Just two months ago, political Islam looked to be in an enfeebled condition. The region’s governments had managed to keep Islamist movements under control by deploying measures to blunt their political impact and deny them the representation their supporters craved.

The Islamic movement has made it clear that the political reforms should start with a modern election law

Islamic Action Front statement

Whatever else they may have set out to achieve, it is already clear the Tunisian revolution and the corresponding Egyptian upheaval have rendered those strategies null and void. The eruption of Arab street protests from Cairo to Sana’a has rendered entities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood – both Egyptian and Jordanian variants – newly relevant, as among the few organised actors in an increasingly chaotic field.

Reviving relationships

Where once senior Islamist politicians were shunned as pariahs, governments across the region are under pressure to revive their relationships with organisations that now appear to represent the only coherent political players with deep roots in civil society.

For the Muslim Brotherhood, this opening represents a golden opportunity to reinvigorate its political momentum and force incumbent regimes to undertake serious political reform.

The Brotherhood’s aim, whether in Cairo or Amman, is that when the dust settles, the voluntary organisations, mosques, schools and clinics that tie them organically to the community will also make them the most credible political entity to negotiate with.

Away from the fiercer unrest in Egypt, Jordanian King Abdullah’s fresh outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood through its political affiliate, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), provides a test case for the viability of this new engagement.

At one level, not too much has changed in the official Jordanian response. King Abdullah’s first major move to the wider regional tumult was a pre-emptive sacking of his prime minster, bringing in a regime stalwart and former prime minster, Marouf Bakhit, to replace the unpopular Samir Rifai on 1 February.

[The Brotherhood] wants to open a strategic dialogue with the regime, [which] depends on … reform

Mohammed Abu Rumman, Jordanian political commentator

Bakhit, a military man with strong ties to the East Bank tribal network that supports Hashemite rule, is not the new face the IAF would have preferred. The IAF deems the appointment inappropriate in light of allegations of electoral fraud associated with Bakhit’s previous stint as prime minister between 2005-07.

Bakhit may be an unlikely convert to the cause of reform. Yet, there is no doubt that the government will have to forge a new relationship with the IAF if the street demonstrations seen in Jordan – though lacking the intensity of Egypt’s – are not to lead to an unravelling of the political status quo.

“The strategy towards the Muslim Brotherhood has changed,” says Mohammed Abu Rumman, a Jordanian political commentator. “During the last 20 years, the relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood was controlled at the security level. Because of the new regional circumstances and internal political pressures, they have had to rethink the entire relationship with the Brotherhood.”

Though Bakhit had been accused of causing friction with the Muslim Brotherhood in the past, Amman’s political elite has revealed a new commitment to political reform.  

The IAF has led many of the street demonstrations seen in Jordan in recent weeks, demonstrating an organisational prowess on the ground that contrasts with its diminished representation in parliament. Its boycott of 9 November 2010 elections left the 120-member Chamber of Deputies with just six Islamist MPs. 

Still, the power of the Brotherhood should not be overstated. “We can’t assume if elections were held tomorrow the Brotherhood is going to form a majority of seats in parliament. It might constitute 20 per cent, but not much more,” says Mohammad Masri, political analyst at Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies. “Their influence is exaggerated because they are the only organised power. Since they are the only political power and whenever there’s a demonstration the Brotherhood participates, it merely shows that they are stronger than other parties.”

Urban support for Muslim Brotherhood

The Brotherhood’s strongest support lies in urban areas and among Palestinian-origin Jordanians, rather than the more rurally based Jordanians and East Bankers.

In past elections, it won a sizeable slice of parliamentary seats. Islamists held 34 out of 80 seats after the 1989 election, when martial law was first lifted.

But subsequent governments’ tinkering with the electoral law has succeeded in diluting the Islamists’ political presence. Seat distribution under the disputed election law favours rural areas, where loyalty towards the monarchy is strongest. Urban areas, where the Islamists are stronger, get fewer seats – a bone of contention for the IAF.

The past couple of years saw a more robust response from the government towards the Brotherhood, clamping down on the IAF’s activities in the wake of the Gaza crisis of December 2008-January 2009, when as the Israelis’ bombarded the strip, the Jordan authorities accused the IAF of provoking unrest back home.

Constitutional reform for Jordan

The balance may now have tilted back in the Brotherhood’s favour. Taking advantage of the regional upheaval, IAF leaders have demanded serious political reforms that will lead to the formation of a “parliamentary government”, the movement said in a statement issued on 4 February.

Jordan’s rulers are taking the movement more seriously. The king held a landmark meeting in early February with both Brotherhood leader Hammam Saeed, and IAF secretary general Hamzeh Mansour.

Constitutional reform is right at the top of the Muslim Brotherhood agenda. “The Islamic movement has made it clear that the political reforms should start with a modern election law that adopts a system of proportional representation and leads to the formation of a parliamentary government,” the IAF statement said.

“They are mainly talking about changing the electoral system and reactivating the constitution, after a series of revisions to laws that they say are destroying the public sphere in Jordan,” says Masri.

These measures include the public meeting law, under which prior permission has to be obtained from the regional governor before any sort of meeting can be held in Jordan.  

“The Brotherhood is calling to activate the Jordanian constitution under which the government should be formed from a majority of parliament. The other demand that is very important to them is getting rid of all the constitutional amendments that took place after 1997 which have reduced the power of the legislative body,” says Masri

This focus on constitutional reform casts the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is cast in different light to other Islamist movements in the region, which have focused on social issues and totemic religious principles.

Many in the West remain uncomfortable with the Muslim Brotherhood’s reformist credentials. Former British premier Tony Blair has given voice to fears that Islamist movements stand to gain the most from the anti-government upheavals. “The last thing [Egypt] needs is to go into a form of narrow religious exclusivity,” he said, in comments that could equally apply to the Jordanian branch of the movement.

The Jordanian Brotherhood’s adherence to political reform and democracy has yet to be tested in the heat of political office, and critics point to the human rights abuses committed by Gaza’s Hamas-led administration as the real face of political Islam.

Yet Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood has won domestic respect through its evocation of constitutional reform as the bedrock of wider change in the Hashemite kingdom.

“Over the last 20 years, they have come a long way in their agenda concerning women’s rights and social issues. They used to talk a lot about usury and alcohol, but now it’s not an issue and they say that if a community wants alcohol licences, they can have them. That’s a huge improvement,” says Masri.  

There are other reasons for the government to engage in dialogue with the Islamist camp. The regime may find that the Brotherhood represents the ‘soft’ opposition, compared with some of the new street-level social movements springing up.

Political proof

For the Muslim Brotherhood, the new regional dynamic provides an opportunity to advance a new political initiative that is contingent on political change taking place in Jordan.

“It wants to open a strategic dialogue with the regime and this dialogue depends on political reform. It is saying the regime can be a partner, but the relationship must at the end of the day result in parliamentary government,” says Abu Rumman.

Regional and internal conditions now support a recalibration of the relationship between the government and the Brotherhood.  

The new political contacts could yield valuable insights into the wider appeal of political Islam in Jordan. As yet, the movement has failed to articulate a coherent economic programme, making only vague utterances about the need for social justice.

If the IAF is to emerge as a more credible political entity, it will need to do more than mimic populist demands to alleviate the impact of price rises on the poorest Jordanians.

After Cairo’s Tahrir Square demonstrations, the wind of popular protest has shaken the region’s established order to its foundations. Political Islam may be one of the few forces sufficiently organised and intellectually coherent to emerge with a solid footing in the reshaped environment.

For Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, the challenge is to prove they are up to the task and redefine their future political role in a country that faces many of the social pressures that caused Tunisia, and then Egypt, to fracture at the seams.