Jordan’s Islamists Seek Offices Their Allies Scorn
This crammed slum of four-story concrete housing blocs has given Jordan some of its biggest headaches: it is a stronghold of the opposition Islamic Action Front and the hometown of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who rose from here to the helm of the Iraqi insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
Jordan’s political Islamists wield their most concentrated power here in this industrial city of 834,000 just a quarter-hour’s drive from the capital, Amman.
The Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, commands almost unanimous support among those in this city who bother to vote in Jordan’s parliamentary elections, widely regarded by Islamists as rigged in the secular government’s favor.
Political Islamists in Jordan are engaged in a delicate balancing act — one that dogs most Islamist parties in the region that choose to take part in secular political systems. That is evident on the campaign trail here as candidates try to inspire their electoral base while attacking as useless the very political system that they have joined.
Hayat Massimi, a 45-year-old pharmacist and parliamentary incumbent from the Islamic Action Front, has been crisscrossing Zarqa’s cramped neighborhoods, making campaign pitches in private homes and mosques and at tent rallies.
With a trio of aides Ms. Massimi rushes from event to event, fielding passionate and often angry questions from voters who share her religious convictions but question whether committed Islamists should sully themselves by getting involved in politics. If Islam is the solution as the party’s slogan proclaims, and the political system is corrupt, some religious voters wonder why the Islamist bloc should take part in elections at all.
“There’s going to be a Parliament anyway, and if you don’t have anyone representing you the Parliament will do nothing but get on your nerves,” Ms. Massimi said in a heated appeal to about two women at a home here in Zarqa less than two weeks before the Nov. 20 election. “Anyone who tells you they will keep prices down is lying, because Parliament has no power to stop inflation.”
She faced a tough crowd. The veiled women sipped Pepsis and a syrupy sweet desert made of shredded wheat and cheese, but they were anything but demure. What, they wanted to know, could the Islamic Action Front do in Parliament to affect the issues affecting them — rising prices for flour and diesel fuel, stagnant salaries, spiking inflation and rampant unemployment?
“You can’t provide us any services,” said Asmaa Said al-Assi, 38. “Why should I vote for you?”
“The Parliament doesn’t give you services; it gives you laws,” Ms. Massimi said.
Ms. Assi was not impressed “The point is to change the laws!” she said.
In another angry exchange about public corruption, Ms. Massimi chided the voters for their own role in promoting graft and nepotism. “You are responsible, too, when you come and ask your legislator to hire your relatives,” she said.
The Islamist candidates decided to run even though their own Islamic Action Front leadership wanted to boycott the election, contending that the government rigged elections to minimize the Islamist representation.
In the current Parliament, the Islamic bloc holds 17 of 110 seats and is expected to retain about the same share in balloting that the government controls with gerrymandered districts.
Ms. Massimi, a mother of five, is the quintessential Islamic Action Front politician: professional, bilingual, capable of both restrained political speech and impassioned religious discussion. She is a Palestinian refugee who came to Jordan from Nablus in 1967 and won her first term in 2003 for one of the six seats reserved for women. Like the other 22 Islamist bloc candidates, she never directly asks people for their vote, which would be considered immodest.
Above all, the Islamists campaign on an anticorruption platform. Islamist leaders drive simple cars, and refuse to trade their parliamentary position for favors and bribes, the party argues, in a system awash with bribes, kickbacks and other opportunities to get rich quickly and illegally. “We are not bribe-able, and we are not for sale,” Ms. Massimi said.
Unlike secular opposition candidates, the Islamists are outspoken critics of the government. But that frankness had limited impact on the Zarqa voters, who kept pressing Ms. Massimi on the prospects for economic reform.
Militants command deep respect here in Zarqa. When American forces killed Mr. Zarqawi in Iraq, thousands thronged his funeral here, including four Islamic Action Front members of Parliament who were thrown into prison afterward. But when it comes to politics, Zarqa’s concerns are prosaic. Shoddily built neighborhoods here blur into Palestinian refugee camps, with narrow, poorly maintained streets. The smell of backed-up sewage clouds the city because the government will not improve the inadequate drainage system.
Yet they also seem willing to set aside the frustrations of their daily lives to cast their votes for a group of Islamist candidates whom they fault at times for not being radical enough.
One such voter is Maysoon al-Medhoon, 28, who waited nearly three hours in a friend’s apartment in Zarqa for the opportunity to question the candidate. Ms. Medhoon supports the Islamic Action Front, but only as a temporary salve until Jordan, and the rest of the Muslim world, witnesses a religious revolution that will solve the people’s problems.
“Islam is the only real force for change,” she said. “Islam is the solution for everything.”