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Into an ideological void.

A CHANGE IN THE political character of a system of government is never easy and rarely peaceful in the Middle East. But in Jordan the change has thus far been tranquil, and it appears to be moving ahead slowly but surely.

Since a 30-year ban on political parties was officially lifted last year, 15 political groups have been licensed by the government. Of these, more than half are offshoots or new versions of the old guard of the pan-Arab and nationalist or socialist groups. With one exception, the Islamic Action Front (for which read the Muslim Brotherhood), the rest of the parties represent regional, tribal and economic interest groups.

Yet random surveys show that most Jordanians will not vote according to party lines in this year's autumn parliamentary elections. The parties are expected to receive only a fraction of the votes cast. If the surveys are accurate, this spells trouble for a government still trying to influence the direction of the voting patterns.

In the 1989 elections, the first in two decades, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is obliged to describe itself as an association rather than a party, swept one fourth of the 80 seats in the lower house, Another ten independent Islamists also won seats.

With disillusionment on the Israeli peace process and continuing economic woes, the electorate is expected to give the Islamic Action Front at least the same number of seats, if not more. Its chances at the polls have increased with the absence of an alternative populist party from among the groups receiving licenses from the government.

While all traditional "opposition" groups, such as the Jordanian Communist party and some half a dozen other leftist parties, won an initial battle to receive legal status, they have only a small following. Bereft political organisers admit that the old guard pan-Arab and leftist parties have irredeemably lost their appeal. Since pan-Arabism and Soviet-style socialism have fallen so demonstrably short of their goals, membership of the respective parties is at best limited to habitual supporters.

The more conservative parties, which for the most part are "East Jordanian" in character, are expected to receive support on regional and tribal lines. Bedouin tribes have united according to their locations and have drawn conservative Circassian minorities as well as Christians with a tribal basis into their ranks. The numbers again are small and unrepresentative of the bulk of Jordan's population.

Several so-called centrist parties, which are less tribal and more "business" oriented, will draw on the elite and commercial sectors for support. Financial backing is expected to play a major role in bringing these parties into the forefront.

But once again, these parties appeal to minority groups. Their constituency may not be ethnic or religious, but it is nonetheless restrictively economic. This could leave the Islamic Action Front to clean up the rest of the votes. The Muslim Brotherhood has had years to organise itself and influence the education system, as well as social institutions from which it draws most of its ever-increasing membership.

For 30 years, there has been an unwritten pact between the regime and the Brotherhood to fend off left-wing and pan-Arab groups when they might have represented an alternative to the monarchy. In return for its tacit support of the monarchy, the Brotherhood has been given a relatively free hand in selected and valuable government ministries, such as the ministries of education, social development and the judiciary.

It thus came as no surprise that Islamist deputies began by trying to pass "Islamicised" laws as soon as they took their seats in 1989. One prominent member of the Brotherhood has served as Speaker of the house for three consecutive terms with the apparent blessing of the government.

Some Jordanian analysts consider that the Brotherhood will express its gratitude to King Hussein by limiting the number of candidates it will put up for the forthcoming elections, thereby foregoing the chance to win a majority in the lower house of parliament.

Of greater concern to political observers in Amman, however, is the ideological void left by the fall of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Iraq. A "third option" between what is known as "selling out to the West" and "turning to political Islam" has not yet appeared in the political dictionary of Jordan. Judging by what is happening with the other countries in the Arab world, many Jordanians are looking for a way out of what promises to be a serious dilemma for rulers and ruled alike.

The relationship between the Islamic movement and the nation's ruler has always been closer in Jordan than in many other Arab countries. King Hussein can claim direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed and his standing as a sincere and devout Muslim is not in question. He is well-versed in the Quran and liberally laces speeches and statements with Islamic references. But politically militant Muslims harbour no illusions that he is one of them.

Over the past year, King Hussein has been careful to stake out his position and distinguish himself from the Islamists. He has described Islam as a progressive rather than a reactionary religion, while cautioning the fundamentalists from "exploiting" their political strength.

In contrast to Algeria or Eqypt, for example, political Islam in Jordan has not been forced into confrontation with the state. That is both an encouraging sign and testimony to the King's handling of the situation. But there are unquestionably external factors beyond his control.

Chief among these is the growing upsurge of support for the rejectionist Hamas movement in the Occupied Territories. "Israel is a breeding ground for fanaticism as long as it remains in the Occupied Territories," commented Assad Abdul Rahman, a Palestinian professor of history in Amman and a member of the PLO Central Council. "The West's help for Israel and denial of Palestinian rights only demonises all Western Countries and serves the cause of Islamic extremism," he was recently quoted as saying. Jordan's foreign friends should heed the warning.
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Title Annotation:Jordan's Islamic movement
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:995
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