Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Do Fundamentalist Victories in Jordanian Elections Threaten Liberalization?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Do Fundamentalist Victories in Jordanian Elections Threaten Liberalization?

Article excerpt

The stunning victory of Muslim Brotherhood and allied candidates in Jordan's first parliamentary elections in 22 years foreshadows the problems confronting King Hussein's liberalization drive. The Nov. 8 election, the first since April 1967, was to be the initial move in a series of steps to widen democracy, political freedom and tolerance.

After the June 1967 war with Israel, King Hussein dissolved the parliament, which consisted of deputies representing both banks of the River Jordan. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank excluded the possibility of general elections while part of the land was occupied. However, when King Hussein severed legal and administrative ties with the West Bank last year, the constitutional gap was overcome by carrying out elections that excluded West Bank deputies. Hence the parliament elected in 1989 is the first parliament since 1951 that is purely Jordanian.

A Purely Jordanian Parliament

It will be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, which emerged with a total of 34 seats. The Brotherhood itself won 23 seats in the 80-seat assembly. Leftists and their supporters secured around 12 seats. The outcome of the election was expected, but the number of seats the Brotherhood and like-minded candidates secured exceeded all predictions.

The strength and influence of the Muslim Brotherhood has been building up over the years, since it was the only group permitted to operate in the open when political parties were banned by law after 1957. (Leftist parties still are banned.) The Brotherhood also made use of other available privileges, such as access to the mosques and its domination of public institutions such as the Ministry of Education and the universities. At the same time, the existing leftist political parties were struggling to maintain their identity through underground work.

"The Brotherhood easily met five times a day during prayers, whereas we had to take the necessary precautions when calling for a meeting for fear of arrest," a member of the Jordanian Communist Party (JCP) said. Furthermore, the Brotherhood is a highly organized, disciplined group. Its election campaign rallies were frequently attended by crowds of 10,000 or more supporters.

In the absence of political parties, for many people there was no alternative to "Islam" as a refuge from political and economic frustrations, according to some analysts.

Others have a different explanation: "The Islamic trend flourishes during perods of political relaxation and economic well-being," one observer said.

When bread riots hit the southern parts of the Kingdom early in 1989, the Muslim Brotherhood withdrew from the scene and took no part in popular outcries for political freedoms and the downfall of the government. Popular demands during and after the riots for the trial of corrupt officials, however, were supported by the majority of the 650 candidates, including Brotherhood candidates.

In the wake of the elections, there is a popular desire to start the reorganization of the country by putting "clean" figures into government positions. Many not necessarily religious Jordanians interviewed said they voted for the Brotherhood because they wanted to replace corrupt, self-interested people with honest God-fearing candidates.

Speaking of a candidate for whom she had voted, one housewife said: "I don't know what he stands for politically, but he is a good Muslim and would think twice before committing improper actions." The Brotherhood may also have won over some Jordanians of Palestinian origin by its calls for holy war or "jihad" to liberate all of Palestine, and for opening the boundaries of neighboring countries to achieve this end. These calls appeal to some Palestinian refugees from within Israel's pre-1967 borders, since the PLO's declared state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip has deepened their feelings of loss and aroused their concern over their right to return. …

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