The fortunes of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood may be shifting after three difficult years that saw the group’s worst electoral result in history, reports of diminished influence, and sustained government repression. After hitting an unprecedented low, the relationship between the Jordanian regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition grouping, has improved recently. This is the opposite of what many observers, including this author, expected. Hammam Sa’id, known as a hardliner, was elected General Guide of the organization in May 2008, leading many to predict heightened confrontation between regime and opposition. Analysts Matthew Levitt and David Schenker wrote, for instance, that the leadership change suggested the Brotherhood “can no longer be considered ‘loyal’ to the kingdom.” During Sa’id’s tenure, however, events have moved in an unexpected direction. Since being elected, he has toned down his abrasive rhetoric, emphasized domestic priorities, and made an effort to reach understandings with the government of Prime Minister Nader al-Dahabi on key issues of contention.
The question of the Palestinian Resistance Movement (Hamas) is one area where Islamists and the regime have moved closer to each other. After nine years of severed ties, Jordan has opened a dialogue with Hamas, recognizing the group’s growing influence and its strong position in Gaza. With its close ties to Hamas leaders, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), played a critical role in facilitating the resumption of contacts.
Moreover, Jordan’s King Abdullah—known as one of the region’s most pro-Western rulers—has attempted to strengthen ties to other U.S. adversaries, including Iran and Russia. He has met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev three times in the last eight months, and their discussions have increasingly revolved around military assistance and cooperation, including joint production of multi-caliber grenade launchers. Such moves have given Islamists hope that Jordan is beginning to shake off Washington’s tight embrace.
For their part, Islamists are drawing a degree of optimism from their improved relations with the regime. Even IAF Secretary-General Zaki Bani Irsheid, one of the government’s fiercest detractors, said in a private conversation in August that Jordan may be entering a “new political phase.” Coinciding with the improved ties between Islamists and the regime, relations between internal Brotherhood/IAF factions have also improved after nine months of crippling internal divisions that had threatened to tear the movement apart. In early August, so-called hawks and doves reached an agreement that left both sides content, at least temporarily. The agreement reflects what had been a difficult and sustained round of internal negotiations over a variety of contentious issues, including Bani Irsheid’s pending trial by an internal IAF court for allegedly sabotaging his own party’s prospects in the 2007 parliamentary elections. This agreement might have postponed further infighting, however, rather than ended it; there are still factions within the Brotherhood that hold substantially different visions on how to proceed in what remains a challenging economic and political environment.
It is unclear what the Jordanian regime's efforts at strategic repositioning—taking into account a perceived decline in U.S. influence in the region—bode for further political opening and reform. Over the last three years, the Jordanian government interpreted U.S. silence on reform as a green light to clamp down aggressively on Islamists. However, if it continues to see a need to reach out to Hamas, the regime will need to expand political space for the Islamist opposition and maintain a mutually beneficial working relationship with it.
Of course, there have been bouts of optimism before, and they have been misplaced. Each time the regime has reached out to the Brotherhood, as it did in advance of the November 2007 elections, it has quickly reversed course and resumed anti-Islamist policies. Islamists are unlikely to be fooled again. Despite the optimism expressed by Bani Irsheid and others, most Islamists see this as yet another round of tactical maneuvering. The Jordanian regime is not necessarily acting in good faith; it is acting in its own self-interest. So too is the Islamist opposition.
Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy and a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.