Jordan and Egypt: Will the Arab Spring Unwind?

By spring of 1989, average annual incomes in Jordan had plummeted nearly 40% in just four years. Thousands of protesters took to the streets, stoning police and attacking official cars, government offices and banks. A serious crisis ensued. The beleaguered prime minister, Zaid al-Rifai, labeled a traitor by the crowds, tendered his resignation within days.

To local and international observers, these protests heralded a new, more democratic age in the country’s history. They put Jordan on the path toward a competitive parliamentary election, followed by a regime-opposition accord in 1991 (the National Charter), the legalization of political parties in 1992, and a more liberal press law in 1993. King Hussain’s rhetorical support for liberalism was unwavering: “My eagerness to maintain the democratization process, political pluralism and respect for human rights is unlimited.” Events suggested important parallels with concurrent democratization trends in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa: regular elections, prudent opposition, growing civil society. Jordan in the 1990s therefore symbolized possibilities for accountable government in the Arab Middle East.

Few maintained that hope by the close of the decade, however. Jordanian political reform was thrown in reverse. Elections became irregular, civil liberties deteriorated and the illiberal policies of the past returned.

In the words of comedian Bill Cosby, I told you that story to tell you this one. Earlier this year, Jordan witnessed nine weeks of angry Friday protests, motivated in large part by corruption and the rising cost of living. The regime responded with quick economic fixes, sacked the prime minister (the son of the one from 1989), and – with King Abdullah II’s fervent blessing – established a National Dialogue Committee that, as analyst Ziad Abu-Rish astutely notes, looks rather like the one that produced the National Charter of 1991. As happened 20 years before, new elections and political party laws are being composed. Those familiar with the draft elections law are calling it “underwhelming.” The Middle East is a more hopeful place from six months ago, and that is cause enough to celebrate – soberly. Progress is much more evident in some countries than in others. Unfortunately, many reports of 2011’s Arab Spring have mixed amnesia with hyperbole. Clearing up these errors helps us see how recent events will likely affect the near-term politics of Egypt and Jordan.

First, many observers tell us that the region as a whole is experiencing something much more profound than the effects of a youth bulge, new social media and old problems such as regime arrogance, brutality, corruption and rising prices. We have been told that a transformative popular upheaval for democracy is in the making. Welcome as such change would be, this claim is hasty and almost certainly overstated. What’s more, it ignores similar claims made in the past. Popular upheavals have confounded expectations for decades by failing to generate lasting liberalism. Not many observers today – Arabs included – remember these events. They include the demonstrations that led to Jordan’s 1956 experiment with free elections, the spontaneous Egyptian “bread riots” of 1977, Algeria’s bloody “Black October” uprising of 1988 (which preceded free elections, more protests numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and a brutal civil war), and the restive mood surrounding the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which sparked innumerable protests across the Arab world. These are only a few examples of moments when great progressive change seemed possible, even inevitable. Tellingly, the phrase “Arab Spring” itself was repurposed this year from the neoconservative hope chest of 2005. Expectations jumped well ahead of events after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when elections and agitation in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and elsewhere were celebrated as harbingers of a liberal new Middle East. The connections and conditions many claimed to see simply were not there.

Are these precedents relevant to understanding recent events? Perhaps every generation thinks it invented the angry protest, but the answer is yes. Look at it from the other side: interviews with Jordanian and Egyptian officials show how carefully they study these precedents, including ones from other countries. For example, the 1988 Tunisian government-opposition accord directly inspired the 1991 National Charter in Jordan, where the palace hoped a similar pact would bind the hands of its own opponents. Authoritarian regimes learn and adapt, and we can assume that current regime strategies to contain popular unrest are informed by past experiences, even if the media coverage is not.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that history will merely repeat itself, or that nothing unprecedented happened this year – in some countries, that conclusion would be patently untrue. But this year’s rebellions must be placed in a useful historical context in order to know that.

On a related note, the degree to which we see what we wish to see in the Arab Spring is striking. The word “revolution” appears everywhere this year. Literally, a “revolution” means the wheel revolves, dumping the topmost and lifting the subjugated. While the protesters’ courage is heartbreakingly sacrificial, the R-word suits the sensationalism of TV producers and hyperbole of socially-networked youth more often than it describes results. Used uncritically, it discourages complexity and the patient gathering of facts.

In this heavily mediated way, as much as any other, the Arab Spring of 2011 was born. The wheel hasn’t yet turned enough to justify the word “revolution” in Egypt (much less Jordan), and perhaps not even in Tunisia or Libya. The strata of political cronies, parasites, thugs and hangers-on that made the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes possible are still around, albeit hanging on less firmly than before. At the time of writing, all the other pre-Spring autocrats seem to have survived into summer, if bloodily so.

So what should we expect now?

Let’s take Jordan first. Frankly, this year’s protests brought little that was new. The replacement of one cabinet by another (led by Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit, who held the same office from 2005-07) demonstrates the system’s high functionality. For decades, Jordan’s system of rule has effectively recycled loyal elites and utilized breakaway parts that, like a salamander’s tail, limit political damage to its head, the monarch. The country’s opposition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front party, has shown spirit this year in questioning the king’s prerogative of appointing the prime minister (they want the party with the most seats in parliament to do it), but few if any dissidents seem eager to question the king’s right to rule. At the time of writing, the streets were quiet.

A major redistribution of power – democratization, in short – does not seem to be in the offing. In fact, why King Abdullah II does not explicitly set Jordan on a path toward a European-style ceremonial monarchy, before a serious blow up really occurs, is a curious question, given the monarchy’s long record of steering politics from the top down. The royal family appears to retain sufficient popularity to manage devolutionary reform on good terms. Perhaps the Arab Spring’s lasting effect in Jordan will be to spur the monarchy’s sharper minds toward taking such a visionary step.

A different process unfolded in Egypt, which presents a much more intriguing and hopeful case. As in Tunisia, in the face of mounting protests, military and economic elites coldly chose to safeguard their privileges, and so pulled the rug from under the aging, unpopular president and his progeny. Hosni Mubarak’s sudden fall on Feb. 11 led to de facto military rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. What prevails today is not the will of January’s protesters; rather, the gift of Egypt’s “Lotus Revolution” is uncertainty. This is good, for political uncertainty is the antithesis of authoritarianism. At this writing, it is impossible to know who will win key struggles over constitutional reform, election schedules and transparency, and so forth. The mainstream Muslim Brotherhood and backers of the disbanded ruling party won an early victory in a March referendum that limited changes to the 1971 constitution, thus allowing for quicker elections that will likely favor the established parties. Many pro-democracy activists, including leftists and some Brotherhood reformists, wanted to rewrite the constitution completely before holding elections.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for September, and the presidential election is expected to be held in October or November.

In uncertain times, here are a few things to look for in Egypt: We should expect continued unrest as new and established groups contest for political momentum. As in most Arab countries, Egypt’s older opposition parties atrophied in recent years, despite the attention they have received from analysts. That may explain why Mubarak failed to predict – or even to grasp – the mobilization of his more youthful undoers.

On that topic, Egypt’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not the intolerant monster of the Western imagination. It will likely form a political party this year and deserves a proper place at the table. The MB followed a pragmatic path during Mubarak’s 30 years in office, at times making electoral alliances with leftist, secular and Christian-dominated parties, at other times aiding the regime (as when it resisted the legalization of Al- Wasat, another Islamist group). It jealously guards its status and has an organizational advantage over any rivals in the new era. But a few facts argue against an easy Brotherhood takeover of the post- Mubarak opposition, apart from the MB’s own promise that it will not run a candidate for the presidency.

First, despite generations of cooperation and conflict with the state, the MB never brought its vision of reform into being; politically, it has been a failure. This ineffectiveness spurred its own in-house youth revolts in recent times. Nor can the Brotherhood claim authorship of Egypt’s new era. It neither led – nor even foresaw – the mass uprisings that toppled the dictator. Like virtually all of Egypt’s old guard oppositions, it sat out the key early protests that turned the tide against Mubarak – hence, the protests’ lack of religious content and frequent characterization as “leaderless.” Importantly, the young people who actually ended Mubarak’s reign know the Brotherhood’s record of failure. And it would be hard to argue that an MB ascendancy will boost tourism, which accounts for 11 percent of the economy.

Norms of political legitimacy and authority may have changed too, making space for new leaders. Egyptians unaffiliated with old opposition parties have already achieved what others were unable to do. And in doing so, they spoke to generations of post-colonial humiliations, including the indignities of life under dictatorship, chronic joblessness, social immobility, and of watching foreigners remove a brutal Iraqi dictator. Apart from respected individuals such as Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, young leaders such as Ahmed Maher and Asmaa Mahfouz, whose staggeringly brave Facebook and YouTube appeals set the table for the mass protests, will not be put back into a box easily. This may not be a revolution yet, but it has been a liberation.

Nonetheless, the emotional peak is passed. The foreseeable threat to democratic reform comes from the status quo powers that are rallying this summer, e.g. old ruling party officials and their local allies, crony capitalists, orthodox Brotherhood leaders, and, of course, the senior military. Can democrats mobilize and lead a coalition that speaks to voters more worried about lawlessness and economic growth than abstract freedoms? In late May, rival initiatives to defend the ideals of the “revolution” (the National Council, the Coordinating Committee for the Masses of the Revolution, etc.) appeared mired in division. Should they fail, the very real distinction between aborting a Mubarak dynasty and shooing away yet another Jordanian prime minister may prove as illusory as a salamander’s tail.


2/25/11 5,000 Jordanians protest the government, calling for reforms.

2/25/11 One person is killed and 100 others wounded when government loyalists attack a weekly vigil.

4/7/11 A Jordanian protester sets himself on fire outside the prime minister’s office.

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  • About the autor

    Ranjit Singh is an Associate Professor in the University of Mary Washington's Department of Political Science and International Affairs. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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