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The Islamic Action Front in Jordan

Shadi Hamid
The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics What is This? Provides a comprehensive analysis of what we know and where we are in the study of political Islam

The Islamic Action Front in Jordan

This article examines the changing role of Jordan’s largest and most organized political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). It begins by tracing the history and development of the IAF. It then discusses its acceptance of democratic principles such as alternation of power, popular sovereignty, separation of powers, and judicial independence, along with a reduced emphasis on Shari`ah law. It also considers the IAF’s policies on economics, education, foreign affairs, and the role of women, as well as its relations with secular and liberal parties.

  • Islamic Action Front
  • political parties
  • Jordan
  • democracy
  • economics
  • education
  • foreign affairs
  • secular parties
  • liberal parties

THE Islamic Action Front (IAF)—the political arm of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood—was established in 1992 at the height of the country’s once-promising democratic “experiment.” Since then, it has struggled to respond and adapt to an increasingly authoritarian political environment. It has, however, remained, by a wide margin, the largest and best-organized political party in Jordan. Among the region’s Islamist parties, the IAF stands out for a number of reasons, including its commitment to “loyal opposition.” Even in the worst of times, including the crackdown of 2005–2007, the party went out of its way to declare its allegiance to the monarchy. The “Jordanian Spring” has seen a further deterioration in regime-opposition relations, with the IAF, for the first time, flirting with pointed criticisms of the king and warning that the situation may be reaching a point of no return.

The IAF will tread cautiously, just as it always has. Protests in Jordan have brought to the fore growing tensions between indigenous Jordanians and those of Palestinian origin. The IAF, with its strong Palestinian make-up, faces the challenge of transcending such divisions and navigating a political arena in a country where the regime itself, for the first time since the early 1970s, finds itself under existential threat.

From the Muslim Brotherhood to the Islamic Action Front

The IAF’s parent movement, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, was formed in 1945 in a markedly different context, one in which it found itself allied with the conservative Hashemite monarchy. Interestingly, the organization’s headquarters were inaugurated under the patronage of King Abdullah, the first—and one of the only—times the formation of a Brotherhood branch has been blessed by an Arab regime (Abdul Kazem 1997, 15).

Unique among its neighbors, the Brotherhood enjoyed a cooperative, sometimes even close, relationship with the Jordanian monarchy through the 1980s. With the rise of the Left in the 1950s, the Brotherhood sided with the regime, lending its support to the coup that unseated the socialist prime minister Sulayman al-Nabulsi in 1957. In its formative period, the Brotherhood remained primarily a social and religious movement with a relative disinterest in direct political action. With a handful of deputies in parliament, the Brotherhood withheld confidence from successive governments in the 1960s and 1970s, almost always over what it saw as the failure to uphold Shari‘ah law. Beyond this, it lacked a well-defined political agenda. Drawing on Jordanian government and intelligence documents, Amnon Cohen notes that “among the prime targets of the [Brotherhood’s] criticism were moral laxity (the consumption of alcohol, the importing of dancers and other forms of entertainment, and the deterioration of the school curricula by laying too much stress on Western values)” (Amnon 1982, 148).

The Brotherhood was content to coexist with the monarchy and register opposition to specific policies while avoiding anything that might be construed as a challenge to the foundations of the political order. It was rewarded with a relative degree of freedom to set up a wide-ranging infrastructure of social services and begin the slow work of building a mass membership organization. It gained control of educational policy, with prominent Brotherhood leader Ishaq Farhan’s 1970 appointment as minister of education marking one of the Arab world’s first instances of Islamist participation in government.

This convenient exchange of interests began to fray in the late 1970s, when, like much of the region, Jordan was swept by a popular upsurge in religiosity. This cultural sea change was helped along by the infusion of economic assistance from oil-rich Gulf nations and remittances from Jordanian expatriates, which, together, would come to account for nearly half of Jordan’s gross national product (Satloff 1986, 7). A new Islamist fervor grew in intensity, and the Brotherhood found itself in a position to benefit.

The Brotherhood performed unexpectedly well in 1984’s parliamentary by-elections, winning two out of the three seats it contested and swept the elections for the University of Jordan’s student union. The group soon set its sights on the landmark 1989 elections, which marked the beginning of Jordan’s much-heralded democratic “experiment.” The Brotherhood won nearly 85 percent of the seats it contested, ending up with twenty-two seats in a parliament of eighty, while independent Islamists won another twelve seats. For the first time, the electoral side of the Brotherhood’s diverse activities became a central focus for the organization.

Meanwhile, the regime was preparing to formally lift martial law and legalize political parties. Anticipating these changes, the Brotherhood raised the idea of forming an Islamist party soon after the 1989 elections, with Brotherhood leaders beginning preparations in the middle of 1990 (al-Kilani 1994, 98). After more than two years of planning, the IAF was inaugurated in December 1992. The decision to form a party was not without dissenters. A faction that came to be known as the “hawks” (suqoor), led by Mohammed Abu Faris and Hammam Said, opposed the idea, fearing the party would come to overshadow the movement. Ironically, both would later take on leading roles in the IAF.

Upon its founding, Ishaq Farhan commented that the IAF is not “a religious party nor a sectarian or regional one; rather it is an Islamic party that brings together citizens for political action from an Islamic perspective” (al-Kilani 1994, 99). However, the IAF’s bylaws, or al-nizam al-asasi, did not diverge significantly from that of the Brotherhood, with a continued emphasis on the centrality of Islamic law. The preamble lays out the party’s rationale: “In recognition of the urgency of standing firm in the face of the civilizational threat against the ummah—a threat that represents a dangerous phase in the ongoing colonial enterprise—[there is a need to] protect our civilization...and to strive to lead this ummah with God’s law” (al-Assasi 1992, 1).1

The IAF was originally intended as a broad front for all Islamists. Early on, however, many independent Islamists resigned after performing below expectations in internal elections for the Shura Council (Majlis al-Shura) and Executive Bureau (al-Maktab al-Tanfidhi). Most leadership positions went to Brotherhood members. Although the IAF is technically distinct from the Brotherhood administratively and financially, the Brotherhood has exerted strong influence over its direction due to overlapping memberships and leaderships.

The party entered the scene at the peak of democratization, but the regime soon turned against it. The events of 1993 can be viewed as a turning point for both sides. King Hussein unilaterally enacted the so-called one-person, one-vote electoral law (sawt al-wahid), whose primary objective was to limit Islamist power at the polls.2 With talk of a peace settlement with Israel, the king needed a pliant parliament in order to guarantee ratification. Renate Dieterich calls the legislation “a decision which set in motion a rollback of the whole democratic process” (Dietrich 2002, 134). Before 1993, Islamists were capable of winning a majority. In the 1989 parliamentary elections, they came close, winning thirty-four out of eighty seats.3 Under the new provisions, such an outcome became extremely difficult, if not impossible. Remarkably, at its most gerrymandered, pro-government regions were represented by one parliamentarian per 5,700 constituents, while pro-IAF areas were represented by as little as one parliamentarian per 52,000 people.4 The changes threw the IAF into disarray, provoking a heated internal debate over whether to sit out the elections. Eventually, after the king issued a public call for the IAF to participate, 87 of 101 Shura Council members voted in favor of participation. In addition to using the legislative process to oppose the treaty, the Brotherhood, according to Ibrahim Gharaibeh, “wished to avoid confronting the authorities to the point of kasr al-‘adhm (breaking of bones)” (Gharaibeh 1997, 129). A violent crackdown was something Jordan’s Islamic movement feared in light of events in Algeria, where the Islamic Salvation Front was destroyed by the regime when it became too powerful.

Some within the movement felt the Brotherhood and IAF had capitulated to the government. According to Ziad Abu Ghanimeh, a Brotherhood leader who resigned from the group, “There were secret meetings with the [government], and we soon learned that there was a trend toward entering the elections...the agreement being that they would enter the elections and receive 16 seats, and the government would have a say on who the names were. In other words, they would choose who they wanted....There was a deal.”5

The IAF’s 1993 electoral program was a sign of things to come—it was a longer, more detailed document than the Brotherhood’s 1989 iteration and included an expanded discussion of the importance of promoting political freedoms and human rights (although still not going so far as to used the word “democracy”). Jihad Abu Eis, formerly a journalist with the Islamist weekly Al-Sabeel, notes the Brotherhood’s historical reticence to use democratic terminology: “In the past, Islamists saw this term as a concession to the West and worried it would lead to the same consequences as in the West, such as moral decay.”6 This reticence was being eroded.

The IAF contested 35 out of 110 seats; in a significant drop in its representation, it won only 16. With an overwhelmingly pro-regime parliament, the government was able to easily ratify the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, an event that foreshadowed the subsequent deterioration of relations between Islamists and the monarchy.

The IAF’s Prioritization of Democracy

Jordan’s Islamists found themselves the primary target of the regime’s post-1993 de-democratization. In a March 1995 letter to Prime Minister Abd al-Salam al-Majali, the IAF laid out four areas of concern: the growing number of politically motivated arrests, government interference in student union elections, the prevention of preachers from delivering sermons, and a return to the rhetoric and policies of martial law (Letter to Prime Minister 1995).

After yet another contentious internal debate, the Brotherhood and IAF chose to boycott the 1997 elections. Reflecting the Islamic movement’s growing prioritization of democracy, the boycott statement argues that the three “pillars” of democracy—freedom of expression, free elections, and political party pluralism—had been destroyed by the government (Limadha 1997). This fear of democracy’s collapse is cited as the reason for taking drastic action: “[We] believe that the decision to boycott the 1997 parliamentary elections is necessary to establish democracy and protect the homeland.” Moreover, the boycott represents “an attempt to put a stop to the deterioration of democracy and to protect what remains and restore what was usurped.” Ibrahim Gharaibeh, still a Brotherhood member at the time, explains that the boycott was “a way to put pressure [on the regime], a means of political participation, and a method to improve the conditions of the political game.”7 The decision does not appear to have hinged at all on religious concerns or Islamic law, which were not mentioned in the boycott document.

It was a decision that many in the IAF would come to regret. Lacking a platform in parliament, Islamists were increasingly marginalized over the next years—a period that included the dissolution of parliament in 2001 and two years of King Abdullah’s rule by fiat.8 After 1997, “the government’s siege on the Brotherhood only got worse,” says Nael Masalha, a prominent Brotherhood figure.9 In the lead-up to the 2003 polls, the Brotherhood and IAF overwhelmingly came out in support of reentering the parliamentary process. For the first time in nearly ten years, the IAF began to prepare a new electoral platform. Much had changed in the span of the previous decade, and, not surprisingly, so too did the party’s program.

The 2003 program begins on a different note than the 1993 version. The introduction, subtitled “Why We Participate in Parliamentary Elections,” states that “the IAF party considers its presence in parliament as one of the political means to the realization of the sentiment ‘Islam is the solution’ and a means of building the nation’s strength” (Na‘am wa 2003, 5). Explaining the significance of using the longtime Brotherhood slogan, the party pledges to “facilitate a climate that helps to realize the objectives of the people in freedom, shura, and democracy, and protecting the rights of the people on the basis that they are the source of authority.”

Increasingly, the IAF turned its attention to the priority of constitutional and political reform. The party’s 2005 “reform initiative” represents the most comprehensive and far-reaching expression of its pro-democracy focus. Nathan Brown calls it “a document so full of liberal and democratic ideas and language that a leader of a secular opposition party was forced to confess that it differed little from the programs of other parties” (Brown 2006, 9).

The initiative was released just as the regime was intensifying its crackdown on Islamist activists, targeting Jordan’s emboldened professional associations. With a weak party system—the IAF has long Jordan’s only party with a nationwide, grassroots presence—the associations had grown in importance, becoming a center of opposition to the regime’s staunchly pro-U.S. foreign policy. Not surprisingly, the most prominent of them—the lawyers and engineers’ syndicates—were led by Brotherhood and IAF members. With King Abdullah putting Jordan even more firmly within the U.S. orbit, the regime had little patience left for the associations’ high-profile activities against normalization with Israel. In March 2005, for instance, Prime Minister Faisal al-Fayez’s government presented a draft law on professional associations to parliament; the law would authorize the Audit Bureau to monitor each association’s funds to ensure they were being spent only on internal activities. If there was ever any doubt over the government’s intentions, Minister of Interior Samir Habashneh explained that the law aimed to eliminate the “prevalent influence of one current”—meaning Islamists—within the associations (Jordan Times a 2005; Hamid 2005).

From 2005 to 2007, the confrontation between Islamists and the regime reached its peak. Jordan saw the coordinated bombing of three Amman hotels in November 2005, one of the worst terrorist attacks in the country’s history. More than sixty died in the blasts. The attack came just one month after the release of the IAF’s reform initiative, which was quickly forgotten as a result. As Freedom House reports, “Abdullah replaced his security advisers, dissolved the Senate, and appointed a new prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhit, along with a new cabinet....Political reform was stalled with the renewed focus on security” (Country Report Jordan 2007). Antiterrorism legislation was rushed through, limiting judicial review and expanding the power of military courts.

Islamists and the Zarqawi Affair

In June 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qa‘ida in Iraq and mastermind of the Amman bombings, was killed by an American airstrike. Zarqawi hailed from a prominent East Bank tribe in Zarqa, the second-largest city in Jordan. Four IAF parliamentarians attended his wake and paid condolences to the family. One of them, Mohamed Abu Faris, called Zarqawi a “martyr” on an Al-Jazeera television program. The four were charged with “fueling national discord and inciting sectarianism,” despite the fact that eleven non-Islamist members of parliament (MPs) also attended the wake (Jordan Times b 2006). The arrest of such prominent Islamists was unprecedented. Rank-and-file members had often been detained for short periods; IAF leaders, though, and especially those with parliamentary immunity, faced harassment and other restrictions on their activities but rarely prison time.

A month after the Zarqawi affair, the government moved decisively against the Islamic Center Society (ICS), the Brotherhood’s charity arm, with prosecutors alleging financial violations (Jordan Times c 2006). The following week, the ICS board was dissolved and a new one appointed in its place. This, too, signaled a new escalation. It was the first time the regime had ever taken serious action against the Brotherhood’s social service activities, long one of the “red lines” in the relationship between Islamists and the regime.

A number of meetings were held between government and Brotherhood officials with the hope of avoiding further escalation. For their part, the Brotherhood and the IAF issued a joint statement, in which they condemned all forms of extremism, stated that no group has a monopoly in defining the principles of the nation, and highlighted their support for ideological and political pluralism. The statement was released on the same day that the public prosecutor announced it was pursuing legal action against the ICS (Brown 2006, 20). These “clarifications” were controversial within the IAF not necessarily for their content, but for their deference to the regime. Their conciliatory tone did not appear to have worked, as the regime continued criminal proceedings against three of the four IAF MPs who attended Zarqawi’s wake. Fifteen Brotherhood Shura Council members tendered their resignations in protest of the organization’s unwillingness to take a stronger stand against the government (Jordan Times d 2006).

The IAF and the Jordanian Spring

The Arab Spring reached Jordan on January 14, 2011, when leftists and tribal leaders emboldened by the Tunisian uprising protested against Prime Minister Samir al-Rifa‘i’s government. Protesters complained of high taxation, rising prices, and the lack of jobs. Jordan’s Islamists—including the IAF, which had just boycotted the country’s November 2010 parliamentary elections—quickly joined the protests. Despite the removal of al-Rifa‘i and various conciliatory gestures from the state, demonstrations persisted; during one stretch from January through April, protests were held on twelve successive Fridays (although their size was usually limited to a few thousand). Eventually, amid promises from the king to pursue democratizing reforms, protests subsided.

After the enactment of a new, widely criticized electoral law, however, Jordan’s protest movement regained its vitality, with the Brotherhood and IAF at its forefront. On October 5, 2012, a day after the king dissolved the Jordanian parliament and called for elections, Jordan witnessed its largest protests since the onset of the Arab Spring. A Brotherhood-led coalition of opposition parties rallied at least 15,000 protesters in Amman to demand democratic reform, an end to corruption, and a new electoral law (al-Khalidi 2012). The Brotherhood called for the 2013 parliamentary elections to be delayed and for an immediate move to negotiating table with King Abdullah himself (al-Samadi 2012). The regime, however, went ahead with elections in January 2013. For the second straight time, the IAF boycotted.

The IAF: Positions and Policies

From its inception, the IAF has had little chance to demonstrate the practical application of its evolving ideas on governance. I have already alluded to the party’s public embrace of democratic tenets—including alternation of power, popular sovereignty, separation of powers, and judicial independence—and the diminishing focus on Shari‘ah law. It is also worth considering here the IAF’s orientation on economics, education, foreign affairs, and the role of women, as well as its relations with secular and liberal parties.

Economic policy

Like other Islamist parties, the IAF has not been known to emphasize economic issues, aside from vague (though often effective) calls to root out corruption and stand for social justice. In the past, the IAF advocated limiting or abolishing the practice of usury, but this is no longer featured in their programs. The IAF’s economic program includes appeals for a more active government role in fighting poverty and combating unemployment. It also calls for reducing the trade deficit, protecting national industry, and seeking alternative energy sources. On labor rights, the IAF supports the right of workers to unionize in both private and public industry and advocates full healthcare coverage for workers (Na‘am al-Islam 2007, 26). There is, however, relatively little in the way of specifics on how to realize these goals. The IAF’s failure to prioritize economic issues is, in part, a function of the party’s predominantly professional, middle-class composition.

The party generally displays a greater interest in international economic concerns, as these tend to intersect with its foreign policy message. For example, it calls for “a national plan to gradually free Jordan from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund” (Na‘am al-Islam 2007, 25) and urges the “monitoring of foreign investment and resisting its control over the national economy” (Na‘am al-Islam 2007, 22).

Education policy

Along with political reform, education policy has been a major domestic concern of the IAF. This fits into the Muslim Brotherhood’s bottom-up approach to Islamization, to be achieved by inculcating religious values in a new generation of Jordanians. Along these lines, the IAF states its interest in “the building of the distinctive Islamic personality” (Ru’yat al-Haraka 2005, 43). The Brotherhood and IAF have long advocated a prohibition on the mixing of sexes in educational institutions, as it “threatens the moral values of the individual and society” (Na‘am wa 2003, 11).

Policy prescriptions are primarily concerned with grounding the educational curriculum in an Islamic methodology, while at the same time calling for modernization of educational methods by encouraging critical inquiry, putting an end to rote memorization, and nurturing leadership qualities among students (Na‘am al-Islam 2007, 13). The IAF calls for raising teacher salaries, devoting more resources to fighting illiteracy, and emphasizing Arabic language skills.

The IAF views education as one of the key battlegrounds in the confrontation with Israel—in its view the “number one issue facing Arabs and Muslims.” Its 1993 electoral platform calls for education policy to be redirected to “wage war against educational normalization with the Jewish enemy.” Increasingly suspicious of the regime’s pro-West alignment, the Brotherhood warns against “importing foreign experts due to the danger of their influence [on the country’s educational system].”10 The IAF’s 2005 reform initiative tied educational policy more closely to its broader vision of societal reform, noting that the educational system should promote the values of “justice, tolerance, freedom, and respect for the other” (Ru’yat al-Haraka 2005, 44).

The IAF puts many of these ideas intro practice through the Brotherhood’s extensive network of kindergartens and primary and secondary schools. For a time, the Brotherhood was also at the helm of Zarqa Private University, including under the leadership of the IAF’s Ishaq Farhan, who received his doctorate in education from Columbia University.

Role of women

Where the Muslim Brotherhood’s first electoral program in 1989 included only one sentence explicitly mentioning women’s concerns, subsequent platforms have included entire sections addressing the role of women. The IAF’s 2007 program, for example, calls for “promoting societal awareness of a woman’s legal rights,” including “her right to work, to education, and to choose a husband” (Na‘am al-Islam 2007, 12).

The IAF has gradually become more supportive of female political participation. There were no women in the founding Shura Council of the IAF. By 2002, there were six. In 2003, the party ran its first-ever woman candidate for parliament, Hayat al-Meseimi. But while women have played a growing role in the party, they remain underrepresented at the leadership level. No women, for instance, have been elected to the party’s Executive Bureau. Women’s participation is largely channeled through the Women’s Sector (al-qita‘ al-nisa’i), whose primary concern is to “increase membership of women within the IAF” (Clark 2003, 301).

The IAF has been attacked for opposing two of King Abdullah’s signature initiatives: the abolition of reduced sentences for “honor crimes” and the granting of khul‘a, which allows Muslim women to extract themselves from a marriage without demonstrating cause. It is worth noting, however, that Islamist leaders did not frame their positions in explicitly religious terms—the IAF is on the record condemning honor crimes—but as part of a broader opposition to Western cultural influence and the erosion of the family unit.

Foreign policy

The IAF, and Jordan’s Islamic movement more generally, has demonstrated a more pronounced interest in foreign policy than many of its counterparts. This is particularly true with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This focus can be attributed to Jordan’s proximity to the West Bank and Jerusalem, but also to the fact that the majority of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin. Palestinians face discrimination in political life but are well represented in the leadership of both the Brotherhood and the IAF. Until Hamas was forced out of Jordan in 1999, the group—effectively the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood—shared an office with the Jordanian Brotherhood in the latter’s headquarters in Amman’s Islamic Hospital.

Not surprisingly, the pro-West orientation of the Jordanian monarchy has been a key determinant of Islamist relations with the regime. A critical point of departure was King Hussein’s signing of the peace agreement with Israel in 1994, which permanently altered his relationship with the Islamist opposition. (The treaty was ratified by parliament in a fifty-five to twenty-three vote, with all sixteen IAF deputies voting against.)

Where other Islamist parties have had strong anti-Israel stances while signaling openness to a peace settlement, the IAF’s public positions have neither wavered nor evolved. In its 2007 electoral platform, the IAF affirms that “no one has the right to give up any part of Palestinian land,” which, for the party, includes Israel proper. “Our conflict with the occupier,” the program explains, “is a theological and civilizational one that will not end with a peace treaty. It is a conflict of existence and not one of borders” (Na‘am al-Islam 2007, 30).

Behind the headlines, the Israel question has been a contentious one within the organization, pitting “doves” (hama’im) against “hawks” (suqoor). In the 2000s, a growing tendency within the IAF, known as the “fourth trend” (al-tayyar al rabi‘), or “Hamasists,” emerged as a force in the party’s sometimes vigorous internal maneuvering. Doves, who tend to be indigenous Jordanians, have advocated a greater focus on domestic affairs and a “Jordan-first” approach to foreign policy. Seen as regime loyalists, they have generally worked to distance the IAF from Hamas. Meanwhile, hawks as well as the so-called fourth trend, the most prominent of whom are of Palestinian origin, prioritize the conflict with Israel and advocate closer ties with Hamas.

Since 1993, the IAF has been invited to join the government several times, but has refused on the grounds that it cannot be part of a cabinet that has relations with Israel. Two prominent doves, Abdullah al-Akaileh and Bassam al-Emoush, left the IAF in the 1990s largely over the question of executive branch participation. While continuing to oppose the peace treaty, they, and others, believed that the Islamic movement should adopt a more pragmatic approach by opposing “normalization” rather than the peace treaty itself.

Relations with secular parties

Despite the democratic opening of 1989, Jillian Schwedler notes that in the eleventh parliament (1989–1993) “Islamist deputies...shunned cooperation with [other] parties” (Schwedler 2006, 109). There had been a degree of coordination on foreign policy concerns, such as the Gulf War, but relatively little on domestic political reform. This began to change in 1993, with one of the first major instances of Islamist coordination with secular parties—a joint press conference opposing the new electoral law—coming in response to the regime’s most concerted effort yet to limit opposition influence.

In 1994, the IAF, along with twelve mostly leftist and nationalist parties, formed the Higher Committee for the Coordination of National Opposition Parties (HCCNOP).11 Unlike many other cross-ideological coalitions in the Arab world, the HCCNOP stood the test of time. An active coalition that meets as often as every week, it has had a set of regular, agreed-upon internal procedures, with leadership rotating every three months between the parties (Clark 2006, 547). During each rotation, the chairing party sets the agenda and represents the coalition in the press. This means that, despite the fact the IAF is larger than all the other parties combined, it would formally lead the coalition only a small fraction of the time.

That said, due to the weakness of the other parties and the IAF’s dominance, the HCCNOP’s ultimate significance has been open to question. In her study of the coalition, Janine Clark finds that cooperation is “limited to the coordination of activities over which the IAF sees eye to eye with other parties” (Clark 2006, 540). While there may be little ideological give-and-take, the HCCNOP has been successful as a mechanism to pool resources and amplify impact on issues of mutual concern. As Ishaq Farhan explains, the coalition’s objective is to “crystallize points of agreement.”12

Organizational Structure

The Brotherhood had long been hampered by an ad hoc decision-making process. Certain leaders—usually those with close relations to the regime—would meet with the king and other senior officials and then present whatever was agreed upon as a fait accompli. This was how the IAF, for instance, entered the 1993 elections, with Brotherhood Overseer-General Abd al-Rahman Khalifa and King Hussein agreeing on the terms of participation. The unilateral decision by Khalifa predetermined the subsequent Shura Council vote within the IAF.

With government pressure on the organization increasing and internal debates more contentious, the need for a set of binding, regularized procedures became more critical. Over time, the institutionalization of internal democratic practices effectively mediated what might otherwise have been crippling divisions.

Nathan Brown has argued that the IAF “may be the most democratic party in the region in terms of its internal operations” (Brown 2006, 3). This claim is worth exploring more closely. The IAF has three main decision-making bodies: the Executive Bureau, the Shura Council, and the internal court, which loosely mirror the three branches of government—the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary.

The 120-member Shura Council is effectively the party’s legislative branch, setting policy and making major decisions, including whether to participate in elections. The nine-member Executive Bureau is tasked with the execution of policy and day-to-day management within the guidelines set by the Shura Council. The party’s internal court, about which relatively little has been written, interprets the organization’s bylaws as embodied by the al-nizam al-assasi. It also deals with the controversial matter of suspension of membership or expulsion. The internal court operates with considerable autonomy, to the extent that it has launched proceedings against some of the IAF’s most senior figures, including Zaki Bani Irsheid, who, as secretary-general, was the IAF’s top official through May 2009. Bani Irsheid was “charged” with undermining his own party’s candidates in the 2007 parliamentary elections, due to his disagreement over the Shura Council’s decision to contest the polls. In this particular example, we can see how each “branch” of the IAF operated independently and, at times, at cross-purposes with the others.

The IAF also developed a fourth, irregular source of internal decision making—al-istifta al-‘am, or the general referendum. The results of this process, while not necessarily binding, tend to be respected by the organization’s leadership. The general referendum allows every member of the IAF to register his opinion on major issues facing the party. The process is usually initiated by the Executive Bureau, as it did in the lead-up to the 1997 elections, when the referendum returned a pro-boycott result, with 66 percent voting against participation.13

The IAF at a Crossroads

The 2007 elections, arguably the most fraudulent in Jordan’s history, marked the culmination of regime efforts to marginalize the Islamic movement. On the day of the country’s June municipal elections, the IAF formally withdrew its candidates in protest of government interference. The journalist Ayman al-Safadi warned that the country was entering an “era of broken bones” (al-Safadi 2007). Recognizing the risk of such a confrontation, the IAF did its part to ease tensions ahead of the November parliamentary elections. In order to assure the government it was interested in “participation, not domination” (al-musharika wa laysa al-mughalaba), the party ran only twenty-two candidates, its lowest number ever. IAF doves, who had a majority in the Executive Bureau, reached an understanding with Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit in which they agreed to contest a reduced number of seats and avoid running explicitly pro-Hamas and antigovernment candidates.14 In exchange, the Brotherhood received assurances the elections would be free and fair. But they were not: less than 10 out of 110 seats went to the opposition, with the IAF winning only 6.

For many Islamists, the results of the 2007 polls called into question the utility of participating in elections that were seemingly always stacked against them. Despite embracing key democratic precepts and modernizing its election platform, the IAF found itself victim to unprecedented electoral manipulation and mounting legal restrictions. Moderation, it appeared, was being punished.

Hawks in both the Muslim Brotherhood and the IAF used the result to attack the doves’ handling of the elections, leading to unprecedented internal tensions that spilled into public view. The Brotherhood’s Shura Council was dissolved and early elections were called. In a surprise result, the fiery preacher Hammam Said defeated the dovish Salem Falahat for the post of overseer-general in a close twenty-three to twenty-two vote, marking the first time a Palestinian had ever been elected head of the Jordanian Brotherhood. Within the IAF, meanwhile, internal negotiations continued over a number of controversies, including Zaki Bani Irsheid’s pending trial by the IAF internal court. Despite such tensions, the Brotherhood and the IAF managed to avoid any mass defections or splits, thanks in part to its successful institutionalization of procedures for resolving internal disagreements.

With the tide rising in favor of the hawks, many commentators warned of the Islamic movement’s impending radicalization. After Said’s election in 2008, Matthew Levitt and David Schenker suggested that the Brotherhood “can no longer be considered ‘loyal’ to the kingdom” (Levitt and Schenker 2008). However, once elected, Said toned down the abrasive rhetoric, emphasized domestic issues, and reached out to the government. As Abd al-Majid Thneibat, former head of the Brotherhood, explained, “there are a set of given political principles [that the organization operates by] which no Overseer-General is able to change.”15 Indeed, the region’s Islamist parties and the IAF in particular have depended on strong, durable institutions rather than strong individual personalities—in contrast with many of their secular counterparts.

The party’s cautious, deliberative approach has historically served it well, but, in a time of regional upheaval, it has come under growing pressure to take advantage of a restless public and an increasingly unpopular king. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Brotherhood escalated its pressure on the government by coupling its announced boycott of the 2013 elections with mass protests in the capitol. But, while the Brotherhood and IAF have adopted a more confident, confrontational stance, they continue to tread carefully on sensitive issues surrounding the king and his family. IAF Secretary-General Hamza Mansour has affirmed that the Brotherhood remains committed to systemic reform “under the ceiling of the monarchy” Mansour 2012).

Others like Zaki Bani Irsheid have been more keen to push the accepted limits. Protests on November 16, 2012—which the Brotherhood, among many others, had called for—saw unprecedented calls for the fall of the Jordanian regime. Bani Irsheid, in his role as deputy leader of the Brotherhood, openly sympathized with the calls. “Those who are calling for the fall of the regime are increasing,” he said. “This cannot and should not be ignored” (AFP 2012). In other statements, Bani Irsheid specifically pointed to the king’s role: “Every day the King delays intervention to reverse the resolution that ignited this, things become more complicated. The street may take the country’s governance to the point of no return” (Al-Najjar 2012).

The sharpness of the rhetoric is new, but the tensions are not. For years, particularly since the turn to repression of the 1990s, Jordan’s Islamists have found themselves pledging allegiance to the same political system that had insisted on marginalizing them. It is a delicate, difficult dance, and one that may not be sustainable. If it ever does come to the “point of no return,” to use the words of Bani Irsheid, the IAF—like its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia—will find itself in a strong position to fill the inevitable power vacuum.


1. All translations my own unless otherwise noted.

2. The law enforced the use of the single nontransferable vote (SNTV), an exceedingly rare voting system that particularly disadvantages organized political parties. It is used on the national level by only two other countries in the world, Afghanistan and the Republic of Vanuatu (see “Assessment of the Electoral Framework: The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” Democracy Reporting International and New Jordan Research Center [Berlin, Germany: Democracy Reporting International, 2007, p 16). In Libya’s July 2012 elections, 80 of the General National Congress’s 200 members were elected using SNTV.

3. This is the total number of both Muslim Brotherhood and independent Islamist members of parliament.

4. See “Assessment of the Electoral Framework: The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” p 19.

5. Interview with Ziad Abu Ghanimeh, Amman, May 28, 2005.

6. Interview by author with Jihad Abu Eis, Amman, May 27, 2005.

7. Interview by author with Ibrahim Gharaibeh, Amman, June 2, 2005.

8. For more on King Abdullah’s approach to reform, see Shadi Hamid, “Jordan: The Myth of the Democratizing Monarchy,” in eds. Nathan Brown and Emad Shahin, The Struggle Over Democracy in the Middle East (New York: Routledge, 2009).

9. Interview with author, Nael Masalha, April 20, 2005.

10. Na’am, Al-Islam Hoa al-Hal: Al-Barnamaj al-Intakhabi li-Murashahi Hizb al-Jabha al-’Amal al-Islami, 1993–1997, p 12.

11. The other parties include the Jordanian Communist Party and two Ba’athist parties.

12. Interview by author with Ishaq Farhan, Zarqa, Jordan, May 16, 2005.

13. Interview with Bassam al-Emoush, Zarqa, May 29, 2005.

14. This issue is contested by IAF leaders and has been a source of great controversy within the organization. Some officials whom I interviewed vigorously denied the existence of any “deal” between the government and the IAF. However, there is ample evidence that there was at least an understanding, although it is unclear how explicit it was or to what extent it was the initiative of individual leaders acting without official authorization from the party. However, several senior IAF leaders and former members confirmed the existence of such an “understanding,” while others suggested there was some degree of “coordination.”

15. Interview by author with Abdel Majid Thneibat, Amman, August 27, 2008.


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