Security dilemmas and the ‘security state’ question in Jordan

By Curtis R. Ryan, Appalachian State University

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State” workshop held at the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, October 10, 2014.

Even in its darkest hours, the Jordanian version of the security state never reached the level of totalitarian police state associated with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Yet the Hashemite regime has relied on several key institutions to ensure its own security: the armed forces, national police (Public Security Directorate – PSD), and its intelligence services (the General Intelligence Directorate [GID] or mukhabarat). Jordan is a small country, but its armed forces are among the best trained in the region, its police force often trains the police of other Arab countries, and its GID has extensive ties to both the CIA and MI6 and is considered to be among the most efficient and capable intelligence services in the region. Indeed, many opposition and democracy activists argue that the mukhabarat is far too efficient and too pervasive, and that it is, instead, the key actor blocking attempts at liberalization and reform in the Hashemite Kingdom.

By the summer of 2013, Arab regimes in Syria and Iraq remained under siege in varying degrees, the counter-revolution was well underway in Bahrain, and the military and security state staged a huge comeback in Egypt. Yet at this same time, in Jordan, the Hashemite regime almost seemed to exhale. The regime felt that it had in fact survived the Arab Spring, by carving out a “third way” between revolution and counter-revolution. Jordanian officials argued that Jordan had avoided the worst excesses of the violent turn taken by the regional Arab Spring, via a palace-led reform process that responded to public demands for change. In addition to the reform process, top regime officials pointed to several other key sources of state security: the efforts of policing and intelligence agencies to use a “soft” approach to security, extensive economic and military support from powerful external allies, and a base of popular support within Jordanian society.[1]

Jordan’s “soft security” approach even persisted amidst the regional crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (all Jordanian allies). In Jordan, in contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Islamic Action Front, remained legal and active within Jordanian politics. Even that moderate stance seemed to shift, at least partially, with the arrest of Zaki Bani Irshayd, a key leader of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood. While the organization remained legal and active, Irshayd was arrested for “harming relations” with a key ally, after he posted comments on Facebook that sharply criticized the UAE and its policies.

Even as the Jordanian regime prepared for a post-Arab Spring politics, it was confronted by a new version of an old threat: the Islamic State group (also know as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). As the security forces mobilized to confront both internal and external manifestations of the Islamic State group many democracy activists worried that Jordan would sacrifice liberalization and reform in the name of national security. Citing national security, countless states worldwide have at various times followed a path of deliberalization, backsliding on reforms, and curbing media civil liberties, while enhancing the roles of intelligence and security agencies. But what happens when the security threats are real? Jordan’s security concerns are by no means hypothetical, but as they intensify they also carry the danger of destroying even the regime’s own narrative of reform, consensus, and soft security.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has noted in frequent media interviews that the Arab Spring was not so much a threat as an opportunity. The regime poured its energies into a new political narrative of a monarchy that responded to public demands for change with a sweeping set of reforms designed to lay the groundwork for “democratization” in Jordan. These reforms included new laws on political parties and elections, revisions of the constitution, and the establishment of a Constitutional Court as well as an Independent Electoral Commission. The latter was charged with cleaning up the Jordanian electoral process, in response to widespread allegations of rigged elections in 2007 and 2011. In 2013, with yet another new electoral law in place, the IEC did indeed oversee a much cleaner electoral process.[2]

But many in Jordan’s activist community questioned the depth and breadth of the reform process. Elections were cleaner, to be sure, but the electoral law remained problematic and parliament remained weak relative to the monarchy or, for that matter, the security services. More controversially, the regime introduced in 2013 new laws on media that effectively shut down hundreds of electronic news sites. All those that failed to register with the government, and receive its approval, were blocked. Jordan also amended its counter-terrorism law to include online activism as well as membership in or support for any organization deemed “terrorist.” These new measures were put to use as the state began to move against alleged Islamic State activists in the kingdom.

In August, in an odd pairing of reformist and security legislation, Jordanian legislators gave overwhelming approval to two new constitutional amendments – with minimal opposition and minimal deliberation in parliament. One expanded the role of the IEC to cover local and municipal, as well as national, elections.[3] Expanding the role of the IEC to cover local elections seemed very much in keeping with a reform program moving forward.

It was the second of the two amendments, however, that was far more controversial, as it gave the king sole authority to appoint the chiefs of the military and intelligence services. Previously, these appointments were made, at least in principle, in consultation with the government, and based on the recommendations and nominations forwarded by the prime minister. The amendment removed the role of government, and in particular, the role of parliament in key security appointments.

Supporters of the measures argued that they were in keeping with the reform process by improving the separation of powers, and allegedly “removing” the military and intelligence services from politics. Others, perhaps more candidly, agreed with the move simply out of distrust of the make-up of future parliamentary governments – these, some argued, could not and should not be trusted with such matters as national security and national defense. But opponents of the amendment, who included many reformers and democracy activists, felt that the measures simply concentrated still more power in the monarchy, away from the government, the parliament, and from public accountability. Opponents, in short, saw the new amendment as an alarming reversal in the reform program, and one that had been carried out with startling speed – by a parliament not known for its ability to be speedy on any other issue.[4]

An abundance of security threats

Jordan in 2014 remained mired in a deep economic crisis, and one that was augmented by the presence of more than a million Syrian refugees in the kingdom.[5] But crises and wars also increased across most of Jordan’s borders: The Syrian civil war continued unabated, Iraq seemed to be descending once again into violence and civil strife, while another war erupted between Israel and Hamas, including extensive Israeli bombardment of Gaza.[6] While Jordanians followed all these events with concern, it was the rise of the Islamic State group that was the cause of greatest worry within Jordan. Border clashes effectively announced that the Islamic State group had arrived on Jordan’s eastern border, making it more and more of a territorially-based threat. Unlike other terrorist organizations, this one had declared itself a state and announced the restoration of the caliphate. And Jordan was clearly in the sights of the “Islamic State” as part of what the militant group saw as its natural territory, and also as an enemy regime – one that maintained a peace treaty and full relations with Israel, while also allowing U.S. troops to deploy on its soil.

By the summer of 2014, that threat seemed ever more imminent, both at the borders and within the kingdom. Flags of the “Islamic State” were raised by protesters in Maan, in the south of Jordan. Jordan’s large Salafi movement had lent thousands of Jihadi recruits to fight for either the Islamic State group or Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. The Jordanian regime may not have minded the departure of thousands of jihadis, but now it worried that they intended to come back. Responding to incidents of “attempted infiltration” along its Syrian and Iraqi borders, Jordan increased its border security with troops and armored units, and opened fire on any armed groups or individuals approaching its borders. Yet at the same time thousands of civilian refugees continued to pour across the borders, joining the approximately one million Syrian refuges already in Jordan.

For some Jordanian security officials, the real problem was simply sorting through myriad security threats, and determining which were truly the most pressing. For some, the threat was already within Jordan’s borders, either in the form of pro-Assad sleeper agents or anti-Assad Jihadi militants among the vast refugee population. Others remained focused on the traditional Islamist opposition within the kingdom – the Muslim Brotherhood – arguing that Jordan should follow the lead of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE in banning the group outright. But these perceived threats seemed to pale in comparison to the Islamic State group itself. And Jordan seemed very much in the sights of the “Islamic State” across both its Syrian and Iraqi borders and even from within.

In August, after seeming to allow various pro-“Islamic State” demonstrations to take place without state interference, the regime then began to move rather suddenly against people the security services had identified, not just as Salafis or even Salafi jihadists, but specifically those alleged to have declared support for the Islamic State group. In August alone, security forces arrested at least 70 Salafis for their support of the Islamic State group. Legally, they were also able to do so under the strengthened counter-terrorism laws, allowing those arrested to be referred to the State Security Court (rather than civilian courts) for membership in an illegal organization and on suspicion of intent to engage in or support terrorism.[7]

Yet Jordan had also released prominent Salafi leader and thinker Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, even as it was rounding up other alleged jihadis. Similarly, after years of controversial efforts to arrange for the extradition of another Salafi jihadi leader, Abu Qatada, from Britain to Jordan, Jordanian courts dropped charges against him on the basis of insufficient evidence. In a previous in absentia trial, Abu Qatada had been convicted of planning millennial bombings in Amman and had been sentenced to death. Now, both Abu Qatada and Maqdisi were freed from Jordanian prisons. Some activists and analysts speculated that perhaps Jordan’s mukhabarat was trying to divide the Salafi jihadi movement in the kingdom, as many believe it already had done to the Muslim Brotherhood. Abu Qatada and Maqdisi each condemned the Islamic State group (while supporting al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra), but each also condemned Jordan itself, when the kingdom joined the coalition against the “Islamic State.” Maqdisi was later rearrested for online “incitement” after he wrote a blog post condemning coalition bombings and suggesting the “Islamic State” and Jabhat al-Nusra should join forces.

The “reformist” security state in Jordan

In September, the Royal Jordanian Air Force joined in the air strikes launched by an international coalition against the Islamic State group. Many Jordanians feared that retribution would follow in the form of terrorism within Jordan. That fear was rooted in real experience. On November 9, 2005 – in what Jordanians sometimes call “Jordan’s 9-11” – a predecessor to the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, carried out three simultaneous bombings of hotels in Amman, killing 60 people and injuring more than a hundred others. That moment in Jordanian history has been forgotten by no one in Jordanian society, and certainly by no one in the security services.

Others, however, fear that Jordan’s fears of terrorism, and its attempts to ensure regime and national security, would be the undoing of the already-limited reform process. Activists and reformers feared that the severity of the Islamic State threat would lead the state to clamp down further on media, public assembly, and dissent in the name of counter-terrorism and regime security.

For many democracy activists, this is becoming an old and predictable story: with constant talk at the highest levels of a clear reform path, various achievements cited, goals noted, and all with much fanfare. Yet many in Jordan’s grassroots reform movement argue that there is much noise but little substantive progress. The 2014 version of reform and liberalization, they argue, isn’t even as far along as the original 1989 version. The regime, however, argues that the present differs profoundly from the past, and that the reform agenda has even reached the intelligence services. Former mukhabarat chief Muhammad al-Dhahabi, for example, was arrested and convicted of corruption. His replacement, Faisal al-Shobaki, has been tasked with modernizing and reforming the GID.

Today, Jordan again confronts security threats from without and within. Yet that is not a particularly unusual situation in Jordanian history.[8] But wherever one stands on the question of depth of reform in the kingdom, it is clear that the security apparatus is alive and well, and active in many aspects of public life. And it thrives in insecure situations like the Islamic State threat. In Jordan, state security institutions did not stage a Thermidorian comeback, but then again they didn’t have to, since they hadn’t left. But that too can be read in both positive and negative ways: Jordan’s security and intelligence services are viewed by some Jordanians as the only things standing in the way of myriad threats; while other Jordanians fear that these same institutions, while focusing on national and regime security, may be the main obstacles to greater domestic political reform and change.

Curtis R. Ryan is a professor of political science at Appalachian State University.


[1] Author’s interviews with palace and government officials, Amman, June 2014.

[2] Curtis R. Ryan, “Jordan’s Unfinished Journey: Parliamentary Elections and the State of Reform, POMED Project on Middle East Democracy, Policy Brief, March 2013

[3] In Jordan’s 150-member lower house of parliament, 118 voted for the amendments, 8 voted against, and 3 MPs abstained. “Lower house endorses constitutional amendments,” Ammon News, August 24, 2014

[4] Osama al-Sharif, “Jordan’s King pushes to expand military, intelligence authority,” al-Monitor, August 25, 2014

[5] Curtis R. Ryan, “Jordan’s Security Dilemmas,” Foreign Policy, Middle East Channel, May 1, 2013

[6] Curtis R. Ryan, “Still Between Iraq and Hard Place,” Middle East Report Online, July 14, 2014

[7] Taylor Luck, “50 Salafists Arrested,” Jordan Times, August 27, 2014

[8] “Arab Uprisings: Jordan, Forever on the Brink,” POMEPS Briefing 11, May 9, 2012

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