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Has the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan overcome the danger of fragmentation and danger?

Jordanians cast their ballots at a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Amman, Jordan on September 20, 2016
Jordanians cast their ballots at a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Amman, Jordan

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in the legislative elections held on 20 September did not cause the usual ruckus like it did in the past. This is because the group’s objectives for its participation this time was specific and modest. It primarily aimed to re-legitimise the existence of the group, which has been banned.

The group was subjected to a political propaganda campaign aimed at delegitimising its historical and popular legitimacy, to discredit its nationalism and deny its civil and democratic trends. It was under attack by claims of extremism and terrorism and considered one of the main factors of instability.

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in the elections came after a double unprecedented crisis that is both subjective and objective on a domestic level. This crisis is related to ideological, organisational and external adaptation associated with managing the relationship with the political system. This crisis cannot be separated from the crisis of the mother group in Egypt and its branches that extend regionally and internationally. This is after the group lost its historical gains and became excluded and persecuted locally, regionally and globally. This is because the process of excluding and removing the group is not only confined to the political and physical aspects, but also affects the symbolic aspects through the means of politically delegitimising the group and considering it a “terrorist movement”.

The group’s international organisation was declared a terrorist group, firstly in Egypt – the group’s place of origin – followed by some Gulf counties, beginning with Saudi Arabia, and then came the recommendations of the British House of Commons, which considered the group to have tendencies of terrorism. The American Congress also proposed a bill to add the group to the terrorism list, and therefore, the group’s participation came after perceptions of the group changed and it was viewed as a firewall against terrorism.

The group had historically boycotted the elections under better local, regional and international political conditions than today, i.e. in 1997, 2010 and 2013. These decisions were made by the group based on considerations in the political field. However, the current decision to participate in the elections was based on identity considerations, as participation is considered a means of rehabilitation the group politically as well as preserving its legal presence in the national Jordanian context on one hand and preserving the group’s unity and overcoming the internal divisions on the other.

When Jordan held elections in 1989, the Islamic Action Front won 22 out of 80 seats. This revealed the group’s strength and popular presence. In order to prevent a repeat of this, the government amended the electoral law in 1993 with what is known as the “one man one vote law” in order to ensure different results.

On 31 August, the government ratified a new electoral law that eliminates the one man, one vote law and decreased the number of seats in parliament from 150 to 130, including 15 seats reserved for women. It also adopted the constituency system in 2016 which divided the kingdom, made up of 12 municipalities, into 23 constituencies, as well as three Bedouin constituencies. By doing so, the new law is not far from reinforcing the foundations of the former electoral system and its goals.

The Islamic Action Front, the political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, participated in the elections via the National Alliance for Reform with 20 lists and 120 candidates, including 72 members of the party and group, while the rest were political and tribal figures, as well as nominated Christian, Circassian and Chechen individuals.

The alliance gained 15 seats in parliament, 10 of which were won by members of the group and the remaining five were won by their allies.

Three women from the alliance’s list won seats in parliament and they completely controlled all three seats allocated to the Chechens and Circassians.

With all 20 winning and losing lists, the alliance received 151,787 votes from the total number of voters in the kingdom which, according to the independent electoral committee, is 1,492,400 voters. Hence, it received 10.1 per cent of the total votes.

Although the Brotherhood participated in the elections and there were no political voices calling for a boycott, the refrainment from voting was apparent. Compared to the 2013 voting numbers, and despite the amendments made to the electoral law including reducing the voting age, only 33 per cent of voters turned out for this election.

The Brotherhood’s behaviour after the announcement of the results suggested relative satisfaction with the status quo and the Brotherhood did not mention any sort of violations or rigging. This is because the group’s priority is to rehabilitate itself as a national trend that sticks to the limits of the democratic game. It also aims to reinforce and stress its strength and popular presence and to show that it owns a flexible opposition discourse that believes in the civil state and its requirements.

The group wanted to send the government a message of reassurance regarding the possibility of it developing its behaviour and discourse by building alliances that go beyond the ideological framework, organisational structures and identity issues.

The group avoided participating in the elections with its traditional framework and the group’s religious theories, instead presenting itself as one of the elements of the national moderate opposition. It did so by forming the National Alliance for Reform under the slogan of a “civil state”, far from its past religious slogans, including “Islam is the solution”. This is an attempt on its part to break the concept of ideological rigidity.

The group worked on entering into a broad national alliance and avoiding rigid organisational structures. It was also keen on including ethnic and religious components, including the Circassians, Chechens, and Christians in order to dispel the fatal suspicions of identity policies.

In the context of working on changing the group’s traditional image and getting rid of extremism accusations, the group used all available means in its electoral campaign, including the formation of lists, steering clear of ideological rhetoric and thorny international and regional issues. The group also participated in the festivities and celebrations, playing national songs during festivals and having women who were unveiled attend.

The elections confirmed that the group is popular and capable of gathering support on the basis of issues that go beyond secondary identity issues. Its strength was prominent in the main mimed cities in Amman and Al-Zarqa, which are made up of Palestinians, Jordanians, Circassians and Chechens. However, the group did not receive any seats from the municipalities in eastern Jordan and this reveals the nature of the tribal properties in the rural and Bedouin areas and the group’s inability to make a breakthrough within the tribal setting. This is in light of the fact that the electoral law reinforces the influence of tribal components.

The elections also revealed that the divisions occurring within the group, which is being dominated by the eastern Jordanians – as in the case of the Zamzam Initiative and the Brotherhood – contributed to the fragmentation of the votes especially in the city of Irbid, as all the parties from the Brotherhood and dissidents lost.

These elections demonstrated that the government does not want the inclusion of any components splitting from the Brotherhood in the context of integration and moderation, or for any of the parties that split in the past, such as the Centre Party, or those that recently split such as the Zamzam Initiative or the Muslim Brotherhood Assembly, to receive any support or privileges.

This confirms the fragmentation theory that I clarified in my book The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan: A religious and political crisis in a national context.  In this book, I stressed the essence of the government strategy that follows an approach based on fragmenting the group, pressuring the Jordanian United Front Party, pushing the moderate trend towards more division and polarisation, and relying on the wise leaders of the Partnership and Rescue Committee which remained on the sidelines regarding the management of the elections, to deepen the division.

Hence, the Brotherhood’s participation in the elections did not make a difference in light of the domination of the extremism firewall theory. The group will remain tested and under examination in an impossible task to prove its moderate tendencies. The shutting down of the Muslim Brotherhood’s main headquarters in Jordan on 13 April 2016 is based on the government’s patient and gradual strategy, combining between exclusion and inclusion.

The Jordanian approach did not adopt the Egyptian-Saudi-Emirati approach of completely uprooting the group and classifying it as a terrorist movement. It also did not adopt the Moroccan approach of including the group and integrating it politically.

The Jordanian approach to dealing with the group is smooth and it is based on a series of political and legal measures as well as pressuring the group’s trends to create a state of separation and polarisation that leads to pushing the “doves” trend to be more moderate and cooperative with the government’s policies.

These policies led to the founding of the Zamzam Initiative and then later led to pushing towards licensing the Muslim Brotherhood as a prelude to legally delegitimising the historical group.

However, the historical group did not take the government measures seriously and relied on persevering without presenting any initiatives that would thwart the path of division. Its decisions to rebuild relations between the group and the government are always made too late.

In short, the Brotherhood’s participation in the elections by means of its political branch, the Islamic Action Front, and the formation of the National Alliance for Reform, will not lead to the reintegration of the group politically as long as the theory of being a walking belt of extremism continues to dominate and given the spread of orientalist and intellectual or cultural approaches to deal with the phenomenon of political Islam. The strategy of fragmenting the group will affect the group’s political branch, the Islamic National Action party, in order to create more separation and divisions based on identity at times and based on policies at others.

The historical image of the Brotherhood has changed as it had been considered a firewall protecting against the danger of extremist to an explosives belt. There doesn’t seem to be anyone internationally, regionally, or locally listening to the danger of such an approach, its destructive affects and its catastrophic nature.

Despite the fact that the group suffers from a number if issues, it is still the cement in the Arab Muslim communities that keeps the state connected to the community in light of the lack and weakness of the civil society institutions. Fragmenting the group and excluding it will allow for the emergence of angry and violent identity groups that will be difficult to control.

Translation Arabi21, 2 October 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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