TSG IntelBrief: Internal and Regional Pressures Engulf the Jordanian Monarchy
April 3, 2012
Bottom Line Up Front:
• King Abdullah II is confronted by an unprecedented combination of internal pressures and regional challenges that could threaten the stability of his rule if not strategically addressed.
• The upcoming public trial of the former director of Jordanian intelligence, Mohammed Dahabi, may further inflame public anger over perceived government corruption, possibly weakening the intelligence service at the very moment the king will need it most.
As of early April 2012, King Abdullah II of Jordan is facing an unprecedented combination of internal and regional stressors as he maneuvers to avoid the emergence of an Arab Spring scenario ― a Jordan Spring ― by allowing for greater relative demoratic representation within a structured timeline that would ensure evolutionary, as opposed to revolutionary, change. While the Hashemite Kingdom is no stranger to tensions with its large Palestinian population, protests in the last several months have drawn crowds from across the tribal and societal spectrum, effectively bridging the usual west-east bank chasm that had previously divided those opposed to various government positions or actions.
• The challenges facing the king and the stability of his monarchy are manifold:Prices for necessities are rising at the same time unemployment is increasing.
• Amnesty International is calling for the release of jailed protesters while demonstrators are demanding the arrest of allegedly corrupt politicians.
• The local opposition party, the Islamic Action Party (IAP), is carefully watching the progress of its parent organization and source of inspiration, the Muslim Brotherhood, as it assumes political control in nearby Egypt.
• The IAP, along with other Islamist groups, are demanding that King Abdullah II renounce the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. (Along with Egypt, Jordan is one of only two Arab countries to have such a treaty with Israel.)
Regional Pressures Mount
At this moment of gathering internal pressures, Jordan is surrounded by an almost unbelievably complex array of regional tensions. Last month, for example, its southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, asked Jordan to allow weapons to cross through it borders so they could be delivered into the hands of the armed opposition fighting against the ruling regime in Syria to the north. To date, the Jordanian King Abdullah has not yet answered the Saudi King Abdullah, though anonymous Jordanian officials have said it is likely Jordan will ultimately have to allow these shipments despite the incredible risk to its own stability, a concession driven by the $1.5 billion Jordan annually receives from the Saudis. Saudi Arabia has recently increased its financial support in large measure due to the fact that Jordan must now find alternative routes to ship the 75% of its exports that used to transit Syria. At the same time, a new type of import ― in the form of 90,000 Syrians ― has entered Jordan in the last year.
Its eastern neighbor, Iraq, once helped support Jordan with heavily discounted imported fuel that Jordan must now obtain at higher world market prices. In addition, over 600,000 Iraqi citizens fled into Jordan during its war, and have remained there as the slow-motion violence and instability in Iraq continues.
On the western border, Israel is pushing for military action against Iran over concerns Tehran is building a nuclear weapons capability. And through it all, the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians goes nowhere, a long-simmering conflict that has actually been overtaken by the other regional conflicts, yet still affects every one of them.
Allegations of Corruption Weakens a Traditional Domestic Ally
To complicate matters further, Jordan is now putting Mohammad Dahabi, the former head of its intelligence service, the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), on trial for charges of money laundering, embezzlement, and abuse of office. While ousting and/or charging former heads of GID with vague allegations of malfeasance or incompetence is nothing new ― one of Dahabi’s predecessors, Samih Battikhi, was convicted in 2003 of fraud ― this case is receiving extensive coverage thanks to the King’s 2011 decision to allow greater freedom of expression and public gatherings in hopes of avoiding a Jordanian chapter of the Arab Spring.
Dahabi, who was arrested in February of this year and who is still in prison after having his ninth request for bail denied, has stated he will fight the charges facing him. Dahabi willingness to create such ill-timed ― and, some would say, underserving ― embarrassment for King Abduallah II no doubt results from his rather unceremoniously sacking from the position as head of GID in December 2009 over long-simmering issues between the two (to include Dahabi’s disagreement with the king’s refusal to forge closer ties with Hamas, and Dahabi’s whisper campaign against the king’s former chief advisor). While GID’s dirty laundry has been aired in the past, it has never been examined in such a public fashion before an audience that is growing progressively less afraid of a once-feared intelligence service.
And yet the king, as had his father before him, relies a great deal on the support of the GID, which is part of the long-trusted Jordanian military. If, as widely suspected, Dahabi’s trial exposes an array of kick-back schemes and fraudulent investments run by senior members of the Jordanian military, the king will face intense pressure to remove the very same people on whom much of his ability to govern rests. The public ― along with the press and the various opposition parties in particular ― senses that momentum is on their side and that the king will have to make concessions that would have been unimaginable just a year ago.
However, the king cannot act too assertively against the military for fear of losing its vital support, both publicly and behind the scenes, as it works to keep the country from boiling over politically as summer approaches. Summer has traditionally been a time of heightened tension in Jordan, with increases in water restrictions accompanied by inflated prices that invariably result from the influx of much-resented wealthy travelers from the Gulf region who flock to Amman’s temperate climate during the hottest months of the year. As a result, GID and Jordan’s other security services will likely be tested by larger and angrier protests in the coming months. How they respond will depend both on how the public views the services and, in turn, how the services view the government it supports.
Save the Monarchy by Weakening the Monarchy
The government, while allowing for a degree of protest against some public policies, has made it clear that slogans or statements “directly against the regime” or that insult the king are illegal. Its investment in this position is evidenced by the fact that it has already arrested numerous protesters and reformers under these charges. On April 1, at a protest police described as the largest since demonstrations began 14 months ago, security services again had to arrest people who denounced the king during a protest calling ― ironically ― for the release of six people previously arrested for denouncing the sovereign. This is a self-perpetuating spiral that the king is eager to avoid, but is increasingly unable to do so without concrete and near-term concessions.
Among the concessions demanded by the opposition are amendments to three articles of the country’s constitution: removing the king’s power to dissolve parliament; giving parliament the power to appoint ministerial positions; and making the senate an elected body instead of an appointed one as is currently dictated. These three concessions would in no small measure diminish the power of the sovereign, but might ultimately be necessary in some form to sustain the monarchy itself.
This is not to say that the Hashemite Kingdom is on the brink of collapse, but rather to clearly identify the extraordinary challenges facing the king, who has up-to-now proven far more capable than his neighbors at avoiding truly devastating popular unrest. He has done so primarily by moving the country towards greater relative democracy at a pace that is respected ― and accepted ― by all parties concerned. However, the situation, both internally and regionally, is rapidly unfolding in a manner where it could very soon be the people who dictate the pace of the king’s reform.
• Protests may increase, both over corruption in the government and the pace of any reforms.
• At the same time, Islamist groups in Jordan will likely be emboldened by the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt and the wider region.
• King Abdullah II has to make concessions that, to a degree, might diminish his power in order to maintain stability as the country moves toward a more democratic form of governance.
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