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King Abdullah II bin al-Hussein of Jordan is not afraid to show his animosity toward the Muslim Brotherhood, a popular Islamist group founded in Egypt with a number of international chapters and broad support in the Hashemite Kingdom. In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic, King Abdullah called the Brotherhood a “Masonic cult . . . run by wolves in sheep’s clothing.” But in recent months, Amman has escalated from harsh rhetoric to a major crackdown, culminating in office raids and the closure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters on April 13, as well as other offices in Madaba, Karak, and Mafraq, cities not far from Amman.
What precipitated this crackdown was a new 2014 law that required parties to register or renew their license. This law enabled a new Muslim Brotherhood wing, which had been challenging the older group’s legitimacy, to register itself as the Muslim Brotherhood in March 2015. The group was led by Abdel Majid Thnaibat, who explained that the new offshoot opposed the original movement’s ties with regional Brotherhood chapters, especially after Egypt labeled the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Thnaibat also emphasized that his wing was solely Jordanian in identity. Consequently, the government accepted the newer group’s registration. In late April 2015, the Jordanian government prevented the old Brotherhood from holding its 70th-anniversary rally. A few months later in July, the Department of Land and Survey began transferring ownership of properties that were worth millions from the old Muslim Brotherhood group to the new wing. Then over a month ago, on March 29, Amman banned the Islamic movement from holding internal elections, without which the old Brotherhood would not legally be allowed to select new leaders.
And yet the older group has been operating lawfully in Jordan for over 70 years, including as members of Parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood had previously registered with the government twice: in 1946 and again in 1953. King Abdullah himself met with the group’s leaders in 2011 to discuss the movement’s calls for political reform after the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Also, the government had long cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting the group’s deputy leader Zaki Bani Irsheid in November 2014 and jailing him for 13 months after he criticized the United Arab Emirates—a key Jordanian ally—on his Facebook page.
Mohammad al-Momani, the spokesman for the Jordanian government, declined an interview request, but he has publicly stressed that the recent restrictions against the Muslim Brotherhood were not about politics but about failing to adhere to party registration rules, saying, “No one is above the law.”
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Muath Khawaldeh doesn’t buy Momani’s argument. He said, “The recent government decisions are unjust and usher Jordan back to a state of martial law,” explaining that the country is now less politically free than ever. Khawaldeh added that within the regime, “there is a wing that seeks to eradicate the Brotherhood in Jordan,” but he labeled such a move as unrealistic given the group’s numerous supporters all across the Hashemite Kingdom. Owing to the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in the 2011 Jordanian protests, Khawaldeh believes that the government sees its current crackdown as the “price” the movement must pay for its earlier calls for political reform.
Jillian Schwedler, a professor of political science at the City University of New York’s Hunter College and the author of a book on Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, called the government’s rationale about legal registration a “charade.” Instead, Schwedler argues, the Hashemite Kingdom’s actions were largely political, intended to weaken a group whose policies they oppose. The Muslim Brotherhood’s boycotting of the 2010 and 2013 elections angered senior government officials. Jordanian Prime Minister Samir Zaid al-Rifai attempted to persuade the movement, although unsuccessfully, to partake in the elections and provide legitimacy to the political process.
Abdul Latif Arabiyat, the former Speaker of Parliament (which was one of the highest governmental positions that a Muslim Brotherhood member had ever held), explained that the new breakoff wing of the Muslim Brotherhood is “very weak” and that the older movement is far larger, with widespread backing from Brotherhood supporters. Muslim Brotherhood official Murad Adaileh argued that the government played a significant role in engineering the recent split within the movement to weaken the Brotherhood’s political power. "This is a coup sponsored by the regime," Adaileh noted. In 2013, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg explained that “the Hashemites have sometimes used the General Intelligence Department [the mukhabarat or secret police] to create dissension in the ranks of the Brotherhood; they have bought off some of the group’s leaders.” Reports have circulated across Amman that the government played a significant role in engineering the recent split within the Muslim Brotherhood to weaken the movement’s political power.
Relations between the Jordanian government and the Muslim Brotherhood have not always been this combative. King Abdullah I inaugurated the Brotherhood office in 1945 and welcomed the group. In contrast with Syria and Egypt, the Hashemite Kingdom has permitted for much of its history a space for citizens who supported nonviolent political Islam. Unlike other Islamist movements in the region, Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has no military wing and does not advocate violence against the local regime. Even during the harsh crackdown against Palestinians during Black September—a period of intense conflict in the 1970s between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Hashemite Kingdom—the Brotherhood stood by King Hussein by not joining with militias working to topple the monarchy. When Islamic State (also known as ISIS) fighters brutally killed the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh last year by burning him alive, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement in line with the royal court’s message by calling the killing “heinous” and a “criminal act [which] violated the rights of prisoners of war in Islam.”
But then relations began to sour when Jordan began cracking down on the Islamist movement after the 2013 fall of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Beyond King Abdullah’s personal dislike for the Islamist movement, he may be simply joining in on the general suppression of the group across the region. Joas Wagemakers, a professor of Islamic studies at Utrecht University, said that with the Muslim Brotherhood suffering blows across the Middle East, most notably in Egypt, the Hashemite Kingdom believed this would be an excellent time to “bureaucratize the Brotherhood into submission.” Wagemakers added that Amman is “exploiting” the new divisions within the Islamist movement between the new Muslim Brotherhood wing and the old Muslim Brotherhood by backing the new offshoot, which is more closely aligned with the regime.
Jordan’s clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is a risky undertaking. For one, the Brotherhood enjoys broad support. The New York Times, for example, notes that approximately 25 to 30 percent of the population, about one million Jordanians, supports the Brotherhood. The Islamist movement also demonstrated its power in the 1989 parliamentary elections—the first after a 22-year hiatus and one of the few considered fair and free—winning around one-third of the contested seats and becoming the largest bloc in the Parliament. After the Brotherhood’s strong performance in 1989, the government changed the election law and created heavily gerrymandered districts designed to weaken Islamists. That is why the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the past elections in 2010 and 2013.
Another risk is that by banning rallies and raiding Muslim Brotherhood offices, Jordan may force more Islamists underground, a policy that generally provokes increased extremism. As Amman battles ISIS, it is thus dangerous to alienate a group deeply embedded within society that could potentially create additional radicals. Government officials admit that approximately 2,000 Jordanians have left the country to fight with ISIS.
Jordan’s crackdown could damage its international reputation as well. Jordanian government officials cherish being thought of as “moderates” in the West. King Abdullah even made an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2012. Leading policy analysts are advocating for the United States to downgrade its ties with Egypt partly because of Cairo’s increased repression. Although Egypt’s harassment of political opponents is far worse than in Jordan, if Amman deepens its crackdown, it is possible that human rights activists in the West may also call for Washington to similarly reassess its relationship with Jordan. In addition to restricting the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan amended its constitution in April to grant King Abdullah significantly more power and jailed journalist Jamal Ayub for three months last year because of an article bashing Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
The Muslim Brotherhood isn’t even the most pressing threat to the Hashemite Kingdom. Jordan suffers from significant economic problems, including high youth unemployment at 28 percent and an astounding debt-to-GDP ratio at 90 percent. The Hashemite Kingdom has also generously absorbed more than 642,000 Syrian refugees, further straining the country’s limited resources. After the 2013 fall of Egypt’s Morsi, David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote in Foreign Affairs that “given the numerous external threats facing Jordan and the reversal of the Brotherhood’s political fortune at home, the organization is the least of King Abdullah’s worries.” Nonetheless, Amman’s recent harsh clampdown on the Islamist movement—by shutting its offices and banning internal elections—appears to reflect a different story. The Hashemite leader demonstrates that even with the decline of the Islamist parties across the region, the Jordanian regime still views the Muslim Brotherhood as a substantial potential threat and therefore is intensifying the country’s repression against them.