Opportunistic move against Muslim Brotherhood exposes Jordan to risks
In siding with Muslim Brotherhood liberals, Jordan is undermining what has been a loyal opposition. That could push thousands of followers into the arms of jihadists.
Amman, Jordan — Under pressure from powerful allies in the region, Jordan is seizing on an ideological schism in its local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood as an opportunity to push for a more pro-regime movement.
This month Jordan transferred official recognition of the Brotherhood, which has operated in the kingdom for 70 years, to the liberal wing of the movement. In so doing, it deprived the traditional movement of its final legal foothold in the Arab world, furthering setbacks it suffered in Egypt and the Gulf Arab states.
Jordan’s move, which follows years of growing distrust of the organization, carries significant risks. The Muslim Brotherhood was the kingdom’s largest opposition movement, but operated often as a loyal opposition, at times tempering more radical anti-regime political impulses.
By siding with the liberal wing, Jordan runs the risk of pushing thousands of conservative members of the Brotherhood into the arms of more radical jihadist organizations, including the self-described Islamic State that is still drawing throngs of fighters to its cause.
The new, watered-down Brotherhood, licensed on March 4, is headed by former senator Abdul Majid Thneibat and comprised of liberal Brotherhood officials with ties to the government, providing Jordan what many officials have desired in private – a Brotherhood answerable to the regime that would not push for widespread reforms.
Liberals in the Jordan Brotherhood have long been at loggerheads with its conservative leadership over the group’s strong ties to its Palestinian branch, Hamas, the selection process for leadership posts, and its refusal to take part in Jordan’s parliamentary elections in 2010 and 2013.
Tensions came to a head in March 2014, when conservatives expelled three leading liberal members for taking part in a reform movement, the so-called ZamZam Jordan Building Initiative. This sparked a series of reform summits where liberal members began planning their challenge to the leadership.
Observers say Jordanian authorities have encouraged the divisions, pushing liberal members to rebel against the conservatives, and finally providing it with the legal outlet to sever its ties with the international Brotherhood movement in March.
Despite their occasional differences, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has been at its heart a pro-monarchy movement since its founding in 1945. It has not once called for regime change and even defended the crown from a nationalist coup in 1957.
However, relations between the Brotherhood and the palace soured in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, when Brotherhood leaders eager to replicate the movement’s electoral success in Egypt and elsewhere pushed Jordan’s King Abdullah to surrender his constitutional powers to appoint governments and dissolve parliament.
A loss of trust
Things have gone downhill since. The Brotherhood rebuffed Abdullah’s invitation to take part in a palace-backed political reform committee in 2011, boycotted the 2013 parliamentary elections, and has refused to take part in the government in protest of the monarch’s executive powers.
As a consequence, observers say, the Royal Palace struck off the Brotherhood as an untrustworthy political actor and has been actively working to weaken the movement ever since.
“The state had lost all trust in the Brotherhood and saw them as an enemy,” says Oraib Rantawi, analyst and director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.
“The internal crisis was a golden opportunity for Jordan to remove the Brotherhood from the political landscape.”
But the major driver behind the measure has been pressure from outside Jordan.
Key Jordan allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE – which together provide Jordan with more than $2 billion in annual aid – have been leveraging Jordan to contain and dismantle the Brotherhood. It’s an organization that both countries have banned as a terrorist group and have been attempting to bar from operating across the region.
Dismantling a 'soft opposition'
Observers and Brotherhood insiders say mounting pressure from the Gulf led Amman in February to jail the Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Zak Bani Rsheid, for 18 months over a Facebook post critical of the UAE.
“Pressure from the Arab Gulf has turned the regime hostile against us,” says Salem Fallaht, former overall leader of the Jordanian Brotherhood and member of the movement’s leadership Shura Council.
“Today they are legally dismantling the Brotherhood – maybe tomorrow they will ban us altogether.”
But there are risks to dismantling the Jordan Brotherhood, which has long acted as “soft opposition” to the regime. During the Arab Spring, it used its disciplined organization to control the streets and prevent protests from escalating to violence or threatening the throne.
The absence of the Brotherhood would leave the Jordanian political landscape without a strong actor in the opposition – with the risk of giving rise to more extremist, anti-monarchy political movements.
Jordan also risks driving thousands of Brotherhood supporters into the arms more hardline salafist and jihadist groups. More than 2,000 Jordanians are currently fighting alongside the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq – a number that may rise without the presence of a moderating force.
Appeal to the king
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood is running out of both options and time.
The original Brotherhood is set to launch an uphill legal battle to claim its title as the sole legal Muslim Brotherhood movement in Jordan, while its conservative leadership is mulling a leadership shakeup to appease defecting liberals.
The group’s charitable organization – which reaches more than 500,000 Jordanians across the country – remains licensed and running, but the Brotherhood’s central funds are reportedly frozen.
The Brotherhood has even resorted to appealing to Abdullah himself to intervene and resolve a crisis that they claim affects all of Jordan.
“A stable Jordan and the Muslim Brotherhood have gone hand-in-hand for 70 years,” says Mr. Fallahat.
“You cannot have one without the other.”