In Jordan, the Arab Spring Isn't Over

The country's leadership must realize that growing authoritarianism won't foster stability.
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Supporters of Jordanian regime hold a picture of King Abdullah (C) as they shout slogans during a demonstration after Friday prayers in Amman in February 2011. (Muhammad Hamed)

Amman, Jordan -- After the Egyptian army toppled President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the U.S. Congress expressed the sentiment of many in Washington.

"The army is the only stable institution in the country," he said.

The Democracy Report

In the Western media, Arab Spring post-mortems proliferated, including a 15-page special report in The Economist that asked, "Has the Arab Spring failed?" The answer: "That view is at best premature, at worst wrong."

Here in Jordan, Arab Spring inspired protests demanding King Abdullah II cede power to an elected government has petered out. A crackdown on the media that shut down 300 websites last month elicited little protest.

"We are witnessing a swift return to a police state," said Labib Kamhawi, an opposition figure accused last year of violating a law that bars Jordanians from defaming the king. "You will find everything controlled."

Yet analysts, opposition members and former government officials say that the Arab Spring has paused here -- not ended. The underlying economic issues which prompted the protests that toppled governments across the Middle East and North Africa remain in place. Arab rulers and U.S. officials are both mistaken if they think they can rely on generals and regents to produce long-term stability.

"The political energy that was released around the Arab world and Jordan in 2011 has not dissipated," said Robert Blecher, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group. "The problems that gave birth to the Arab uprisings have not been solved."

What, then, is happening in Jordan? Simply put, Jordanians look north to Syria and southwest to Egypt and are frightened by what they see. Brutal civil wars and street clashes have tempered the desire for rapid change. Though Abdullah limits speech here, he is not nearly as brutal as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And events in Egypt have made young, secular Jordanians loathe to live under the Muslim Brotherhood. In short, Jordanians are waiting.

"I'm less aggressive toward the king because I saw what the Islamists could do, I see what is happening in the region," said Alaa Fazzaa, the editor of one of the shuttered websites. "I'm waiting for the right time to attack."

In a region where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30, the economic problems are colossal. And a younger generation bent on economic opportunity and basic political rights will not accept a permanent return to authoritarianism. Jordan is a case in point.

The global economic slowdown halved economic growth in Jordan from 6 percent to 3 percent over the last three years. Jordan's official unemployment rate is 12.5 percent, with youth unemployment estimated to be twice that. More than 550,000 Syrian refugees have flooded the foreign-aid-dependent, oil- and water-starved desert kingdom of 6 million.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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