Rami G. Khouri
Jordan’s public opinion, political leadership and regional and international dynamics today offer very useful insights into the current condition of the Arab world, and should be studied carefully by anyone interested in how things operate in the region and wondering where the Middle East may be heading.
The immediate mass anger among Jordanians to the brutal killing of air force pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh was totally understandable and justified. However, behind the current wave of enraged sentiment and demands for revenge is a complex matrix of emotions, ideologies and state-building realities that reveal the deeper challenge that King Abdullah faces. Three particular elements shape this kind of analysis of Jordan, which also applies to most other Arab countries. They are the nature of national political and strategic decision-making, the role of public opinion and the public’s limited involvement in governance, and the socio-economic condition of the country and its reliance on foreign support.
All three of these dimensions were visible this week as Jordanians started coming to terms with the massive hurt they felt at the gruesome and cruel Kassasbeh killing, and pondered options on how to respond. Public opinion has swung strongly behind King Abdullah and the armed forces, reflecting the understandable desire to hit back at ISIS and cause as much death and damage in their ranks as possible.
This is a sharp reversal from the situation weeks ago, when Jordan enjoyed a lively debate about the wisdom of the country joining the American-led coalition to fight and defeat ISIS. Vocal critics of the Jordanian armed forces’ involvement in the attacks as well as in other aspects of the anti-ISIS campaign included personal criticisms of the king’s role in such decisions.
The important point here is not whether the Jordanian decision to join the anti-ISIS fight is sound (I personally believe it is sound, given the real threat ISIS poses to the whole region), but rather the manner in which such fateful national decisions are made in Arab countries without credible popular consultations or participation by Jordanians with their spectrum of views. This legacy has led to state ruin in places such as Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and a few other Arab states.
Jordan is not in that situation. It remains tightly managed from above by a determined leadership supported by a capable security and military sector – but also has little if any credible popular participation. This is evident in controversial issues such as relations with Israel, with which Jordan has a stable peace treaty, or cooperation with the United States and other powers in the military arena.
When things return to normal, Jordan will once again have to confront the big issues that its citizens have long debated. This includes the central role of the security sectors in national governance and decision-making; whether or not the elected lower house of Parliament accurately mirrors the views and interests of the entire citizenry; how development funds are managed; and why Parliament has no oversight of military-security spending in the national budget.
Other factors at play here should be considered, including Jordan’s existential reliance on foreign aid for its national well-being. Foreign grants keep Jordan afloat, and the kingdom relies heavily these days on budget support from the U.S. and the Gulf Cooperation Council, to the tune of some $2 billion per year. This makes it very difficult for Jordan to conduct its foreign policy in a manner that deviates from the strategic interests of it major backers. This in turn only increases the potential for internal tensions between masses of low-income citizens who resent their country following closely the dictates of conservative or militaristic foreign donors, and their own government that has few real options in this respect.
In the short run, Jordanians always behave like all other human beings, in that they will subdue any political misgivings they may have in favor of the two immediate needs that we see in action today: the emotional and political need to assuage their anger and bereavement at the Kassasbeh killing, and their government’s need to secure foreign aid to keep the economy going and maintain jobs and income for millions of citizens.
In the longer run – one day when that generous foreign aid may slow down, or internal socio-economic and political marginalization stresses become too intense – the current strong leadership, able military and emotionally supportive citizenry, (yet without any serious mechanisms of political participation and credible accountability) may find it more difficult to respond to the threats and opportunities of the day.
Jordan’s dilemma is on full display today. Its strengths are also its weaknesses.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 07, 2015, on page 7.