What does the Hamas victory mean for nearby Jordan?

As is usually the case when events west of the Jordan River take a dramatic turn, Jordan is the country in the Middle East that will feel the most immediate and potentially far-reaching consequences.

Hamas’ sweeping victory in landmark elections last month is no exception. Jordan has been notably cautious in reacting to the Hamas victory, unlike Egypt, which almost immediately repeated calls by Western donor countries for the movement to recognize Israel, disarm and uphold all previous agreements between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel. Jordan, for its part, simply urged all parties to maintain the calm and work for peace.

There are good reasons for Jordan to take careful stock of the situation. Hamas, while originally founded in the Gaza Strip as an outgrowth of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has maintained very close ties to Jordan’s Islamists, and for a long time Hamas’ leadership in exile was based in Amman. In addition, the general geopolitical and demographic realities of Jordanian-Palestinian relations make close ties between Palestinians of all political stripes in both Jordan and Palestine inevitable and necessitate good relations between Jordan and the PA, whoever may be at the helm.

But Jordan’s relationship with its own Islamists has been uneasy in recent years. Traditionally, the Hashemites, unique among ruling regimes in the region, maintained close relations with Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood. The political arm of the Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), has been allowed to maintain its dominance over the country’s professional associations and has had a fair shot at Parliament, where the IAF currently makes up the single largest opposition bloc with 17 out of 110 seats. Jordanian governments usually include one or two portfolios set aside for independents close to the IAF.

The late King Hussein was not about to let his good relations with the Brotherhood get in the way of what he saw as the overriding importance of the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, and greater democratic openness enacted in 1988 was curbed to ensure no parliamentary opposition to the treaty in the new Parliament in 1993. Nevertheless, the king clearly valued the relationship, even though the Muslim Brotherhood remained, and continues to remain, implacably opposed to the 1994 peace treaty.

Israel’s attempted assassination of

current Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in 1996 was therefore taken as a personal affront to the king and interpreted as an attempt by Israel to jeopardize Hashemite relations with both Hamas and Jordan’s Islamists. King Hussein wasted no time in exacting the maximum political price he could from Israel in return, including the release from prison of Hamas’ spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin.

His son, King Abdullah, however, has taken a more confrontational approach with Hamas and Jordan’s Islamists. In 1999, only six months into his reign, commercial offices in Amman registered under the names of Hamas leaders were shut down, Hamas activists were detained, and arrest warrants were issued against five Hamas leaders: Meshaal, politburo members Musa Abu Marzouq, Sami Khater, Izzat Rasheq, and spokesperson Ibrahim Ghosheh.

Jordan insisted it would no longer tolerate that “Jordanian citizens work for a non-Jordanian organization from Jordanian territory,” and the five, who were on a visit to Iran at the time, were charged with membership in an illegal organization, possession and stockpiling of illegal weapons, illegal fundraising, armed activities, and use of forged documents. Upon their return to Amman, Meshaal and his colleagues were arrested at the airport and eventually all deported.

Internally, the regime most recently confronted the IAF with the government’s attempt to include a clause in Jordan’s political parties’ law that would make it illegal for a political party to base itself exclusively on religious foundations. Ostensibly, the clause is meant as a safeguard for minorities, but the IAF sees it as a direct attempt at curbing its potential for growth and greater influence.

That political parties’ law has also been the subject of some criticism from Washington, where Jordan so far has managed to stay under the U.S. administration’s radar for greater democratization. With Hamas’ victory, American pressure is liable to diminish. But Jordan is facing a new dilemma: a successful Hamas will increase the popularity of Jordan’s Islamists and render it more difficult to curb their influence. A failed Hamas potentially poses an even more serious problem, particularly if the movement fails because of external pressure, and the PA itself collapses or a civil war breaks out.

The records of Hamas and Jordan suggest that both sides will take highly pragmatic, if slightly uncomfortable, positions vis-a-vis each other. Each is aware of its importance to the other, and while no outright thaw in relations is likely in the near future, some warming can be expected.

Omar Karmi is The Jordan Times correspondent in Jerusalem. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.