Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jordan Isn't Palestine, But It Could Be

In recent months, popular Arab revolts have removed from power the long-ruling monarchs of Egypt and Tunisia, and are presently attempting to dethrone those of Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. The phenomenon has been commonly referred to as the Arab Spring, and while complex in nature - driven in various countries by ethnic, religious, sectarian and something reminiscent of class conflicts - it is, at least to Western ears, primarily about enfranchisement, if not exactly democracy as we in the West know it. The Arab peoples, in the plural, wish to have a greater say in how their countries are being managed. Presumably, in every country under discussion the people are many, the government forces are few, and so "the people", barring violent, bloody and prolonged crackdowns, and maybe despite such crackdowns, will emerge victorious, eventually if not immediately.

The inevitability of it all - that the people will win, and the tyrants will lose - is a powerful driver of events and opinion. This is particularly so in Western capitals, focused heavily, as American and European leaders currently are, on coming out of the present disturbances on the side of the Arab people, and not of the dethroned despots - i.e. with their regional interests intact. It is fair to say that the chattering classes of Washington punditry are entirely consumed, at the present moment, with the thrill and inevitability of Arab self-determination, suffrage, democratic institution building; and more than all the rest, on being seen as having always predicted and supported this drive to freedom. Yet, there is one country which the Facebook and Twitter revolution appears to have passed over, and which has escaped the attention of our favorite, ever-indignant, newly freedom loving newspaper columnists - Jordan.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is, well, a kingdom. As is generally known, the Hashemites were once the leading tribal clan in what is today Saudi Arabia. The First World War found them rulers of the region of Hejaz, a part of the Ottoman Empire on the Western edge of the Arabian peninsula bordering the Red Sea. As you can see from the (Spanish language) map, the Hejaz region contains the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, making the Hashemites who once ruled it quite prominent and powerful, but under Ottoman control.

The Ottoman Turks, of course, were at the time joined with Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria in an alliance called the Central Powers. Facing them in the First World War were Russia, France, Britain, Italy, other small European states and, eventually, the United States - the Allied Powers. By 1916, the war for the Central Powers was beginning to go badly. The Hashemites, ruling a corner of an Ottoman Empire weakened by war in Europe, and encouraged by the British, declared independence from the Turks.

From 1916 to 1924, the Hashemites ruled an independent Kingdom of Hejaz, with British support. They were driven from the area by a competing Arab tribe - that of Ibn Saud, the kind of Najd - which was eventually to conquer most of the Arabian peninsula and form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The British, meanwhile, had busily carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire with the French, and were in a position to resettle their loyal Hashemite subjects as rulers of a mass of largely unpopulated desert to the east of the Jordan river, across from what is today the State of Israel, and what was then referred to as the region of Palestine.

Since independence from colonial British control, Jordan has been ruled by Hussein bin Talal from 1953 until 1999, and since then by his son, Abdullah II. Reforms since the late 1980s and '90s have made this constitutional monarchy less dictatorial, with several competing, if largely impotent political parties. While doing research for this article, I was frustrated by a lack of all but cursory information on Jordan's political system. The country's close alliance with the United States perhaps mutes closer inspection of Hashemite rule by Western analysts. The most cogent explanation I found about the country's political institutions and state of affairs, surprisingly, was from the Daily Kos:
Jordan is nominally a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament, only the lower house of which is elected. In addition, there is a cabinet of ministers headed by a prime minister, which is nominally responsible to the lower house. In practice, none of this matters because the king holds all political power. He is able to dissolve the parliament, appoint and fire prime ministers and cabinets, and call for elections at will.

The lower house is elected under a rather undemocratic voting system called Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV), in which each voting district has more than one seat, but the voter is allowed to vote only once. So in other words, something like 3 to 5 MPs represent any given citizen, but that same citizen had a say in the election of only one of them.

In Jordan, family and tribal ties play an important societal role, so there is a duty to support those candidates with family ties. So instead of voting for someone who will best represent her interests, the voter will instead be more inclined to look for her family's name and cast her only vote for that candidate. The Jordanian elite know of this dynamic and exploited it when they set up the current electoral system. On top of that, they also gerrymander the districts so that the rural areas which are dominated by East Bankers receive more representation than the more Palestinian cities.
The article is worth reading in full, as it progresses to discuss current tensions between Palestinian Jordanians and "East Bankers", meaning non-Palestinian Jordanians, mostly of Hashemite extraction. This, then, in the contradiction of demographics and politics of Jordan, is where our own focus lies.

Estimates of Palestinians among Jordan's 6.5 million people vary widely, from just under half of the Kingdom's citizens, to nearly three quarters of its (legal and illegal) residents. Thousands of Palestinians, including from the West Bank and Gaza, gain Jordanian citizenship (legally and illegally) every year, while several thousand Palestinians are quietly stripped of their citizenship by Jordanian authorities fighting the creeping encroachment of Palestinians on national life. Yet, without wholesale action by the government to disenfranchise 3-4 million Palestinians, the demographics are inescapable. From the perspective of demography alone, and in light of the popular protests sweeping the Arab world, which seek to translate popular will into political reality, Jordan isn't Palestine, but it very well could be.

The opposition to Palestinians within Jordan's ruling elite and Hashemite masses is often quite vocal. Everyone from army officers and civil servants to Hashemite tribal leaders decries the country's slide into "Palestinization". The King's wife, Queen Rania, is Palestinian. Their son, and the heir to the Kingdom's throne, could in a different cultural setting be the solution to easing ethnic tensions and enabling coexistence with the "other" in Jordanian society. Instead, the Hashemite elite may well regard him as illegitimate, a further "Palestinization" of their country at it's highest levels.

Hashemite unity - control over the levers of political and economic power, and the security forces - along with gradual political reforms and considerable American financial aid have so far prevented the country from sliding into the revolutionary fervor of their Arab contemporaries throughout the region. Protests in Amman have been small, peaceful, and seem to be readily pacified by the King's cabinet shuffling and economic subsidies. The country's long term stability may not be assured, but with some creative management it appears unlikely to undergo Egyptian or Syrian style upheavals.

However, if we are interested less in stability and more in in the principles of self-determination, democracy, suffrage, and all the other fine ideas coursing through the blood of the Arab Spring, at least according to Western pundits, the picture becomes more complex. A benevolent dictator rules Jordan - an ally of America, yes, but a monarch with absolute powers. The Hashemites aren't threatened with becoming a minority in a country their tribe rules by diktat and force of arms - they already are a minority, and a really small minority at that, numbering as few as 25% of the country's total population.

Very near to Jordan, across the river for which the country was named, the Jews, too, have a country. Israel rules over territories in which - if we exclude Gaza (and we should exclude Gaza), in other words, expressly in the West Bank region - reside some 1.5 million Palestinians. Were Israel to annex the West Bank and enfranchise its Palestinians, the Jewish-Arab demographic balance would fall to about 65%-35%, respectively. Yet this, a situation under which the Jews would remain an overwhelming majority in their national homeland, is considered unpalatable, unjust and morally indefensible. Meanwhile, across that river, a mere 25% of Jordanians rule the other 75%, and no one among Washington's chattering classes bats an eye!

The real question, in light of the Arab Spring, and the mass uprisings which we are told are driven by the universal human urge towards democracy and freedom, isn't whether Jordan is Palestine, or even whether it could be Palestine. The real questions are whether Jordan should be Palestine, and whether Jordan will be Palestine. Is this not the most moral, just and inevitable outcome for an overwhelming majority ruled, against its will, by a minority? We should consider the possibility.
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