by Laith Fakhri Alajlouni
In recent years, Jordan has been able to overcome many challenges that have threatened its stability, including the Arab Spring protests, radical opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of ISIS, the closure of borders with Syria and Iraq, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the security threat posed by drug smuggling from Syria. However, despite successfully navigating these storms, the country has been left with heavy economic burdens and complicated social and political problems at the domestic level. Unemployment has skyrocketed, reaching 22.6% by mid-2022, public debt constitutes around 110% of the country’s GDP, and around 27% of the population live in poverty. On the political level, recent polling data shows that almost 70% of Jordanians believe that their country is ‘governed in the interest of a few,’ only 43% trust their government, and just 29% participated in the 2020 parliamentary elections.
This was a clear message to the Jordanian leadership that reform is now urgent and no longer a luxury. Consequently, King Abdullah II of Jordan formed three royal committees to modernise the country’s political system, the economy, and public administration. The three committees concluded their work in early 2022, with a direct follow up from the King who repeatedly emphasised that modernisation is ‘the state project’ where implementation is critical and ‘who is not up to the task should step down in order not to delay the team.’
However, despite the Jordanian leadership’s high ambitions to reform and modernise the country, these plans will face many obstacles, including fiscal capacity and regional and international developments. A major challenge that also poses a threat to Jordan’s stability is the rise of nationalist populism in Jordan. Analysts usually refer to Islamists as ‘right wing’ in the context of Middle Eastern politics. However, Jordan is witnessing the rise of a new form of right-wing populism that adopts a narrative similar to the Western far right, combining populism with identity politics.
The Roots of Jordan’s Far-right Nationalism
In fact, this kind of nationalist movement in Jordan has existed throughout the country’s 100-year history. Since the very early establishment of the monarchy in Jordan, transjordanian tribes challenged the expansion of the state and its centralised model of control. ‘The employment of non-natives had been a bone of contention between the government and the local elite since the establishment of the Emirate. One of the principal demands of the emerging national movement was to hand over government positions to “sons of the country,”’ according to the historian Yoav Alon. Thus, the state sought to co-opt this tribal population by granting them jobs in the public administration and the security apparatus.
The co-optation of this social group and the nationalist movement associated was financed by rents that the Jordanian state used to earn in the form of foreign aid. Indeed, Jordan was highly dependent on aid in the early years after independence where it constituted around 24% of the GDP during the period 1970–9, and around 17% during the period 1980–9. These flows declined significantly in recent years to reach an average of 5% during the period 2010–20. Hence, the government of Jordan has become less able to maintain its co-optation of the tribal population. The nationalist movement has thus re-emerged due to the economic situation and the lack of state capacity to co-opt people via public sector employment. The re-emergence of this school of thought in Jordan is based on the notion of ‘acquired rights;’ a term used by tribal elites referring to their constituents’ rights to employment, pensions, and welfare benefits from the state – based on their origins in the east bank of Jordan. This fundamentalist approach undermines the political concept of citizenship that is based on rights and duties as per the Jordanian constitution.
Nationalist Populism and Jordan’s Stability
Coming from tribal areas affected by a rural-urban divide and high levels of poverty, the nationalist movement was driven by economic and social grievances that dominated its narrative, characterised by the lack of any political programme and instead the adoption of populist language. This manifested in demonstrations, protests, social media campaigns, and the support of the dissident Prince Hamza. Slogans would also directly attack the royal family, the security apparatus, civil forces, civil society organisations, the US embassy in Amman, and Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
This nationalist-populist trend in Jordan is represented by different populist movements such as Hirak Bani Hassan, Hirak Hai Al Tafayleh, the national committee for the military veterans, and the Neo-Wasfis (Al-Wasfyoon Al-Jodod) and Hirak Theban – each rejecting the notion of a collective national identity based on equal citizenship, claiming that such a concept ‘leads to the cancelation of the tribal identity of the people‘. These movements hark back to old narratives dating back to the early days of the monarchy, such as those advanced by the late writer Nahed Hattar, a theorist of a ‘national Jordanian identity’, and one of the Jordanian nationalist movement leaders. Hattar was critical toward public sector reform initiatives claiming these as ‘a conspiracy to undermine Jordanian identity.’ He argued that the Jordanian public sector is a formative element of a national identity, and this narrative is now being adopted by the revived nationalist forces.
This narrative has also translated into rebellious movements, as with the well-known incident of the discharged MP Osama Alajarmeh. Alajarmeh led, in the summer of 2021, a revolt against the monarchy, private sector, and state institutions, calling for a tribal revolution and the assassination of the King.
Therefore, this rising movement in Jordan is becoming a threat to the stability of the country and any potential reform process. The government is fearful of the rising threats of these groups, with successive prime ministers increasingly trying to placate them by delaying reforms and diverting policy toward less controversial measures. Besides that, this trend is affecting the parliamentary elections output where tribal voting dominates elections. According to the Jordanian elections watchdog Rased, almost half of the voters in the 2020 parliamentary elections cast their votes based on ‘tribal motives.’ The same applies for municipal elections, with a recent survey of 2022 candidates showed that 73% depended primarily on tribal support, and so campaigned accordingly.
In sum, Jordan’s security and democratic institutions face a serious challenge from the re-emergence of a nationalist, populist right wing that has built its agenda on identity politics and social grievances. This trend is increasingly threatening the stability of the country and the monarchy. It also bodes ill for Jordan’s concept of citizenship, the implementation of reforms and the effectiveness of democratic institutions. The Jordanian state can only overcome this challenge by implementing reforms that reduce the rural-urban divide and by insisting on the basis of equal citizenship, rejecting nativist arguments. Without structural political and economic reform, the Jordanian state will lose its ability to co-opt these groups again. Finally, outside observers and the international community need to better understand and distinguish between the responsible democratic political opposition in Jordan and its populist extremist counterpart, which could yet become a future source of tyranny and chaos in the country.
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