The tremors of Egypt’s popular uprising continued to ripple across the Arab world Thursday as King Abdullah II of Jordan met with leaders of the opposition there to discuss possible political reforms, two days after dismissing his cabinet and promising to “bolster democracy.”
Some observers, however, have warned not to expect wide-ranging reforms to Jordan’s political process, which disenfranchises large swaths of the population and acts mostly at the discretion of the king. Edward Gnehm, the former U.S. ambassador to Jordan from 2001 to 2003, warned in an interview this week that Jordan’s deep ethnic divisions and traditional power structure augured against the kinds of sweeping changes being demanded in the streets of nearby Arab capitals.
“The problem is, it’s really difficult for the king to agree to what they’re asking for,” said Gnehm, now a faculty member at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “I think there’s likely to be some change and some movement, but I don’t think there’s going to be any massive shift, at least not right away.”
The problem, Gnehm said, is the traditional rift between Jordan’s powerful East Bank tribes and the country’s large Palestinian population. The rural tribes have traditionally wielded most of the power in Jordan, including in the military and other elite professions, while the Palestinians have been confined to the poorer urban areas.
While both groups tend to agree on the need for a more robust economy and a cure for Jordan’s crippling unemployment, East Bank Jordanians remain skeptical of proposed electoral reforms that would give the Palestinians more political power. Voting in Jordan’s parliamentary system disproportionately favors tribal Jordanians from rural parts of the country, while under-representing urban Palestinians.
And East Bank Jordanians have long been suspicious of any sign that the Palestinians’ influence may be expanding. When Prime Minister Samir Rifai ordered all government offices to display photos of Jordan’s then-14-year-old heir apparent, Crown Prince Hussein bin Abdullah — who is part Palestinian — U.S. diplomats warned that the move “could potentially spark criticism among East Bank Jordanians that power is subtly shifting towards Jordanians of Palestinian origin,” according to a January 2010 cable obtained by WikiLeaks.
Human rights activists monitoring the protests in Amman, Jordan’s capital, say the throngs of demonstrators there comprise virtually all of the country’s ethnic and political enclaves, including the Palestinians and East Bank Jordanians, Islamists, Communists and trade unionists. Sameer Jarrah, a human rights lawyer and regional director for Freedom House, said in an interview from Amman this week that, to his surprise, the East Bank Jordanians, “who are known as very loyal tribes to the crown, to the government, they are participating.”
That may be true, Gnehm said, given the broad consensus among Jordanians on the need for far-reaching economic reforms. But most of the groups demanding a fairer and more robust electoral process, such as the Islamist parties and the trade unions, are dominated by Jordanians of Palestinian descent. And their demands, Gnehm cautioned, may well be outweighed by the political interests of the East Bank Jordanians in the country’s powerful military and bureaucracy.
“You cannot deny, simply can’t deny that what happened in Tunisia was a catalyst for what happened in Egypt and in Amman and in other places,” Gnehm said. “But in the Jordanian community, it represents a challenge in the minds and the eyes of the East Bankers, a challenge to their political supremacy.”
He added: “I just cannot imagine it going to the fullest extent.”