Below is a two-part series of reports by Nicolas Pelham on the increasingly precarious situation in Jordan.
The proximate causes of Jordan’s growing potential for instability and revolution derive from the spillover effects of the Syrian Civil War. But these effects are amplifying deeper demographic tensions that were already causing serious problems. As Pelham show, these deeper tensions are rooted in instabilities caused by (1) the growing demographic imbalances between native Jordanians (mostly tribal Bedouins — now a minority in their own country) and majority of Jordanians of Palestinian origin including almost two million who are still classified as refugees (of which almost 340,000 remain housed in impoverished refugee camps left over from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars), (2) the general spillover of expectations created by the Arab Spring, and (3) King Abdullah’s reluctance to embrace the growing pressure for democratic reforms. Now, waves of refugees from Syria are hyping Jordan’s incipient crisis and making Jordan more vulnerable to radical Sunni Islamists trying to destabilize the existing order. Ironically, some of the ‘Syrian’ refugees entering Jordan are Palestinians who have been forced to leave squalid Palestinian refugee camps in Syria (which may be a result of a strategic decision made by the embattled Assad regime in increase pressure on its neighbors who are supporting the Syrian insurgents). Large numbers of Syria refugees are also flooding into Turkey and Lebanon.
The last thing the Middle East needs is another set of permanent concentration camps. The attached articles provide a useful background on a growing problem that is yet another instability related to the West’s failure to seriously address the Palestinian Question, a connection, I might add, Pelham studiously ignores.
As Syria’s civil war worsens, Jordanian officials say they fear a far larger exodus to come. The collapse of the single power station supplying 10 million Syrians in the south, they warn, could precipitate a mass rush to the border. Fighting has already enveloped the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus’ southern suburbs, home to 150,000 Palestinians and a million Syrians. Syrian airstrikes on rebel positions have made refugees of the camp’s population yet again, killing twenty-five of them inside a mosque where they had sought refuge .Tens of thousands who had fled the camp returned after an agreement between rival factions of Palestinians in Syria. But on January 7, said Palestinians in Yarmouk, shelling and sniper fire killed five people on the main road through the camp. Palestinians are fleeing again.
For Jordan’s indigenous East Bankers, the prospect of another wave of Palestinian refugees, following the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who arrived in previous decades, threatens to continue the process that over six decades has eroded their own status and turned them into a minority in their own country. Determined to keep out the Palestinians even after the bombardment of Daraa and Yarmouk camps, Jordan has allowed in only 2,000 of them, refusing entry to all the rest, including the widow’s husband, a rebel commander, who was sent back to his death in Syria after the rest of his Syrian unit was allowed in.
Even with the additional aid, however, it will be difficult for the ruling house to keep up with expenses. Officials blame Jordan’s soaring budget deficit on his policy of subsidizing the Bedouin with government jobs, pensions, and perks for their expanding population, but also on the rise of Islamists in the region who are less friendly to the monarchy. After taking power in Cairo, for example, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi cut Egypt’s supply of cheap gas to Jordan in order to meet its own domestic shortages, a move that cost the kingdom an extra $2 billion in substitutes. Recent promises by Egypt to restore its Mubarak-era gas supplies have failed to materialize, and the flow has since slipped back to a quarter of its former level. Moreover, much of the aid from Gulf states is earmarked for capital projects, not budget support, and the lion’s share of US aid is spent on American goods, such as arms. For their part, critics say the Kingdom’s financial crisis has been precipitated by royal corruption and graft, not the loss of cheap Egyptian fuel.
For over a year, the police handled demonstrators with a remarkably light touch, on instructions not to carry arms and to keep loss of life to a minimum. But in September the king endorsed a press law allowing the government to jail bloggers operating without a government license. And following the November protests, the authorities arrested hundreds of people, referring a hundred of them, including nine children, to the State Security Courts—military tribunals otherwise reserved for terrorism, treason, and drug-smuggling.
With the break provided by the election now over, the coming weeks will offer an important test: If the king resorts to harsher measures rather than pursuing a compromise to keep his opposition on board, some observers think the monarchy itself could face a growing challenge. Should push come to shove, says Bassam Badareen, Al-Quds Al-Arabi’s veteran correspondent in Amman, “The Brotherhood has more stamina than the king.”