Last Friday’s anti-government demonstration in downtown Amman was the biggest in 21 months—since Jordanians launched their own version of the Arab Spring — with organisers saying it brought together no less than 60,000 demonstrators and official sources down sizing the number to just 8,000. As always in such cases, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. News agencies and independent observers estimated the number of demonstrators to be between 15,000 and 25,000. The message that Jordan’s largest opposition party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), and about 80 opposition parties and groups, which had joined the mass protest, wanted to send to King Abdullah was resounding: Their demand for genuine political reforms is immutable.
But there was a sense of temporary relief when the hours-long demonstration ended without major incidents. Few days before the October 5 march took place, so-called loyalists announced they too were planning to hold their own demonstration at the same downtown venue. There were fears that bloody confrontations could erupt between the two opposing sides. But the loyalists backed down a day before under public and media pressure. A showdown was averted and Jordan’s Arab Spring remains largely peaceful.
But the sense of anxiety over opposition to the regime’s drive to hold early parliamentary elections by the end of the year is growing. A day before the planned demonstration, the King dissolved the parliament and called for early elections. By doing so, he ended speculation that he could backtrack at the last moment. Both sides appear to have doubled down.
Under newly adopted constitutional amendments, the government must submit its resignation within a week and the King will have to name a new premier. A transitional government will oversee the holding of elections before it resigns as well. What happens next is unclear. The King has said that the process will culminate in designating a parliamentary government, but details of this major development are sketchy.
For King Abdullah and conservative forces rallying behind him, the early elections and the new parliamentary government will cap a long and controversial process of political reforms that was triggered by the arrival of the Arab Spring. But these reforms belie political instability which has manifest itself in the change-over of four governments in the past two years. The last three parliaments have also failed to complete their constitutional four-year terms. But the King believes that a Jordanian summer will soon ensue, underlined by free and fair elections, overseen by an independent commission and backed by constitutional reforms that cemented the principle of separation of powers. A Constitutional Court will also be formed.
But the opposition disagrees. The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the IAF, have pledged to boycott the coming elections in protest. They believe constitutional reforms fell short of what the public wanted. Most importantly, they rejected the election law which they said was an extension of older laws that were designed to disenfranchise important components of Jordanians, especially dwellers of big cities such as Amman and Zerqa and undercut the power of the Islamists. They want to limit the prerogatives of the King and go as far as demanding that the prime minister be elected by the people.
The Islamists are not alone. They have built alliances with various political movements that have similar or intersecting demands. They include tribal, youth and nationalist groups, some of which have more radical agendas.
Attempts to reconcile differences between the Islamists and the regime have wavered. Some in the government accused the Islamists of blackmail and of working to repeat the success of Islamists in Egypt and Tunis, where they are now in power. The Islamists, who traditionally rely on the support of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, especially in refugee camps, have been accused of carrying out a sinister scheme to turn Jordan into an alternative homeland for the Palestinians. On their part, the Islamists say they are being tarnished by the security apparatus which they accuse of scare mongering.
Jordanians have never been so polarised and suspicious of each other as they are today. Some elements in society have even charged the Islamists of treason. But it is not only the Islamists who are now the regime’s gadfly. Young East Jordanians, especially from the impoverished southern governorates, such as Tafileh, have been raising incendiary slogans against the King. For months they were tolerated, but in recent weeks, the government decided to hit back. At least 15 activists have been rounded up and charged with attempting to overthrow the regime. They will be tried before military courts.
By dissolving the parliament and calling for early elections, it is now clear that the King is in no mood for compromise. And by taking to the streets and insisting on genuine reforms, the Islamists and their allies have shown that they too are determined to challenge the regime. In the midst one of the worst economic crises this country has seen in recent decades, the political horizon looks menacing.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.