King Abdullah of Jordan had hoped next week’s parliamentary elections would be the jewel in the crown of a reform process designed to inoculate the Kingdom from the fever of political rebellion raging across the region. Little chance of that now, with the most popular opposition movement — the Muslim Brotherhood — having opted to boycott the poll in protest at the limited powers on offer to the election winners and against electoral laws that considerably diminish the value of urban votes. That’s bad news for the prospects for stability in a country beset by rising political tensions fueled by economic hardships and in growing danger of infection from the morbid symptoms of the civil war in neighboring Syria.
“Jordan faces growing economic challenges and a political system whose legitimacy is increasingly questioned,” notes Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Add to that the risk of spillover jihadist violence from Syria, as well as the rise of Muslim Brotherhood influence in both Egypt and Syria potentially emboldening Jordan’s own Brotherhood to articulate more radical demands, and there is some concern of instability in Jordan.”
The immediate impact of the Syrian conflict on Jordan’s fragile polity is twofold: the influx of refugees into Jordan and the outflow of jihadists from Jordan into Syria to join the fight. According to U.N. figures, some 183,000 Syrian refugees have already made their way to Jordan, and the real number may already be higher — and likely to grow while an end to the civil war remains elusive. And even in the misery of the sparse tent camps in which they’re being forced to endure a brutal winter, those refugees impose a further strain on an economy already struggling to meet its obligations to its base. Tensions are reportedly rising in those camps over lack of food and resources. And the refugee issue carries a political undertone for the tribal Bedouin support base of the Hashemite throne, whose traditional prerogatives have long been threatened by a Palestinian refugee population that constitutes Jordan’s demographic majority.
Jihadism creates an even more immediate security impact. Syrian Islamists have begun using Jordan as a rear area from which to stage their insurgency in the south, according to Nicolas Pelham of the International Crisis Group, while public calls from Jordanian Salafis have seen hundreds of young radicals cross the border to join the fight in Syria’s civil war. By some accounts, the main body of foreign fighters in Jabhat al-Nusra — recently branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. — are Iraqi and Jordanian. Security officials in Amman fear that the return home of this cohort of battle-hardened and radicalized Islamists will result in a recurrence of the domestic security nightmare faced by Arab regimes when volunteers who’d fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s went home a decade later.
The long-term impact of the Syrian rebellion, of course, is just as much a source of anxiety: a persistence of the bloody stalemate or a breakup of Syria into sectarian fiefdoms means the creation of a long-term jihadi breeding ground right on Jordan’s border. Iraq’s centers of insurgent militancy were separated by hundreds of miles of desert from Jordan’s towns and cities, whereas Syrian cauldrons of rebellion, like the city of Dara‘a, are immediately across the border from Jordanian hotbeds of militancy such as Irbid and Zarqa.
And even though King Abdullah in November 2011 urged President Bashar Assad to step down, today the Kingdom’s officials are anxious at the prospect of a rebel victory. That’s because the Muslim Brotherhood remains the dominant element of both the political and military leadership structures backed by the West — and its strongest competition among the armed rebel formations comes from more radical Salafis rather than secular liberals. Amman fears that a rebel victory in Syria, combined with the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, will embolden the Jordanian Brotherhood to challenge the power of the throne.
The regional ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood would, by the logic of the reform process, make the case for integrating it into the Jordanian political system at a moment when its demands are moderate — insisting, for example, that winning the election should give it the right to form the government even as the King retains extensive executive power. The Brotherhood’s inclination is to make a political deal; however, the authorities remain reluctant to go down that road. “But the palace is also stuck in a difficult position,” Barnes-Dacey notes. “If it opens up a more representative political system, it risks angering its tribal base, which fears the Palestinian majority taking over and denying the tribes their traditional patronage privileges.”
“Jordan’s best hope for avoiding a potential disaster may be the fact that many Jordanians, even among the Islamists and others in the opposition, prefer the stability of the status quo and modest efforts at reform to the sort of turmoil that has rocked neighboring Iraq and Syria in recent years,” notes Barnes-Dacey. But the impact of the ongoing turmoil in Syria on the increasingly brittle political order in Jordan suggests that the kingdom’s rulers will be living dangerously for some time to come.