Deliberalization in Jordan
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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 137-144



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Deliberalization in Jordan

Russell E. Lucas


In 1989, with the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) raging just across the Jordan River in the West Bank, domestic discontent spilling into his own streets, and his country's finances in tatters, Jordan's King Hussein (r. 1953-99) began taking a series of extraordinary steps toward political opening. He ended repression, called new elections to replace the National Assembly that he had dissolved in 1988, and forged a national pact that put Jordan at the forefront of liberalization in the Arab world. As the late king's son and designated successor Abdallah II faces a similar situation more than a decade later, however, the regime is nearing the completion of a full circle back to martial law.

Jordan has not fully returned to military rule, but the legislature has again been indefinitely suspended, and most public protests are banned. While the majority of Jordanians today do not question their monarch's legitimacy, they do increasingly resent his policies—particularly his continued alliance with the United States at a time when U.S. policy toward Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have made that alliance less popular than ever. It is quite conceivable, in fact, that a U.S. military presence in Jordan during a war against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq could provoke an insurrection against against Abdallah II and the Hashemite dynasty. The Jordanian monarchy has managed to hang on through the tumults of the past decade-and-a-half by adroitly wielding the twin survival strategies of liberalization and deliberalization—using the former when royal interests seemed to dictate and reversing the process when the opposition threatened to get too strong. [End Page 137]

Jordan's population of 5.3 million is overwhelmingly composed of Sunni Muslim Arabs. About half the population is of Palestinian lineage. Many of these Jordanian Palestinians have roots in the West Bank or in what today is Israel, and a personal or family history of displacement due to the Israeli-Arab conflicts since 1948. Their sometimes-uneasy presence, as well as the history of strife between Palestinian nationalist groups and the Hashemite monarchy, make for a societal divide that threatens to exacerbate whatever domestic tensions may arise over regional political developments.

Jordan's political liberalization in the 1990s was not a deliberate process of democratization, but rather a survival strategy chosen by a monarchy anxious to shore up its legitimacy in the face of domestic discontent over peace with Israel and the pain caused by structural adjustment in this small, resource-poor country. In time, after critics of the king's foreign and economic policies gained more ability to speak out forcefully than he liked, the strategy was gradually abandoned and the reforms were slowly rolled back. Liberalization gave way to its opposite, deliberalization.

Even with political liberties at their lowest ebb in years, as they are today, Jordanians feel that they enjoy far more pluralism and openness than do their neighbors in Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Iraq. Jordan's relative openness has much to do with a legacy of regime-led state-building dating back to the creation of the Jordanian state. Hussein's grandfather, Emir (later King) Abdallah I (d. 1951) founded what was then called Transjordan in the 1920s under British auspices out of the wreckage of the collapsed Ottoman Turkish Empire. Over the ensuing eight decades, a modern state has been built with the Hashemite monarchy at its core. That monarchy has survived the acquisition of the West Bank as a result of the 1948 war with Israel; the original King Abdallah's assassination; his son Talal's deposition in 1952; the turbulence surrounding Arab nationalism in the 1950s; the loss of the West Bank to Israel during the Six Day War of June 1967; and bloody domestic clashes between royal troops and Palestinian nationalists during the "Black September" of 1970.

The monarchy weathered each of these crises in turn, emerging more firmly entrenched and at the head of a more expansive supporting coalition than ever before. The...