Jordan's King and the Muslim Brotherhood: An Unholy Marriage
Preface by Ted Belman
I have been in touch with Mudar Zahran for over a month now. He is seeking support, of all kinds, to assist the Jordanian Palestinians in building a democratic and secular party to contest what will hopefully be the future elections in Jordan. As the Palestinians represent the majority of the residents of Jordan, they expect to form the next government, given fair elections. Zahran advised that they were prepared to invite all Palestinians throughout the Middle East to come to Jordan and receive full citizenship. This would solve the Arab-Israel conflict in a blink. In addition, he wanted my help in building a lobby to convince the U.S. administration to induce King Abdullah to democratize. I asked him to write the following article.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordon has been witnessing protests for the last ten months, though much less intense than those of the Arab Spring. Still, the protests there are very regular, and the protesters have been upgrading their demands. Today, most factions have come to the point of threatening that if their demands for reform are not met, they will call for deposing the king. Some are already calling for it.
Jordan's king, Abdullah, has established an image for himself as a secular modern ruler who has kept Israel's Eastern front quiet amid a hostile Middle East. Is it possible that the Hashemite regime's anti-Islamist, secular image is just a façade?
The Arab Spring tsunami has laid bare a different face of the Jordanian monarchy -- one which shows a lengthy, well-established cooperation with the Islamists, which is now evolving even further. In fact, amid the sweeping opposition protests in Jordan, the only Jordanian political force supporting the monarchy now is none other than the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nonetheless, the king seems determined not to exact any significant reforms and justifies this with the excuse that "the Islamists will take over." In his interview with the Wall Street Journal -- published in 21 September 2011-- the king claimed that rapid reforms would bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power, as they were "the only people who are organized" in Jordan. This claim by the king finds many believers in the West and is in line with more established fears, as the Islamists have just taken over Tunisia. In Morocco, too, the Islamists just achieved a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections.
Nonetheless, the Islamists in those countries are very different from the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, as the Brotherhood in Jordan is not the regime's enemy. In fact, it is quite the opposite. For starters, the Muslim Brotherhood has historically been at the receiving end of extensive tolerance and support from the Hashemite regime, even before Abdullah came to power. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in most Arab countries, is allowed to operate freely in Jordan. The regime allowed them to establish their own political party, the Islamic Action Front Party. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan runs charitable organizations, owns businesses, publishes its daily newspaper, and has been recruiting members in the open.
Furthermore, since Abdullah came to power, the Hashemite regime has been cracking down on all the political rivals of the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, in 2008, the Jordanian government introduced a new law retroactively banning all political parties unless they manage to recruit five hundred members within at least five of the country's twelve counties. As a result, most existing political parties were outlawed except for the well-financed Islamists.
No wonder the king told the Wall Street Journal that the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organized group in Jordan. He had made it so. He wants the West to believe that if he is deposed, the Muslim Brotherhood will come to power -- circumstances which, presumably, the West abhors.
The Hashemite regime allows the Muslim Brotherhood to organize anti-American and anti-Israeli protests, while peaceful secular reformists, like the 24th March movement, are clamped down on by the ruthless Jordanian riot police. In September, the Muslim Brotherhood called for protests against both the American and the Israeli embassies. This was in coordination with Nahid Hatter, a right-wing Jordanian Bedouin writer who admitted that he was close to the fearsome Jordanian Intelligence Department. The Palestinians did not respond to the Muslim Brotherhood's call -- the Washington Post reported that barely 200 people attended -- and as a result, the protests were a failure. In the past, such an event would have garnered tens of thousands of Palestinians from refugee camps.
It seems that the Hashemite regime is determined to convince the world that it will have to choose between the king and the Islamists ruling Jordan.
Yet is that really the case? It is a fact that most leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan are Bedouin Jordanians and not Palestinians. For example, of the nine members of the board of the Islamic Action Front Party -- the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm -- only two are Palestinians. Also, the board of governors of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is made up of nine members, of whom five are Bedouin Jordanians. In a country where the majority of the population is Palestinian, you would expect proportionate representation within the Muslim Brotherhood. Also, this might be an indication that Jordan's Palestinian majority does not support the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since the Arab Spring began, the Jordanian regime has been in a difficult position. The Palestinian majority is systematically discriminated against and disgruntled. It might as well do what the majority in Syria are doing. Despite the Palestinians' lack of involvement in the ongoing protests, they -- like the rest of the region's people -- are observing closely what is happening in their neighborhood, and they could take action at any moment.
The king's allies, the Bedouin Jordanians, have been most active in the protests, and recently, the most prominent Bedouin Jordanian opposition, the 36 Movement, called for toppling the regime. The rest are calling for abolishing the king's powers and turning the country into a constitutional monarchy.
Shortly after watching two formerly invincible dictators, Mubarak and Ben Ali, fall, the king turned to the Muslim Brotherhood. He first met with them for discussions in February 2011 amid the start of the Arab Spring.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been an active part of the protests. Nonetheless, they have refused to call for the toppling of the king and have kept their demands as low as just reforming the government. I spoke to Zaki Bani Rushied, a former aide to of Hamas' leader Khaled Mishaal and president of the Islamic Action Front Party, the Brotherhood's political front. I asked him why the Brotherhood was determined to refuse any calls to topple the king, as Bani Rushied himself said recently. Rushied responded: "We have evaluated the situation and we've decided we want the regime to stay[.] ... [W]e are just demanding a reform policy to lead the country to democracy ... we are not willing to give up on the regime. If we do so, the alternative homeland will be achieved." Bani Rushied here is talking about the "Jordan is Palestine" option for peace, which the Jordanian regime has used as an excuse against allowing political rights for the Palestinian majority.
Bani Rushied continued: "Our agenda is against Israel. The Americans and the Israelis have been trying to sell the alternative homeland solution, and therefore we will not do anything that would facilitates that[.] ... [S]hould a new regime be established in Jordan, it will make the Palestinians feel that they do actually have a country, and the Palestinians in Jordan will play the role of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. They will be guard dogs for Israel, just like Palestinian troops trained by General Keith Dayton[.] ... [D]id you not hear him say [that] 'we have produced the new Palestinian'? That is exactly what we fear." This was Bani Rushied's answer as to why is the Muslim Brotherhood is so supportive of the king.
Bani Rushied noted that the Muslim Brotherhood has been scaling back its opposition after the appointment of a new Jordanian prime minister in October -- namely, Oun Khasweneh, the renowned judge at the International Criminal Court. Oun Khasweneh has been appeasing the Islamists since his arrival -- for example, by inviting them to join his government. They turned him down, claiming that they were expecting more "reformist steps."
Furthermore, Khasweneh did the unthinkable by telling the media that "the Jordanian state's decision to expel Hamas leaders in 1999 was a political and constitutional mistake." Khasweneh even told Time that he had always thought that expelling Hamas leaders from Jordan was unconstitutional! Before making these statements, Khasweneh received Hamas's spokesman Muhammad Nazzal at his home, and spoke to Hamas's leader Khalid Mishaal over the phone. Around the same time, Jordan's minister of communication, Rakan Majali, said that "the Jordanian state is serious about correcting the political mistake with Hamas by re-establishing ties to it," noting that "this will not mean we will be handling Hamas as an alternative of the Palestinian Authority."
Jordan is an autocracy in which the king rules, and where a prime minister is basically executing what the king wants. It seems that the Jordanian regime is not as anti-Islamist as it claims to be, and it seems that both the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime don't want the Palestinian majority to come to power. From the king's point of view, it would mean the end of his kingdom. From the Muslim Brotherhood's point of view, it would present Palestinians everywhere with "the alternative homeland" -- i.e., the "Jordan is Palestine" option is "a threat" to their attempts to destroy Israel..
While the fear of the Islamists hijacking Arab revolutions is a valid one, it is likely that Jordan is different, as the Muslim Brotherhood there is the regime's ally. Therefore, should the Arab Spring make it to Jordan, it likely will not bring Islamists to power as many seem to fear. Those keen on establishing peace and stability in the Middle East should re-examine the situation in Jordan and stay alert to the unfolding of different potential scenarios.
Mudar Zahran is the putative leader of the Palestinians in Jordan. He currently resides in exile in London, U.K.