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Defensive Democratization in Jordan

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 April 2009

Glenn E. Robinson
Associate Professor, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif. 93943, Research Associate, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley.


Jordan's political-liberalization program, initiated in 1989, represents the longest sustained such opening in the Arab world today. During this time, Jordan has held three national parliamentary elections, enacted a number of liberalizing laws, removed many restrictions on the press, and minimized the role that the security services, or mukhābarāt, play in repressing opposition. Moreover, the liberalization program has survived a number of severe challenges, including the second Gulf War and the subsequent loss of Jordan's major regional trading partner, Iraq; the implementation of a difficult domestic austerity program; and the conclusion of a controversial peace treaty with Israel.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1998

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Author's note: An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 28th annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association, Phoenix, Ariz., November 1994. Funding for this project was provided by the United States Institute of Peace. I wish to thank Laurie Brand, David Waldner, John Arquilla, Maria Moyano Rasmussen, and the anonymous IJMES reviewers for their insightful comments on various drafts. The arguments and any mistakes are solely the responsibility of the author.

1 “Political liberalization” and “democratization” (but not “democracy”) are used interchangeably throughout this essay. The terms connote a political process by which a polity combines characteristics of both authoritarian and democratic rule, and which is moving in the direction of the latter. The usual distinction between the terms—civil versus political rights, respectively—is less explanatory in the case of Jordan as both types of rights expanded simultaneously.

2 Moore, Barrington Jr, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 418Google Scholar.

3 Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Stephens, Evelyne Huber, and Stephens, John D., Capitalist Development and Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)Google Scholar. See also Collier, Ruth Berins and Mahoney, James, “Adding Collective Actors to Collective Outcomes: Labor and Recent Democratization in South America and Southern Europe,” and Bermeo, Nancy, “Myths of Moderation: Confrontation and Conflict during Democratic Transitions,” Comparative Politics 29, 3 (04 1997)Google Scholar.

4 This school of thought is best elaborated by Seymour Martin Lipset. For his earliest statements on this relationship, see his Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Democracy,” American Political Science Review 53 (03 1959)Google Scholar, and idem, Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1963), chap. 2Google Scholar.

5 Huntington, Samuel P., The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 63Google Scholar. The figures are in 1976 dollars.

6 Smith, Peter, “Crisis and Democracy in Latin America,” World Politics 43 (07 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Economic crises in relatively advanced countries as bases for democratization to occur are also stressed by Haggard, Stephen and Kaufman, Robert, The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

7 For a classic statement linking individualism with democracy, see Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America (New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1966), vol. II, part II, chap. 2–5Google Scholar. For a more recent work which takes up the theme of individualism and its impact on politics, see Jowitt, Ken, New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

8 Anderson, Lisa, “Introduction,” Comparative Politics 29 (04 1997): 3Google Scholar. For an example of this process, see Hirschman, A. O., “Exit, Voice, and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic: An Essay in Conceptual History,” World Politics 45 (01 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 This literature is extensive. For a good introduction, see Keane, John, ed., Civil Society and the State (London: Verso, 1988)Google Scholar.

10 For the best statement of this approach, see Palma, Giuseppe Di, To Craft Democracies: An Essay on Democratic Transitions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

11 Przeworski, Adam, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 5556CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 On rentier states see, for example, Beblawi, Hazem, “The Rentier State in the Arab World,” and Luciani, Giacomo, “Allocation vs. Production States: A Theoretical Framework,” The Arab State, ed. Luciani, Giacomo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Gause, F. Gregory III, Oil Monarchies (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994), esp. chap. 4Google Scholar; and Skocpol, Theda, Social Revolutions in the Modern World (Cambridge University Press, 1994) chap. 10CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Budgetary concerns have also been central to Jordanian foreign–policy-making. In Jordan's Inter-Arab Relations: The Political Economy of Alliance Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994)Google Scholar, Laurie A. Brand argues that this is the key independent variable explaining Jordan's foreign policy.

14 Richard Joseph has referred to a similar process in Africa as “virtual democracy.” In these cases, states construct a democratic facade while maintaining the basic structure of power in order to please international donors in the aftermath of the Cold War.

15 This observation was made to me by Waldner, David in a private conversation, 30 04 1997Google Scholar.

16 Unless otherwise noted, all data in this paragraph come from the World Bank, specifically its World Tables 1994 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 376–79Google Scholar.

17 This figure had rebounded to nearly $850 million in 1993, in addition to $600 million in repatriated savings: Jordan Economic Monitor 4 (04 1994): 3Google Scholar.

18 World Bank, see n. 16.

19 Brand, Laurie A., “Economics and Shifting Alliances: Jordan's Relations with Syria and Iraq, 1975–81,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 26, 3 (08 1994): 410Google Scholar.

20 For the most recent arguments about civil society in the Middle East, see Norton, Augustus Richard, ed., Civil Society in the Middle East (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995)Google Scholar. Similar arguments can be found in a special issue of The Middle East Journal (47, 2, spring 1993)Google Scholar devoted to the subject of civil society. See also the reports issued by the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo concerning its own civil-society project, including an annual survey titled al-Mujtamaʿ al-Madanī [Civil Society]. What most of these sources share is a general optimism about the direction of political change in the Middle East today. Works on the rentier state are cited in n. 12.

21 Data on the 1989 elections come from Intikhābāt 1989: Ḥaqāʾiq wa Arqām (The 1989 Elections: Facts and Figures) (Amman: Markaz al-Urdunn al-Jadīd l'il-Dirāsāt, 1993)Google Scholar.

22 Members of the military and the security services were not permitted to participate in the elections.

23 Due to the obvious difficulty in labeling some candidates, accounts vary slightly in the reported number of independent Islamist candidates who won office. I am relying on the categorization made by the al-Urdunn al-Jadid research center.

24 In fact, Communist and Baʾthist parties were initially denied legalization by the Ministry of the Interior, causing an intense political controversy. The problem was ultimately solved when the parties altered their names slightly: Middle East International, 18 12 1992Google Scholar.

26 al-Sharif, Nabil, “Opposition in the Print Media,” in The Role of the Media in a Democracy: The Case of Jordan, ed. Hawatmeh, George (Amman: Center for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan, 1995), 1112Google Scholar. The Jordan Star recently (8 05 1997)Google Scholar reported government ownership at 62 percent of al-Raʾi and 32 percent of al-Dustūr. Ṣawt al-Shaʿb closed in 1995Google Scholar.

27 Interview with Hawatmeh, George, editor of the Jordan Times, 4 04 1994, AmmanGoogle Scholar.

28 Al-Sharif, , “Opposition in the Print Media,” 1516Google Scholar.

29 Interview with Hawatmeh, Madaba 15 04 1994Google Scholar.

30 Interview with Kilani, Musa, Amman, 9 04 1994Google Scholar. Even speculation about the king's health—he has cancer—is off-limits. A well-known journalist, Rami Khouri, lost his television news program and, for a period, his syndicated column for suggesting that Jordan must begin to contemplate its post-King Hussein future (because of death or abdication). This eminently reasonable advice was viewed as near-heresy in some circles.

31 Interview with al-Sharif, Usama, Amman, 7 04 1994Google Scholar.

32 Interview with al-Sharif, Usama, Amman, 17 04 1994Google Scholar.

33 This was confirmed in a number of interviews with leading members of the political establishment. The only one who volunteered this information on the record was Ibrahim ʿIzz al-Din. ʿIzz al-Din was the minister of state for prime ministry affairs at the time this decision was made.

34 One should not view the elections of a number of tribal elements as an example of a victory for “traditional” politics. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that many of the clan dynamics present during this process were very new, including the ways in which members were chosen to run and who participated in the selection of candidates. In short, the process tended to be less hierarchical, less patriarchal, and more fluid and flexible than one would expect of “traditional” clan politics. Thus, it really is better seen as an example of state policies not just tapping into or even re-invigorating but transforming “traditional groups” and their politics.

35 Unless otherwise noted, figures for the 1993 elections come from al-Urdunn al-Jadid Research Center, Intikhābāt 1993: Dirāsa Taḥlīliyya Raqmiyya (The 1993 Elections: An Analytical and Statistical Study) (Amman, 02 1994Google Scholar), and Post-Election Seminar (Amman, 02 1994Google Scholar).

36 The ratification of the Jordan–Israel peace treaty by Parliament in November 1994 closely mirrored these numbers, with fifty-five of the eighty deputies voting in favor.

37 Of note, the first woman—Tujan Faysal—was elected to Parliament. Faysal won a Circassian quota seat on the strength of support from Christians, who apparently voted en masse for a liberal, secular Muslim knowing that their own quota seats were assured. In an open election, Faysal probably would not have won.

38 In fairness, it should be pointed out that the prime minister, ʿAbd al-Salam al-Majali, won an unexpectedly close vote of confidence in Parliament. However, this was not a sign of political unrest or opposition on major issues. Rather, the closeness was viewed as a snub at Majali for his publicly declared policy of not drafting any cabinet ministers from Parliament.

39 Post Election Seminar, 47Google Scholar.

40 Interview with al-Sharif, Usama, Amman, 17 04 1994Google Scholar.

41 In fact, ʿArabiyat was defeated in the 1993 elections primarily because of the mobilization of the Palestinian vote in the Baqʿa camp at the expense of traditional clan candidates, in this case ʿArabiyat. Residents of Salt—who have a reputation of being the most chauvinistic Jordanians—complained bitterly to the king after losing some of “their” seats. As a result, there is a great deal of speculation that electoral districts may be changed to remove Baqʿa from the Salt district. Some observers speculate that a special “camps” electoral district may be created.

42 Middle East International, 23 10 1992Google Scholar.

43 See al-Safīr, Beirut, 14 November 1992, as reported in FBIS, 19 11 1992Google Scholar.

45 See Robinson, Glenn E., Building a Palestinian State: The Incomplete Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), chap. 6Google Scholar, and Can Islamists Be Democrats? The Case of Jordan,” Middle East Journal 51, 3 (summer 1997Google Scholar).

46 Responsibility for the car bomb—deep inside Pakistan—has never been determined, although even some non-Brotherhood activists in Jordan are suspicious about its origins. Interview with al-Ruz, Mahmud Abu, Fatah political activist, Amman, 15 04 1994Google Scholar. Khalifa, Shaykh died in 1994Google Scholar.

47 Jordan Star, 6 March 1997 and 1 05 1997Google Scholar.

48 Jordan Star, 1 05 1997Google Scholar.

49 In the mostly Palestinian cities of Amman and Zarqa, only 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively, of eligible voters cast ballots. In non-Palestinian areas, well over half of all eligible voters cast ballots, including, for example, 87 percent of eligible voters in Karak. See “Jordan's Parliamentary Elections: Facts and Figures,” al-Urdunn al-Jadid Research Center, Internet edition.

50 The armed forces have always been dominated by East Bankers, especially the officer corps. However, that domination was strengthened—not coincidentally—during liberalization: in 1992, the army abolished universal conscription. In practice, this has allowed the armed services to decrease Palestinian representation and increase the percentage of East Bank recruits.

51 The form of extraction shifted under public pressure from an income tax to a sales tax. This point was made to me by Bryan Daves.

52 Middle East International, 9 09 1994Google Scholar.

53 O'Donnell, Guillermo and Schmitter, Philippe C., Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 69Google Scholar. For a more recent re-statement of this proposition and related problems, see Shin, Doh Chull, “On the Third Wave of Democratization: A Synthesis and Evaluation of Recent Theory and Research,” World Politics 47, 1 (10 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 Middle East International, 18 11 1994Google Scholar.

55 Ibid., 16 December 1994.

56 Ibid., 7 July 1995. The government's offensive paid some dividends when Islamists subsequently fared rather poorly in municipal elections in 1995.

57 Ibid., 26 May 1995.

58 Ibid. The confiscation order was later suspended, but not revoked.

59 The full text of the letter can be found in the Jordan Star, 13 03 1997Google Scholar.

60 Associated Press, 8 01 1997Google Scholar.

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