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Only true reform will mollify Jordan's wary tribes.

Summary: Tribes in Jordan have played a unique role in politics over the decades.

Tribes in Jordan have played a unique role in politics over the decades. Tribal support has been instrumental in the survival of the Hashemite regime amid a volatile Middle East. Traditionally, the Jordanian army has drawn most of its recruits from tribes to guarantee their continued support for the regime. The semi-rentier political economy in Jordan has also helped the state create a stake for the tribes in the regime.

During the 1980s, increased educational attainment and sedentarization nurtured a process of detribalization; this meant that tribal affiliation relevant to people's sense of identity was waning. This notion was solidified in the by-election of 1984, when meritocracy rather than tribalism characterized the voting behavior of a great number of the Jordanian intelligentsia. Accordingly, tribalism -- in the sense that people place family ties above all other political allegiance -- was declining starting in the mid-1980s.

By the end of the 1980s, it was obvious that the state could not sustain its rentier relationship with tribes. Due to the economic crisis that befell Jordan at that time, the government started a process of economic restructuring in line with International Monetary Fund recommendations. State subsidies declined and tribal people, who previously had easy access to state resources, found it hard to adapt to this new reality.

The political liberalization of the late 1980s created an opportunity for Jordanians to mobilize politically and realize their objectives. The elections of 1989 were a manifestation that tribalism was further on the decline, as common Jordanians put meritocracy before tribal affiliation. Then, in anticipation of peace with Israel, King Hussein redrew the rules of the game in the kingdom. The government gerrymandered an electoral law to emasculate the opposition and secure public support for the peace treaty. A by-product of this politically motivated change in the electoral law to a one-person-one-vote system was that tribalism, as voting behavior, re-emerged.

The obvious outcome of this electoral law change is that all parliaments elected ever since have been too weak to stand up to the government. Further, over the last decade economic liberalization and privatization -- the shrinking of the public sector and the retreat of the government from economic activity -- have both failed to meet the demands of the tribes and been aggravated by an unprecedented level of corruption. The common argument in Jordan today is that state corruption has impoverished Jordanians and especially Transjordanians, who form the social backbone of the regime.

Against this backdrop, and due to the lack of credible political parties that can mobilize the public, protest movements are organized in Jordan along tribal lines, further deepening tribalism as a feature of political behavior. Now that tribes are alienated from the state, they feel more secure in displaying their tribal identity and affiliation. Paradoxically, identification with tribes is a weapon that has recently been deployed by all, and it pays off. Even people accused of corruption have been resorting to their tribes for protection from the law. By and large, tribes protect individuals and the state backs down.

If anything, this outcome is the direct consequence of the state's failure to reinforce national identity. The rise of tribalism in Jordan recently has been triggered by the weakness of the state. Unfortunately, successive governments have been incapable of imposing the rule of law because many people no longer trust state institutions. In all surveys that have been conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, the trust gap between the state and society is widening alarmingly. This is a dangerous trend, particularly against the backdrop of the Arab Spring that has already brought down several regimes.

The dilemma -- and herein lies the crux of the matter -- is that there is no one to get the message. Jordanian society has undergone radical changes in which the tribes' loyalty to the regime is no longer unconditional. And yet decision-makers, particularly those in the office of King Abdullah, are not qualified to address the situation by introducing genuine reform. At the very least, Jordanians need to see the state punish individuals guilty of corruption.

In brief, tribal politics are on the rise and the regime has lost the initiative. The demands imposed by the tribal reform movements on the regime are unprecedented. It seems that nothing short of genuine reform will pacify the tribes and keep them from taking to the street. There is no guarantee they will remain peaceful unless the king steps in and meets the tribes' need for political reform.

Hassan A. Barari is a professor of international relations at the University of Jordan and the author of "Israelism: Arab Scholarship on Israel, a Critical Assessment" (London: Ithaca, 2009). This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Feb 24, 2012
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