With one foot in the grave, the political wing of Jordan’s defunct Muslim Brotherhood is now leading a majority coalition in the kingdom’s parliament. Here's how they did it, where they came from and why Jordan’s monarchy invited them back into the political arena.
So what's the Muslim Brotherhood?
Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or "Akhwan" is a popular and powerful conservative socio-political group with millions of members throughout the Middle East. The Brotherhood began as a social organisation, a few hundred strong, with deep religious undertones. Before becoming political, the group created charitable endowments, fostered social work, and by-and-large was considered just another NGO. Seeing an opportunity to influence policy change in the region, the group branched into politics.
Following a coup and ousting of the first Egyptian president in the 1950’s, the Egyptian Government launched a massive crackdown on the group, claiming they had attempted to assassinate the country’s newly unelected leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Thousands of members were arrested and many fled. The king of Jordan offered a safe haven to the Egyptian MB and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (JB) was founded.
By that point, Jordan had been hosting many Palestinians who were driven out from Palestine's West Bank following the formation of Israel. The Brotherhood brought the two groups, Palestinian immigrants and Jordanians, under one roof and gave them the united goal of shaping their own future. Most political parties and movements were banned at the time, but the Brotherhood was exempted and given license to operate by the Jordanian monarchy.
In 1992, the Jordanian Brotherhood (JB) had grown substantially and formed its own political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). They soon became the largest group in parliament. In 1994, Jordan and Israel signed a peace deal ending decades of hostilities, and angering many Palestinian-Jordanians and IAF MPs, who felt betrayed.
That, along with the monarchy permitting the United States military to set up a base in the country in return for much needed aid for the oil-poor middle eastern kingdom, made for quite a contentious environment. The IAF called for stronger support for Hamas in Palestine, directly conflicting with the king’s recent peace deal. This was the first of many major clashes that weakened ties between Jordan’s rulers and the popular JB.
Regional instability in the form of the Arab Spring heralded a kind of changing of the guard. After many of the uprisings settled in 2014, many believed the Muslim Brotherhood movement was over. Senior leaders of the Egyptian MB were under arrest, and the Jordanian affiliate was said to be in "disarray."
By now the conflict between the JB and the nation’s monarchy had peaked. Its political wing, the IAF, had boycotted the last two elections in Jordan, citing unfair election laws that sidelined the group. The Brotherhood's return seemed distant.
Closed for business, by order of his magnificence
Last April, the Jordanian police shut down the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Amman, the country’s capital. Depending on who you ask, the raid and subsequent closure was either the result of the group’s ties to its Egyptian chapter (which some Arab countries recently designated as a terrorist organisation), or because of a bureaucratic licensing issue (the official line). Either way, this left the IAF, which was still officially licensed to operate but no longer able to legally associate itself with the now defunct JB, in new and exciting political territory.
The IAF was, for the first time since its inception, untied from the Muslim Brotherhood and needed to blaze a trail of its own.
With all these changes, it is easy to see how some analysts considered the IAF dead in the water. No one really expected the group to return to the political arena in any meaningful way. They were wrong.
At an IAF rally there would normally be banners of the party’s slogan "Islam is the solution" waving in every street corner, usually by shouting old bearded men. Religion would be the cornerstone of every speech. Instead, the group’s recent rallies are nearly unrecognisable. The IAF of old was led to pasture.
Replacing it is a new political bloc called the National Coalition for Reform (NCR), consisting of IAF candidates along with Christians, Jordanian nationalists, minority groups and a large number of women. Together and under the new banner of "Reform", they have created a younger, more invigorated and cosmopolitan political party which rarely mentions Islam.
"Our Coalition will work to express the best interests of the public, not certain interest groups," Dima Tahboub, an IAF candidate with the coalition said in an interview with Al Jazeera. "We will be in line with the national agendas of the people of Jordan," she added.
These agendas are the cornerstone of a movement that has allowed the IAF to return to Jordan’s political landscape, and likewise where the King of Jordan can keep a close eye on them, rather than leaving them outside the system where they may grow more radicalised.
But not everyone is on board. Locally, the emergence of the NCR is perceived as the Brotherhood in disguise, but their message has resonated with the public, who elected 15 members of the coalition in last week’s election, 10 of which are IAF members.
The MB is not running candidates under it's own name but under a coalition called the National Alliance for Reform.
— Jessica - جيسيكا (@jessica_steele7) September 20, 2016
Although the NCR will not be able to block legislation or cabinet appointments, it should nevertheless bring livelier debate to what has been almost a rubber-stamp assembly whose passivity has allowed successive governments to enact draconian temporary laws restricting public freedoms. The country is still under the direct command of its king, and its parliament is quite limited in overall power, but popular opinion and proposed legislation may pressure the powers-that-be to take action.
Author: Omar Elwafaii