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Do public policy debates between activists from different ideological camps in a nondemocratic and illiberal system bridge social divisions or deepen them? Focusing on three controversies regarding family law in Jordan, we argue that activist groups rarely talk to each other in public, and when they do, their discourses aim primarily at mobilizing support within their own camps rather than addressing each other's concerns. Through media analysis, discourse analysis, and in-depth field interviews, we find much polarization and few attempts to build bridges, but also limited though very suggestive exceptions. Those exceptions rely less on public and democratic mechanisms and more on entrepreneurial state actors working quietly, talking opportunistically to each side, and emerging as powerful institutional actors. Authoritarian states can provide sites of deliberation, but deliberation seems to lead to principled agreement beyond the platitudinous only when an institutional actor within the state takes the initiative to get involved.

Corresponding author
Lamis El Muhtaseb is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Middle East University, Amman, Jordan, and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Siena, Siena, Italy; e-mail:;
Nathan J. Brown is a Professor in the Elliot School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; e-mail:;
Abdul-Wahab Kayyali is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; e-mail:
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International Journal of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 0020-7438
  • EISSN: 1471-6380
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies
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