Jordan: The Quiescent Opposition
Many Jordanians stopped talking about reform after the rise of ISIS in 2014 and Syrian refugees poured across the northern border — but not Jordan's Islamic Action Front.
Since the late 1980s, the Islamic Action Front has been the leading opposition movement in Jordan, often boldly challenging the monarchy’s domestic and foreign policies. It boycotted the 2010 and 2013 parliamentary elections and called for a constitutional monarchy led by an elected parliament. In 2011, the Front called for abrogation of the peace treaty signed with Israel in 1994 and the permanent closing of the Israeli embassy in Amman. The moves were particularly provocative in the context of Arab uprisings elsewhere.
Yet the Front was relatively quiescent during the 2011 protests in Jordan demanding reforms. The group, which was formed in 1992 and has been the main Islamist party in elections ever since, describes itself as “loyal opposition.” The protests it organized rarely exceeded 1,000 people. And the demonstrations always refrained from calling for an overthrow of the regime. The Front focused instead on the resignation of the prime minister or on specific policies.
The Islamic Action Front’s willingness to work within the system is not surprising given the long association between the monarchy and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which the Islamist party was born and to which it still has umbilical ties. The Brotherhood has had a symbiotic relationship with the Hashemite monarchy, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s when Jordanian and Palestinian leftist and militant groups threatened the regime.
In 1989, when Jordan held its first full parliamentary election since the 1967 war, most of the Islamist candidates were affiliated with the Brotherhood, which won the largest bloc in parliament. Over the decades, both the Brotherhood and the Front have repeatedly expressed loyalty to the regime.
Unlike many Islamist parties, the Front has no militant wing. It supports Hamas and opposes Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, but within Jordan it has remained loyal to the regime. Jordan does have an emerging militant Islamist movement. The Salafi trend was largely inspired by Abu Musab al Zarqawi—the Jordanian head of al Qaeda in Iraq, who was assassinated in 2006. Jordan also has a decades-old quiescent Salafi trend. Since 2014, some Jordanians have also expressed support for ISIS, although there is no evidence that an ISIS cell exists in the kingdom.
But the Front has remained distinct from both the Salafists and al Qaeda. Ideologically, it does not share the extremist views of Salafi movements. The Front has an established record of working within democratic institutions and, indeed, has well-functioning democratic practices within the party itself. It also has a record of cross-ideological cooperation with groups such as leftists and liberals, particularly around issues of political freedoms, a free press, and human rights. However, the Front has conservative positions on women, encouraging only limited political participation and unsuccessfully proposing gender segregation in 1990.
Contrary to common perceptions, Jordan did experience a significant increase in political protests as part of the Arab uprisings. The Front was active in these, along with political parties, professional associations, independent activists, and dozens of tribalyouth movements, known as the Hirak. King Abullah II responded by promising reforms, dismissing the cabinet, and appointing a new prime minister. He took some unusual steps, such as revoking laws that requiredprotesters to obtain permits in advance. He also called for new parliamentary elections, which were held in January 2013. The Front joined other oppositional parties in boycotting the elections, and thus was not represented in the new assembly.
Many Jordanians stopped talking about reform after the rise of ISIS in 2014 and Syrian refugees poured across the northern border. But not the Front.
The regime’s concern with security led to the arrest of militant jihadis. Several members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Front were also detained or arrested. Among them was the current Brotherhood leader, who was highly critical of the government. Yet by early 2015, Jordan’s king had shown more tolerance for the group compared with other regimes, notably in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that branded local branches of the Brotherhood “terrorists.”
The Islamic Action Front was created as an umbrella Islamist party, but it has always been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The roots of both date back to 1945, when a group of Jordanian merchants who supported a religious jihad against the Zionists in Palestine founded a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.
King Abdullah I supported the Brotherhood and more generally used the Islamists to buttress his regime’s own limited support base. In its early days, the Hashemite monarchy relied on several conservative actors, including tribal leaders, minorities, and religious groups. The Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the most powerful of the latter. On November 19, 1945, the king inaugurated the Muslim Brotherhood office in Amman and formally welcomed the group as a religious charitable society. The Brotherhood has been a prominent actor on Jordan’s social and political scene ever since. The monarchy also saw the Islamist movement as a counterweight to the growing strength of the National Socialist Party, the other main political alternative.
After 1948, the Brotherhood played a pivotal role in supporting the regime as waves of Palestinian refugees—many of whom embraced leftist and Arab nationalist ideologies—introduced a more politically active constituency into Jordanian politics. It attracted many Palestinians into its ranks through both social support and a tough political message. The Brotherhood declared an unwavering anti-Zionist position and called for Muslim unity against foreign intervention in the Middle East.
In terms of ideology, the Brotherhood’s first program gave primary priority to full implementation of Sharia in all spheres of life—political, social, and economic. The Brotherhood has always justified working with the Hashemite regime, however, and has not sought to establish a caliphate or called for an end to the monarchy. The group originally listed its second priority as the full liberation of all of Muslim Palestine. But this goal has not appeared as a priority in its rhetoric since the 1960s, and it did not support Palestinian militants who challenged the regime in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Since at least the 1950s, the Brotherhood leadership has consisted primarily of professionals. Although the Brotherhood has consistently opposed Western imperialism in the Muslim world, Jordan’s mainstream Islamists have never been a militant or radical movement. They have sought to promote their social reform program within the regime-defined constraints, although they have frequently pushed to have those constraints loosened.
Until 2013, the Brotherhood’s support base remained largely unchanged. The movement’s social services have won support in poor areas. It has also been popular among Palestinians—particularly refugees residing in bleak camps. Most of Jordan was and remains socially conservative, so the messages of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front have found a ready audience. Some areas of the south that had long supported the Brotherhood have begun to express more support for jihadi groups. The extent of this shift is unclear, as is whether it will spread elsewhere in the kingdom.
The first phase of Islamic political activism stretched from independence in 1946 through reforms in 1989. Under the young King Hussein, Jordan had a vibrant political environment. In the mid-1950s, he allowed a range of new and weak political parties to function in an experiment with multiparty politics until leftist and nationalist forces began to challenge the monarchy.
In 1957, the regime survived an attempted military coup by Nasserists and leftist officers. The king responded by introducing martial law and outlawing all political parties. The regime continued to hold regular elections, although candidates were required to run as independents. Parliament met regularly until the 1967 war led to a suspension of the assembly. It did not meet again until 1984.
During this period, the Muslim Brotherhood still functioned as a legal social organization even though all other nonstate groups were banned. In the late 1950s and 1960s, members of Jordan’s socialist and communist parties were subject to repression and imprisonment for their support of the Arab nationalist movement. But the king gave the Brotherhood considerable latitude in pursuing its conservative social reform agenda. In turn, the movement’s leaders defended the regime’s actions.
The events surrounding Black September in the 1970s illustrated the strong ties between the regime and the Brotherhood. Despite the movement’s support of an exclusively Arab Palestine, Brotherhood leaders did not back Palestinian militants in their confrontations with the monarchy over their bases in the East Bank. The decision did cause discord within Brotherhood ranks, but those who favored strong ties with the regime prevailed.
Over the decades, the monarchy has even tapped prominent Brotherhood members—including its founding secretary-general—for formal government positions. Other members have also held cabinet posts or high office, including positions in the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments. One of King Hussein’s top goals—and successes—was dramatically increasing rates of literacy. In 1961, the illiteracy rate was 67.6 percent. By 1995, it had plummeted to 14.3 percent. Tapping Brotherhood members for literacy projects indicated the close relationship between the regime and the movement.
At the same time, the monarchy never fully co-opted the Brotherhood. The movement was granted space to pursue its agenda as long as those activities did not challenge the regime’s sovereignty. Members were occasionally arrested and imprisoned for criticizing government practices. In the late 1950s, the group challenged the regime for its ongoing relations with Britain—particularly Britain’s role in advising the Jordanian regime on military and security issues. At the same time, the Brotherhood supported King Hussein’s imposition of martial law to contain leftist radicalism.
The Islamic Action Front’s Creation
Jordan reconvened its parliament in 1984 with by-elections to fill vacant seats from the 1967 assembly. But phase two really began in 1989, with the first full election for a new assembly, held in response to protests over economic grievances that began in the south and spread throughout the kingdom. Brotherhood members participated in the protests but did not organize them. Nor was the protest characterized by Islamist rhetoric.
But the Islamists profited from the opposition. In the 1989 elections, Islamist candidates won the largest bloc, with thirty-four of eighty seats in parliament. In light of their electoral success, Islamists were given five cabinet positions. They then generated considerable outrage by trying to introduce limited gender segregation and ban alcohol. The king dismissed the controversial cabinet within six months of the election.
In the 1989 poll, the Brotherhood had a strong advantage over other political groups. It had held a license to operate as a social organization since 1957, whereas political parties had been outlawed. The Brotherhood also had a well-established network of regional offices.
Since its creation, the Brotherhood has recruited around family or kinship cells, or usrah. Its networks have been tightened through intermarriage of followers and close personal connections. The group also runs a well-established network of Islamic charitable institutions, clinics, mosques, and schools. In 1989, the Brotherhood tapped these small, localized groups to mobilize support for its candidates and the creation of a formal political party.
After the 1989 elections, the monarchy lifted martial law and expanded political freedoms. Political parties were legalized in late 1992. But the Brotherhood opted not to refashion itself into a political party—a reaction, in part, to a new law forbidding parties with ties to political groups outside of Jordan. The leadership decided that the Brotherhood should retain its character as a charitable social organization focused primarily on education, health care, and the spread of Islamic values.
The Islamic Action Front was formed in September 1992 by 353 Jordanian Islamists, including 11 women. This committee originally conceptualized the Front as an umbrella party for Islamists from all trends, but independents soon complained of Brotherhood dominance. A year after its creation, the Front was widely recognized as the de facto political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, even as the organizations remain legally separate.
The new party included democratic mechanisms for representation and accountability. It meets annually and elects a 120-person consultative council that serves four-year terms. The council sets party policy and elects the council chairperson, the party secretary-general, and the members of the executive bureau to two-year terms. Reflecting philosophical ties, the Front’s offices across the kingdom are often physically close to Brotherhood facilities, sometimes sharing the same spaces.
The third phase of Islamist activism stretched from 1993 through the ascent of King Abdullah II in 1999 after King Hussein’s death. The Front participated in the 1993 elections but fared considerably poorer after redistricting and substantive changes in election laws. The system used in 1989 allowed each voter to cast as many ballots as there were seats from that constituency. Political groups, including the Brotherhood, benefited from this system because voters could cast ballots for local elites as well as ideological groups. In the 1989 assembly, Islamists controlled 40 percent of the seats, and leftists controlled another 16 percent, giving the opposition a majority.
In the 1993 contest, however, each voter could cast only one ballot. The new law dramatically reduced the Front’s representation in parliament. The Islamist bloc won thirty-four seats in 1989, but only twenty-two seats in 1993. (Leftist parties also saw their share reduced, from thirteen to seven seats.)
The regime needed the new law not only because a large opposition bloc made it nervous, but also because the regime hoped to conclude a peace treaty with Israel, so it needed a compliant assembly to approve the treaty. The regime achieved that goal by changing the election law. The treaty with Israel was signed in 1994 and soon thereafter was ratified by parliament.
Although the Front had long-standing tensions with leftist groups, their mutual frustration with the monarchy after the 1993 election led to cooperation on issues of common interest. A new joint opposition bloc met regularly, held joint press conferences, and sometimes co-organized protests. The former rivals continued to be divided over women’s status. But the bloc stood together in boycotting the 1997 parliamentary elections. The bloc’s primary grievances were the election law and changes to press and publications laws.
After King Abdullah II took the throne in 1999, the Front felt increasingly sidelined. The party lost all representation in parliament as a result of the 1997 boycott. Even more important, the decades-old relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and King Hussein had come to an end. King Abdullah II showed no interest in courting even moderate Islamists, and he did not have the personal relationships with the party’s leaders that his father had enjoyed.
The Front felt even further isolated when parliamentary elections scheduled for 2001 were postponed, partly in response to waves of protests. Demonstrations first erupted in Jordan following the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000 and again in spring 2002, after the Israeli invasion of several West Bank towns, including Nablus and Jenin. Both the Front and the Brotherhood joined the protests but did not organize them.
The Islamists became increasingly worried about being permanently marginalized. In 2001, al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks pushed concern about Islamists onto the center stage globally, and groups such as the Front had to go on the defensive. Its leaders were frustrated that a long history of working within the political system and eschewing violence were forgotten. They struggled to demonstrate that they remained a “loyal opposition” and even organized events in solidarity with Americans immediately after the attacks on New York and Washington. But King Abdullah II still held the Front at arm’s length. He introduced economic reforms but simultaneously retreated from many of the political advances introduced during his father’s rule in the early 1990s.
In 2003, the Front decided to run again for parliament. It won seventeen seats, including a seat for its first female candidate, who won one of six new quota seats for women. But Jordan’s parliament had lost significant power over the years, and by 2007 the party was divided over whether to contest the elections. In the end, it did offer candidates.
In the 2007 vote, which was widely criticized for manipulation by the regime, the Front won only 6 of 110 parliamentary seats. Internal party tensions worsened, with a hawkish wing taking an increasingly confrontational position toward the regime, particularly after the king seized control of the Islamic Center Association, the Brotherhood’s largest charity organization. After the 2007 assembly was dissolved, party leaders divided on whether to participate in new elections scheduled for 2010. After several internal debates, they decided to boycott the poll. One female member defied the boycott and won one of the twelve quota seats for women. Immediately after the election, the Front called for a constitutional monarchy. In 2012, many dovish members who had opposed the boycott, including Salim Falahat, left the party to support the Zamzam Initiative, which sought to promote more moderate Islamist politics.
The 2011 Uprisings and Their Aftermath
In 2011, the Arab uprisings swept the region; protests took place almost weekly in Jordan. But they never reached the scale of unrest elsewhere. Nnor did protesters demand a government overthrow . The Front organized protests in downtown Amman, but participation seldom exceeded 1,000 demonstrators. New parliamentary elections were held in January 2013, and the Front joined most opposition parties in boycotting the contest. This decision was not supported by everyone in the group. At least one prominent leader from the moderate trend, Nabil Kofahi, announced his intention to run as an independent, although he ultimately withdrew his candidacy under pressure from others in the party. In early 2015, the Front still had no representation in the assembly.
Jordan also became increasingly unsettled by trends in the region, especially as the Syrian uprising deteriorated into a civil war and thousands of Islamist militants from around the world poured into a neighboring state. In late 2012, it arrested 11 Jordanian al Qaeda-affiliated jihadis for their role in planning a series of attacks inside the kingdom. In 2014, it detained dozens of Brotherhood member sand arrested its leader, Zaki Bani Rashid, an outspoken voice from the group’s hawkish wing.
The Islamic Action Front and the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan became increasingly nervous about being branded terrorist organizations, as their counterparts were in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates By early 2015, this had still not happened, although relations with King Abdullah had also not improved.
The Front has consistently promoted democracy and political freedoms. It has cooperated with leftist and liberal parties, particularly on those issues. Internally, the party also practices democratic politics, with various groups of hawks and doves rotating in and out of the party’s executive offices.
The Front has had women elected to its consultative council, the highest decision-making body. Although it has consistently encouraged women to vote in national and municipal elections, it has fielded female candidates for national elections only since the introduction of the women’s quota in 2003. Party officials contend that they support women’s full political rights, but they have consistently opposed legislation to increase the rights of women in a divorce and the rights of women’s children to citizenship. The party also opposed efforts to change laws pertaining to honor crimes, although officials individually express their opposition to the practice.
Relations with Other Parties
The Front has cooperated with leftist and liberal parties since 1993 in both official and unofficial capacities. Cooperation has been limited to issues of political reform and does not involve issues of social reform—particularly issues concerning women’s rights. On several occasions, the Front has coordinated with other parties to organize election boycotts and call for an end to Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel.
Relations with Palestinians
The Front leadership includes Jordanian citizens of both Palestinian and East Bank origin. It is not the only party that advocates for Palestinians, but it is easily the most popular party among them.
The Front is critical of U.S. intervention in the region and has organized many protest events against the United States for its support of Israel and its invasion of Iraq. The party refuses to meet in an official capacity with U.S. officials, although it welcomes American researchers. In private, Front officials are divided over whether the group should engage with the United States.
The Front has held a consistent position against Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, as summarized in its 2003 election platform: “In all cases, working to liberate Palestine is a central concern in relations to all Muslims. No entity has the right to concede any part of Palestine or give legitimacy to the occupation on any part of its holy land. Our struggle with the Jews is creedal and civilizational. It cannot be ended by a peace treaty. It is a struggle over existence, not borders.”
The Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Action Front dominate Islamist politics in Jordan, but there are other Islamist voices. Since 2012, popular support for more extreme Islamist militants inside and outside of Jordan has increased.
Hamas and the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood
Jordan’s Brotherhood has long had close links to Hamas, a militant movement that emerged in Gaza out of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987. From 1948 to 1967, when Jordan controlled the West Bank, the Palestinian Brotherhood was organizationally connected to the Jordanian Brotherhood. They shared office space and members, although the Palestinian branch had a separate overseer.
When Jordan lost control of the West Bank in 1967, the Palestinian Brotherhood began closer cooperation with the movement’s Gaza branch. The creation of Hamas in 1987—with an armed wing—marked a significant departure from the Muslim Brotherhood’s longtime strategy of reform-based engagement. Organizationally, however, the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood (now referred to only as Hamas) remains attached to the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas offices still exist within the Muslim Brotherhood directorate in Amman. However, as a general rule the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood has consistently put its own survival and relations with the monarchy ahead of Palestinian liberation, most notably in supporting the regime during the 1970 events of Black September.
The Jordanian Building Initiative, or Zamzam Initiative
Founded by former Front member Rahil Gharabayah, the Zamzam Initiative was created in 2012 to “end the Muslim Brotherhood’s monopoly on Islamist discourse” in Jordan. The Initiative aims to improve the public image of moderate Islamist politics, promoting greater pluralism, democratic and constitutional reforms, and tolerance among those with differing perspectives. It reportedly has an estimated 500 to 700 members, including more than 100 who were previously members of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood and Front have barred their members from becoming affiliatedwith the initiative, which suggeststhat the Brotherhood views the Initiative as a threat.
The Islamic Center Party (Hizb al Wasat al Islami)
The Islamic Center Party was licensed in 2001 with liberal commitments to pluralism, equality, and human rights. The founders included several independent Islamists who were originally members of the Front but who resigned because of the Brotherhood’s domination of the party. The Islamic Center Party is small but has made modest gains. It won two parliamentary seats in 2003. In 2013, it won 16 of 150 seats—the largest bloc of a single party—but it has little power due to the overwhelming number of pro-regime deputies.
The Liberation Party (Hizb al Tahrir)
At the other end of the ideological spectrum, the Liberation Party was founded in Jerusalem in 1952, when the city was under Jordanian control. Jordan denied the Liberation Party’s application to form a legal political party because the party failed to recognize the Jordanian constitution and sought to replace the monarchy with an Islamic state. Brotherhood leaders claim that this party plotted several assassination attempts against King Hussein and sought to seize power in 1962. Others contend that the party has never advocated violence against the monarchy, and scholars have noted that no records of such activities exist. Party leaders tried again to register as a legal party in 1992 but were denied registration.
Various Islamist networks and groups function throughout the kingdom, but they have seldom played pivotal political roles, although this appears to be changing. A Salafi movement emerged in the 1970s when Jordanians exposed to Salafi ideas while studying in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria returned to the kingdom.
The movement has always had rival reformist and jihadi trends. The jihadist faction gained strength in 1989 with the return of fighters from Afghanistan who advocated violence to achieve an Islamic society. The question of takfir—the practice of declaring someone a kafir, or infidel, thus providing justification for violence—is the central dispute among Jordan’s Salafists. Prominent Salafi leaders are located in Zarqa and Irbid, and their circles seem to gain members through the defection of Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Missionary Society.
Information about support for Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda is thin; by most counts, bin Laden had no following prior to the 9/11 attacks even among Salafi circles. Interest in extremist tactics increased with the prominence of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a native of the conservative town of Zarqa, northwest of Amman. The founder and former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi was killed in 2006 when U.S. forces bombed a safe house in Iraq. His followers had carried out the deadly 2005 bombings in three Amman hotels. Jordan’s jihadists seem to have gained only a modest following, although enough that the Front and other mainstream Islamists expressed concern about losing their hawkish constituency to the militants. During the Arab uprisings in 2011, Salafi jihadists demonstrated on several occasions to demand the release of imprisoned members,; on one occasion, they used knives and clubs in clashes with riot police. Al Qaeda continues to have supporters in the kingdom, evident during the foiled bombing attack in the fall of 2012, which led to the arrest of 11 Jordanians involved in the plot.
By early 2015, support for jihadi Islamists appeared to be increasing in the kingdom, particularly in the Maan region in the south. Maani residents have a long history of confrontation with the regime. They frequently protested economic reforms and were known to tolerate jihadi Islamists in their midst. For years, Brotherhood and Front members were elected to local public office in Maan, but no longer. Support among Maanis for jihadist Islamists appears to be increasing at the expense of the Brotherhood. At least nine jihadis have been killed by security forces attempting to detain or arrest them between 2013 and 2015, which has increased anti-regime sentiment. In one instance, the ISIS flag appeared in Maan during protests. Whether Maanis truly supported ISIS or simply wanted to send an antagonistic message to the king was unclear.
By early 2015, public opinion polls suggested that Jordanians generally have grown more sympathetic of jihadi perspectives, even if they did not explicitly support al Qaeda or ISIS. Jordanian Salafi-jihadis weree divided on support for ISIS. Prominent jihadi leader Abu Muhammad al-Makdisi supported al Qaeda’s opposition to the Islamic State , although others did expresssupport for the declaration of a caliphate.
Islamic Missionary Society (Jamaat Tabligh)
The Islamic Missionary Society rejects direct involvement in political activities but seeks adherence to strict Islamic practices. The society spreads its vision through education—notably through free literacy classes and discussion groups organized in poorer neighborhoods.
By early 2015, the Front showed no signs of deviating from its long history as Jordan’s loyal opposition, even as many of its more moderate members left the party to join alternatives such as the Zamzam Initiative and the Islamic Center Party. With a small but growing jihadi trend in Jordan, the Front sought to appeal to the regime as a stabilizer that could counter extremism while still advancing a conservative Islamic social agenda. But the status quo had clearly changed with the defections of moderate voices, the increased criticism of the regime by the hawkish trend, and the modest but growing support for jihadi perspectives among Jordan’s Islamists.
The monarchy also demonstrated a growing willingness to detain and arrest Front members, even though it did outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood or declare it a terrorist organization. Combined with the rise of ISIS to the north, these developments suggested that Islamist politics in Jordan will continue to evolve—and be significant to Jordan’s future.
Jillian Schwedler is professor of political science at the City University of New York, Hunter College and the Graduate Center. She is the author of Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (2006) and coeditor of Policing and Prisons in the Middle East (2010). Her website is http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/polsci/faculty/jillian-schwedler/jillian-schwedle
Photo credits: King Hussein via Flickr Commons (CC license 2.0) (cropped); Jordanian flags by Vyacheslav Argenberg via Wikimedia Commons (CC license 2.0)
About the Author
"The Islamists" is a book and website on the origins, evolution, and positions of Islamist movements in the Middle East. The movements are redefining the order and borders in the world’s most volatile region. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals. Read more