JORDAN seems uncannily quiet. The last show of popular dissent erupted two years ago when protesters rioted over energy prices. These days there is barely a stir, despite the American-led coalition bombing of jihadists of “Islamic State” (IS) to the north in Syria and the east in Iraq; and despite Israel’s devastating bombardment of Gaza and the encroachment on Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, to the west.
Last month the Jordanian army closed the country’s borders, leaving thousands of Syrian refugees stranded in no-man’s land near Ruwayshid, on Jordan’s border with Iraq. Somewhat perversely, some in Jordan think the kingdom benefits from the instability all around. The Arab spring’s shift from civil protest to jihadist turmoil has spurred powerful security forces to clamp down on opponents once again. And the danger that Lebanon might implode like Syria offers the prospect of more Arab investment as money shifts to the last haven in the Levant. “People are grateful for the security and stability they are enjoying in Jordan,” says a minister.
But Jordanian commentators warn against mistaking quiet for happiness. All but one of the dozen taxi-drivers this correspondent took in Amman, the capital, viewed the American-led bombing as the latest chapter in a western conspiracy to defang Sunni Islam, the religion of the vast majority of Jordanians. Public borrowing continues to mushroom: public debt is set to top $30 billion, equal to 86% of GDP, by the end of the year. Jordanians are drowning in debt too, not just for homes, but for groceries. Prices keep rising, but salaries are capped. The monthly stipend of $1,000 that IS is reputed to pay its fighters is tempting for a policeman earning half that amount.
The quiet has more to do with state control, fear of unrest and popular detachment from decision-making. Criticism of Jordan’s participation in the American-led coalition against IS is muffled in state-vetted newspapers. The trial of Islamists in state security courts for expressing their support for IS on social media has prompted critics to stop voicing their protest on the street as well as the internet. “The silence shows that most people have given up hope of influencing or reforming the system,” says a former royal confidant.
Unlike his father King Hussein, who bowed to popular pressure and refused to join America’s war to evict Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, King Abdullah has seconded six fighter-jets to America’s anti-IS operation and has sent arms to Iraqi Kurds. The late King Hussein threatened to abrogate his peace treaty with Israel in 1997 after the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu (then in his first premiership), ordered a failed operation to kill a Hamas leader. But his son’s hands seem tied. No matter that Israel shot dead a Jordanian judge at its West Bank terminal crossing in March 2014, and now seems to be threatening the status quo on the Temple Mount, the site of the al-Aqsa mosque—a cornerstone of Hashemite legitimacy. Jordan depends on Israel for security, water and, following a $15 billion deal in September to supply gas from its Mediterranean gas-fields, energy too.
King Abdullah has tried to appease his citizens with tough rhetoric. He has condemned Zionist extremism as well as the Islamic sort. Jordan marked the 20th anniversary of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty on October 26th by calling an emergency session at the UN Security Council to protest against Israeli attempts to “divide and rule” al-Aqsa. There would be no celebrations, said an official, because the promised peace dividends had failed to materialise. Jordan also briefly released jihadist ideologues (see our story), in the hope they might turn popular sentiment against IS, although it now appears to be backtracking for fear that they might rally more fighters.
Increasingly the king seems to be ruling alone. He recently assumed the prime minister’s powers to nominate Jordan’s intelligence chief and chief-of-staff. He sent his jets into action in Syria without a parliamentary debate. And when a gaggle of parliamentarians began circulating a petition opposing the war, he addressed a gathering of leftist parliamentarians in military fatigues. “We feel under military rule,” says a blogger, under threat from a press law which has banned nearly 300 news websites, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international media watchdog.
Despite another raft of anti-terror legislation, living remains easier in Jordan than most of the region. The daily grind does not involve dodging barrel bombs, as in Syria. And unlike most regional autocrats, such as Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the king at least tolerates the Muslim Brotherhood, his most organised opposition, even if he rarely consults them.
But for a significant few, despair at reform is giving way to thoughts of alternatives. Officials estimate the number of jihadists in the kingdom at around 10,000. And some wonder how long the Muslim Brotherhood will remain a loyal opposition. The leader of the Brotherhood’s political party, the Islamic Action Front, Muhammad al-Ziyoud, toys with calling for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to replace King Abdullah as the Custodian of al-Aqsa. “The government doesn’t represent the people,” says another senior member of the Brotherhood. “Our members are not angels, there’s a limit to how much they can bear.”
Tellingly, when the Brothers opened a new complex in Jordan’s second city, Irbid, it named the main hall, Sayid Qutb, after a wayward leader of Egypt’s Brotherhood, who in the 1950s preached jihad against Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s then president and the Pharaoh of the day. The choice of name might have marked an attempt to reclaim the mantle of jihad from IS, but it could also have been a warning aimed at the king.