Progress in a war-ravaged and authoritarian Middle East often arrives like cat’s feet, in quiet but steady ways. A good example is the Sept. 20 election in Jordan for a new lower house of parliament.
A record number of women candidates ran and won. The Muslim Brotherhood put up candidates for the first time in nearly a decade and did well – largely because it dropped the slogan “the Quran is our constitution” and instead proposed secular reforms. And in another first, the voting itself was largely clean in the eyes of foreign observers.
Even the fact that Jordan held an election at all was a big leap. The tiny oil-poor state has had to cope with at least 650,000 Syrian refugees and a youth unemployment rate of 30 percent. In addition, an estimated 2,000 Jordanians have joined Islamic State.
Like many Middle East countries, Jordan was rocked in 2011 by the Arab Spring uprising. While most power still resides with King Abdullah II, he has had to push reforms, such as an independent election commission and a new voting system that promotes parties over individual candidates. The recent vote for the 130-seat lower house proved to be a bellwether on the continuing popular demand for democracy, not only in Jordan but perhaps the region.
The only way to end the darkness of political violence in Muslim societies is to bring the light of freedom. Democracy is in decline in Egypt, Turkey, and Iran while wars from Libya to Yemen make it a distant hope in those countries. Tunisia remains one bright spot. That nation’s leading Islamist group, Ennahda, recently announced it had accepted secular pluralism. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood also rebranded itself to be more inclusive, backing Christian and women candidates in this election.
One by one, Arab states will need to figure out ways to draw hardcore Islamists into elected government in order to provide an alternative to the idea of rule by Muslim clerics. Jordan’s election may be an indicator of a trend. According to Georgetown University historian Abdullah Al-Arian, writing in Al-Jazeera, “Over the course of the past decade, Islamist groups have abandoned ‘Islam is the solution’ as a simplistic catchphrase in favor of an emphasis on particular values that their evolving interpretation of Islam promotes: freedom, consultative governance and justice.”
The Middle East needs a shared vision, especially among its youth, to overcome splits over religion and ethnicity. Jordan’s election offers a cat-like step forward toward an inclusive future.