Fears in Jordan that democratization means Palestinization

By: Dag Tuastad, University of Oslo.

“Talaqha, ya Abu Hussein” – ”divorce her, you father of Hussein [King Abdullah]”, chant supporters of Faisali, the club supported by Jordanian nationalists, as their club play against Wihdat, the club of the Palestinian refugee camp Wihdat, seen as representing Palestinian refugees in Jordan. The Faisali-supporters want the King to divorce his wife, Rania, because she is of Palestinian descent. In December 2010 250 people were injured, mostly Wihdat supporters, who ostensibly were attacked by the Jordanian police after the match inside the stadium where they had been locked up. This kind of Jordanian – Palestinian tension some fear will be aggravated now as democratization efforts in Jordan has been revitalized by the Arab Spring. An indication of such worsened ethnic tensions was revealed in February 2011 when 36 tribal leaders of Transjordanian origin published a letter stating: “We call upon the King to return lands given to the Yassin family [Ranias family].  The land belongs to the Jordanian people”. This kind of challenges to the Jordanian – Palestinian equation is unprecedented in public politics in Jordan.

One of the Jordanian nationalists is Ali Habashneh, the leader of The National Committee for Retired Officers in Jordan. Speaking to him in Amman, he opposes any democratization which could change the ethnic power in-balance in Jordan: “We are against a constitutional monarchy”, Habashneh says, implying that he opposes a constitution where the power of the throne is subservient to the parliament. Habashneh fears that pressure for democratization could lead to a change in the Jordanian election law where constituencies are gerrymandered to ensure un-proportional representation of the Jordanian Palestinians. In the current system, the Jordanian Palestinians, Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship, despite constituting a majority of the Jordanian population cannot win more than maximum 25 % of the seats in Parliament, writes Adnan Abu-Odeh in his book “Jordanians, Palestinians, and the Hashemite Kingdom in the Middle East Peace Process”.  The Karak constituency of 50 000 ethnic Jordanian voters thus have six seats in the Jordanian parliament while the Palestinian dominated Zarqa constituency of 500 000 voters have seven seats.

While pressure for democratization is ongoing in Jordan, The National Committee of Retired Officers represents a potential dangerous reaction to the democratization. As an organization of both retired officers as well as tribal leaders, the organization is a political actor hard to ignore: “They can put the Muslim Brotherhood to jail, but can they put generals to jail”, Habashneh says. With a Palestinian state emerging with the UN application of Palestine in September 2011, the Palestinians in Jordan could finally go home, Habashneh asserts.

Habashneh and the organization of the retired officers are regarded by some as deeply anti-Palestinian. “They are anti-Palestinians, they don`t want the Palestinians to become equal citizens. If they become equal citizens it means they will be entitled to government jobs like any other citizen. To keep them out double their opportunity to get the government positions,” the author and former advisor to the Jordanian king, Adnan Abu –Odeh, told me.

Jordanian nationalists portray democratization efforts in Jordan as a covert attempt of Palestinization of Jordan. Thus the regular protests to have democratic reforms in Jordan have been met with counter-demonstrations from Jordanian nationalists, which have included physical attacks on the demonstrators. As Palestinians are markedly absent in the Jordanian police force, mobs attacking such demonstrators as well as Wihdat supporters during matches against Faisali, ostensibly are given free hands by the police to go ahead as they please. Before the summer, one pro-democratization activist was killed and 100 injured when the demonstrators were attacked by gangs using sticks and rocks.

However, if genuine democratization would take place in Jordan, this have to lead to a change in the gerrymandered system of election constituencies, and to have the parliament function de facto as the supreme law making authority. The Jordanian parliament could then be composed of a majority of Jordanian Palestinians. Aware of this, Jordanian Palestinians keep a low profile. They fear that their Jordanian citizenships could be revoked. During a Wihdat and Faisali match I attended earlier this year I noticed that the Palestinian Wihdat supporters waved the Jordanian flag, while only a decade ago they used to sing Palestinian commando songs. A member of the Jordanian Parliament, Abdelkarim Abulhaja, told me that that he plans to make a party in order to promote the rights of Palestinian refugees in Jordan. But nevertheless, he does not in the current circumstances want to have complete proportional elections in Jordan “because making it completely proportional will lead to a struggle inside Jordan between both people. And we’ll lose each other, and the Israelis will be happy.”  Ali Habashneh from the retired officers does not moderate such fears: “The sensitive relations between the Jordanians and the Palestinians could lead to civil war.”