Posted by Mohannad Aljawamis
*Editor's Note: Mohannad Aljawamis is Skidmore student and a Jordanian citizen who was born and raised in Jordan.
"Not a single Arab citizen can practice democracy!" complains one performer on a Syrian comedy show. "In America, for instance, any American citizen can roam the public streets while freely denouncing the American president's policy," he says.
"That is not true!" says another performer. "It is identical here; any Arab citizen can roam the public streets while freely denouncing the American president's policy."
The deeper message delivered by these two Arab comedians is that the term democracy is often subjectively defined. Those of us interested in the developments in the Arab Spring would do well to remember this. In this time of tumultuous change, many Arabs are not seeking the liberal, Westernized version of freedom, the kind held in such high and exclusive esteem here in America.
What so many commentators on the Middle East miss is that such a Western understanding of democracy is unsuitable for the social, cultural, and religious structure of the Arab nations. Jordan is the exemplar of Middle Eastern countries that can respond to the frustrations of its people within its own democratic framework, rather than one imposed from outside.
Jordan, like any nation, experiences its internal debates and strife, but the reason we have heard of so little trouble within the country is not a result of some stifling force or oppression, as I personally believe that these terms do not exist in King Abdullah's vocabulary. Rather, it is rationality and good education that motivates Jordanians to scrutinize their problems instead of combating them violently.
We have our fair share of troubles: Jordan is a poor country that is suffering from poverty, inflation, and other economic crises. But in comparison to other countries such as Libya, where abundant wealth was monopolized by a dictatorship, Jordan is theoretically hopeless in solving its predicaments. Jordan is one of the water-poorest countries in the world and it lacks most of the natural resources that other Middle Eastern countries relish (i.e. oil.)
Thus far, Jordan has been able to maintain its tranquil environment due to the prosperous public diplomacy of His Majesty, King Abdullah II. King Abdullah has built strong, trust-based relationships with many states in the region and the world. He has also emphasized the importance of education for Jordanian citizens as the best recourse they have to meet the nation's challenges (especially the economic situation.)
There are several initiatives that are worth mentioning in regard to King Abdullah's educational vision: to name only one, there is King's Academy, a prestigious, independent, American boarding school that aims on fostering global understanding by all means. It is this type of foresight and understanding that sets Jordan apart when dealing with the sort of movements sweeping an otherwise chaotic region.
As the world has witnessed, the spark that Mohammed Bouazizi lit in his act of self-immolation set the whole Middle East on fire: it was the "a-ha!" moment, when Arabs realized that violence might have to serve as a catalyst to democracy. And so Arabs refused to have their future jeopardized by rulers of despotic regimes. This precipitous revolutionary fever spread to the majority of the Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan. Nonetheless, when contrasting the Jordanian Arab Spring with the Egyptian, the differences are rather critical.
In Egypt, oppression, poverty, and unresponsive government were the major drives of the popular movement. In contrast, in Jordan the revolutionary drive was fueled by the public's frustrations of the fragmentation of political parties, which have never had a meaningful existence. Those parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, control most of the radical movement by standing against the King and the government.
The majority of Jordanian citizens, however, are proponents of the current system and they are responding to those dissenting parties with "loyalty" processions. One must be careful not to confuse the loudest opinion with the majority's opinion.
Once more, when speaking of democratization it is crucial to acknowledge and account for the country and/or the culture that is being addressed. We must understand that democracy can exist in many different forms. Those who anticipated that Jordan would descend into similar chaos as Libya or Egypt have been wrong up to this point, simply because they have not realized this fact.
Jordan's owes its endurance as a nation to a style of democracy that works for it, even if it is not the model preferred by Western pundits or policymakers. The sooner these more nuanced realities enter into the conversation of this most important topic, the better.