The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Islamists are losing support in Jordan

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Amman in 2013. (Muhammad Hammad/Reuters)

Democratic Party losses in traditional strongholds are stunning, often exposing deep frustration between party and base. Similarly, Republican losses in deep-red districts raise many questions.

In the Middle East, rare Islamist losses in their own strongholds show the failure of Islamist appeals to keep previously reliable supporters. This just happened in Jordan.

During the past two months, Muslim Brotherhood-supported groups got trounced during elections at Jordan University, the flagship university whose student union elections relegated Islamists behind the new Nashama (Gallantry) movement, and the Jordan Engineers Association, the kingdom’s largest professional union whose 150,000 members are now led by the independent Numuw (Growth) bloc.

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.

For decades, scholars tracked how the Brotherhood used its charitable network and ideological pull to command an impressive base of popular support. It outperformed other groups in organizing protests and leading public opinion on everything from Palestinian territories to economic austerity.

Such perceptions of domination in turn fed warnings about political Islam posing an existential threat to the ruling monarchy, which its advocates describe as Washington’s strongest Middle East ally. Today’s narrative of Islamism rising like a phoenix, inflected by years of Salafi-jihadist violence emanating from the so-called Islamic State, thus continues to fuel nervous talk of the Brotherhood destabilizing Jordan despite its historically pro-monarchist stance.

What student politics show

Many political scientists know Jordan University because its researchers help implement the Arab Barometer surveys. However, within student politics, JU is also a microcosm of society. It can be restive, with fee protests and tribal feuding recently agitating its Amman campus. It is also enormous. Of Jordan’s 300,000 university students, nearly 15 percent study at JU. Under its electoral system, students choose their universitywide governing council from closed lists of candidates. Nashama now has nine of the 18 student union seats, compared to the Islamists’ six.

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.

Riding a youth wave

In the Jordan Engineers Association (JEA) May elections, Numuw ran as a coalition of independents, former leftists, and previously unaffiliated members across multiple rounds in all governorates. It secured seven of the 11 leadership seats including the presidency. This shocked political salons and elicited Islamist accusations of fraud. Our research, however, reveals the same currents here as elsewhere.

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.

Islamists are dwindling

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.

Sean Yom is an associate professor of political science at Temple University. He is the author of “From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East” (Columbia University Press, 2016).

Wael Al-Khatib is an independent anthropologist and researcher based in Amman.