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Popular protest in North Africa and the Middle East (ix): Dallying with reform in a divided Jordan

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Amman/Brussels, 12 March 2012: The season of Arab uprisings has not engulfed Jordan, but nor has it entirely passed the nation by. Pillars of the regime are showing cracks, and it ultimately will have to either undertake sweeping change or experience far-reaching turmoil.

Dallying with Reform in a Divided Jordan, the ninth and latest report in the Crisis Group series “Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East”, examines the significance of the protests that have been spreading since 2011, dominated by segments of the regime’s historical support base, East Bank Jordanians. Expressing anger with the state of the economy, ostentatious corruption, unaccountability and concentration of power in the hands of few, these have evolved to include a wide spectrum of the population - citizens of Palestinian origin, Islamists and unaffiliated youth.

“In the past, it was relatively easy for the monarchy to play on the fault line separating East Bankers from Palestinian Jordanians”, says Sirine Rached, Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Fellow. “However, it has become much trickier for the regime to contain the protests by dividing the protesters. Cross-communal coalitions have emerged around specific demands for political reform, challenging the hegemony of identity politics”.

Divisions between the two communities have economic, social and political overtones. East Bankers - Jordanians who inhabited the area before the arrival of the first Palestinian refugees in 1948 - have long been the core support for a regime that played on their fears of the Palestinian-origin majority. But their habitual source of strength - their ties to the state - has been severely damaged by the wave of privatisations and by sky-rocketing levels of corruption. The net result has been to shift resources toward a new, narrow private sector elite with privileged access to the palace.

For their part, Palestinian Jordanians feel marginalised, shut out from key state positions, living with a lingering sense of exclusion. Most East Bankers and Palestinian-Jordanians are still not united in their anger, but they are simultaneously angry. That is a start.

So far, the regime has responded in time-honoured fashion: the king has shuffled cabinets and charged committees to explore possible reforms, while the authorities appear to have sought to exacerbate communal antagonisms. So far, this mix of tactics arguably has worked, as protests have failed to reach critical mass. But these are poor substitutes for tackling the causes of anger.

A wise course would be to deal seriously with the issues that unite all those - East Bankers and Palestinian-Jordanians alike - whose impatience is growing. A credible electoral reform that provides fairer representation of urban centres, coupled with increased government attention to rural socio-economic needs would be a huge start. Other steps would resonate widely: narrowing the State Security Court’s jurisdiction; ensuring accountability for corruption and human rights violations; granting genuine powers to parliament; establishing an elected Senate; and ending - or at least dramatically reducing - the political role of unelected bodies, the security services prime among them.

“The temptation always exists for the regime to wait and to postpone, but the gradual disaffection of the monarchy’s core constituency, coupled with efforts to transcend debilitating divisions, could portend a new chapter in the Arab uprisings’ unfolding drama”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “And by then, it would be too late”.