AMMAN, Jordan — For thousands of die-hard supporters, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rally in upscale West Amman was almost unrecognizable.
Gone were the green flags emblazoned with crossing swords. Instead, young men waved white banners with the word “reform” written across them. Christians and women took center stage, and Islam was not mentioned once. Many in the crowd swayed to nationalist pop music and Bedouin folk songs. The tone was more reminiscent of a Bernie Sanders rally than of a 90-year-old Islamist movement.
“Today we need to lift up the nation and the dignity of everyday citizens — and election day is the day to make this change happen,” candidate Abdullah Omari told the crowd of thousands earlier this month.
The Brotherhood has rebranded itself after years of pressure from the Jordanian government that pushed it to the brink of dissolution.
Over the past two years, the group lost its license to operate as a political movement, its assets were frozen in a court battle and security services shuttered its headquarters in Amman, the capital. The government issued a license to a new pro-regime splinter group, the New Muslim Brotherhood, a band of Brotherhood renegades who lack the support and numbers of the original group.
Now, the Brotherhood is set to make historic gains in Tuesday’s parliamentary elections. Turnout appeared low as a trickle of voters headed to schoolhouses in Amman and surrounding governorates to cast their ballots.
Incidents were few, with a handful of cases of citizens firing gunshots near voting centers, most likely celebratory gunfire, according to Jordan’s public security department.
Many of the polling centers across central and western Amman were quiet, with election canvassers outnumbering voters 10-to-1.
Many of the voters who made their way to the polls said corruption is their chief concern.
“Corruption has been strangling the citizens, and we have been paying the price,” said Rena Ghanem, a 27-year-old human resources manager who voted for a non-Islamist candidate list. “We need parliament as a check against the powerful and the wealthy.”
Various projections show the Brotherhood on track to win 20 to 30 seats and become the largest political force in Jordan’s 130-member parliament, a remarkable turnaround for a group written off by observers as all but dead a few months ago. Final results are expected by Friday.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political group founded in Egypt in 1928, came to Jordan in the 1950s after King Hussein offered it a safe haven from a crackdown by Egypt’s president and the king’s rival, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Over the decades, the Brotherhood in Jordan was allowed to operate a vast network of charitable organizations, hospitals and mosques, winning supporters in urban slums and Palestinian refugee camps.
But when King Hussein reinstated parliament in 1989, the Brotherhood emerged as a powerful opposition force, clashing with the palace over the country’s peace treaty with Israel in 1994, and in recent years, calling on his successor, King Abdullah II, to cede his powers to parliament.
The Brotherhood’s ardent supporters remain Jordanians of Palestinian origin and Jordanians who believe that an Islamist government, because it is supposed to be devoted to God, would be free of corruption.
But it is viewed with suspicion by the royal palace, tribal leaders and large swaths of the public, who see it as driven by a desire for power and determined to diminish the influence of the tribes and the military.
In the wake of the movement’s 2013 ouster from power in Egypt and losses in Jordan and the Persian Gulf, its leaders say the movement has to reach beyond its base.
“Now is the time for us to evolve from an Islamist movement to a national, inclusive movement that speaks for the aspirations of all Jordanians,” said Zaki Bani Rsheid, deputy leader of the Jordanian Brotherhood. “We needed to change in order to survive.”
In a bid to mollify skeptics, Bani Rsheid formed the Islah, or reform, coalition, removing the name “Muslim Brotherhood” from campaign material, banners and its Facebook page. He now also serves as Islah’s chief election strategist.
Its traditional slogan, “Islam is the solution,” has been replaced with “renaissance of the homeland, dignity for the citizens.” The group no longer openly calls for the implementation of sharia, or Islamic law, and rarely refers to the Palestinian cause, a mobilizing issue for its base and many of Jordan’s more than 2.5 million Palestinians.
The Brotherhood has even recruited four Christian candidates in an effort to capture some of the nine seats reserved in parliament for Christians. Islah candidates campaign side by side with their Christian counterparts, bringing the Brotherhood for the first time to Jordan’s Christian community — 3 percent of the population, or about 200,000 people.
Observers say the shift in the Brotherhood’s tone, if genuine, could mark a turning point for the movement and Jordanian politics, which lacks parties to rival Islamists.
“If these election changes are real changes to the Muslim Brotherhood’s core mission, this would have a positive impact on Jordan and its democratic future,” said Oraib Rantawi, head of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.
“But if the changes are only cosmetic, they will eventually find themselves back in the political wilderness.”
Under a new law that requires candidates to run on lists rather than as individuals, the Brotherhood saw a chance to break the dominance that tribes and businessmen have had over parliament for more than 20 years.
After boycotting previous elections in 2010 and 2013, the Brotherhood, led by its licensed political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), fielded a list this year of more than 130 Islamists, leftists, nationalists, tribesmen, Christians and retired servicemen.
Despite the changes, tensions remain between the Brotherhood and the Jordanian establishment.
Two weeks before Tuesday’s polls, a Jordanian court disqualified two candidates, IAF leader Ali Abu Sukkar and Hussam Masheh, on technicalities. Fearing potential voter fraud, the IAF on Saturday threatened a boycott over any potential interference in the voting by security services.
King Abdullah II, who appoints the prime minister, in the past has called for a parliament-formed government. With a strong showing on Tuesday, that move could put the Brotherhood in the government.
The Brotherhood’s previous experience in Jordan’s government, when it held five cabinet posts in 1991, was widely panned as a disaster. Rather than act as a check on the monarch or push through reforms, the movement was consumed with its conservative social agenda, attempting to segregate men and women at universities and pass a nationwide ban on alcohol.
Perhaps the Brotherhood’s greatest obstacle is winning over a doubtful public. “All the Brotherhood is offering is slogans and promises about the economy, but no details,” said Ghazi Tamimi, 23, a political science graduate, at a rally Sunday. “If the choice is between the Brotherhood or nothing, I might just stay home.”