Salman Shaikh’s message is that Jordan’s ability to maintain stable relations with Israel means that democratic reforms there are now crucial to western interests, including a renewed Middle East peace process. But in truth a genuinely democratic Jordan, or democracy in any other Arab country for that matter, would oppose U.S. strategic interests that have long condoned the Israeli occupation and colonisation of East Jerusalem and the rest of the Palestinian homeland. The U.S. and other western powers only support changes to the form, rather than the substance, of democratic institutions. Real power in Jordan still clearly remains with the palace and the security establishment.
Far from demanding democratic reform, western powers have instead focused on the type of economic reform that Shaikh illustrates with references to Jordanian co-operation with the EU, the U.S. and the GCC. This type of “reform” has prompted neo-liberal policies that facilitated the emergence of an unscrupulous business elite that substituted rent-seeking ventures for high added-value enterprise. This “rent-favouring” trend in Jordan’s economy has been reinforced by external financial assistance that has made the national budget much less dependent on tax revenue from citizens keen on democratic representation.
The destabilising effects of the Arab spring hit Jordan when it had already been plunged into deep economic recession. Sizeable demonstrations and sit-ins became a weekly occurrence, and saw violent clashes with security forces and supposed regime supporters who were often suspected of being plain-clothed militias mobilised by the police.
The King’s messages to the government and the government’s own pronouncements, along with those of the official media, showed considerable sensitivity to these ominous developments. But long-overdue attempts at real democratic reform have so far been delayed by short-sighted concerns. Loyalists to the monarchy loudly denounced the proclamation of a “constitutional democracy”. When a “committee of political dialogue” was formed to deliberate possible changes to the electoral law and the constitution, it was handed a warning against downsizing the King’s powers in favour of those of the parliament and the cabinet. The committee’s recommendations, as well as those of the more senior commission of constitutional reform formed shortly afterwards, therefore turned out to be too insubstantial for Jordan to qualify as a constitutional democracy.
Where Shaikh goes seriously astray is when he refers to social cleavages. He claims they have been exacerbated by economic inequality associated with the supposed dominance of Jordanians of Palestinian origin in business, and the dominance of East Jordanians in senior government positions and the military and security establishments. But there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the business elite is composed of fewer East Bank Jordanians than their proportional weight in the population. And there is even less evidence that the said distribution has anything to do with economic inequality.
Yes, the people of Jordan have their differences, but these are far less divisive than in other Arab countries. Jordan is therefore more resistant than other states to forces of social fragmentation. Other Arab countries suffer from differences associated with ethnic origin, religious belief, or confessional affiliation. Jordanians, however, are predominantly homogenous in their ethnicity as Arabs, in their religion as Muslims and in their confession as Sunna. Their diversity is instead limited to geographic origin or location and tribal affiliation. They are also either urban or rural and, of course, either deprived or affluent.
In dealing with such diversities, both real and fabricated, a choice has to be made between the authoritarian and the democratic. The former strives to cultivate conflict with the time-honoured aim of divide and rule. This might succeed in the short-term, but fragmentation will ultimately lead to civil strife and the failure of the state. It is to be hoped that the Jordanian regime still has the wisdom to pursue the democratic approach of nation-building. It could strive to homogenise its various affiliations into one common identity, namely Arab-Jordanian citizenship. This citizenship, within a genuinely constitutional monarchy, would guarantee all Jordanians equality before the law and the right to participate in a functioning democracy in exchange for their allegiance to the national homeland.
Taher Kanaan is a non-resident research professor at the Doha Institute’s Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. email@example.com