01.30.11

Revolt in the Middle East: Is Jordan Next?

As protests have spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen, some observers wonder if the key U.S. ally, Jordan, is next. By Rebecca Davis O’Brien

With a growing wave of discontent in the Middle East, from Tunisia to Egypt, Jordan’s king fired his government and named a new prime minister on Tuesday, an attempt to get ahead of protests in his country that began with thousands marching last week. King Abdullah II has appointed Marouf al-Bakhit with the goal of making “practical steps, quick and concrete, to launch a process of genuine political reform, comprehensive development, and take genuine steps towards strengthening democracy.”

Rebecca Davis O’Brien on whether Jordan will follow Egypt and Tunisia.

On January 30th, King Abdullah II of Jordan typically celebrates his birthday along with throngs of adoring subjects across his desert kingdom. But apart from a few congratulatory signs in shopping areas, the mood on the streets of Amman Sunday, the king’s 49th birthday, was more tense than festive.

The aftershocks of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia have spread across the Middle East: A broad-based protest has risen against the Egyptian government; Yemen teeters on the brink of chaos. But for some, it’s the protests further north in Jordan that have proved the most surprising this past week, as thousands of Jordanians—mainly young and middle-age men with T-shirts and posters emblazoned with messages of protest and images of Che Guevara—took to the streets to demand political reform, fairer prices and wages, and the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai.

The demonstrations were peaceful, but surely unsettling nonetheless.

In the West, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is either known as a bulwark of regional stability or scarcely known at all. Jordan is a safe and moderate ally, with a tradition of beautiful female monarchs and reasonable kings in Western suits. But Jordanians live a different reality, one marked by widespread unemployment (estimates range from 12 to over 30 percent); soaring gas and food costs; and a stagnant economy. That the empowered elite seems totally out of touch with the exigencies of an expanding, impoverished, disenfranchised populace, has only added insult to injury.

“This [unrest] has been building for a long time,” said Paul Hijazin, a Jordanian journalist. “People are saying that the government does not understand what the daily struggles of the people are.”

The embattled prime minister is emblematic of this divide. A wealthy, soft-spoken graduate of Harvard and Oxford, Rifai is a member of a hugely influential Jordanian family that has produced three prime ministers in six decades. Although he has pushed for reform, and proudly touts Jordan’s soccer teams and election turnouts on his website and Twitter feed, Rifai is seen by some Jordanians as out of touch.

Thousands of Jordanians—mainly young and middle-age men with T-shirts and posters emblazoned with messages of protest and images of Che Guevara—took to the streets to demand political reform.

King Abdullah II himself was educated in the West, at Deerfield, Georgetown, and Sandhurst, but is widely considered a man of the people. Unlike Egypt, Jordan enjoys some press freedom, though public criticism of the king is prohibited. Abdullah has met the civil unrest with calls for some reform. “There should be nothing to be afraid of,” the Jordan Times quoted the king as saying last week. Faced with accusations of cronyism, the king also promised to address what is known as wasta—an elaborate network of connections and influence that many complain has created to a sclerotic bureaucratic culture rife with corruption.

Jordan is a tiny desert country of about 6.5 million people, with a hodge-podge population bounded by the whims of post-war British mapmaking. Palestinians—most relocated to the newly independent Jordan in the decades after 1947—comprise about two-thirds of the country, and many live in cramped refugee camps. Bedouin tribes still roam ancestral herding routes and compete for regional influence. Orthodox Christians mingle easily with Sunni Muslims. Since 2003, well over half a million Iraqis have flooded into Jordan from the east.

For much of the past decade, Jordan has reaped fruits of an expanding world economy under the leadership of King Abdullah, whose father, the beloved King Hussein, ruled Jordan for nearly 50 years. Skyscrapers rise high above the Amman skyline; businessmen stay in luxury hotels; farms and summer homes dapple the Jordan River Valley. And yet, for most Jordanians, clustered in dusty outposts and urban centers, this growth has been elusive. Many families scrape by on $200 a month while the children of the Jordanian elite go clubbing and drive luxury SUVs. In small-town, gossipy Jordan, where every cab driver and shop owner seems to know each other, such inequities are glaring.

“Mostly, there are no problems,” said Amjad, a cab driver and father of seven who became a friend of mine in Jordan. (Jordan is the kind of place where one can get into a cab and your driver will become a good friend and occasional cat-sitter.) “Jordan is very safe. Jordan is different than Egypt. Yes, the life is very expensive, but that is all the world. You must work more. I work long, long hours.”

A few years ago, when the government removed oil subsidies, sending petrol, heating gas, and food prices soaring, Jordanians reeled. The global financial crisis exacerbated the problem, particularly because Jordan depends heavily on American aid. Schoolteachers who attempted to unionize were met with harsh crackdowns, and delayed elections last year were met with protests in the tribal southern areas.

“What people want is the government to be out and a new unity government,” Hijazin said. “They want there to be a crackdown on corruption, and people that supposedly embezzled money to be put on trial. They want unions. People are asking for basic civil and political reform.”

Friends of mine in Jordan doubt that this unrest—which as of Sunday was beginning to die down—would result in revolution, but say the king may change the government, to offset any future outcry.

When I lived in Jordan, I worked at a liberal arts boarding school founded by the king, whose aim was to draw together students from all walks of Arab life—from refugee camps to the Gulf oligarchy. Boys from Jordan’s poor satellite cities would wear the same uniform, take the same classes, and sleep in the same dorm as boys from Jordan’s political elite. Though blurred, the economic divide was still manifest, although all of them seemed to feel strong, if inchoate, political fervor.

Early on in my first year there, I asked one of my colleagues, a young woman of Bedouin descent, about the tremendous socioeconomic gulf I’d observed in Jordan. She shrugged and said: “Jordanians don’t know what they should demand.”

But now, it seems, they do. Hijazin suspects that nothing major will come of the protests—there are no concrete proposals, or strong leaders—but he says, optimistically: “We are maybe experiencing birthing pains at the moment. We are going to suffer a bit, but we have to focus on internal stuff. Jordanians have depended on government for everything.

“Now, maybe we are the kid who’s on his own.”

Rebecca Davis O'Brien is a writer based in New York City. She served as an associate managing editor and columnist at the Harvard Crimson and has written for The New York Times, Parade, and Forbes.com, among other publications. Her first book, a memoir of her two years working at a boarding school in Jordan, will be published by Algonquin Books in 2011.