These losses contradict the prevailing narrative of an Islamist comeback that took hold in 2016, when the Jordanian Brotherhood ended a decade of political boycott. That year, the Brotherhood reentered parliamentary elections and in 2017 contested the first-ever municipal elections. Yet Islamists did not meet expectations of resurgent success. As universities and unions are bellwethers of social change, the JU and JEA losses reveal Islamist influence may be declining.
Our research, including interviews with political activists, suggests disenchantment with Islamism has been years in the making. We have tracked political trends in Jordan since the Arab Spring and see a new wave of mobilization that is youth-driven, highly informal and reform-oriented. Examples such as Nashama and Numuw are also unfazed by identity debates like the Palestinian-tribal divide and suspicious of all parties and ideologies, including Islamism.
The Islamist elephant
The Brotherhood has always been the elephant in the room of those predicting Jordan’s survival. Electoral manipulations marginalize its members in parliament, and state-supported splinter groups and repression undermine its political voice. However, even under authoritarian constraints, civil society was seen as an Islamist citadel.
What student politics show
Nashama succeeded with three strategies. First, it provided public services to all regardless of tribal or ideological affiliation, such as recording lectures, mentoring new students and holding forums about controversial topics like the military. It called for students to look beyond identity and interrogate how they could engage national problems like endemic corruption.
Second, Nashama rejected outside patronage. Though their resources paled in comparison to Islamists’ and even Awdeh’s, supported by Palestinian MPs, such independence resonated with many.
Finally, eschewing the hierarchical structures of other groups, Nashama functioned as a horizontal network, putting new members into contact with organizers and relying upon social media as its glue. Whereas competing student groups operate like local franchises of national organizations, Nashama is the inverse — a local entity planning to branch outward across the kingdom.
First, the Numuw coalition rode on a youth wave. Over 14,000 engineers voted, nearly 3,000 more than the previous election. Many were first-time voters organized into an informal network called Tayyar Thalith (Third Current). They rejected ideological sloganeering reminiscent of political parties, such as promises to liberate Jerusalem, and called for advancing engineering-relevant issues such as employment and entrepreneurship.
Second, Numuw candidates called for voters to look beyond social origin. They espoused a moderate nationalist discourse that questioned the urban-rural, Palestinian-tribal, and Islamist-civic divides that had long dogged JEA disputes.
These strategies worked. While Islamist turnout did not drop far from past levels, victory came from younger first-time voters that mobilized even in Islamist bedrocks like Irbid. Further, many Palestinian members who traditionally sided with Islamists defected to Numuw, explaining they valued professional advancement over political mantras and identity-based posturing.
The JU and JEA elections are not one-off upsets but part of slowly diffusing trends. Islamists have also lost ground at Hashemite University, Yarmouk University, and Jordan University of Science and Technology. Among other professional unions, the Jordan Bar Association and Teachers Association, likewise, have begun replacing Islamist leaders with new alternatives.
These findings do not mean Jordan is becoming secular — rejecting Islamism is not equivalent to rejecting Islam. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood has struggled in many places since 2013 due to authoritarian blowback and the Islamic State’s rise. Yet they do show that Islamism is not the returning juggernaut that prevailing assumptions evoke.
Jordanian youths are the raw materials for political mobilization, but they are more cynical and less ideological than ever. For them, Islamism is simply another failed product in an obsolete marketplace of ideas.
Wael Al-Khatib is an independent anthropologist and researcher based in Amman.