Five and a half years before Jordan signed its peace treaty with Israel at Wadi Araba in October 1994, the country saw the eruption of its first major revolution since its creation by the British in 1921. Dire economic conditions and a series of draconian measures adopted by the pro-Syria government of Zaid al-Rifai to restrict political activities and curtail civil liberties, sparked what became known as the April (1989) uprising of the South.
In anticipation of the need to adopt a severe austerity programme and in a bid to appease disgruntled masses, the late King Hussein launched a process of political liberalisation that included new legislative elections. However, the Jordanian democratic honeymoon was short lived. The massive popular show of support the Islamists received in the elections, the 1991 Gulf war provoked by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and the Madrid Peace Conference in late 1991 were among some of the factors that dissuaded the king from pursuing the democratic reform path. Yet, the most important impediment to democratisation has been the peace treaty with Israel.
The people of Jordan, just like the majority of Arabs and Muslims, do not recognise the legitimacy of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Israel’s very existence on a land that was usurped by force continued to be regarded as an aggression against the entire Ummah. Generation after generation, Arabs, foremost among them the Jordanians – who until recent years did not see Palestine and Jordan as separate entities – aspired to see Palestine liberated and the Zionist project aborted. Jordanian children like their fathers before them, grew up learning by heart details of what happened to Palestine and its people, several millions of whom ended up living in Jordan permanently either as refugees or as Jordanian citizens. Invariably, Jordanians have strong reasons for rejecting Israel; for some people these are nationalistic, for others they are religious and for a great many they are personal.
Yet, the Jordanian public sentiment was for much of the history of the Zionist occupation of Palestine at odds with that of the ruling elite in Jordan. Since King Abdullah the First, the founding monarch, the Hashemite rulers of Jordan have maintained clandestine contacts with the Israelis. They probably would have recognised Israel much earlier had circumstances permitted them. Nevertheless, their political discourse, at least until the Madrid peace conference, remained within the bounds of Arab consensus, paying lip service to the public sentiment.
There was even a time when Jordan was home for the PLO resistance factions and other times when King Hussein competed with Yassir Arafat over who legitimately represented the people of the West Bank who were, until the mid-1980s, still considered Jordanian citizens.
Therefore, it was to be expected that political liberalisation in Jordan would not assist in the conclusion of any peace deal that might recognise Israel’s right to exist. It even became clear that any fair legislative election, as part of such a process of liberalisation, was going to produce a parliament with a sizable Islamic representation and most likely a majority that would be opposed to any move towards Israel in contradiction with the people’s wishes. A free and powerful parliament in Jordan would never authorise the executive to sign a peace deal with Israel.
It is no wonder then that after the Madrid conference and less than two years away from the next parliamentary elections the Jordanian authorities embarked on changing the election law.
The aim was to restrict the ability of the Islamists in particular, but more generally any candidates who were not to the liking of the intelligence services, to gain votes in sufficient numbers to guarantee a seat in parliament. The measure soon paid dividend. The legislative elections of November 1993 resulted in reducing, substantially, the parliamentary share of the Islamists and other political trends allied with them. The king had his parliament of choice, one that would bless whatever it is asked to endorse.
What was hailed as a genuine transition to democracy in the autumn of 1989 soon proved to be a mirage. Throughout the initial stages of political liberalisation, and despite some tangible improvements in the record of human rights and civil liberties, the king made sure he relinquished very little of his powers to the elected parliament. And as soon as the post-Madrid Washington talks started, Jordan saw a rapid reversal of many of the positive steps taken earlier. The intelligence services gradually regained many of the powers they had lost during the initial period and this led to heavy restrictions on freedoms of expression, of assembly and of movement.
The regime was not content with just changing the election law, opposition groups, some of whom chose to boycott subsequent elections, claimed that those elections were rigged, or somehow interfered with, in order to produce rubber stamp parliaments.
Peace with Israel necessitated a legislature with no real powers and one that made no genuine popular representation of the public. Consequently, the executive ended up with free rein and the intelligence services with total impunity. Without any accountability, it is no wonder that volumes can be written about the allegations made against successive governments during the years that followed the signing of Wadi Araba accusing them of mismanaging the economy and of rampant corruption.
This article was first published by Al-Jazeera.