Escalations in Jordan

Escalations in Jordan

The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and government are raising the rhetorical pitch to really unprecedented levels since the MB”s last-minute boycott of the municipal elections.

Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit accused the Brotherhood of planning in advance to wreck the elections, and issued a blunt warning to the leadership of the Brotherhood that it had a very brief period in which to reclaim the organization from an extremist leadership which had hijacked it and departed from the traditional Brotherhood discourse.

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood has met every escalation with one of its own. IAF leader Zaki Bani Irshid described the government”s conduct during the elections as not just a massacre of democracy but as an existential threat to Jordan and as the product of a conspiracy led by the American ambassador against the Islamist movement. Most controversial has been a strongly worded editorial analysis on the Jordanian MB site, “Why we boycott”, which violated a whole slew of the “red lines” governing Jordanian political discourse (I”d link to it but the Jordanian Ikhwan”s website appears to be down, for reasons which are unclear it”s back up now). As an analysis in Islam Today points out, this confrontational article came out on the MB”s website, not the IAF”s website, shattering the carefully maintained distance between party and organization as well as the conventional wisdom of MB “moderates” (i.e. oldtimers able to work with the regime) vs IAF “radicals” (or Hamasis).

Threats of violence, overt or implied, are distressingly common on both sides. When the former General in charge of the government starts invoking Nahr al-Barid, it”s probably time to get a vest, and invest in something to protect your head and neck. Jamil al-Nimri, a liberal al-Ghad columnist not known for his MB sympathies, also seemed shocked by Bakhit”s Nahr al-Barad reference. It”s an absurd and inflammatory comparison from Bakhit; Jordan”s Muslim Brotherhood has nothing in common with Fath al-Islam, and the implied threat of violence is deeply irresponsible.

So are some of the wilder statements being made by IAF leader Zaki Bani Irshid and other MB spokesmen. Yasir Abu Hilala, writing in al-Ghad, says that he saw with his own eyes the intense fury of ordinary people over the flagrant electoral transgressions in Irbid, and has since heard the anger in tribal diwans across the country. Such popular anger will only help the Brotherhood, he predicts, while stripping the legitimacy of future elections in which it doesn”t perform well. He quotes Fahd al-Khitan, a leftist writer for al-Arab al-Yawm, saying that his friends and family in Madaba voted for the IAF candidate and support him even more strongly after what happened. Better for the government to postpone elections if it deems the situation so dangerous than to blatantly falsify them and drive this popular rage. Neither Bakhit nor the opposition wants that rage to take a destructive or violent turn… do they?

Short of unleashing the military (against what?), Nabil Ghishan, writing in al-Hayat, suggests that Bakhit”s language implies a threat to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood, or define it as a charitable organization banned from political activity. This interpretation is supported by Saleh al-Qullab”s piece in al-Rai, which goes on at some length about the absurdity of the MB”s existence as neither fully a political party or a charitable society, and Fahd al-Khitan”s more critical reading of the Bakhit interview. Both would be massively controversial and destabilizing, but are not out of the question right now.

Even Jordanians who don”t like the MB worry that Bakhit”s escalation signals a deep threat to democratic reform. The liberal al-Ghad editor Ayman Safadi bluntly describes Bakhit”s speech as the beginning of the era of “broken bones” (one of the commenters on the internet version responds “which side are you on?”). As the liberal al-Ghad columnist Jamil al-Nimri puts it, the lesson of the municipal elections is that Bakhit”s method for avoiding the “Gaza experience” will not be to cancel elections but instead to manipulate them using all available means to prevent the MB from competing fairly without any shame or fear of exposure of state bias. The rather illiberal Jordanain nationalist Nahid Hattar proclaims last rites for political reform in the Kingdom and worries about a return to internal crisis not seen since 1996. Not everyone takes this side, of course: Al-Rai demonstrated its independence by running an editorial praising Bakhit”s wisdom, clarity and directness in his confrontation with the culture of conspiracy.

Where will this lead? Nobody seems to know. Safadi sees no way out of the current crisis, with neither side showing any inclination to back down. Nimri complains that the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have learned nothing from its experience in forming a political party, and has failed every test put before it in recent years. He suspects that the Brotherhood will back down, but worries that it won”t do so in time to avoid further escalation. Abu Hilala worries that the collapse of the rules of engagement between the MB and the regime might lead to explosions of popular rage. Khitan thinks that Bakhit”s escalation reflects a consensus inside the ruling circles in favor of confrontation, but speculates that Bakhit might prove the loser and replay the fate of the Faisal al-Fayez government. The Brotherhood called on Bakhit to act like a statesman: apologize to the Jordanian people and resign. That seems unlikely. It also called on the King to step in to resolve the conflict, but I”m guessing that the King is totally on board with Bakhit”s current line, as – I”d guess, given its general line these days – is the Bush administration.

(update: veteran muckraking journalist Fahd Rimawi reports that the Muslim Brotherhood”s Shura Council is going to meet to vote on Zaki Bani Irshid”s leadership of the Islamic Action Front. If a more moderate leader replaces Bani Irshid, this could go a long way towards meeting Bakhit”s demand that the MB regain control over the “new and extremist” leadership. But it could also infuriate the Brotherhood”s rank and file and make it difficult for the MB to have any credibility in future conflicts. Stay tuned.)

Hey, you know what would calm things down and take people”s minds off of this impending government- Brotherhood crisis? How about Jordan moving back in to the West Bank? That should do the trick!