AMMAN – The behavior of Jordan’s Royal Court in the days following the official announcement of the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in Egypt’s presidential election tells an intriguing story. At first, Jordan’s King Abdullah II hesitated to sign a long-sought-after election law. This was followed by approval of the law, a request for its revision, and a surprise official meeting with the leader of Hamas.
During the past year, King Abdullah has been adamant that Jordanians should vote in free and fair elections no later than the end of 2012. Constitutional changes were adopted. An independent election commission was created by law. And a respected Jordanian jurist who had been a judge at the International Court of Justice was reprimanded for dragging his feet in getting the election law passed.
So why did the king wait four days after both houses of parliament passed the law to sign it, and why did he immediately ask for changes?
The law, which establishes a largely majoritarian system based on single-member districts, with only 17 of the parliament’s 140 seats to be elected according to national party lists, was approved by Jordan’s Senate just hours before Egypt’s independent election commission declared Morsi the winner. People to whom I spoke in Jordan’s government and palace say that they were led to believe that the post would go to Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.
Morsi’s victory changed everything. Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the country’s parliamentary election in 2010, arguing that the government “did not provide any guarantees of its integrity.” In the 2007 election, the Brotherhood accused the government of “fraud,” and opposed the majoritarian electoral system.
Senior officials in Jordan have been slowly walking back from the comprehensive political reforms that were promised in the initial euphoria of the Arab Spring. Many, including former Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh, believe that this reflects a belief among senior Jordanian officials that the Arab Spring has run its course in Jordan and the region. After all, popular protests have failed to gather steam; Bashar al-Assad’s regime has held firm in Syria; and Egypt, with neither a constitution nor a parliament, has apparently veered from democracy, if not descended into chaos.
But Khasawneh, who had encouraged Islamists to join the political process, and forged a rapprochement with the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas, warns that it is a mistake to write off the Arab Spring. In May, shortly after his resignation, he warned Jordanian leaders of complacency in the reform process. His last word after being replaced by a conservative was to remind Jordan’s leaders that spring is a season that always returns.
With the announcement of Morsi’s victory in Egypt, spring seems to have returned to Jordan more quickly than even Khasawneh had expected. The Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood’s political party in Jordan, continued to reject the majoritarian electoral system, which favors tribes over political parties and other important social groups. In particular, owing to the relative insignificance of national party lists, Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who comprise nearly half the electorate, receive only a small percentage of elected officials.
The King’s approval of the law will allow the newly established election commission to begin its work. But now he wants the parliament to make the law more representative as well. Indeed, he welcomed Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in an official meeting that included a royal lunch, meetings with Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh, and, most important, talks with the head of Jordan’s intelligence service, which in 1999 had recommended the expulsion from Jordan of Mashal and four other senior Hamas officials.
The decisions to improve the election law and receive Mashal are not aimed solely at persuading Jordan’s own Islamists to join the political process. Like other Arab countries, Jordan, with seven million people, looks up to Egypt, its most populous and powerful Arab neighbor. And, economically, Jordan is still dependent on Egypt for natural gas, which is delivered at reduced rates.
Jordan seems to have read the political tea leaves and concluded that it makes more sense to improve relations with Egypt’s rising leaders than it does to fight them. And better relations with Egypt presuppose closer ties with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.