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Jordan on the brink?

March 31st, 2015

By Tom Fenton – Research Assistant

Jordan is currently facing multiple threats to its national security and unity. The country is surrounded by external conflicts, and is internally threatened by Salafi jihadists who both operate domestically and are returning from fighting elsewhere in the region. For these reasons and many others, the economy is mired in deep turmoil. However, the Kingdom and its monarch are not close to collapse: despite much being written regarding its power, the influence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is in freefall, and the brutal murder of Muath al-Kasasbeh has inspired new-found support for the regime and its air campaign in Syria. Far from being one of the most vulnerable regimes in the region, the prospects for the preservation of the status quo in Jordan have rarely looked brighter.

The threat posed by Salafi Jihadists is the greatest issue facing King Abdullah today. A significant minority of Jordanians support Salafism, although violent jihadists only comprise a small proportion of this group. It has been estimated that there are over 9,000 Salafi Jihadists in Jordan. More than 2,000 Jordanians have gone to fight for either Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria — more fighters than from any other country bar Saudi Arabia and Tunisia — and over 250 have been killed since 2011. The Syrian Civil War has emboldened these jihadists to go to fight and is a major factor behind a revival of the ideology, serving, in the words of a report by the Centre for American Progress think-tank, “as a rallying cry and recruitment tool for Salafists”. Last summer saw a number of protests across the country in support of Islamic State. In June, two hundred people marched through Ma’an after Friday prayers’ holding the black flag of the group and chanting in support of the organisation. Dozens of the city’s residents have travelled to Syria and at least 18 of them have been killed.

An important reason why people are travelling to Syria to fight for the Jihadist groups is due to the huge level of economic insecurity within Jordan. In Ma’an, for example, unemployment is 3 per cent  higher than the national average (12.3%) and the mayor, Majed al-Sharari, told the Associated Press that the city “has been marginalized for a long time by successive governments and there is real economic suffering… All we hear are promises and talk, but no real steps.” Young people, who are often hit the hardest by Jordan’s financial woes, make up a large proportion of those travelling to Syria. Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, a leading Salafi jihadist who was a mentor for al-Qaeda in Iraq’s late leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, reiterated this, acknowledging that Islamic State had many supporters “especially among the younger generation”. Many of those joining the war in Syria are not fighting for an Islamist ideology, as one source close to Islamic State told al-Monitor, but because of “poverty and unemployment”. With 30 percent of Jordanian men under the age of 25 unemployed, the country is a fertile recruiting ground. The source gave the example of one man in his thirties who used to paint in the summer for a living, was not a member of any Salafi jihadist organisation and was not religious. However, despite this lack of ideological sympathy, he became an emir and commander of an armed faction fighting the Syrian army in Douma.

The country is also facing a severe economic and social crisis. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have flooded across the border into Jordan (according to the UNHCR, over 620,000 have fled to Jordan, although the government insists the number is double that total), suffocating the country’s already crippled economy, health services and energy supplies. To Jordan’s east is Iraq’s Anbar province, which is currently occupied by Islamic State fighters. Before the border was closed, 20 percent of Jordan’s exports were sent to Iraq, and oil imports from the country have also dried up as a result of the security situation. This loss has severely damaged the economy, as Jordan imports 97 percent of its energy. For all intents and purposes, Jordan is financially broke and dependent on allies and the IMF for aid. The country has debts of over $29 billion, the equivalent of 91 per cent of its GDP. Jordan’s King Abdullah and his government are therefore, as a former minister told Euronews in February, “walking a tightrope”. Last August, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said that Jordan’s economic situation had “become miserable”. The country’s hospitals, public services, housing system and schools are at breaking point, and Jordanians are being squeezed out of jobs as Syrian refugees drive down wages. Syrian refugees have also created a security problem for the government, as it is unable to keep track of every person who crosses the border. This has the potential to deliver devastating consequences: a small Islamic State cell was found in Mafraq, northern Jordan, in March 2015, where 88 percent of the population are Syrian refugees.

In addition, there has been very heavy criticism of the King’s decision to take part in airstrikes against the Islamic State. Many see the conflict through sectarian lenses, as Sunnis against a Shi’ite leadership. Hamza Mansour, leader of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, said: “Our position is clear…. This [U.S.-led air war] is not in the interest of Jordan and not in the interest of the Arabs and the Muslims.” He also reiterated the IAF’s opposition to “Daesh’s [Islamic State’s] practices” but emphasised that “we are against the intervention of the foreigner in Arab and Islamic lands”. In September 2014, 21 members of Jordan’s Parliament signed a memorandum calling for Jordan not to fight the war against Islamic State. Although 129 members did not vote for the memorandum, political opposition can also be seen elsewhere. Last October, Abu Sayyaf, the leader of a local Salafi-jihadi movement which openly supports Jabhat al-Nusra, said intervention in Syria was “the beginning of the end” for King Abdullah. In the same month, a group of 25 Jordanian Islamic scholars published a statement describing action against Islamic State as “a campaign against Islam”.

However, whilst this analysis may seem pessimistic, Jordan’s King Abdullah is actually in a relatively strong position, even taking into consideration that the Hashemite monarchy is arguably the most unstable in the region. Al-Monitor reported in February, before the killing of al-Kasasbeh, that the pilot’s death would “strengthen the position of those who believe Jordan should withdraw from the fight against Islamic State”. This has not been the case. After the murder of the Jordanian pilot, thousands of Jordanians and Queen Rania marched through the streets of Amman calling for retribution. Although it was obviously state-sponsored, a reporter from The Washington Post in Amman pointed out that “the emotions appeared heartfelt and allowed people to further vent their rage against the Islamist extremists” and that the “video has brought a deep shift in Jordan”. According to a survey published in 2015 by the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies, 95 percent of Jordanians now consider Islamic State to be a “terrorist” group, compared to 62 percent the previous year. Jordanians saw the movement murdering a Sunni Arab, and as a result the video had a far greater impact on the public than any of the previous hostage films. Al-Kasasbeh’s father, who had previously called for Jordan to discontinue its fight against Islamic State, now calls for the “annihilation” of the terrorist group. Oraib Rintawi, director of the Al Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman, said after the video of the immolation was broadcast: “Sitting in a gray [sic] area is no longer acceptable… Public opinion is very angry.” Indeed the burning to death of one of their own has motivated Jordanians, including al-Kasasbeh’s large tribal family, to ally themselves with King Abdullah.

There are other reasons why the Jordanian government is far more stable than many commentators have expressed. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had threatened the regime in the 2011 protests, has split and the original group, tied to the international organisation, is near collapse. They have no representation in Parliament — having boycotted the 2013 parliamentary elections in protest of perceived unfair election rules — and many Jordanians see the group as either too extreme or not extreme enough. East Bank Islamists, who tend to be more moderate and pro-regime, fear the increasing Palestinian influence over the organisation. A confidante of the King told The Economist that the Muslim Brotherhood “no longer resonates” with the population and that King Abdullah “seems untouchable”. The very fact that Jordan has not given into pressure from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to ban the Muslim Brotherhood — which is accommodated to a certain extent by the regime — shows that they are extremely weak and of very little threat to the Kingdom, even if they remain the largest and best-organized opposition force in the country.

In addition, the upheaval in Syria has also discouraged Jordanians from calling for reform in the country. In particular, many East Bank Jordanians have argued against major political reorganisation in case the country falls into similar anarchy that has been seen in Syria. Many Jordanians are also wary after the violent political transition in Egypt. In addition, although there have been some protests in support of Salafi jihadists in Jordan, none have matched the numbers seen in March 2011. Today, protest marches number in the tens or hundreds compared to the thousands seen four years ago.

In 2013, King Abdullah reportedly told US Senator Lindsey Graham that he “did not think he would be in power within a year from now”. However, the King’s pessimism was unfounded. In 2015, he is in a stronger position than he was at the beginning of the Arab protests in 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood poses no threat to the state. And though Jordan faces challenges from a small Salafi Jihadi minority and jihadists returning from Syria, the vast majority of the population is against the Islamic State, an opinion that was only revitalised by the brutal murder of Lt. al-Kasasbeh. Jordan’s regime has tough challenges ahead — its economic situation is poor and it faces a humanitarian refugee crisis which will encourage division and discord within the Kingdom — but it is safe from the threat of collapse.

About Tom Fenton

Tom Fenton was an intern with the Security and Defence research division. Tom is currently studying for a History BA at Durham University. His main interest is in the Middle East.