BY JONATHAN SCHANZER, WEEKLY STANDARD—
Last week, Jordan’s new prime minister Awn Khasawneh boldly announced that Jordan’s 1999 decision to deport leaders of the Palestinian jihadist group Hamas was a political mistake and a violation of the constitution. With U.S. regional influence in decline and Jordanian stability on the line, the London-based Arabic daily al-Quds al-Arabi now reports that Abdullah’s new government is set to welcome Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal for an official visit in the near future.
The Khasawneh government has been reaching out to other Hamas leaders, too, including Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza. Some reports even indicate that Hamas would like to transfer its headquarters back to Amman, particularly since the unrest in Syria has made it harder for the group to operate there.
Khasawneh’s rapprochement with the Palestinian terrorist group is an attempt to woo the Islamic Action Front (IAF), Jordan’s arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, into a government coalition. The IAF is a powerful force in Jordan. Khasawneh understands that appeasing the Islamist group may help preserve the Hashemite Kingdom.
Protestors have filed into Jordan’s streets—just as they have in much of the rest of the Arab world—demanding reform. And while these protests pale in comparison to those of Libya or Tunisia or Egypt, the chants are growing louder.
When the Arab spring began earlier this year, King Abdullah understood that his prognosis was poor. He quickly tried to shuffle his cabinet by appointing a new prime minister, Maroud al-Bakhit, a political insider with little credibility as a reformer.
But Abdullah’s small and symbolic changes failed to appease the IAF. The Islamist group’s populist appeal—characterized by anti-Western, anti-Israeli rhetoric—has only grown in recent months.
After only nine months of presiding over his new regime, Abdullah abruptly dismissed Bakhit and his cabinet last month, created a new government, and is promising reforms leading to new election laws and government accountability.
Abdullah named Khasawneh, a former advisor to his late father, as the new head of the Jordanian government. Khasawneh, a veteran of Jordan’s foreign service and a jurist at the International Court of Justice, is certainly not uniquely qualified to deliver the representative government that Jordanians demand. Thus, despite the shake-up, and despite the king’s additional promises of reform, the IAF refused to join the new government.
The IAF is demanding nothing less than reforms that would unleash Islamist undercurrents Amman has repressed since at least 1989, when the IAF won 22 out of 80 seats in the legislative elections, making it the biggest winner in the Jordanian parliament’s lower house.
The late King Hussein, Abdullah’s father, successfully contain the IAF’s power until the next election in 1993, when he altered the laws to limit the number of seats it could win. But while the laws held IAF in check, they never diminished the appeal of the Brotherhood’s ideology. Hussein died in February 1999, leaving his young son to contend with the challenges he had deferred.
In November 1999, just months after his father died, Abdullah deported Meshal, along with other Hamas leaders. The move was a confirmation that Jordan was committed to weakening the Islamists and strengthening the country’s peace agreement with Israel, signed in 1994, in exchange for economic and security guarantees from the United States.
Last week’s announcement of the Jordanian outreach to Hamas was a jarring change in tone and policy. The regime is now yielding on ideology because it cannot deliver on real political change, which would weaken its ability to maintain control of this fragile country.
But these populist appeasements will only last so long. Last month, Abdullah promised his people (yet again) that Jordan would move toward a more representative parliament. If and when Jordan becomes truly representative, the rise of Islamist forces is a foregone conclusion.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.