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Protest, reform and reaction: Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood searches for a 'safe passage'

Since the Arab Spring, relations between the group and the kingdom have undergone a dramatic shift
Jordanians wave Muslim Brotherhood flags and hold a portrait of King Abdullah II during a demonstration in Amman in 2007 (AFP)

The current standoff between the Jordanian government and the Muslim Brotherhood differs from past crises. The traditional ebb and flow that characterised relations for decades no longer applies; the rules of the game have changed.

Relations began to fundamentally shift after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood joined the popular movement, attended demonstrations and marches, and refused to participate in the national dialogue committee that the government created to discuss reforms.

Instead, the Brotherhood presented a set of reforms that the regime viewed as a “soft coup” attempt, aiming to limit the political powers of the king. 

The Brotherhood did not participate in parliamentary elections in 2012, reinforcing the confidence gap between the group and the king, and sending tensions soaring. 

Self-preservation role

In line with regional changes, the Brotherhood’s ambitions evolved from expanding the group’s role to self-preservation. In July 2013, the Egyptian army overthrew the Brotherhood’s rule in that country, and much of the region united against the group.

Jordan’s allies, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, all classified the Brotherhood as a “terrorist” organisation.

Meanwhile, the course of the Syrian revolution changed drastically with Iran’s intervention and the departure from Damascus of Hamas. During this stage, only Doha and Ankara retained support for Islamists in the region. Turkey took in Egyptian Brotherhood leaders and Islamists fleeing the country after General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power through a military coup. 

The doctrine that currently governs the state is likely to continue, and Brotherhood followers will need to adapt and change

The previous US administration also backed away from its temporary rapprochement with the Brotherhood, and the international and regional momentum for the group’s endeavour to enhance its political role dissipated.

The pendulum then swung in the other direction, as Jordan’s allies pushed the regime to take similar measures to criminalise the group, classify it as a terrorist organisation, and expel it from the political arena.

The Jordanian government had not previously taken drastic steps with regards to the Brotherhood, but the outcomes of the Arab Spring, especially after 2013, provided it with an opportunity to do so.

The regime appeared to consider what happened during the Arab Spring to be treason, or a Brotherhood “conspiracy” to topple the government - despite the fact that the Brotherhood did not call for the “fall of the regime”, but rather for unprecedented reforms.

Returning to politics

The Muslim Brotherhood returned to participate in 2016 parliamentary elections, as well as municipal and local council elections. The group’s bloc ultimately won 15 seats, marking a return to the political arena after a four-year boycott.

But this return had no impact on the Brotherhood’s relationship with the government, which attempted to exploit fissures within the group. The state supported a new offshoot founded by former comptroller-general Abdul Majid al-Thunaibat, calling it the Muslim Brotherhood Association. The new association comprised historical Brotherhood leaders.

A boy rides a horse past election campaign posters in Amman in 2016 (AFP)
A boy rides a horse past election campaign posters in Amman in 2016 (AFP)

Next came the 2018 protests, which brought Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz to power, and later the teachers’ strike in September 2019, which was the straw that broke the camel’s back with regards to the state’s relationship with the Brotherhood. 

After the head of the Teachers Syndicate died in a car accident, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nasser al-Nawasrah, took on the role and oversaw the longest and perhaps largest teachers’ strike in the kingdom’s history. The government eventually reached a deal with teachers that fulfilled their financial and professional demands.

The crisis was renewed, however, with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Jordan. The government announced the suspension of bonuses for employees in the public sector, which includes teachers. 

Unresolved tensions

State media drew a clear connection between the teachers’ union and the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming the Brotherhood was using the union to serve its own goals of confronting the regime - a claim the Brotherhood has denied.

The Brotherhood’s comptroller-general insisted in a letter that it was a professional and labour issue for the teachers’ union, and that while the Brotherhood was seeking to adopt a reform initiative to solve the problem, it was not a party to the crisis. 

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Leaders of the teachers’ union were released on 23 August after a month of detention, but the crisis between the union and the Jordanian government continues. Likewise, tensions between the regime and the Brotherhood remain unresolved. The doctrine that currently governs the state is likely to continue, and Brotherhood followers will need to adapt and change.

There is still a split within the Brotherhood between those who view the name as necessary for its historical, symbolic and emotional weight, and those who believe the name is not sacred, since the goal is merely for the Brotherhood’s intellectual and cultural school to be a reference for the party and its members, without requiring adherence to the literal name and historical slogans.

The Islamic Action Front, for example, ran in the 2016 parliamentary elections without raising the slogan “Islam is the solution”, which was historically used by the group since its return to elections in 1989.

The need for dialogue

The idea of transforming the group into a political party does not appear to be rejected by a broad current within the Brotherhood today. But there are concerns about the need for related dialogue and consensus among the state, the organisation and the party, as shifting towards party work is a complex and lengthy process.

Some leaders have called this process “the safe passage”, meaning that it should be gradual, and the group should be given time to follow through with the transition. 

On the other hand, official policies (from amicable co-existence in the 60s and 70s to turning against the group in the 90s and onward) may help the Brotherhood move forward with a greater degree of pragmatism, by freeing the party’s political experience from the group’s historical domination over it. 

Such a “forced passage” could help to end the decades-long stalemate between the Brotherhood’s conservative and traditional current, which fears change, and the pragmatist and realist current, which sees the Tunisian, Moroccan and Turkish experiences as examples of how to develop political discourse and practical conduct for the group and the party. 

This article is a summary of a study the writer published with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, titled: “The Dispute over the New Rules of the Game.” 

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

Mohammad Abu Rumman
Mohammad Abu Rumman is a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan. He specialises in Political Thought and Islamic Movements. He has authored numerous books and policy papers.