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IS group crisis increases headaches for Jordan’s crown

AFP / Safi al-Kasaseabeh, father of Jordanian pilot Mu'as al-Kasaseabeh (portrait), protests outside the Royal Court in Amman on Jan. 28, 2015.

Under the glare of TV camera lights, they have gathered over the past few nights outside the Royal Court in the Jordanian capital of Amman in a brazen display of rage against the policies of the reigning absolute monarch.

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Holding posters of Jordanian Air Force pilot Mu'as al-Kasaseabeh, the protesters demanded that their king secure the serviceman’s release more than a month after his capture by the Islamic State (IS) group when his fighter jet was shot down in eastern Syria.

On Wednesday night, as palace guards looked on ineffectually, a number of protesters broke away from the demonstration to talk to reporters. “We should not join this coalition", said one protester, referring to the US-led international coalition against the IS group.

“If the West wants to fight, they can do that. But Jordan is a small country in an unstable region.” Another demonstrator walked over to express her rage against the Jordanian authorities. “Mu’as has been captured for more than 35 days", she fumed. “No official has bothered to meet his parents and just talk to them.”

Minutes later though, the latter claim appeared to be outdated.

Dressed in the traditional flowing robes of a tribal sheikh, Safi al-Kasaseabeh, father of the captured Jordanian Royal Air Force pilot, emerged to tell protesters he had met with King Abdullah.

The Jordanian monarch had assured Kasaseabeh’s father that his administration was doing everything to secure his son’s release. “King Abdullah told me that Mu’as was like a son to him", Sheikh Kasaseabeh told reporters in Arabic.

The king had given his word – and for the moment at least, the distraught father seemed reassured.

But as yet another harrowing IS group deadline for a prisoner swap passed Thursday, with the fates of the Jordanian pilot and a Japanese journalist still unknown, nerves have been fraying across the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

And for the country’s absolute monarch, the headaches have increased – with potentially grave implications.

Uneasy lies the head that wears the Hashemite crown. Tiny, dry, cash-strapped and bereft of substantial oil reserves, the kingdom has also been cursed by geography.

To the north, the 375-kilometre border with civil war-engulfed Syria has failed to contain the shockwaves and tides of refugees into Jordan. To the east, the 180-kilometre border with Iraq abuts the restive Anbar province, where the IS group has extended its tentacles. South of the Iraqi-Jordanian border lies Saudi Arabia, a Sunni powerhouse ruled by the House of Saud, historic rivals of the Hashemites, who were kicked out of their ancestral Hejaz (now in Saudi Arabia) during the colonial-era Saudi-Hashemite wars. To the west, Israel is a nuclear-armed neighbour that can topple the apple cart in a dangerous region at any moment. Plus, there’s the West Bank, with its millions of dispossessed Palestinians, who have been Jordan’s burden for more than half-a-century.

The latest ruthless maneuverings by the IS group (also known as ISIS and ISIL) have put Jordan in a particularly thorny position. By demanding that Amman release Sajida al-Rishawi, a female jihadist on death row, in exchange for the release of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, the jihadist group has pitched the tiny Hashemite kingdom into a vortex of competing demands and allegiances.

On the one hand, Japan – a major donor nation – has been “applying pressure” on Jordan to release Rishawi, according to Japan's biggest-selling paper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. On the other hand, the US – Jordan’s most powerful Western ally – has pointedly reiterated its position that Washington does not “make concessions to terrorists.”

On the domestic front, King Abdullah is in a particularly unenviable position – as the recent protests at the Royal Court show.

Reporting from Amman on Thursday, FRANCE 24’s Gaelle Sundelin noted that, “the majority of Jordanians are aligned behind the idea of doing the prisoner swap. They want to get this young Jordanian back", explained Sundelin. “There’s growing discontent regarding the very participation of Jordan in the coalition [against the IS group].”

For its part, Jordan has demanded proof that its captured pilot is still alive as a precondition for prisoner swap negotiations with the IS group – if negotiations with the jihadist group are indeed possible.

With the family of captured journalist Goto putting pressure on Japanese authorities, who in turn are pressurising their Jordanian allies, the only winner in this mournful mix has been the Islamic State group. “ISIS is playing this card of trying to increase pressure between the public and the regime. It’s part of their propaganda to attract the media and they have succeeded because they are clever", said Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al-Quds Center for Political Studies.

The question though is whether the IS group’s immediate propaganda gains can strike at the heart of the Hashemite kingdom. In other words, if the upstart, so-called caliphate presents a real threat to a royal house that traces its ancestry all the way back to the Prophet Mohammed.

East Bank tribes vs. West Bank Palestinians

At first glance, the challenges to the king seem grave. The latest demonstrations have included parliamentarians, with a group of MPs signing a statement opposing Jordan’s involvement in the international anti-IS coalition.

But the real balance of power in a country with weak, fractured political parties represented in a rubber stamp parliament lies with what academics call the “East Bank tribes.”

Jordan today is split between native, mostly rural Jordanians who are organised along tribal lines and urban Palestinian refugees. Estimates of Palestinians in Jordan are hard to arrive at, given the absence of census figures and the complexity of defining Palestinians with or without Jordanian nationality. Palestinians are believed to range from 3 million to around 60% of the 7 million-strong population.

Hashemite monarchs have held power over the past few decades by maintaining a balance between the native East Bank tribes – who dominate the state’s public sector and security services – and the “West Bank Palestinians” who are largely shut out of these positions.

“Tribes have a major role in the country – particularly in the last 30 to 40 years with a Jordanisation policy adopted by the regime", explains Rantawi. “Under this policy, the tribes are the backbone of the military, security apparatus and public sector, which means the country is suffering from tribalism at the cost of genuine democracy, rule of law and civil society.”

Under an old system of patronage, tribal leaders support the monarchy in exchange for numerous privileges – including limiting the power and access of the Palestinians.

Kasaseabeh, the captured pilot, belongs to a tribe from the Karak region south of the capital, which is home to powerful tribes.

But while Kasaseabeh’s tribal roots may, to some extent, account for the vocal nature of the latest demonstrations, Rantawi notes that, “it does not mean that all tribes will take the same position.”

Tribal affiliations are more likely to divide than unite Jordanians. In recent years, there has been a marked increase in tribal violence at universities, where minor grievances have turned into major tribal confrontations.

Security and stability above all

While tribalism does not unite Jordanians, a shared commitment to maintaining security and stability in a difficult neighbourhood does.

Despite the protests over the cost of living, Jordan’s King Abdullah survived the Arab Spring. The lessons of Egypt, Libya and Syria appear to have strengthened the Jordanian resolve that change must come through reform, not revolution.

“The vast majority of Jordanians support security and stability. We want our children to be able to go to school", said Rantawi. “While ISIS certainly poses a challenge, the group has not succeeded so far in making a breakthrough within Jordan."

Alarm at the jihadist group’s sweep across neighbouring Syria and Iraq, coupled with a widespread revulsion at its brutal practices, mean there is consensus in the opposition to Jordan’s engagement in the international anti-IS coalition.

Despite the brazen displays of discontent on the streets of Amman over the past few days, Rantawi believes it will not lead to a fundamental shift in Jordan’s anti-IS policies.
“Jordan will not withdraw from the coalition", said Rantawi. “There is a belief that this is our war. I don’t think Jordan will change its course because we will be the first victims.”

That fundamental belief, according to Rantawi, will also hold Jordanians together no matter the outcome of the latest pilot hostage crisis. “Whatever the scenario or the outcome of the pilot’s capture, I think it will not affect Jordan’s security and stability", said Rantawi.

In the end, what holds this tiny kingdom together are the same factors that have enabled Jordan to weather massive regional storms for decades. “The reasons we have avoided insecurity is that we don’t have a bloody regime and we don’t have a bloody opposition", said Rantawi. 

While Egypt, for instance, has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jordanian monarchy – which deeply distrusts it – has managed to defang rather than crush it, Rantawi added.

“In Jordan, we have a regime that believes in soft containment. And most Jordanians believe that there is a lot more that needs to be done, but there is always a chance for better containment, better negotiations, better dialogue", he said.
 

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