Unending crises undermine Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood
AMMAN - Tough times lie ahead for the Muslim Brotherhood. Once Jordan’s largest political party and a fiery voice for reform, it has been discredited by the state and undermined by internal bickering.
Political, ideological and organisational schisms between the party’s hawks and doves, the humiliating defeat of the parent party in Egypt and the failure of the Jordanian branch to find alternatives to the country’s political and economic woes resulted in Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood splitting into factions.
Traditionally, the Brotherhood had been loyal to Jordan’s Hashemite dynasty despite policy differences, especially on relations with Israel. The group advocates Israel’s annihilation.
However, with the Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt in 2011, the Jordanian branch shifted positions, publicly criticising the government and daring to call for diminishing the king’s absolute power under the constitution.
The group’s popularity eroded due to public revulsion at crimes committed by fanatic Islamists, such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria.
But what was particularly niggling to many was the ambivalent Brotherhood reaction to the killing of a Jordanian Air Force lieutenant who was burned alive in a cage by ISIS militants in January 2015, days after his plane was downed over Syria.
Jordan’s pro-US government has been on the lookout for the fallout from the Brotherhood’s gradual disintegration, such as some of its younger members, frustrated by the lack of job opportunities, forming more militant underground cells or joining ISIS.
Before its recent troubles, the Brotherhood was battered by its long-time organisational link to the Palestinian Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip from the Jordan-backed moderate Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Jordan banned Hamas and exiled its leaders in 1999 on grounds that the group used Jordanian territory for unspecified “illicit” activities, including stirring the Brotherhood to disrupt Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel — one of the pillars of much-needed US aid to the cash-strapped Arab kingdom.
Many Jordanians within the Brotherhood were also largely opposed to the proximity with Hamas in view of a local demographic concern that hard-line Israeli politicians would insist on moving the remaining Palestinians in the West Bank to Jordan.
The kingdom is home to 2.1 million Palestinians and their descendants — the largest Palestinian population outside the West Bank — who fled or were forcibly removed from their West Bank homes in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. An influx of more Palestinians would make Jordanians a minority in their own country.
“The shift towards Hamas raised questions about the Brotherhood’s priorities and agenda, creating another internal rift,” said political analyst Oraib al-Rantawi, who heads the Amman-based al-Quds Centre for Political Studies. “The Brotherhood was clearly torn between focusing on Jordanian or Palestinian matters.”
Jordan’s Brotherhood began to splinter in 2012, a year after the “Arab spring” revolutions, which have taken a heavy toll on Islamist groups across the Middle East. That year, Rheil Gharaibeh, a leader of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Brotherhood’s political arm, established the Jordanian Initiative for Building, what he called Zamzam.
The plan was praised in many circles as a viable reform but the Brotherhood’s leadership reacted by expelling Gharaibeh and a handful of other top leaders, who are now vying to create a political party.
The Brotherhood, which thrived over the years by calling for sweeping political, economic and social reforms, suffered another setback when prominent dove and former movement head Abdul Majeed Thneibat broke away to establish the Muslim Brotherhood Society.
Exploiting the rift, the government licensed the society in March 2015 and transferred the Brotherhood’s assets to the splinter faction, indirectly declaring it the country’s authorised Brotherhood, moves that infuriated the group’s old guard.
“The way the society was encouraged, approved and promoted showed the Muslim Brotherhood was being targeted,” observed Brotherhood spokesman Muath al- Khawaldeh. “Transferring the assets to the society was illegal and unconstitutional. It set a dangerous precedent.”
Society leader Ibrahim Abu al- Ezz rejected the accusations, saying: “We’re not targeting anyone and we highly respect our Islamist brothers. We have simply legalised the Brotherhood’s status and we will continue to serve Islam and Jordan.”
In a more recent blow, 400 IAF leaders quit the party in December over policy “differences”, Khawaldeh said. He said the resignations were rejected and reconciliation efforts were under way.
Although Khawaldeh downplayed the issue, some observers said veterans among those who quit, dubbed the “Group of Elders”, might form a separate political party, further complicating the situation for the Brotherhood.
Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordan-based expert on Islamist groups, said the Brotherhood was facing its “most dangerous crisis”.
“The Brotherhood as we know has changed, and more divisions are expected in the future, deeply impacting the group,” he said.