Jordan Is Living Dangerously as Syria Burns

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Mohammad Hannon / AP

Syrian refugees make their way on water and mud, at Zaatari Syrian refugee camp, near the Syrian border in Mafraq, Jordan, Jan. 8, 2013.

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.”

(MORE: Jordan’s Survival Strategy Hits a Wall: Tightening Funds Make It Hard to Buy Support)

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.

(MORE: Will Syria’s Conflict Spill Over into War-Weary Iraq?)

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.”

(MORE: Jordan’s King Holds On, Despite Rising Discontent)

The social contract that has kept the Hashemite throne intact has involved securing the support of the Bedouin tribes indigenous to the east bank of the Jordan river through generous welfare benefits and privileged access to state jobs — first and foremost in the security forces — in exchange for their loyalty in the face of challenges from the Palestinian majority. Even without a political shift that reallocates resources, the patronage system is under breaking strain. A desperate cash-flow crisis forced the government to seek an emergency IMF loan of $2 billion late last year, but the condition of that loan was that Jordan scrap fuel subsidies in the hope of trimming its annual $2.3 billion expenditure on subsidies that fuel its massive budget deficit. The 50% rise in fuel costs sparked an unprecedented upsurge of protest — centered mostly in tribal communities that have benefited most from the social safety net. So the state faces dual challenges to its legitimacy — the Palestinians, among whom the Muslim Brotherhood is strongest, demand greater democratic representation, while the Bedouin tribes protest corruption and the loss of their traditional economic prerogatives in a state on fiscal life-support. And the austerity policies that are fueling rising tensions are going to get worse, with the authorities already having made clear that the next government will be expected to increase electricity prices and impose power cuts.

“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.

PHOTOS: 2011 Protests over Government in Jordan