Jordan: Why It's Not A Domino In The Middle East

02/21/2011 12:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At any other time, in any other part of the world, a handful of tribesmen airing their grievances in a passionate letter to the local royals would scarcely get noticed.

But as protesters hit the streets in country after country in the Middle East, and with Tunisia and Egypt's leaders toppled along the way, a tribal petition sent to the Royal Hashemite Court in Jordan has sparked a controversy--one that pits Jordan's critics against others claiming that the West, and the Western media in particular, are rushing to lump Jordan into a tidy "Arab" grab bag that overlooks how different it is from its neighbors.

In early February, Agence France Press, a leading French news service, published two reports saying the 36 tribesmen, out of a tribal population of over 2 million, had warned Jordan's royal family that their country "will sooner or later be the target of an uprising similar to the ones in Tunisia and Egypt due to the suppression of freedoms and the looting of public funds."

The royal family shot back with a statement condemning the AFP's coverage of the tribal warnings as unsubstantiated and defamatory, and threatening to "pursue legal action" against the news service. Many media outlets pounced saying the face-off meant that deep-seated unrest was brewing in Jordan, just as it was elsewhere in the region.

Unless, of course, it wasn't.

Some analysts say that the rush to define fast-moving, seismic protests has sometimes trumped accuracy in the coverage of the Middle East.

"This frenzy has caught the West by surprise and has resulted in events being reported without analysis, background or research," said Dr. Safwan M. Masri, Director of the Columbia University Middle East Research Center, in an interview with The Huffington Post.

Jordan is an anomaly of sorts, one of the Middle East's few constitutional monarchies. The King wields real executive power, and appoints the the prime minister and the Senate, but the country has a bicameral parliament, with a democratically elected Lower House. Their multi-ethnic population--the country has absorbed many Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in recent decades--is viewed domestically as a source of stability that sets Jordan apart from nearby countries prone to ethnic clashes. The Bedouin tribes, which make up close to 40 percent of the population, have historically been loyal to the monarchy.

Neighbors like Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria and Iran have all been ruled by autocrats. In Saudi Arabia, the royal family is an overlord, unchecked by an elected government. In that company, Jordan stands out as a model of plurality.

But since January, thousands of protestors have swarmed the streets of Jordanian cities, angry about a stalled economy, fed up with what they describe as rampant government corruption, and demanding that senior political leaders resign.

Barricades can be found on the streets of major cities and there have been allegations from journalists and those within the reform movement that the government has threatened members of the media covering the turmoil.

While the government has not responded directly to these allegations, King Abdullah II recently acknowledged the need to "ensure free speech and create the atmosphere for a professional and independent media that take an unrestricted role" in a letter to the newly appointed prime minister, Marouf Bakhit.

Like Egypt, Jordan is a young, educated country pummeled by the worldwide economic downturn. The Jordanian population has a median age of 22 and a literacy rate of almost 90 percent, but it is saddled with an unemployment rate of over 13 percent.

The AFP article landed in this mix with a force well beyond what it actually said, according to some observers.

Naseem Tarawnah, a 27-year-old journalist and blogger on civil affairs in Jordan, sees the recent coverage of the letter as "exaggerated."

"Western media has completely focused on this one sentence that went after the Queen's family a bit," Tarawnah said. "The controversy around it is a lot more interesting than the actual statement."

Randa Habib, a well-regarded AFP veteran who has been the Amman bureau chief since 1987, published segments of the tribesmen's statement on February 6th and 9th, calling the document an "unprecedented public criticism of King Abdullah II's wife."

She maintains that the government's reaction to the article was atypical and alarming.

"They are reacting in a way and in a manner that they wouldn't have done in the past. It was a bit of a panic," she said. "In these times of crisis, the foreign media is an easy target."

Habib said the letter was newsworthy because the tribesmen both clearly identified themselves and made pointed attacks against the monarchy.

"The fact that people were ready to identify themselves and make such big accusations against the Queen and the Hashemite court was unseen until now, so it was truly significant," Habib told The Huffington Post.

She denied the Royal Court's assertion that her article provided a platform for the unfounded claims of tribesmen who "do not represent the tens of thousands of people from these proud Jordanian tribes."

"What we added [to the AFP article] are elements to make it understandable for our international audience," she said. "The fact is there were red lines with the monarchy before and those lines were crossed."

Official sources within the Royal Hashemite Court told The Huffington Post Habib's articles were "fabricated and based on gossip."

Habib dismissed the criticism: "I don't think they have a case. The quotes are from the communiqué."

For his part, Tarawnah asserts the letter is "certainly not representative of Jordanian tribes in general."

Habib, and the AFP, are hardly the only media outlets that see the tribal communiqué as newsworthy.

Last week, the Guardian published reports on the same letter, claiming "The outlook seems even more uncertain now that the tribes have added their voice to the tide of criticism."

A Guardian News & Media spokesperson said: "We have not received any complaints about the article in question."

Yet as protests mount elsewhere in the Middle East, the unrest in Jordan has largely simmered down since King Abdullah II dismissed parliament on February 1st, appointing a new prime minister and installing a new parliament.

The Guardian references the change in government as a "timid opening" that "seems unlikely to end the unrest."

For all of this, however, analysts familiar with the region maintain Jordan is unlikely to be the next domino to fall in the Middle East.

"If I'm looking for the next place that we're going to see a regime change, it's not Jordan," said Robert Danin, an analyst specializing in the Middle East and Africa with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Others agree.

"The monarchy is a conscious red line. The government takes the flack and criticism from the people, who associate the monarchy with the Jordanian identity. The wrath is directed toward the policy makers and implementers," said Tarawnah, the blogger.

Contrasted with the insulated monarchy of Jordan, neighboring military dictators are more vulnerable to protestors hungry for a regime change and are likely to go to greater lengths, namely restricting freedoms, to keep a hammerlock on power. As a hereditary monarchy, the regime in Jordan has more flexibility to respond to its citizens' demands.

"Leaders don't want to come across as reactive or defensive. Initiating the reform process before the unrest happened was incredibly helpful," Dr. Masri said of Jordan, before adding, "Articulation of these reforms is now the order of the day."

For its part, the Jordanian monarchy has a reform-minded history--at least on paper.

King Abdullah II outlined his vision for sweeping reforms across political, economic, and social issues in The National Agenda, a document he presented in 2005. Since then, the government has enacted a series of economic reforms which have encluded eliminating fuel and agricultural subsidies, privatizing industry and embarking on a series of tax overhauls.

And before the recent protests, King Abdullah reiterated the need to enact the social and political reforms included in The National Agenda.

"Political, economic, social and administrative reforms are interconnected," he said in a November speech to parliament. "We have emphasized that economic reform should be accompanied with political reform that increases public participation in the decision-making process."

Despite some of the economic initiatives, little reform has actually been carried out in the political and social spheres. Although the king aimed to eliminate structural unemployment and end media censorship, among other things, by 2012, little has been done on a practical level to realize these goals.

Reformers in Jordan are capitalizing on the regional unrest to pressure lawmakers to finally act on these and other measures.

Professor Amaney Jamal, an associate professor of politics at Princeton University said that while King Abdullah II built a reputation on his call for reforms, "the kingdom is seen as regressing in terms of political reforms in recent years. The consensus among experts is that the political situation in Jordan has deteriorated."

Last May, the Jordanian government unveiled a new election law that maintains a voting system that has been widely criticized since its adoption in 1993 because it's seen as cementing the power of tribal districts loyal to the monarchy and under representing populated cities such as Amman. The new law failed to embrace electoral reforms outlined in the National Agenda, including a strengthening of political parties and proportional representation.

Tarawnah calls this recent version of the Jordanian election law "disastrous" and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told The Huffington Post "there is a serious need to revisit the election law."

Judeh said the government's interest in reform isn't prompted by unrest elsewhere and he called recent visits from high-ranking US officials, including Under Secretary of State William Burns and Admiral Mike Mullen, "routine."

"There is no nervousness at all. There is an acknowledgement of the fact that we have economic hardship," Judeh said. "Jordanians have really felt the bite. It didn't come without a social cost."

Last Tuesday, Jordan's interior minister announced that protest marches will no longer need government permission. The move comes just days after the King met with leaders of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Previously, the group, which remains officially banned in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, has been active in Jordan but remained removed from the political process.

"This shows the different kind of approach, it's an attempt at inclusiveness," the CFR's Danin said. "This an attempt to co-opt [the IAF] into the political system."

According to official sources, the regime is paying close attention to social media outlets to see how they can best respond to the demands of the reform movement.

For their part, Jordanian activists say they're adopting a less confrontational tone than their counterparts in other Arab countries. On Twitter, the evolution of the hashtag used by Jordan's demonstrators, from #AngryJo to #ReformJo, is emblematic of that effort. "The protests in January were called Angry Days in Arabic," Tarawnah said of the change. "The hashtag has changed because we decided we need something a little more constructive and forward thinking."

Tarawnah claims the government's relationship with the media, namely independently owned news websites, has evolved as well.

"This group has had a fairly tense relationship with the government, which had blocked the sites for all state employees," he claimed. "We've seen a reversal of this policy over the last week. The unblocking of these sites has been a huge show of support."

Tarawnah remains "cautiously optimistic" about the days ahead in Jordan. He argues that young Jordanians are not looking to bring down a regime but are nevertheless encouraged by the protests sweeping across the region.

"It's not just ordinary complaining or criticism. Things need to get done because look what's happening next door," he said. "It's not about who's in power but it's about approach. Egypt has changed the rules of the game."

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