Hardliners Assume Leadership of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood By Yaron Eisenberg, Malcolm JamesIn an internal election for the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s top position, Hamam Sa’id, a senior member known as a hawk within the organization, defeated incumbent leader Salem Falahat (Jordan Times, May 2). The new general regulator of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is a critic of the government and seeks to one day implement Shari’a law in Jordan as well as sever Jordan’s diplomatic ties with Israel (AP, May 2). Sa’id’s ascension places the organization’s hardliners firmly in control. Sa’id, anticipating early skepticism, maintains that the Muslim Brotherhood will continue its “historic” role in Jordanian political life (Al-Dustur, May 2). Despite Sa’id’s assurances, many observers believe that his victory signals a tilt in favor of the hardliners. Furthermore, Sa’id represents the first leader of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood to claim Palestinian origin, indicating a dramatic shift within the organization’s balance of power (Jordan Times, May 4). Such roots, accompanied by the connections several other leaders maintain with Hamas, worry some observers and government officials that Hamas may be greatly expanding its influence into the “East Bank,” despite having been banned from Jordan in 1999.
Sa’id’s victory appears to conclude a struggle that has been brewing since last year between the hardliners (hawks) and the more traditional members (doves and moderates) of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood held nationwide elections in mid-March in order to elect members to the Shura Council (Al-Majd, March 17). Having failed to convene the elected Shura Council on several occasions in April, the Shura Council finally met by the end of the month to hold internal elections. In addition to Sa’id, the Shura Council eventually elected Abd al-Latif Arabiyat to serve as its head, a move widely interpreted as a compromise to appease moderates within the group (Jordan Times, May 4). The organization publicly states that the group has settled its differences and that the tension has been overstated by the media. However, rumors of a potential internal party lawsuit against outgoing General Regulator Falahat may indicate that tensions still persist within the organization (Al-Dustur, May 2).
Political triumph and crisis precipitated the present disunity. The recent internal elections occurred against the backdrop of both the January 2006 Palestinian elections and the November 2007 parliamentary elections in Jordan. Shattering Fatah’s 40-year monopoly on Palestinian politics, Hamas won 76 seats in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006 (International Herald Tribune, January 27, 2006). In a push to challenge Fatah’s authority further, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip by force the following summer and purged the security forces and political echelons of any opposition. The Palestinian performance revitalized the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, which also acts as the main opposition party in the government, and emboldened the hardliners within the organization. Hamas’ victory demonstrated to the IAF that political participation and the application of constant pressure against the government can achieve results. Following the Palestinian elections, the Shura Council conducted an election in the spring of 2006 to determine the next secretary general of the IAF. According to one insider, after much debate the Council voted 25-20 in favor of the hardliner Zaki Bani-Irshayd over the more traditional candidate, Abd al-Latif Arabiyat (al-Hayat, April 22, 2006).
The Islamist success in the Gaza Strip loomed over the IAF during the November 2007 parliamentary elections in Jordan, which proved politically disastrous for the party. In the buildup to November, the IAF first withdrew from the July municipal elections due to alleged election fraud committed by the government (BBC, July 31, 2007). Following the withdrawal, the organization remained divided over whether or not to participate in the November elections. Despite the protestations from the hardliners, the IAF entered the election fractured and disorganized. More militant members accused the IAF leadership of brokering a secret deal with the government, thereby undermining the IAF’s political campaign (Al-Jazeera, November 21, 2007). Such actions only further divided the party. Fielding 22 candidates, the IAF won only six seats in the 110-seat parliament, constituting a loss of 11 seats from its previous success in the 2003 election cycle (The Washington Institute, December 13, 2007).
In addition to divisions within the IAF, other factors contributed to its poor electoral performance. The government banned certain candidates from running and delayed the process of reforming its electoral law (International Herald Tribune, November 11, 2007). The IAF also suffered because of voter alienation. One longtime supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood was appalled by the appearance of Muslim Brotherhood officials at the funeral of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and could no longer endorse the party.
Due to the electoral loss sustained in the last election, the hawkish pro-Hamas wing now feels empowered and has since capitalized on the frustration and disappointment to expand its leadership role in the organization, as reflected by the Shura Council’s election of Hamam Sa’id. The hardliner victory suggests a change of course for the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, which historically has worked within the confines of the freedom granted to it by the Jordanian regime. Established on November 9, 1945, the Brotherhood’s relationship with the Jordanian government emerged soon afterward in 1946 when King Abdullah I granted the organization legal status as a charitable society. By the 1950s the Brotherhood had grown in size and was used as a counterweight to the various threats to the Hashemite ruling monarchy, such as the Communist party and various Nasserite groups. By the 1960s, this relationship had matured sufficiently to the point that in return for support the Brotherhood received relative freedom to operate legally and take advantage of being the Kingdom’s sole quasi-political movement. The 1980s witnessed a slow radicalization of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood as its ranks began to swell with Palestinians. The movement was also influenced by the rise of Hamas, the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the Palestinian Territories. Despite this gradual shift, the organization generally remained on good terms with the government. When the monarchy reinstituted parliamentary elections in 1989, the Muslim Brotherhood won 22 seats out of 80 in the Lower House. The IAF was established shortly thereafter.
The IAF traditionally serves as a greater bastion of Palestinian and more radical influence than its parent organization, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, whose leadership until recently primarily consisted of East Bankers. Hamam Sa’id’s election brings the Palestinian and Hamas influence to the forefront of Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood politics. Such a shift may influence the Brotherhood to adopt a more assertive and confrontational stance toward the government instead of the more passive, gradual political approach marked by the conciliatory attitudes that have characterized the organization’s approach throughout its history.