Jordan’s clampdown of the Brotherhood faces detractors
On April 13, the Jordanian security services closed the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB or Ikhwan) in Amman, the country’s most organized opposition force, sealing off the entrance with red wax. It was a dramatic move; the Ikhwan has a strong support base in urban areas and its political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), is Jordan’s largest opposition party.
The move was enforced on the pretext that the party had failed to obtain legal authorization for its activities. But most critics believe that the closure was an attempt to immobilize on the only real opposition group to contest the government’s authority, in the wake of what the latter claims were multiple violations during the “Arab Spring” in 2011. The legal issue is clearly a pretext, Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Islamic Exceptionalism, tells Newsweek Middle East. “This is a political move by the government, and is a transparent attempt to limit opposition in the lead-up to parliamentary elections,” he says.
Established in Jordan in 1945, the Muslim Brotherhood lost its official registration in Jordan last year after it failed to comply with new requirements set in the political party’s law adopted in 2014. As a result, the Brotherhood is now viewed as an illegal organization.
Now blacklisted as a terrorist group in Egypt, the country of its founding, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official base in Jordan exceeds 10,000 members. It has the support of many more however; has been tolerated in Jordan for decades, and has been, on the whole, peaceful. And while it was declared a ‘terrorist organization’ by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Muslim Brotherhood has continued to operate in Jordan as an opposition group that has been an ally to the regime—and loyal to the monarchy—throughout its 70-year history in the kingdom.
But the relationship has grown fractious over time; during the Arab uprisings of 2011, the government began to view the party as an agitator, and one that had ‘crossed all red lines,’ a phrase oft in use in the region. Last February, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan was sentenced to a year and a half in prison after criticizing the UAE for blacklisting the movement. And as tensions heightened, the MB boycotted legislative elections in 2013 and 2010. The kingdom is expected to hold parliamentary elections early next year.
The closure has sparked widespread criticism among many Jordanians, who viewed it as a trumped-up act. Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson, Badi Al Rafaia has called the government’s decision “illegal” and an act of “martial law” as well as “politically motivated.” He views the governor as someone acting outside his legal jurisdiction in closing down the group’s offices and believes that matters should have been resolved through the courts and legal channels.
Jordan’s Ikhwan is by no means unified. Split by internal divisions earlier this year, there has been a rift between older, more moderate members who want to calm the waters, and the more outspoken members who want to challenge the government on political reforms and other issues. In February, 400 Brotherhood members, including some of its founders and top leaders, resigned in protest against the group’s continuing affiliation to the regional Muslim Brotherhood, based and founded in Cairo in 1928, which they see as increasingly militant and marginalized. The MB in Jordan subsequently decided to cut ties with the regional movement, hoping to amend the rift.
But many of them had already joined the “Muslim Brotherhood Society,” a new, splinter group from the original MB that was in fact, legally registered and backed by the Jordanian government.
MB supporters say that the government has been targeting the group’s legitimacy by creating and licensing the new organization. This new group, some say, is formed by those who have held no leadership status within the Jordanian MB, were not members in the original organization, and are therefore not entitled to speak in its name. “[The closure of MB] also has to be understood in light of the recent split within the Brotherhood. The government is playing off the licensed splinter group against the larger movement, which also happens to be the more confrontational and critical of the two,” Hamid says. The government had transferred ownership of Jordan’s MB group’s seven properties—worth several millions of dollars—to the Society and sent court orders to the Brotherhood, forcing them to hand the properties over. Last year, and for the first time, the Jordanian government banned the original Brotherhood from organizing public prayers during the holy month of Ramadan—a sign that it now refuses to acknowledge the original group.
Some observers believe that the Jordanian government is entrenching its power—a move that may not be conducive to national stability in the long run. “This is not the most encouraging sign, not just for Jordan’s supposed reform process but also for the country’s general stability. The last thing you want to do is inch closer to the Egyptian model of total exclusion of Islamist opposition,” Hamid says.
“Jordan has long been one of the only Arab countries that has tolerated and included the Brotherhood in the democratic process, but this distinction has been eroding now for several years. For Jordan to turn back on its own history in such a manner is a troubling development, considering that exclusion in the rest of the region does not have a great track record,” he adds.
But in a time of unrest, anger, and frustration, Hamid asks, is it really a good idea to close down the country’s largest channel of legal opposition? “You’re also strengthening the narrative of extremist groups that say, look, the Brotherhood’s gradualist, participatory approach gets them nothing—it only leads to more regime repression,” he says. And with fewer political channels open to them, this may mean a closed Jordan for civil society groups, irrespective of their political hue.