That Other Arab Country

Jonah Shepp —  Sep 5 2014 @ 8:35pm
by Jonah Shepp

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When I tell people I used to live in Jordan, I often get responses like “Jordan? That’s upstate, right?” It doesn’t get nearly as much coverage in the Western press as its neighbors, and Jordanians probably aren’t too upset about that, considering why its neighbors are in the news. Jordan hasn’t experienced a major conflict within its borders since the early 1970s, but squeezed in among three active war zones, it has suffered indirectly from all of the region’s major conflicts, mainly as a dumping ground for refugees. Jordan bore the brunt of the Palestinian exodus that year, and again in 1967. More recently, it took in a huge wave of refugees from Iraq after 2003, and since 2011 has struggled to accommodate a growing population of displaced Syrians, now numbering over 600,000.

It’s a relatively tiny country, but plays an outsized role in the region, so I thought I’d use my guest-blogging stint to give Dishheads a quick look at a place most American don’t hear much about. I reached out to a few friends and former colleagues in Jordan to see how the country is faring today in coping with the Syrian refugee crisis, the threat of ISIS, the complex diplomatic challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and day-to-day challenges. Here’s what they had to say.

“Jordan, at the grassroots and official levels, does not fear a face to face confrontation with ISIL,” writes my former boss Mahmoud al-Abed, a managing editor at The Jordan Times, “but the fear is from sleeper cells that might attack soft or hard targets.” He informs me that the General Intelligence Directorate, a domestic intel agency analogous to the NSA and also known as the mukhabarat (literally “informers”), has been making many arrests in connection with these potential sleeper cells. Another JT editor, Rand Dalgamouni, tells me that there have been some demonstrations in support of the “caliphate” in the poorer cities of Maan and Zarqa. Dozens of Salafists have been picked up by the police for expressing support for ISIS or participating in pro-ISIS rallies. She observes that “there seems to be a difference of opinion over the group between the old Salafist leaders and the young ones”, pointing to statements from jihadist leaders “that the young, gullible Salafists have fallen for ISIS’s bullshit”.

My friend M, a politically engaged young woman who asked not to be named here, offers her take on how Jordanians outside political and media circles are talking about the Islamic State, and what the crisis means for non-radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, which runs Jordan’s largest organized political party but isn’t much beloved by the state:

Average people, who don’t identify with extremism nor do they belong to any one party, worry about their safety (and rightfully so) when they see ISIS taking over parts of the Levant willy-nilly, or murdering people left, right and center. I feel there is a strong counter-movement under cover, but nothing is being said openly about fighting Islamists in Jordan. I think a more accurate way of describing their status quo is that they’re being watched closely (in Maan or otherwise), and anything they do that has the slightest potential of compromising Jordan’s safety and stability is shot down at the very early stages, i.e. they’re being kept under control. I think it’s safe to assume that Jordan’s relationship with Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], or non-radical Islamists, is quite strained right now, not because of a particular thing they did, but because they’re basically the gateway to something bigger than any of us, and that is ISIS.

Jordan, which has been a close American ally since the early years of the Cold War, is also likely among the regional partners the US is counting on to help effect a durable solution to the ISIS crisis. As Obama mentioned in his press conference in Wales today, Jordan is one of the NATO partner countries with which the alliance is looking to bolster its security cooperation. King Abdullah II participated in this week’s NATO summit, and it will be interesting to see what role Jordan plays in the anti-ISIS coalition. I suspect that role will be mostly sotto voce, though, as Amman is generally loath to take public positions that could hurt its relationships with neighboring governments, even those it doesn’t much care for. “I think it’s only a matter of strategy for Jordan to forge a better relationship with NATO,” my friend M. writes, “because if ‘shit hits the fan’ in the region, Jordan will need all the help it can get.”

For three years, Jordan’s government has charted a tricky course on the Syrian civil war, declining to intervene directly out of fear of antagonizing a major trade partner, but also allowing the CIA to train rebel fighters on its territory. The conflict, meanwhile, has wreaked economic havoc on Jordan, reducing its already modest GDP growth by as much as 2 percentage points last year, to say nothing of the human toll of the refugee crisis. Just last week, the country issued another massive aid appeal to help cope with the refugee burden and other spillover effects of the Syrian war.

“As far as I am concerned, I believe that Amman wants neither Assad nor the terrorists to hold the reins of power in Syria,” Mahmoud tells me. “There is no third option now except a dragged-on conflict that might take 10 years with de facto division of Syria. In the face of such a scenario, Jordan’s only option is to defend its security and interests day by day, and think of alternatives to Syria as a key trade partner.”

The Gaza conflict, Rand and Mahmoud tell me, has galvanized support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and most Jordanians seem to agree that the outcome was a win for Hamas and the Palestinian cause in general. Rand writes: “I would say the majority in Jordan celebrates Gaza’s truce as a victory (some blocked the streets at night in celebration), but I disagree–too much devastation, deaths and displacement. It may be a success of sorts for Hamas, since the goal of the war was to obliterate them. I think Jordan’s government wouldn’t have minded to see Hamas destroyed though.”

Meanwhile, as they are wont to do, the regional security crisis has enabled some worrying legal and constitutional changes that threaten to undermine Jordan’s long-drawn-out democratization and curtail civil liberties. Rana Sabbagh highlights two proposed constitutional amendments that would give the king formal power to appoint army and intelligence chiefs directly, rather than acting on the recommendations of his cabinet. Although these amendments won’t substantially change the way decisions are made, Rand explains to me that they are controversial because “if the King starts appointing these two positions without government interference, there is no one to answer to Parliament if the appointed leaders screw up.” A new anti-terrorism law is also raising some concerns about its potential for abuse, which seems to be more a feature than a bug of anti-terrorism laws in general.

This is hardly a complete picture of what’s going on in Jordan today, but I hope it sheds a little light on the view from inside one of the places that has a whole lot to lose from the chaos engulfing the region and much to gain from setting these conflicts on a track toward permanent resolutions. My guest-blogging week is coming to an end, but I’d still love to hear your comments on this, especially from readers in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East, so don’t hesitate to write in if you have something to add.

(Photo of Amman by Maya-Anaïs Yataghène)