Jordan's Islamists Take the Reins of the Protests

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Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

Jordan's Islamic Action Front Party (IAF) leader Hamzah al-Mansur speaks during a news conference in Amman, Jordan.

After sitting out a three-month long wave of protests, Jordan's Islamists have finally taken to the streets. On Friday, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), Jordan's main opposition party and a branch o the Muslim Brotherhood, virtually took over the protest movement by rallying supporters in the capital Amman, turning out more than 1,000 marchers in the city. Though sometimes seen as a loyal opposition, the movement had been mostly dormant since boycotting the country's 2007 elections, claiming the polls had been rigged to subvert the Islamists' power. "It's a surprise that they suddenly came out today," says Chris Phillips, Jordan country specialist at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Until Friday, anti-regime sentiment had been marshalled by an inexperienced group of young Jordanians who dubbed themselves the March 24 movement and modeled their actions on Egypt's activists. They had been stymied after police hit their protests with rocks, sticks and water hoses on March 25. Fewer than 400 demonstrators came out in Amman the week after that incident. Most civilians believed the movement was dead in the water. Getting young people involved in politics "is like pulling teeth," says Naseem Tarawnah, the CEO of 7iber, an Amman platform for citizen-generated media. "It's unrealistic to think that it's going to become the vanguard of the anti-government movement," adds Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Institute. "No one should expect them to play that role. It's going to take a longer time for them to develop a larger constituency."

Since Friday, the IAF's leader, Hamzah al-Mansur, has been ubiquitous on television and in print media, a prominent spokesperson for a protest movement his organization did very little to encourage. Indeed, the demonstrations seem to be more sharply focused. Spurred by the IAF, not only did more than 1,000 paraded from Amman's central Al-Husseini mosque to City Hall, it very clearly called for reforms including the dissolution of Parliament and the toppling of Prime Minister Maaruf Bakhit.

Those demands seem to dovetail with what appear to be the sentiments of King Abdullah, who has publicly urged reform his new government, which was installed in January. "When the protests first came about and the King fired the government, there was a general sense across the population of 'give them a go, let's see what they can do before with criticize them,'" Phillips says. "In the last two weeks in particular, there's an increased sense that the government isn't going to do anything. If the IAF have mobilized people, it will be to try and regain the momentum in what was seen as a flagging protest movement and push forth reforms that had been failing to materialize."

The concern, however, is that the IAF may not speak for all Islamists. At the same time as hundreds were marching in the capital, a significant showing was being made in Zarqa, a religiously conservative village a half-hour drive from Amman. There, 350-to-400 Islamic hardliners clashed with police. A Jordanian officer, Lieutenant General Hussein Majali, told reporters that "it was clear that the demonstrators [in Zarqa] had plans to clash with police. They carried swords and daggers and were provocative, seeking to drag police into a bloody confrontation." More than 50 police were injured; with a reported 120 Salafists reportedly deained and 50 later released.

Zarqa is not unknown to the rest of the world. It was the hometown of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the much-feared head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed in 2006. But it exposes an internal division at the heart of the IAF. It remains unclear how much influence is wielded by the Salafists, a smaller extremist wing of the IAF, which is still dominated by moderates who are not calling for the overthrow of the monarchy. Salafists have been agitating for weeks for the release of 90 Islamist prisoners, including Mohammad Shalabi, convicted in 2002 of terrorism following riots in the southern city of Maan, and former Zarqawi mentor Abu Mohammed al-Maqdessi.

The internal debate between moderates and hardliners contributed to the IAF's weakness over the last couple of years. "There has been talk that they might split as an organization, or at least be internally split for a long time, preventing them from being a political force," Phillips says. But now it seems both sides have acted in concert, at least staging demonstrations on the same day. Whether Salafists and moderates can work together going forward remains to be seen.