Don’t Forget About Jordan, Yemen

The two Middle Eastern states are coping with internal protest movements of their own.

With news focused on the exciting (yet increasingly deadly) political upheaval in the center of Cairo, it’s easy to forget that other states in the Arab world are experiencing protests of their own. The popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are certainly the most visible and ecstatic but dissent often takes a subtle form. In contrast to the clashes that have come to categorize the Egyptian demonstrations, other anti-government protests are starting to gain momentum, many of which have been peaceful and orderly.

While Egypt is often referred to as the most strategically vital state for Washington’s interests in the Middle East, two other pro-American governments are starting to feel the heat from their own populations: Yemen and Jordan.

Protests in the former should be assessed with a small dose of caution, not least because the Yemeni government is already dealing with internal conflicts, population growth and unemployment, along with water and oil shortages. Jordan, on the other hand, is strong, stable and wealthy enough to absorb demonstrations with a relative amount of success.

The last thing that Yemen’s autocratic president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, needed was another thorn in the side of his regime. The country is faced with a multitude of problems — a Houthi rebellion near the Saudi border, a secessionist movement in its southern provinces, declining oil reserves and a steady stream of young people entering the poor jobs market. Indeed, this is why thousands of Yemenis in the capital are protesting to begin with. Tired of an unhopeful future and an economy running well behind its oil-rich Persian Gulf neighbors, the Yemeni poor (running in the millions) are demanding that their government get serious about reform.

Yet when asked what reforms they would like to see, many in the demonstrations don’t exactly give reporters and journalists detailed answers. “We need freedom,” most say, but freedom encompasses a broad range of measures that a weak central government may not be able to take without jeopardizing its own position.

Saleh and his band of military loyalists have been in power longer than Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — a success that most autocrats around the world can only dream of accomplishing. Without a strong push from the protesters, it’s hard to fathom that Saleh would respond in a way that the protesters could find suitable.

The good news is that President Saleh understands he needs to take action. Addressing the nation, he announced that he will not run as a candidate during the 2013 presidential election; a concession that is eerily reminiscent of Mubarak’s pledge not to run this September. Saleh has also decided to increase the salaries of the military in an attempt to maintain their loyalty. Will the promise not to stand for election be good enough?

Jordan is another matter. While Jordanians are gathering in the cities to complain against high prices and poor education, few that live in or know Jordan believe that this will amount to anything resembling the Tunisian or Egyptian uprisings.

Contrary to other governments that hold a minimal amount of credibility or respect with their people, the Hashemite kingdom led by King Abdullah II is widely accepted by a large sector of Jordanian society. The monarchy rarely gets criticized harshly; the appointed government and parliament take on that role. This is visibly evident throughout the current discord inside the kingdom, with Jordanians directing their anger at the prime minister even though it is the King who dictates what goes on.

King Abdullah has already responded by dismissing Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai and replacing him with Marouf al-Bakhit, a former prime minister and monarchy loyalist. Similar to Saleh’s preemptive actions in Yemen, Abdullah has increased subsidies and lowered the price of fuel, hoping that these measures will help quell the protests before they manage to attain a mass following. The Islamic Action Front, the political wing of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, refused to endorse Bakhit’s appointment though, arguing that the entire system of royal appointments needs to be revised.

That demand, however revolutionary, will most likely be cast aside by the monarchy as too radical a proposal. The king has the authority to appoint the prime minister, a tradition that will be difficult to change after sixty years of entrenched Hashemite rule  But it is yet another indication of opposition forces and ordinary citizens in the Middle East starting to challenge the way things are run.

Washington need not worry about Jordan — the country is the most secure in the region and the political order is largely ingrained within Jordanian society. Yemen too, despite its instability, is not a major concern at this time. The protests have been peaceful and violence is confined to hotbeds of the anti-Saleh south.

Much depends on how Egypt evolves. If the demands of the protesters are marginalized by the regime, those participating in the Jordanian and Yemeni demonstrations may pack up their things and go home. But if Mubarak leaves or gives up authority, then both of these countries could be forced to grant more concessions in the face of an emboldened protest movement.