The Muslim Brothers (MB) movement, the largest and most popular political movement in Jordan, is facing a crisis with intermixing internal and external dimensions. This has raised a series of questions regarding how the crisis will evolve and its expected implications for the situation in Jordan and the Palestinian issue.
Although the factors at play are mainly political, organizational, and legal, the Palestinian issue and Hamas were drawn in into the dispute in a negative way. Hamas, more than once, has denied interfering in the affairs of Jordan and the MB movement there, and called for avoiding implicating it in disputes to which it is not related to whatsoever.
There are three possible scenarios for the crisis. First: Overcoming differences and maintaining the unity of the group, and ending tensions with the Jordanian government. Second: the continuation of the internal crisis without a final resolution, and the prolongation of the legal dispute. And third: Confrontation and escalation of organizational dispute, and settling the legal dispute against the interests of the group, all the way to opening a battle with the government that would lead to the prosecution and harassment of the movement.
The MB movement in Jordan is facing an unprecedented crisis, whether at its legal and organizational level, and at the level of its relationship with the government. The internal and external dimensions intermixed in a way it became difficult to isolate the organizational, legal, and political issues. This has raised a series of questions regarding how the crisis will evolve going forward and its expected implications for the situation in Jordan and the Palestinian issue.
Why the Crisis is Reverberating Among Palestinians
The Jordanian MB movement is the largest and most popular political group in Jordan, which has the most important and longest border with Palestine. Furthermore, there is deep demographic overlap between Palestine and Jordan, where the largest number of Palestinian refugees in the world resides.
The movement played an exceptional role in supporting the Palestinian issue and fighting the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Its role began in the 1948 war and was led by the first General Supervisor ‘Abdul Latif Abu Qura, and in the 1960s, it participated in the Shuyukh Camps in Jordan. The movement had a major role in organizing strong popular support in Jordan for the Palestinian issue, and from the beginning, it declared a clear stance vis-à-vis the negotiations and political settlement with Israel, reaffirming its absolute support for the resistance option.
At the organizational level, special relations emerged between the Jordanian MB movement and Hamas in Palestine, owing to the shared ideology, historical links, geography, demographics, and the common threat; Israel occupies all Palestinian territories, posing a direct threat to Jordan. It does not conceal its expansionist ambitions targeting Jordan primarily. In an opinion poll conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, whose results were declared in early May 2015, 79% of Jordanians said Israel posed the biggest threat to security and stability in the region.
Evolution of the Dispute
Differences and disparities within the ranks of the MB movement are nothing new. Throughout the past years, they would rear their head especially near electoral events within the organization. However, on October 2013, an important development preoccupied the movement, when a number of MB figures announced a National Initiative for Building better known as the “Zamzam” initiative. The leadership saw it as a splinter group, which was denied by those behind the initiative. The crisis continued for a long time, witnessing a lot of tugging, with referrals to internal courts, expulsions, and initiatives for a settlement to the problem that drained the group.
The subsequent important development in the crisis took place when dozens of group members, led by former General Supervisor ‘Abdul-Majid Thunaibat, held protest meetings they dubbed “reform conferences.” During these meetings, they criticized the performance of the MB movement leadership and called for its resignation. They called for more steps for what they called reform, including rectifying the legal status of the group.
In early February 2015, the most important and most serious development in the crisis occurred when Thunaibat and other figures made an official request to the government to rectify the legal status of the group, and appoint an interim administration to manage its affairs. Immediately, the existing leadership of the MB movement responded by expelling Thunaibat. The text of the decision expelling him stated that based on the decision of the MB movement Shura Council in its session No. 27/21 on 14/2/2015, it was decided to expel Mr. ‘Abdul-Majid Thunaibat from the membership of the group, and that the movement would like to stress that only the Executive Bureau represents it.
The leadership of the group accused the Jordanian government of standing behind Thunaibat’s actions, in an attempt to undermine the group and drive a wedge in it to drain it in protracted disputes. The movement asserted that its status is legal and requires no rectification in accordance to the license granted to it by the Jordanian government on 9/1/1946, which was confirmed on 23/2/1953 when the government approved re-designating it as a “group” rather than a “society.”
The Jordanian government denied the movement’s accusations, and said that this is an internal difference, and the government has nothing to do with it, stressing that the courts alone would settle such disputes. However, and against previous practices, the government approved on 3/3/2015 the request for rectifying the MB movement’s legal status, granting Thunaibat a license to establish the “MB Movement Society.” Immediately after that, the society licensed by the Ministry of Social Development elects an executive bureau and elects Thunaibat general supervisor.
The Reasons Behind the Dispute
The differences within the Jordanian MB Movement are not that different from what happens with other political movements. It has repeatedly stated that it is a political entity that makes mistakes, as it faces many challenges facing other groups as well.
The differences may be in political interpretations and positions vis-à-vis some important issues, especially concerning the relationship with the Jordanian government, participation in the parliamentary and municipal elections, and in the government. However, the organizational dimension was the most important factor in recent disputes, which took the form of polarization and alignment, particularly during internal elections. There were many personal issues and competition at play over reaching leadership positions.
A third factor that some observers refer to has to do with the government’s attempts to interfere in shaping organizational equations within the group. They point to the current crisis, which the observers believe the government is directly involved in despite all its attempts to show that it is neutral, and to claim that the dispute is internal and has organizational and legal dimensions when the issue is political par excellence.
Over the past years, the movement did not deny the presence of differences over interpretations and political positions. In an attempt to reach accord over a joint vision over major issues being debated, the MB movement held in 2010 a broad dialogue conference that addressed a number of major issues. These included the relationship with the government, political reform, the Palestinian issue, and positions on thorny issues such as disengagement between the two banks of the Jordan River, and issues of identity and citizenship. However, the dialogue stopped following the Arab Uprisings and was not resumed.
Hamas was repeatedly dragged into the organizational disputes inside the MB movement and was frequently accused of taking sides, especially during internal elections. Some would take advantage of the position on the Palestinian issue and claim to be supported by the resistance and to sympathize with Hamas to rally electoral support, while others would accuse Hamas of intervening to back candidates at the expense of others, to justify their defeats in the election and blame it on external entities.
Hamas, in turn, has frequently denied its interference in the movement’s internal affairs. It stressed that the elections and running the affairs of the group concerns the Jordanian movement alone, and that Hamas does not interfere in it in any way. Concerning the current crisis, member of the Hamas political bureau Sami Khatir said that it is strange how some parties tried recently to involve Hamas in the dispute taking place between the leaders of the Islamic movement in Jordan. For all Jordanian parties, Islamists or otherwise, know that Hamas has no role in internal Jordanian issues. He added that Hamas is a national liberation movement and a Palestinian resistance movement, that has no business but to liberate Palestine and confront the “Zionist occupation.”
It is not yet clear how much the repercussions of the crisis will affect the strength and popularity of the group, the Palestinian issue, Islamic action for Palestine, and the relationship with Hamas and other Palestinian factions.
The trade union and student elections that were held amid escalating internal disputes and the crisis with the government demonstrated that the MB movement continues to retain its political strength and popularity. The Islamists who represent the movement won in May 2015 all the seats of the board of the Jordan Engineers Association elections, the second-largest syndicate in the country after the Jordanian Teachers Syndicate. The Islamists currently dominate the two largest syndicates in Jordan. They also won in March 2015 all the seats of the council of Jordan Agriculture Engineers Association, and in April, the Islamists and their allies won 8 out of 9 seats in the Executive Body of the Council of the University of Jordan Students after losing last year.
Palestinian wise, there are fears of possible negative consequences on the Palestinian situation in Jordan and the Palestinian issue, most notably:
• The negative impact on the popular sympathy for the Palestinian issue among some social segments, whereby the position on Palestine would become a subject of controversy and dispute.
• Weakening the positive role the MB movement has in supporting the Palestinian people and resistance movements. For it plays a major role in making the Jordanian street sympathize with the Palestinian people and support the Palestinian issue.
• The negative impact on the public support Hamas and resistance movements have. Throughout the past years, opinion polls showed broad support in the Jordanian street for Palestinian resistance, particularly Hamas and its military wing Al-Qassam Brigades.
• Impacting the unity the Jordanian society and its cohesion, by rekindling contradictions between priorities, and problems of priorities, of citizenship, and disengagement.
• Increasing withdrawal and negative sentiment among the Palestinian segment regarding participation in political life in Jordan. The parliamentary and municipal elections that took place over the past years showed a very low turnover among Palestinian Jordanians, particularly those boycotted by the MB movement. Indeed, the movement is seen by many political circles as one of the leading levers of representation for Jordanians of Palestinian origin in political life.
• Increasing the chance that tension between the Jordanian government and the MB movement would affect the official relationship between Jordan and Hamas, owing to the close ties between the latter and the movement.
• First: The internal crisis is resolved and the group’s unity is salvaged. Relations with the government improve and a way out is found for the problem of having two entities bearing the name of the MB movement.
This outcome would preserve the strength and popularity of the movement, improve the stability of the society and its national unity, and guarantee the continuation of the movement’s key role in supporting the Palestinian issue. It would also prevent the growth of extremism and violent trends in society, and preserve positive relations that the Jordanian regime and the MB movement managed to develop throughout the past decades, in the midst of a turbulent surrounding marked by tension between governments and Islamists.
• Second: The internal crisis continues, resolution is delayed, and the legal dispute drags on.
There would be two political entities representing the group, one with limited power and size but with legal legitimacy and government support, and one that represents electoral legitimacy and has the organizational weight, but is denied the right to express itself politically and in the media as being the MB movement. This would force the second group of practicing politics and public work through the name of the Islamic Action Front and other trade union and student frameworks.
In this event, it is likely that the two entities would be dragged into mutual political, legal, and organizational battles that would drain both sides. It is also likely negatively affect the unity of society and its cohesion, and on the moderation of the society that the MB movement helped to promote.
With regard to Palestine, the public support for the Palestinian issue, and the movement’s ability to continue playing a major role in this support would be affected. It could also negatively affect the political participation of Palestinians in Jordan and their representation in political frameworks.
• Third: The organizational dispute between the MB movement and the new society escalates. The legal dispute over official representation and control of assets is settled quickly in favor of the licensed society. The current movement is subsequently rendered legally illegitimate and becomes an unlicensed entity, leading to a confrontation with the government requiring the prosecution of the movement.
In case this scenario pans out, the door will become open to extremely dangerous political repercussions, at various levels, including the state, society, and the movement, and on stability and cohesion, as well as the Palestinian issue.
Available indicators make it difficult to say which of the three scenarios is the most likely. The possibility of going towards an open-ended confrontation between the government and the MB movement (the third scenario) does not seem likely, as both sides seem unwilling to engage in a battle that would damage everyone, and where the biggest losers would be the society and the state.
The odds for the first scenario, i.e., a détente and a resolution to the crisis, does not seem likely either, in light of the current indications. That is unless the internal dispute and the relationship between the two sides witness important developments, thus finding an acceptable solution with the government.
If this does not happen, the second scenario of mutual draining and protraction of the crisis, becomes more likely. Especially in light of government’s current position and lack of desire to back down, and also its hesitation regarding entering a confrontation with the MB movement. For the complex political climate in the region has imposed a number of political, security, and economic challenges on Jordan.
The continuation of the crisis, tension, and disputes does not serve the interests of any party. It also portends dangerous repercussions on more than one level. This requires dealing with it with a lot of wisdom and reason concerning the negative consequences before the situation escalates and becomes intractable. Among the important recommendations that can be presented to the decision-makers concerned with the crisis are:
1) Launching an internal dialogue in the movement to deal with the problems and reach a compromise to defuse the crisis and prevent it from escalating.
2) Opening channels between the government and the movement leadership to find an appropriate way out of the crisis, and re-demarcating the relationship between the two to preserve the historical gains of the bilateral relationship. Trust, which has decreased recently, must be restored, to avoid further escalation, which will only benefit those with negative agendas and extremist choices.
3) Removing the Palestinian dimension and refraining from dragging it into the organizational disputes and political polarization. National unity in the Jordanian society must be strengthened, and the compass must be redirected towards confronting the occupation. Efforts must be coordinated to confront common threats to Jordan and the Palestinian issue.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre would like to thank Mr. ‘Atif Joulani for contributing to the draft on which this Assessment was based.