The strategic integration of a tribal constituency decreases Jordan’s vulnerability to a coup. Yet this same historic factor of regime stability also limits its democratic flexibility, and presents a rising tension in the context of increasing economic challenges and potentially influential examples of regional transition. T
April has been an unusually eventful month for autocratic regime change. Algerian President Abdulaziz Bouteflika officially stepped down due to popular demands on April 2; the Sudanese army, backed by months of popular protests, ousted President Omar al-Bashir on April 11th; and on April 30th Venezuelan opposition leader, and contested acting President Juan Guaidó attempted to motivate a military coup. In the face of popular unrest, each of these transitions testedand revealed regime support from key constituencies; primarily the military and party elites.
Autocratic regimes must think and act strategically to secure support from key constituents as they consolidate power, and to protect themselves from opposition – be it in the form of popular protest, organized politics, judicial prosecution or military coups.
Despite Guaidó’s best efforts, for example, he did not successfully secure sufficient upper level military elite defections to back a coup. Instead, this moment demonstrated the success of President Maduro’s coup-proofing integration of the military elite.
Yet, in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, often considered one of the Middle East’s most stable regimes, an additional coup-proofing support group exists: the tribal constituency. Even through the tumultuous Arab Spring, Jordan successfully used the tribal constituency to discourage destabilizing popular protests. Yet, as the economic situation deteriorates the future of the dynamic between the regime and the tribal constituency appears increasingly uncertain and requires close monitoring.
Origins of the Tribal Constituency
At the outset of modern state formation in Jordan, the nascent Monarchy – with support from British colonial officers – strategically integrated a balance of tribal leadership into the government.
A second moment for the consolidation of a tribal Jordanian political order came after ‘Black September’ in 1970, when the Jordanian military squashed an attempted overthrow from Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. After Black September, the Government of Jordan (GoJ) realized it needed a distinct strategy for coup-proofing against Jordanians of Palestinian origin and began to exclude them from political positions and the military.
Despite their exclusion from political and military power, Palestinian-Jordanians are seen to hold the most economic power in the country. Furthermore, they now comprise a majority of the population, and lacking the tribal constituencies’ coup-proofing inclusion, are a key demographic for considerations of popular unrest.
Jordan is a hybrid regime with both democratic and autocratic tendencies. At the surface level there is some indication that the GoJ seeks democratic reform. The 2015 Decentralization Law, for example, ostensibly devolved additional authority to the governorate and municipal levels, and created local community engagement and governance feedback mechanisms. In 2017, for the first time since 2010, Freedom House improved Jordan’s rating from ‘not free’ to ‘partly free’. Additionally, in 2016 the parliament passed new voting laws, advertised as democratizing electoral reform.
Yet, these reforms reflect more rhetoric than reality, and are not significant indicators of democratization. On decentralization for example, though the community engagement mechanisms are a genuine improvement, local elections are pre-decided before election day, along the very same tribal lines as the central government and only reinforce regime patronage networks. Additionally, given the tribal nature of politics, decentralization will not increase inclusion for citizens of Palestinian descent. Furthermore, the Freedom House rating improvement was based on a mere .5 and 1 point change in their freedom rating and political rights, respectively. Jordan’s global position has not moved from 37/100 countries (with 0 as least free) meaning they remain squarely on the ‘not free’ side of the global spectrum. Finally, the voting reform, though it appeared democratic and met Western donor interests, it was done in a way that did not alter tribal superiority – such as increasing the quota for women. Nonetheless, tribal groups may perceive these changes, as threatening indications of a shift in the norm of their advantage.
Is It Really So Special?
Some analysts might suggest that the tribal constituency is no different than any other elite regime group, but this argument underestimates the unique influence of identity. The tribal constituency is not just about class or position, as with classic regime elites, but about identity, a way of life, and a deeply held code of behavior around norms of loyalty and order. These factors make a regime like Jordan with integrated tribal constituencies at both the political and military level, especially resilient to opposition. Not only do they help coup-proof for political or military movements, but they even played a role in suppressing potential popular uprisings during the Arab Spring by self-policing their youth against participation.
The Future of the Tribal Constituency
Despite the management, thus far, of the tribal constituency as a factor of regime support, Jordan has some conditions that make it vulnerable to instability – notably, economic hardship and example of other regional transitions. As it toys with democratic-leaning reforms that threaten tribal superiority, and the GoJ struggles to meet economic challenges, it is possible the tribal constituency could begin to instead play a destabilizing role in the regime. Looking forward, political analysts considering Jordan must pay special attention to the future of the tribal constituency and its unique role in the Government of Jordan.