Jordan: The Next Domino in the Mideast?

world | Jan 30, 2011 | By Martin Barillas

Initial and hopeful analysis stemming from the deadly riots that toppled Tunisia’s dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali—who had been relatively friendly to US and EU interests—are growing more cautious as news comes of violent disturbances in Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. Elliot Abrams, a former National Security adviser to President George W. Bush, for example wrote in a weekend op-ed that the regime change in Tunisia and its prospects in Egypt are a vindication of the doctrine of that Arabs too may aspire to democracy. Reports from on the ground in Egypt and Tunisia are less hopeful. Linking the three inflamed countries is the global Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s situation appears to be unraveling, as protesters have confronted police in riots that have left as many as 100 dead and scores injured. Frightened housewives are stocking up on food and bottled water that has now been marked up at least 3 times the usual rate. Famed diplomat Mohammed elBaradei has served as a beacon to the protesters: on January 30, he spoke in the evening to crowds and with a bullhorn told them that the tide of regime change cannot be held back. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have now both called for an orderly “transition” in Egypt, even while President Hosni Mubarak has long been a client of the United States. Muslim religious leaders have issued fatwas recommending resistance to Egypt’s government as the denouement of days of rage remains to be seen.

Some reports suggest and news photographs document the desertion of police officers and military to the ranks of protesters. So far, Egypt’s military—Mubarak’s essential ally—have not yet been deployed in force. Interior Minister Habib Al-Adly has ordered the country’s police to redeploy to quell violence at cities nationwide. On January 30, riots seized police stations and released scores of prisoners while adding to the general chaos. Criminals have set up road blocks and demand money and valuables from motorists. Observers in Egypt speaking to Western news outlets, as well as some Western analysts, have said that the Muslim Brotherhood—the socio-political movement that is prohibited from fielding political candidates—has not been visible during the rioting.

However, the Brotherhood has long been a thorn in Mubarak’s side even while it has been linked to terrorist groups such as Hamas. Coincidentally, other influential Muslim groups—such as the US-based Council on American Islamic Relations—are weighing in on the affray. In a statement, CAIR called for “all governments to reflect the will of the people,” while asking the US government to demand an end to the use of violence by the Egyptian government and said “Our own government can best assist this process of reform by working with the people to support freedom, justice and respect for human rights.“ CAIR has been linked in the past by the media to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist organizations. The group noted in a January 28 update that the executive director of its Chicago chapter, Ahmed Rehab, is on the ground in Egypt and blogging on the ongoing protests.

In Yemen, thousands came out in areas controlled by Al-Qaeda terrorists in exuberant displays of opposition to that country’s leaders who have been assisted by the United States in rooting out the Islamists. But even more disquieting is the prospect of Jordan, which like Egypt borders on Israel, may now be experiencing a similar irrational exuberance of an Islamist origin.

On January 28, the very day that saw Egypt’s President Mubarak replace his prime minister and name a vice-president, Islamists, leftists and trade unionists gathered in Jordan at government buildings and the Egyptian embassy to demand political change and wider freedoms. A crowd of at least 4,000 chanted: “We want change.” Banners and chants showed a wider range of grievances than the high food prices that fueled earlier protests, and included demands for free elections and the dismissal of the appointed Prime Minister Samir Rifai. While the government has announced price reductions for essentials such as gasoline, as well as salary hikes for bureaucrats and job creation schemes, opposition parties appear unmoved. Protesters are demanding action on Jordan’s polity and economy, as the country struggles with the worst economic downturn in decades. However, some were heard to call for jihad and claim the Koran as their country's only constitution.

Jordan currently has a record deficit of $2 billion. In recent weeks, the government announced $550 million in food and fuel subsidies, nonetheless. The plan included $283 million in raises for active and retired government personel, and military pensioners. The $28 a month raise came days after a $169 million plan to improve living conditions. The current minimum wage is $211 a month in a country that has the most expensive capital in the Arab world.

The protest after Friday prayers was organized by the Islamic Action Front (IAF), a constituent part of the global Muslim Brotherhood which is the only effective opposition and biggest party, but included members of leftist parties and trade unions. “After Tunisia, Arab nations have found their way toward the path of political freedom and dignity,” said Zaki Bani Rusheid, a leading Islamist politician. Jordan’s opposition, lead by a Muslim Brotherhood that has been linked to the Hamas terrorist organization now ruling Gaza, is demanding a reversal of free-market reforms blamed for income disparities.

Linking the protests in Jordan to other Muslim countries, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Hammam Saeed, warned on January 29 that the contagion in Egypt will spread across the Mideast where leaders allied with the United States will be toppled. As if spontaneously, protests emerged in cities across the globe (including Washington, New York, and San Francisco) calling for the US to cease its support for Mubarak. Saeed stated, "We say to the Americans, 'do not interfere'," and "Your control which has lasted 100 years is finished. We are living in a new era."

In Amman, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, leftists and trade unionists "Mubarak, step down" and "the decision is made, the people's revolt will remain." And in front of the office of Prime Minister Rifai, more protesters chanted "Rifai, it's time for you to go," chanted the group. “What we urgently need is real political and socio-economic reforms,” IAF secretary general Hamzeh Mansur told the crowds.

So far Jordan's protests have been small in size, but indicate tensions faced by Jordan's King Abdullah II, a key U.S. ally, who is now issuing promises of reform in recent days in an apparent attempt to quell domestic discontent over economic troubles and lack of political freedoms. In addition, while relations with neighboring Israel are less than cordial, Jordan forms the eastern bookend of a zone extending all the way to Egypt that has provided some security to the Jewish State following the conflicts three decades ago. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on January 30 that Israel is “anxiously” watching the unfolding events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast.

As the Brotherhood has had some success in Egypt, it appears emboldened in Jordan. While he has deep support from the Bedouin-dominated military, Abdullah II has already made if but minor concessions. It is unlikely that he would bow to demands for popular election of the prime minister and Cabinet officials, traditionally appointed by the king. As for the powerful Brotherhood, it would appear that it is draping itself in the vestments of democracy.

Saeed of the Brotherhood said Arabs have grown disgruntled with US domination of oil, its military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistand, and its support for "totalitarian" leaders in the region. Said Saeed, "The Americans and (President Barack) Obama must be losing sleep over the popular revolt in Egypt," he said. "Now, Obama must understand that the people have woken up and are ready to unseat the tyrant leaders who remained in power because of US backing."

While Saeed did not specifically name King Abdullah, of Prime Minister Rifai he said that he "must draw lessons from Tunisia and Egypt and must swiftly implement political reforms." As for the US, said Saeed, "We tell the Americans 'enough is enough.'"

The IAF is generally considered to be the political wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. Current IAF Secretary-General Ishaq Farhan is a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, a founder of the group and a former education minister and senator. Farhan is also listed as a director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), founded in the United States in 1980 by members of the Global Muslim Brotherhood promoting the “Islamization of Knowledge.” IIIT was associated with the now defunct SAAR Foundation, a network of Islamic organizations located in northern Virginia that was raided by the Federal government in March 2002 in connection with the financing of terrorism. In 2000, Farhan was denied entry to the US after his visa was revoked. The very same IAF declared jihad against the US in the wake of the war in Iraq.

The police response to protesters was notably milder than in Egypt. In Amman, police handed out bottles of juice and water to protesters who marched from the Al-Hussein mosque to the protest site in front of the municipal headquarters. “Our demands are legitimate. We want bread and freedom,” they shouted, as well as “We demand social justice and freedom”, “No to oppression, yes to change” and, “We need a national salvation government.” But the Islamist opposition and others say the new measures introduced by Abdullah's government are not enough as poverty levels are running at 25 percent in the desert kingdom, whose capital is the most expensive city in the Arab world, according to several independent studies.

Three days of protests in Amman have brought the Muslim Brotherhood an audience with King Abdullah. But the Brotherhood appears unmoved by his proffered reforms. "We will continue our protests until our demands are met," said Brotherhood spokesman Jamil Abu Bakr. Since Abdullah has remained heretofore unwilling to allow popular election of his prime minister, and the economic largesse he has delivered appears insufficient, it remains to be seen what will happen. The ball is the Brotherhood’s court. 



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not of Spero News.

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