Jordan’s New Politics of Tribal Dissent

Foreign Policy 

Jordan wants the United States to believe that Islamists, headlined by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) party, are the most dangerous opposition in the kingdom. Yet this is pure fiction, a ruse that exploits Western fears of an Islamist takeover while justifying the authoritarian monarchy’s preference for shallow political reforms cloaked in the language of democracy. In truth, nearly two years of protests have exposed the more perilous threat to the Hashemite kingship to be a new generation of tribal opposition. Led by popular youth movements, these grass-roots activists demand that King Abdullah honor past promises to deliver true change, such as a fairer elections law and the elimination of corruption. Left unattended, this unprecedented wave of dissent will create a major crisis for the regime.

Tribal youth opposition began in February 2011, when demonstrations rocked the small town of Dhiban. These groups have since mobilized hundreds of protest events on a weekly basis, including dabke song-and-dance performances, impromptu street protests drawing dozens of people, organized marches attracting hundreds, and contentious acts like blocking highways and harassing government motorcades. That such agitation has spread across Jordan’s rural governorates, where many tribal communities reside, flies in the face of academic stereotypes. Whereas urban opposition groups like the IAF draw strength from the Palestinian majority, concentrated in sprawling Amman, the East Bank minority, exemplified by the tribes, is supposed to be the regime’s loyal bedrock. The reality is more complex. Tribal youth activists respect the institution of monarchy, but they have lost trust in this monarch and all of his appointed cabinets. Amman may still be a hotbed of opposition, but the most spirited Friday protests now erupt in the northern and southern tribal areas outside the capital.

New tribal dissidents differ from urban opposition in their informality. Unlike leftists, they do not aspire to create political parties, which they associate with factionalism and elitism. Unlike prominent Amman-based groups like the IAF and the star-studded National Front for Reform, they do not have vertical leadership or deep pockets. In fact, many young activists accuse these mainstream forces of cooperating with the regime’s plodding framework of shallow reform for their own benefit, and have rejected their offers to create a broader alliance. Even Amman’s own youth movements like Jayeen, the 1952 Constitution Movement, and the March 24 Shabab (which also sport many East Bankers, but are wealthier and more Westernized than their rural kin) have more organizational formality in their membership, meetings, and agendas.

Continue reading…