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Jillian Schwedler, Nur Köprülü
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The modern state of Jordan first emerged in 1921 as the Emirate of Transjordan. Until the end of World War I, this area had been part of greater Syria under Ottoman rule. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 the Allied powers divided the Middle East into spheres of influence, with Transjordan and Palestine under British mandate and trusteeship. In 1946 Transjordan achieved independence to become the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with Prince Abdullah ibn al-Hussein its first monarch (r. 1921–1951). The Hashemite family hails from the Hejaz in Arabia and claims legitimacy to rule based in part on its claimed descent from the Prophet Muḥammad. Partly because of this history, the issue of tribalism has become an indispensable historical and social aspect of nation-building in Jordan—constructed largely on the loyalty of Bedouins—the inhabitants who live east of the River Jordan.

After King Abdullah’s assassination in 1951, his son, King Talal ibn Abdullah, ruled for nearly a year and then abdicated because of mental illness in favor of his son, King Hussein ibn Talal, who ruled until his death from cancer in 1999. Shortly before King Hussein’s death, he named a new crown prince, displacing his brother Hussein ibn Talal in favor of his own eldest son, Abdullah ibn Hussein. King Abdullah II assumed the throne on his father’s death and has ruled since then.

In 1948 the United Nations partitioned Palestine, and the Arab-Israeli War began. At the end of the war, Jordan annexed the West Bank of the Jordan River, the portion of Palestinian lands then under its control. The Kingdom is the only Arab country in the region to grant Palestinians citizenship. Jordan restructured its parliament to provide for seats equally divided between the West Bank and the East Bank populations. Elections were held continuously until the 1967 War saw Israeli forces occupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Having suffered the loss of the West Bank, which Jordan had formally annexed, King Hussein suspended parliament and declared martial law. In 1970, the regime fought militant Palestinians who were based on the East Bank and had gradually extended their control over portions of the land. In a standoff known as “Black September,” the regime defeated the militants and banished the Palestinian organizations from the country. Notably, Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood supported the regime in this endeavor, siding against the leftist militants even though they shared their commitment to the liberation of Palestine from Israeli control.

Parliament was reconvened in 1984, when by-elections were held to fill seats in the 1967-elected assembly that were now vacant as a result of death or resignation. Jordan formally severed legal and administrative ties with the West Bank in July 1988, and in 1989 held parliamentary elections involving only residents of the East Bank. Martial law was lifted in 1990, but Jordan’s failure to support the U.S.-led coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait in 1990–1991 led to the unilateral severing of foreign aid to the monarchy from the United States, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. King Hussein quickly sought to rebuild relations with Washington, in part by moving toward a formal peace treaty with Israel, which the countries signed in 1994. Although Jordan continues to hold fairly regular parliamentary elections—they have been held in 1993, 1997, 2003, 2007, 2010, and recently in January 2013—political freedoms have been steadily curtailed in the name of stability and economic reform over political reform. Under Jordan’s constitution, the King appoints the members of one of the houses of Jordan’s parliament.

In 1921 Jordan’s population was estimated between 200,000 and 400,000 (a rough estimate because of the mobility of the Bedouin segment). Two significant waves of Palestinian refugees fleeing to the East Bank dramatically increased Jordan’s population: a first wave (750,000) after the partition of Palestine in 1948, and a second (400,000) following the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A third influx occurred with the return from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia of more than 300,000 Palestinians and Jordanians during the 1990–1991 Gulf War. In 2005, Jordan’s population was estimated at 5.5 million. Since the 2003 U.S.-led war against Iraq, as many as a million Iraqi refugees have entered Jordan, increasing the total population by more than 20 percent and fundamentally altering the ethnic composition of the country. More recently, well over 500,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan.

Jordan occupies nearly 57,354 square miles, more than two-thirds of it semiarid. Nearly 93 percent of the land under cultivation depends on annual rainfall, and only 8.6 percent receives more than the 7.8 annual inches required for cultivation. The regime has supplemented its water needs by tapping nonrenewable aquifers, resulting in serious environmental degradation and the virtual disappearance of the country’s once-flourishing wetlands. The level of the Dead Sea has dropped several feet over the past few decades, as both Jordan and Israel divert much of the waters that used to empty into it. Because agriculture’s contribution to the national economy fluctuates with rainfall, Jordan relies on food imports to meet its basic needs. Jordan’s only natural resources are potash and phosphates.

Jordan entered into an economic restructuring program with the International Monetary Fund in 1988, which included a devaluation of the currency that year and a schedule for the gradual lifting of numerous subsidies over the next decade, including for basic foodstuffs and fuel. In April 1989, riots against the first lifting of subsidies began in the southern trucking town of Maʿan and quickly spread throughout the country. King Hussein responded by calling for national elections that fall, but he continued his commitment to economic reforms. In 1991, Jordan suffered a further economic blow for its failure to support the U.S.-led coalition to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait: In addition to the influx of returned migrant workers and the lost of the remittances they had previously poured into the country, the United States, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia severed all foreign aid to Jordan. King Hussein sought to rebuild relations with the states and aid was gradually resumed.

Jordan has continued its economic restructuring, however, and in October 2001 became the first Arab nation to negotiate most-favored-nation status with the United States. Jordan has established several free trade zones and qualified industrial zones designed to bring additional income to the country.

Islam, Islamic Activism and the Muslim Brotherhood Society.

Islam is the dominant religion in Jordan, and 95 percent of the population is Sunnī Muslim. Another 1 percent consists of Druze and Bahāʿīs; Christians comprise the remaining 4 percent. Before the twentieth century, most residents of Jordan were farmers and small merchants residing in villages and towns. Around the turn of the century, groups such as the Shishans, Circassians, and Armenians came from the Baltic states and the Caucasus to escape political and religious turmoil, maintaining their languages and other ethnic traits. During the same period, individuals or families from neighboring lands of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, and the Arabian peninsula arrived in increasing numbers. Some percentage of the Iraqi refugees that arrived since 2003 is Shīʿī, but precise estimates are unavailable.

The most influential social and political groups in Jordan are Islamic in orientation. All seek full implementation of Islamic law in all fields of social, economic, and political life, but their varying priorities and activities render some more explicitly political—in the sense of active engagement in domestic political processes—than others. In the non-overtly-political realm, the most prominent is the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwān al-Muslimīn), established as a socio-religious philanthropic organization in 1946 with the blessing of King Abdullah I. Other groups that focus exclusively on religious issues include various Sūfī orders, the Jamāʿat al-Tablīgh and Jamāʿat al-Sulūfīyah. In the political realm, two Islamic parties function legally: the Islamic Action Front (Jabhat al-Amal al-Islāmī), licensed in 1993, and the Islamic Center Party (Hizb al-Wasat al-Islāmī), licensed in 2004. Other explicitly political groups have no legal status at all, including the Islamic Liberation Party (Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr al-Islāmī), the Islamic Holy War Party (Jamāʿat al-Jihād al-Islāmī), Ḥamas, Muḥammad’s Army (Jaysh Muḥammad), and the Muslim Youth movement (Ḥarakāt Shabāb al-Nafīr al-Islāmī). These latter groups, with the exception of Ḥamas, have called for the overthrow of ruling Arab regimes and their replacement by Islamic governments.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 by Ḥasan al-Bannā, established local branches in Palestine and Jordan in 1946. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood quickly gained popularity due to its support of Palestinians and its active participation in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Kings Abdullah I and then Hussein actively supported the group, in part for its advocacy of conservative religious values, but also for its loyalty and political conservatism as Jordan increasingly faced internal and external political pressures. Particularly as leftist and pan-Arab nationalist movements gained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, the Muslim Brotherhood proved a staunch ally of the regime against these challengers. The Muslim Brotherhood condemned all secular political parties as the “enemy of God.” In 1954 an assassination attempt on the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser was attributed to followers of the party in Egypt. When many of the leadership were arrested and jailed, some took refuge in Jordan, including the son-in-law of the movement’s founder Ḥasan al-Bannā, Saʿīd Ramadān, who has maintained an active role. During the same period, Jordanian leftists and nationalists found similar refuge in Egypt.

Since its founding, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has built and operated nearly two hundred private Islamic elementary and secondary schools, as well as Qurʿānic teaching centers, funded entirely by private donations. Independent of government support, it has also launched a program to open hospitals and health care clinics. Through its control of a broad range of organizations and institutions that provide services to the public, the Muslim Brotherhood is transmitting its religio-political message and widening its support among the masses.

Given the ban on political parties between 1957 and 1992, the opposition in Jordan has been segregated in terms of ideologies (such as Islamists and leftists) as well as the cleavage among citizens of Palestinian descent and Jordanians. The only exception throughout the period of martial law was the Muslim Brotherhood Society. The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood represents one of the parties with a long history in the Arab Middle East. The Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1945 by a group of merchants who supported a religious struggle (jihad) against Zionists in Palestine. The movement has historically pursued a reform-oriented program and its respect for the constitution of the monarchy was central in shaping Ikhwan’s ties with the Hashemite regime. A clear example of this relationship goes back to the years of Jordanian state formation when King Abdullah I allowed Ikhwan’s Secretary-General, Abd al-Hakim al-Din, into his cabinet formed in 1946 with the aim of embracing the Society in Jordan’s domestic politics. Abdul Majid Thunaibat, one of the former heads of Ikhwan, once said that their aim is not to resist the monarchy and that their strategy strongly renounces violence. In line with this approach, King Abdullah I allowed Ikhwanto open branches and to extend its influence during the early years of state formation. The Ikhwan has, then, pursued a role of loyal opposition, invoking a moderate rather than a revolutionary agenda. While asking for reform within, the movement has always refrained from challenging the Hashemite rule.

The key moment in transforming Ikhwan into a loyal opposition was the years of the climax of Arabism and Nasserism during 1950s and 1960s. Charitable organizations were allowed to function during this period and Ikhwan was one of those social movements that has continued to solidify its associations. This provided Ikhwan as well as independent Islamists the chance to extend their political influence in various elections to university councils, municipalities, student unions, and most importantly to civil society associations. Specifically Ikhwan also helped the Kingdom to counter radical Islamic groups, particularly the outlawed Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami—the Islamic Liberation Party. For many observers, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan serves as a “defensive mechanism” in preventing the emergence of more threatening radical movements.

This non-confrontational relationship between the Kingdom and Ikhwan has also provided Islamists with governmental posts. Since Palestinian-Jordanians were deprived of significant posts in national politics, they have often been represented through Islamist organizations. Ishaq Farhan, a Palestinian-Jordanian who was the former head of the IAF and a senior member of Ikhwan, served as Minister of Education in 1970, Minister of Awqaf between 1983 and 1985, and was a member of the Senate (Upper Chamber of the Jordanian parliament) from 1989 until 1993. Another significant leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdul Latif Arabiyyat, an East Bank Jordanian, was the speaker of parliament’s Lower Chamber from 1989 through 1993, after which he served as a member of the Senate until 1997. In 1991, under the Mudar Badran government, five prominent members of Ikhwan were granted governmental portfolios, including the Ministries of Education, Awqaf, Health, and Justice.

Another Islamic movement with a political agenda, the Islamic Liberation Party (Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr al-Islāmī), has not been legalized. Its founder, Shaykh Taqī al-Dīn al-Nabhānī, was born in Palestine in 1910. Educated at al-Azhar during the 1940s, al-Nabhānī studied the forces that led to the disintegration of the Islamic empire at the beginning of the twelfth century and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. He identified the key forces as Western influence and domination, and the separation of church and state in the Islamic world (Ubaydat, 1989, p. 245). While pursuing his studies, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, but he withdrew in 1952 to establish the Islamic Liberation Party. After the partition of Palestine in 1948, al-Nabhānī submitted an official request to the Jordanian government to operate legally within the political system, but this was denied. Continual pressure by the government, harsh treatment, and imprisonment forced many party leaders to leave Jordan. Al-Nabhānī fled to Syria in 1953 and then to Lebanon, where he lived until his death in 1974.

Ideologically, the Islamic Liberation Party maintains that Islam is not only a religion, but that it defines and includes every other aspect of life. With this view, the party urges Muslims to replace current governments with an Islamic caliphate, by force if necessary. The Islamic Liberation Party’s ideology rejects all participation in social, economic, or religious charitable activities because they distract from the main objective—the creation of the Islamic state.

Because the leadership thought that its ideology would appeal to the masses and be accepted rapidly, it sought to expedite its objectives by wresting authority from the hands of corrupt regimes. This led to several unsuccessful attempts to take over regimes: in Jordan in 1969, in Egypt in 1973, and in Iraq in 1973, as well as in Tunisia, Algeria, and Sudan.

Ḥamas, another secretly organized Islamic religio-political movement, developed in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. This organization played an important role in the intifādah that began in 1988. It has publicly declared no other political interest than the liberation of Palestine from its Israeli occupiers, nor has it conducted any political activities on the East Bank of Jordan.

Other unauthorized religio-political Islamic groups, less popular than the Islamic Liberation Party, include the Islamic Holy War Party, Muḥammad’s Army, and the Islamic Youth Organization. During the past few years, these groups were involved, according to the Jordanian government, in more than one attempt to overthrow the regime in Jordan, and some of their members were arrested. Two prominent members of parliament, elected in 1989, were detained for alleged connections with banned Islamic organizations and were accused of being financially supported by the Islamic regime in Iran. Convicted by a military court on September 29, 1992, they were given twenty-year jail sentences. A few days later, despite his public support of the court decision, King Hussein pardoned several hundred prison inmates including both men, who resumed their seats in parliament. One of them, Layth Shubaylat, has since denied the government accusation and any link to banned Islamic movements. He contends that he was framed by the Jordanian government because he was chairing a parliamentary judicial committee charged with investigating the misuse of public funds and corruption. The committee’s inquiries revealed that high government officials, including previous prime ministers, were involved in unlawful activities (personal interview with Shubaylat, July 18, 1993). Another factor in the case may have been the Islamic National Front’s opposition to Jordanian government participation in the Palestinian peace negotiations that began in Madrid in 1991.

Organized religious Islamic groups that have no political agenda include the Ṣūfī orders and the groups Jamāʿat al-Tablīgh and Jamāʿat al-Sulūfīyah. The orders, which spread into Jordan from various neighboring countries during the past four or five decades, emphasize individual spiritual and religious conduct and relationship to God the creator. All Sūfī orders disregard materialistic values, which they believe corrupt people. They call for a return to the straight path of God and religious conduct. Sūfī orders that practice in Jordan include the Shādhilīyah al-Yashrūtīyah, Kīlānīyah, Qādirīyah, Rifāʿīyah, Naqshbandīyah, Burhānīyah, Taymīyah, and Qulūṭīyah. They recruit from all socioeconomic strata in both urban and rural communities. Members gather on a regular basis to recite religious songs and verses from the Qurʿān; a major effect of their activities is heightened awareness of Islam.

The Jamāʿat al-Tablīgh (or Tablīghī Jamāʿat), which began in India, emphasizes spreading God’s word and Islam. Members are required to devote an hour a day or one full day a month to preaching God’s word. The Jamāʿat al-Sulūfīyah calls for a return to the Qurʿān and sunnah as well as the practices of the early centuries of Islam. Despite consensus on general objectives, its followers disagree on the means of attaining them. This disagreement has led to much ideological fragmentation of thought in the movement.

Parliamentary Politics and Democratization.

Jordan has a long history of multiparty politics, with the first political parties emerging immediately after its creation as a modern state in 1921. During the 1920s and 1930s, a few national secular political parties called for independence from Britain but failed due to the lack of political awareness as well as cohesive identity among the native population. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, modern secular and religio-political ideologies entered Jordan from neighboring Arab countries. Jordanian students who had attended higher academic institutions in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon were influenced by active and organized movements in those countries and established similar groups in Jordan. Political awareness was spurred by the continuing fear of Western colonialism, as well as the ongoing presence in Jordan of British officers for more than a decade after gaining independence in 1946. The creation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent military and political humiliations of Arab states further radicalized the political atmosphere.

In the 1950s Jordan saw a vibrant political environment characterized by political parties spanning an ideological orientation from the religious and conservative to nationalist parties espousing various liberal, socialist, and communist bents. In 1957 the Jordanian government banned political parties after the cabinet of socialist leader Suleiman Nabulsi called for deeper democratic reforms than the monarchy was willing to accept. Nevertheless, regular elections were held until 1967, and then not again until the by-elections of 1984. During that time, the Muslim Brotherhood—styling itself as a social rather than political organization—was able to build support at all societal levels for nearly three decades with little competition. In the 1960s and 1970s, King Hussein appointed Muslim Brotherhood leaders to prominent government posts, including at the cabinet level. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has more political power than its counterparts in many other Arab countries. Islamists won three of eight seats in the 1984 by-elections, and won forty percent of the seats in the 1989 elections.

The melting pot in the transition to democracy in Jordan dates back to 1989 and has closely been related with the internal unrest that erupted in the southern city of Maan. Responding to bread riots and widespread outcry triggered primarily by the economic crisis of 1988–89, the Kingdom convened the Parliament and devised a new electoral law. In redrawing the electoral districts in 1989, the Kingdom established proportional representation, in which the majority of the seats were assigned to those provinces predominately populated by East Bankers (Maan, Karak and Tafila) at the expense of the provinces composed of Jordanian citizens of Palestinian descent (Amman, Irbid and Zarqa). Jordan’s first electoral law of 1928 stipulated that the appointment of electoral constituencies should be based on geographical divisions rather than proportional representation. In the aftermath of the annexation of the West Bank in 1950, this law was revised to incorporate Palestinian lands. One of the key motives in revising the electoral law stemmed from the fact that the southern cities in Jordan are mainly composed of native Jordanians (not of Palestinian origin) and the Kingdom historically acquires its legitimacy from Maan, Karak and Tafila.

The lower chamber in Jordan’s parliament, the “Chamber of Deputies,” reopened for elections in 1989. This event marked a watershed in Jordanian politics, with Islamist candidates capturing thirty-four seats out of eighty. With the largest block in the lower chamber, the Muslim Brotherhood saw its reform agenda put to the test in 1991 when five of its prominent members were appointed to cabinet positions, including education, health, social services, and justice. They quickly moved to introduce conservative Islamic reforms, which proved widely unpopular. Minister of Education Abdullah al-ʿAqaliya, for example, introduced segregation by gender in the workplace and in schools. Fathers were banned from watching their daughters—and thus other young women—compete in sporting competitions. The outrage surrounding these and other reforms have led some Islamist leaders to lament their reforms as attempting “too much, too soon.”

With the lifting of martial law in 1990, Islamist leaders were involved in the drafting of the National Charter, which articulates the political rights and freedoms of Jordanian citizens but carries no legal weight. Nevertheless, the next few years saw a legitimate political opening, with the emergence of a vibrant and free press and the legalization of political parties in late 1992. Before the 1993 elections, the government introduced a new electoral law designed to weaken the strength of Islamists and leftists (who had won forty percent and twenty percent of the seats, respectively, in 1989).

In 1992, a new law authorized the formation of political parties. This had the effect of strengthening the political opposition within Jordan, including the political wing of Ikhwan, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). Meanwhile, Abdul Hadi Majali’s government devised a new electoral law (since then known as ‘Majali’s Law’) which is still in force with some amendments. The new law replaced the system of multiple votes with the one-person, one-vote formula and reallocated the seats in parliament. The main groups that resisted the amendment of the electoral law were the Muslim Brotherhood and the IAF. Ikhwan and the Front opposed the new electoral law on the basis of disproportionate representation of the northern cities (where those of Palestinian descent comprise the majority of the population). Since then the IAF is the symbol of opposition in Jordan and the leading Islamist political movement in the country, having the largest organizational and ideological base.

A turning point in the relations between Jordan’s mainstream Islamists and the regime came with the ascent of King Abdullah II to the throne in 1999. The new monarch does not share his father’s view of the utility of a close alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front.

With the emergence of more radical Islamist elements in Jordan—notably the small but significant support base of Abū Mūsʿab al-Zarqāwī, the Jordanian-born self-described leader of al-Qaʿida in Iraq—King Abdullah II has demanded of the mainstream Islamists to keep the more hard-line elements among their numbers in line. Islamist leaders have sought to oblige, but they have been increasingly subject to criticisms of having been co-opted by the regime. With the bombing of three Amman hotels by Iraqi militants claiming allegiance to al-Zarqāwī, King Abdullah II has put increasing pressure on the mainstream Islamists. When four Islamist deputies attended the funeral of al-Zarqāwī—three of the deputies represented al-Zarqāwī in parliament—they were arrested and imprisoned. Two were eventually released, but the remaining two were stripped of their parliamentary seats.

Today the Islamic Action Front is not represented in the Parliament due to the Front’s electoral boycotts in the 2010 and 2013 parliamentary elections, respectively. The social upheavals that began in Tunisia then quickly reached Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, as well as Jordan. The ramifications of the public demonstrations have shown themselves in the reshuffling of the Jordanian governments. King Abdullah II’s first response to the public demonstrations was to appoint Marouf al-Bakhit as prime minister in February 2011, replacing Samir al-Rifai.

In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings in the region, Jordan epitomizes a case in the Arab world where the protesters’ call for more political reformation rather than challenging the longevity of the monarchy. Nevertheless the Arab uprisings did not challenge, but led the Kingdom to take preemptive measures to cope with the growing public protests; the Syrian crisis and the influx of huge refugees from Syria has exacerbated the socio-economic imparities and domestic instability in the country.


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