In 2011, during the first wave of the Arab Spring, Jordan stood out as an oasis of stability. Recurrent but largely peaceful protests demanding political reform led to two prime ministers being sacked by King Abdullah II in February and October. This year, in the movement’s next wave, some protesters have shifted their focus to direct criticism of the monarch—an act that can lead to a prison sentence of up to three years in the kingdom. Could King Abdullah, an American ally in a highly unstable region, be the next casualty of popular upheaval?
That’s unlikely at this point mostly because protesters still focus mainly on reforms, both political and economic. They appear willing to give the king one more chance. Whatever he proposes, we can certainly expect a bumpy road before the monarch manages to reclaim any domestic legitimacy, especially after almost two years of significant political and economic crises. Not helping are the growing presence of jihadists —11 members of an al Qaeda-linked cell were arrested in October in an alleged local bomb plot—and the influx of more than 100,000 refugees from neighboring Syria.
In early September, thousands of protesters in nine of Jordan’s 12 provinces demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Fayez al-Tarawneh after the government decided to raise fuel prices by 10 percent. Although King Abdullah promptly suspended the government’s move, some protesters openly mocked him, leading to at least 15 arrests. In October, more than 10,000 Jordanians protested for political reforms in the capital, Amman, despite the king’s call for early elections and plans for electoral reform.
Most recently, in mid-November, thousands protested in cities and towns in more than 100 demonstrations across Jordan following the government’s decision to lower fuel subsidies once again—this time to avoid complete economic collapse by reducing the country’s budget deficit and securing a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. In some rallies, protesters spoke out against the king; in Dhiban, some burned pictures of him. The Islamist opposition—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) party—has been vocal about its intention to keep protests going, despite the use by riot police of water canons and tear gas on protesters. So far 17 civilians and 58 policemen have been hurt, one protester has been killed, and 158 have been arrested. The military has said it will use “an iron fist” against protesters who “harm public or private facilities or citizens.”
All this unrest exacerbates a severe political crisis. Besides the dismissal of two prime ministers in 2011, three prime ministers have already held power this year: Awn al-Khasawneh, Fayez al-Tarawneh, and the current leader, Abdullah Ensour. King Abdullah has called for elections to be held on Jan. 23, but the opposition—particularly the IAF—has announced plans to boycott the election. Despite concessions by the king that include a constitutional court and an election that will apparently produce an elected prime minister for the first time, rather than one appointed by the monarch, the unrest will probably continue until the IAF and the monarchy reach some consensus about the election.
The economic crisis is severe. Unemployment stands officially at more than 11 percent, but unofficial estimates suggest it is as high as 30 percent. Prices of such basic items as heating kerosene and cooking gas have, respectively, increased by more than 30 percent and 50 percent following the removal of government subsidies. The country faces a significant energy crisis. Much-needed aid from Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations has not yet been delivered. The monarch’s promise of “comprehensive development” clearly isn’t appeasing anyone.
There’s no question that King Abdullah’s domestic legitimacy has eroded significantly in the last two months. This growing legitimacy crisis will continue into 2013—unless there arrives some kind of political agreement involving the IAF, along with economic concessions providing immediate popular relief. If not, Jordan’s days of absolute monarchy could be numbered, despite international support from the U.S., Israel, and other Arab monarchies.