Jordanians Count their Blessings

Zaatari_refugee_camp,_Jordan_(2) It’s a typical night in Amman, Jordan. A commercial sponsored by Al-Arabiya, the Saudi regional news channel, flashes on the screen of a small television. The face of Walid al- Moallem, Syria’s foreign minister, appears as he delivers his opening remarks to the Geneva II Syrian peace conference held last week. “Syria always keeps its promises,” he says to Ban Ki-moon. The scene cuts out, and immediately cuts back into an image of Syrian warplanes raining hellfire down upon the Syria landscape. Explosions, smoke, and misery ensue.

The commercial ends, and the main programming resumes. It is an interview with Hamdeen Sabahi, the well-known Egyptian politician who is believed one of the few real opponents to Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in upcoming Egyptian presidential elections. He talks about the state of political instability in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood resistance, and Egypt’s future. He tries to paint a rosy portrait about the future of Egyptian politics when few see one. Rather, they see the emergence of an extremist resistance, and the rise of—dare I say—another military strongman in Egypt. His name is not Nasser, nor Sadat, nor Mubarak. His name is Sisi.

At one point during the course of the interview, a red strip appears on the bottom of the screen. The breaking news headline reports that at least 50 have been killed in an attack in Yemen. There, the new government is struggling to unify the country, battling both jihadist and separatist forces.

This is the Middle East today, and this will be the Middle East tomorrow: continued instability, political uncertainty, and rising violence. Syria is a mess, Iraq is crumbling, Egypt is stuck, Lebanon is helpless, and an Israeli- Palestinian peace remains improbable. All of these arenas and conflicts together depict a turbulent region, and they are all interrelated on various levels. Yet as I sat there watching the nightly news in Amman, I couldn’t help but marvel that these conflicts are currently taking place next to, or proximal, to Jordan. Yet they are not taking place within Jordan.

Why is this the case? How has Jordan remained an oasis of stability within a region of seemingly perpetual conflict? Many predicted the fall of the Jordanian monarchy in 2011. So whatever happened to the “spring” in Jordan?

By now, few refer to the Arab revolutions as a “spring”, as much of the current instability in the region is the result of political upheaval since 2011. The overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt, the rise of Syrian protests in Syria, the exacerbation of Sunni-Shiite divisions in Iraq, and resistance against Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon have all served as kindle for the current circumstances. As uprisings around the region have overthrown(or have attempted to overthrow) dominant power structures, fundamental political divisions have emerged between various actors. And in many cases, violence and terrorism have capitalized upon chaos and uncertainty.

Yet this did not happen in Jordan. As I wrote in a previous column last year, Jordan has remained an outlier and is poised to remain so. King Abdullah is no cruel dictator, the government has granted concessions, and the opposition movements remain weak. But most importantly, when protests did emerge in Jordan, the government did not respond with violence—as Arab regimes did elsewhere. It let the population protest, and it promised reform. And while daily debate and criticism remain about the realization of these reforms, the government has never employed the heavy hand that has been employed elsewhere by incumbent regimes around the region. To the Jordanian people, the government is still human.

Moreover, the identity of “Jordanian” is in flux, and the government has increasingly become the glue that holds “Jordan” together. Since 1948 to the present day, between the majority Palestinian population and the increasing Syrian refugee population, Jordan has become a safe haven for those displaced by bordering conflicts: “Refugee” and “Jordanian” have become nearly synonymous in meaning. Over the past few years, Egyptians, Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans and Lebanese have poured into Jordan. Ethnic Jordanians are becoming strangers in their own land. As one joke goes, why are there foreign embassies for everyone else in Jordan, but none for Jordanians?

No one knows when, or even if, these refugees will leave. Down the road, new, fair election laws may in fact hurt Jordanian political dominance side by side many foreign residents. And because the public sector is the main employer of ethnic Jordanians, they are becoming evermore dependent upon the government for work and employment in the face of foreign competition. Thus, ethnic Jordanians are shifting their priorities from demanding services from their government to protecting their own status within the country.

At the same time, Jordanians of foreign descent are not eager to forcefully demand reform either. This reluctance is understandable. Jordan has welcomed many of these peoples, and these peoples welcome Jordan. In fact, there are more protests these days criticizing John Kerry’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative than there are against government authority and corruption. In other words, these protestors would rather try to defend the rights of Palestinians than fight for the rights of Jordanians.

In addition to its massive intelligence apparatus and Western support for Jordanian security, Jordan has successfully remained on the sidelines of political upheaval. Yet the government has yet to effectively address fundamental challenges, such as corruption, economic stagnation, and a desire for more fair representation. For King Abdullah and his government, remaining in power since the start of the uprisings in 2010 and preserving peace in his own country are major victories. Yet they remain seemingly pyrrhic victories—ones that threaten corrode Jordan from within. Domestic and regional circumstances have certainly bought Jordan time, so to speak, but they haven’t solved Jordan’s many problems. The golden standard of Jordanian politics has become government staying power when it should be countrywide reform. With more eyes on Jordan’s borders, fewer are on Jordan’s own problems.

With a bulging youth population and few opportunities for employment, discontent still remains. The status quo will most likely not satisfy the population of Jordan for very long. But for now, at least, Jordanians are counting their blessings. In an Arab world where, with few exceptions, reform and stability remain mutually exclusive, peace remains Jordan’s privilege. As one cab driver exclaimed to me, “I love King Abdullah because of peace! I want peace, no more!” This mentality may do more harm than good for Jordan. At the same time, it’s hard to argue the contrary when you watch the nightly news.