Jordan’s seven-decade-old Muslim Brotherhood wing disbanded this week, leaving behind a smaller, state-sanctioned movement that defines itself as strictly Jordanian and downplays links to Brotherhood branches across the Middle East.
With Jordan’s allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates having recently outlawed their respective Brotherhood branches, the reformists have rebranded themselves as a loyal, domestically focused movement aiming to create a more democratic, inclusive Jordan. The government officially recognized the group on March 3.
The government-approved subgroup consists of reform-minded members led by ex-parliamentarian Abdul Majed Zunaybat. Left behind are the so-called traditionalists, headed by the firebrand leader Hammam Saeed, who accuse the government of sponsoring a “coup” within their ranks, and refusing to recognize the new Brotherhood. While the reformers are now a legally recognized charity, the legal status of the traditionalist group remains unclear.
Throughout the last half-century, the Brotherhood’s influence in Jordan has ebbed and flowed. In the 1960s and 70s, the Brotherhood backed the monarchy in its battle against the Palestine Liberation Organization. In the 1989 elections, the Brotherhood won a plurality of seats in parliament and several Islamists were rewarded with high-level cabinet seats.
In the 1990s, however, the relationship changed. Hussein initiated a series of reforms in 1992, but simultaneously handicapped Islamist group’s ability to gain parliamentary seats. After the 1993 elections, the Brotherhood’s numbers in the parliament had dropped from 22 to 17; by 1997, the Brotherhood was boycotting the elections for six years.
Hussein’s son and successor, Abdullah II, continued his father’s war of attrition against political Islam, subverting several Brotherhood-affiliated groups and curbing their campus activity. The pressure was enough to force the Brotherhood to field a shortened list in the 2007 elections, ultimately winning only seven seats as compared to 16 in the previous election four years prior.
The 2011 Arab Spring protests, however, revived the Brotherhood’s fortunes. Emboldened Brothers took to the streets. Their anti-establishment, pro-democracy message boosted their popularity.
With the collapse of the Brotherhood in Egypt and the overall decline of the movement’s fortunes across the region, the royal court has regained the initiative. After the rise of the Islamic State in neighboring Syria and Iraq – and its horrific murder last month of a Jordanian pilot – the kingdom has stepped up its fight against Islamists. The government has clamped down on Jordan’s nearly 5,000 imams, mandating they preach a message of moderate Islam.
With its latest move, the Jordanian government seems keen on ensuring that the only thing its local Brotherhood branch has in common with the greater regional organization is a slow and steady decline.
Grant Rumley is a research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Find him on Twitter: @GrantRumley