fire in the impoverished neighborhood of Basatin al-Hasawiya, on the edge of the city. The district saw clashes earlier this week between regime forces and opposition fighters. Meanwhile, three nearly simultaneous car bombings killed at least 22 people and wounded 30, mostly Syrian government soldiers, in Idlib on Wednesday. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, security vehicles, buildings, and a checkpoint had been targeted. Addressing concerns that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in an attack on Homs on December 23, 2012, the U.S. State Department said its investigation shows that the regime did not use chemical weapons, but rather seemingly misused a riot-control gas. On Tuesday, Foreign Policy's "The Cable" blog reported that a diplomatic cable from Turkey provided a "compelling case" that chemical weapons were used, causing several deaths and severe illnesses.


  • At least 22 people have been killed in a wave of bombings across Iraq on Thursday, primarily targeting Shiite pilgrims in the second day of heightened violence.
  • Thousands of Kurds gathered in Turkey's southeastern city of Diyarbakir for the funeral of three Kurdish activists shot and killed last week in Paris.
  • An eight-story apartment building collapsed Wednesday in Egypt's second largest city of Alexandria killing 28 people and further highlighting concerns about the country's safety regulations

Arguments and Analysis

The Brotherhood's Compassionate Conservatism, (Max Strasser, Cairo Review of Global Affairs)

"Six months into his presidency, Mohammed Morsi is about to make a public policy decision similar to one that ultimately helped to bring about his predecessor's downfall. Out of economic necessity, Morsi will likely sign a deal with the International Monetary Fund. But the incoming loan will be accompanied by a set of fiscal conditionality that could make the already precarious president and his Freedom and Justice Party even less popular. Unless the Muslim Brotherhood manages to find a religious, privatized coping mechanism.
...While activists and politicians have good reason to campaign against the IMF based on Egypt's previous experiences with structural adjustment, an infusion of foreign currency is at this point needed to prevent economic catastrophe. Foreign direct investment has shrunk by around 75 percent since January 25, 2011, and tourism revenues declined by around 30 percent. Egypt is facing a full-on balance of payments crisis. Almost 60 percent of the Central Bank's foreign reserves have been spent trying to prop up the pound in the last two years-and with limited success. Late last month, the Central Bank moved to an auction system to slow the devaluation of the pound, which dropped by more than 6 percent since the start of the revolution."

Turning Syria Into Somalia (Hassan Mneimneh, German Marshall Fund)

"However, the most affected of Syria's neighbors is undoubtedly Lebanon. With a patently weak government, perennially afflicted by sectarian divisions, Lebanon has had to tackle an overwhelming influx of Syrian refugees. Its porous borders with Syria have witnessed two-way traffic, with Lebanese fighters joining both sides of the Syrian conflict. It may be merely a matter of time and circumstance before the fighting returns to their homeland. This development may provide Hezbollah with an opportunity to establish direct control over Lebanon, thus balancing out the impact of losing what has been described as its Syrian "back-office." Symbiotically, the al-Nusrah Front - al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise - is slated to take further advantage of the expected chaos.

Whether much of the current Syrian tragedy could have been avoided by more determined actions from the transatlantic alliance has become the subject of historical, rather than practical, import. The Somalization of Syria now seems inevitable. The dire implications of this outcome for the region, however, are a certainty only if the United States and Europe continue their current course of waiting the Syrian crisis out."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

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