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Authoritarianism in Jordan, a transnational production: Interview with Benjamin Schuetze

Middle East & North Africa

Jordan has long been one of the highest recipients of US and European “democracy promotion” funding. Severe crackdowns on domestic opposition forces in 2020 and during the royal feud in April 2021, however, have revealed just how flimsy the regime’s commitments to democracy remain, and the extent to which the often celebrated stability of the country remains premised on coercion and oppression.

In his book Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism (Cambridge University Press, 2019), Benjamin Schuetze investigates what external “democracy promoters” actually do in Jordan. As his research establishes, contrary to its nominal mission, ‘democracy promotion’ in Jordan actually buttresses Hashemite authoritarianism in a number of different ways.

Our Interview with Benjamin Shuetze

Let’s start with one of your book’s main idea: the link you make between international aid and authoritarianism. According to you, why is the study of ‘democracy promotion’ useful to analyze an authoritarian system?

Thanks for having me and for your question. First of all, critical scholars have often considered ‘democracy promotion’ as a joke and as something that doesn’t have any real impact. I certainly share the view that external attempts at ‘democracy promotion’ do not help with processes of democratization. Despite all that, I also think that such attempts have a certain productive dimension that has not yet been adequately explored by empirical research. I believe that the study of ‘democracy promotion’ is useful to analyze authoritarian systems.

There is a transnational dimension to the production of authoritarian power

Unlike established analyses of authoritarian power which look at the nation state and national actors, I argue that there is a transnational dimension to the production of authoritarian power. For example, established ways of mapping authoritarian powers – such as the Freedom House map – define entire states either as authoritarian or democratic. By doing so, they ignore the transnational dimension of authoritarian power. They do not tell us anything about transnational corporations, developmental agencies or ‘democracy promotion’ institutions. These maps make it appear as if Jordanian authoritarianism was purely a question of Jordanian actors. I do think that authoritarian power in the MENA region, but also elsewhere, is transnationally produced. That’s why we need to look at other actors from beyond the state and beyond the region, including external ‘democracy promotion’ agencies.

Jordan has become one of the biggest recipients of US and EU aid in the Arab world. Compared to other countries, to what extent would you say that Jordan is specific in its relationship with “democracy promoters”?

Jordan is specific in many ways. The country has been dependent on external support since its independence. Jordan doesn’t have any big industry or significant natural resources, so it is primarily the country’s geopolitical importance that has been used by the regime to manage and secure continuous external support.

Attempts at ‘democracy promotion’ that describe the country as continuously being on the right path, play perfectly into the interests of both the Jordanian regime and the US and EU funders

Despite always having been dependent on such external funding, the Jordanian state is anything but a passive recipient of external aid. It has shown considerable agency in managing its geopolitical importance; during the Gulf War for instance, Jordan did not join the military alliance against Iraq even though the US was its key donor (This decision was largely informed by the country’s energy dependence vis-a-vis Iraq, and the domestic political climate).

Following the Gulf War and in response to the economic crisis, the Jordanian regime pursued a strategy of portraying the country as continuously liberalizing and reforming. The US and the EU are happily backing this strategy and are not really interested in a substantial process of democratization that could potentially threaten existing power structures.

Attempts at ‘democracy promotion’ that describe the country as continuously being on the right path, in a constant process of democratization, play perfectly into the interests of both the Jordanian regime and the US and EU funders. They reproduce existing authoritarian power behind a façade of seeming democratization.

The US and the EU are willing to invest a lot of money in supporting this narrative, to the extent that Jordan is the highest recipient of democracy funding worldwide. In that regard, the case of Jordan is indeed specific, especially in the way the regime has internalized this western liberal narrative. Unlike other states in the region like Egypt or the Emirates, external ‘democracy promoters’ face a relatively welcoming environment in Jordan, because the country cannot afford to compromise its image of a regional ‘oasis of stability’.

Box 1 – Jordan’s rollbacks of democracy

Jordan’s recent history is littered with democratic reform initiatives being followed immediately by harsh retreats into authoritarianism.

The « democratization » of the State therefore remains aspirational and eternally delayed, and is best conceptualized as an ideological device. The 1956-1957 period is considered as the first stage of political liberalization, when King Hussein introduced a series of reforms such as freedom of the press and the organization of parliamentary elections.

Alas, the opening was short-lived as the young king ultimately decided to move against the elected government of Sulayman al-Nabulsi and declare martial law under the pretense of an alleged coup attempt. After three decades of freezing political life, martial law was abolished by the King, who authorized legislative elections in 1989 and granted political parties the right to operate again in 1992. After signing the Wadi Araba treaty of normalization with Israel in 1994, however, liberalization would be gradually rolled back.

The enduring character of the regime’s rule would be most baldly revealed by the King’s repression of popular mobilizations in Ma’an and Kerak in 1996, mobilizations that had emerged in response to the lifting of food subsidies.

A few years after Hussein’s death, his heir King Abdullah II launched the National Agenda, a vast plan of liberal reforms (proportional representation in Parliament, respect of human rights, independence of the press) led by diplomat Marwan Mu’asher. Public pledges notwithstanding, few substantive reforms were yielded by the effort.

When Arab Spring era protests began in Jordan, King Abdullah II initially reacted by announcing a « democratic transition » with the reform of the electoral law and the creation of an independent electoral commission. Some procedural gains have been realized for pro-democracy forces since.

With very little being done to fight corruption and improve social justice – the main demands of the Hirak (Box 3) – and with very little budgetary, legislative, or executive functions passed onto elected officials, however, Jordan remains as far away from popular government as ever. The severe crackdown on the opposition and the press since 2015 has distilled just how stubborn Hashemite authoritarianism continues to be.1

The three of us are working on international aid in Jordan and we realized how complex this ecosystem is. How did you manage to analyze such an object? Can you tell us about your fieldwork and the methodology you used?

My main interest was to portray the practices of ‘democracy promoters’, what they actually do in Jordan. We have a lot of theoretical literature on ‘democracy promotion’, on different models of democracy…but it doesn’t tell us about its reality and practice. I wanted to look at the everyday practices of ‘democracy promotion’, so I tried to contact as many of the involved actors as possible, conducted a total of 160 qualitative interviews and spent a total of 9 months in Jordan. I do believe that we need much more empirically informed studies in the field of Middle Eastern politics because it is only via such studies that we can learn more about the actual reality – and not abstract theories – of external interventions for instance.

In your book, you take a critical look at how the promoters of democracy choose to give a “procedural” definition of democracy. To what extent do you think such a definition is problematic and why is it synonymous with a technical implementation of democracy?

It is important to realize that democracy is a contested concept. Any conceptualization always reflects particular ideological assumptions or approaches, and no single definition can ever be described as the only valid one. We can distinguish between an understanding of democracy that focuses on ideals of socio-economic equality and another vision that focuses more on procedures and less on substantial values and outcomes. Such an understanding has been called a “procedural democracy”, a “polyarchy”, a “liberal democracy” or “low intensity democracy”. The key characteristic of such a form of democracy is that it separates political rights from socioeconomic rights; it assumes that we can separate politics from economics.

The key role of institutions and procedures is of course the provision of a seemingly democratic façade for a deeply authoritarian system

These understandings portray democracy as simply being about procedures and as irrelevant for discussions of socioeconomic inequalities. They can thus actually stabilize a context of socioeconomic authoritarianism. It also makes capitalism and democracy appear as seemingly combinable. Such an understanding effectively constructs democracy as a means of social control that does not challenge socioeconomic inequalities. This is why it is so problematic. It claims a democratic meaning but actually hides behind democratic façade and socioeconomic inequalities. One only needs to look at the democratic procedures and institutions that are in place in Jordan, the Parliament, elections, political parties. The key role of these institutions and procedures is of course the provision of a seemingly democratic façade for a deeply authoritarian system.

Box 2 – The concept of polyarchy

The concept of polyarchy (“rule of the many”) was developed by the political scientist Robert Dahl in his book Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (1971).

This ideal-type refers to a democratic or a democratizing political system in which a plurality of political and economic actors participate. It relies on two main criterions:

(1) liberalization: citizens need to be able to publicly contest the regime;
(2) inclusiveness: citizens are allowed to politically participate in the latter.

It requires the existence of seven institutions: elected officials, free and fair elections, universal suffrage, a right to run for office, freedom of speech, alternative and free sources of information and the right to join autonomous organizations, such as political parties.

Dahl also shows that polyarchies often face a high level of socioeconomic inequalities, even if governments manage to satisfy to a certain extent the demands of the most underprivileged groups. This theory of democracy has long been the subject of criticism, in particular because the author, while he does not think of capitalism as a sine qua non condition of democracy, nevertheless establishes an equivalence between freedom of the market and political freedom (L. Alarie, 2018).

The notion of the market seems central in your analysis of ‘democracy promotion’ in Jordan. For instance, you mention a marketization of socio-political life, of civil society and of security. Could you please explain to us a bit more what you mean by this notion of the “market”?  Do you identify different realities behind it?

With the notion of the marketization of socio-political life, I mean attempts at creating and seeing markets also in spheres that have not yet been governed by logics of market and profitability. This includes the belief that a sufficient availability of external civil society funding would also lead to responding demands for that funding. In the case of EU funding aimed at reinforcing Israeli-Jordanian civil society collaboration, this belief in the power of the market however clearly showed its limitations. Almost no Jordanian organization ever applied for this funding, until 2020, when the Amman Centre for Peace and Development (ACPD) applied for the funding and obtained it. However, it is highly questionable to what extent the ACPD is an independent civil society actor, as it was established by a former head of Jordan’s military intelligence.

The questionable effects of these market logics also reveal themselves regarding external funding in response to the war in Syria. As Jordanian NGOs were able to access more and more funding that aimed at helping Syrian refugees, many NGOs shifted their focus and downscaled their efforts at pushing for more participation and representation within Jordan politics and instead increased their programs to help refugees.

The market logic is highly problematic because it assumes an equal supply and demand relationship where this may not at all be the case. If one looks at politics in any country as a simple question of supply and demand, it depoliticizes deeply political questions and dynamics.

It turns democracy into a purely technical question of management where you only need to support forces of supply and forces of demand to reach an imagined equilibrium. ‘Democracy promoters’ often see the creation of markets as inherently supportive of democracy. In reality the creation of new markets however only limits more and more the emancipatory potential of democratic ideals. If public life becomes more governed along market and profitability logics, as it has very radically been the case in Aqaba (which I analyse in depth in chapter 5 of my book), the potential formal introduction of democratic procedures would be unlikely to have any meaningful impact on socio-economic inequalities.

One of your main arguments in your book is to show how “particular notions of political economy and security underlie Western interventions aimed at democracy promotion”, progressively transforming Jordan into a “neoliberal security state”. How does this translate concretely?

I believe that interventions in the name of democracy can and should never be analysed in separation from political economy and security concerns.

The neoliberal security state provides security first and foremost for market and business interests

Other studies begin with the very questionable premise that democracy equals procedural democracy and then only look at the promotion of civil society support, institutional support and electoral observation. By doing so, they miss the notions of security and economy that underlie those interventions. These activities don’t occur in a vacuum. They connect with economy and security concerns and provide a democratic façade for what I call a neoliberal security state.

The neoliberal security state is marked by processes of marketization, which leave no space for those who cannot function as economically relevant customers or consumers. The neoliberal security state provides security not primarily for Jordanian citizens, but first and foremost for market and business interests. Security itself becomes commercialized. The investments in the security sector serve the interests of international and Jordanian elites rather than the Jordanian public at large. So I think it is important to deconstruct this notion of Jordan as a supposed ‘oasis of stability’ and to question for whom the Jordanian state actually provides security.

Getting into the details of your analysis of the Jordanian state, can you give us an idea of the Jordanian allies and intermediaries working with ‘democracy promoters’?

The key intermediaries of ‘democracy promoters’ are the representatives of formal politics in Jordan. ‘Democracy promoters’ have a very functionalist way of looking at politics in Jordan: they try to engage with political parties and formal institutions, including Parliament, ministries and what I would call Jordan’s impressive civil society industry. In doing so they ignore the informal. They don’t know how to react when these formal politics are seemingly empty. For example political parties are very weak in Jordan but for decades ‘democracy promoters’ kept having a discourse on strengthening them. However external ‘democracy promoters’ continue to insist on interacting with these parties instead of approaching informal politics and alternative actors, such as professional associations or the Hirak. Looking at the Hirak, the interesting thing is that we discover that these actors have very well realized the problematic aspect of external support. So the Hirak deliberately refused any kind of external support because they identified it as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

So the world of ‘democracy promotion’ has been trying to access this part of Jordanian politics, but not by taking their demands seriously, but instead by co-opting them into their own world. There are numerous examples of activists with a high reputation who eventually became co-opted into safer and better paid positions with either the Jordanian state itself or with organisations that orbit around ‘democracy promotion’ and civil society support organisations. On the individual level this makes a lot of sense, I totally understand individuals who make such decisions: these positions are better paid, they are safer and so on and so forth. Structural changes are however unlikely to come in this way.

So once these individuals are in safer positions, they very quickly lose their popular support, and foreign organisations with all their financial power in this way have actually weakened those organisations that they set out to support. So the intermediaries of ‘democracy promotion’ are then first and foremost these formal institutions, political parties—certain political parties, I should say—, civil society industry and a ton of Jordanian youth and Jordanians at large who see participation in ‘democracy promotion’ activities as a way to enhance their own CV and as a way to enhance their possibilities to obtain well paid jobs. The real political activists who are fighting to change the system, meanwhile, know very well the very problematic nature of these interventions and of course avoid activities funded by ‘democracy promoters’.

Box 3 – The Hirak movement

During 2011/12, East Bank tribal youths in Jordan mobilized a new wave of political opposition through the Hirak movement. Reflecting generational change in their communities, as well as the historical erosion of tribal-state relations, these protest groups demanded sweeping democratic reforms from the monarchy. They also utilized language and methods more radical than the established legal opposition. This changing dynamic of tribal politics holds enormous implications for politics and stability within the Hashemite kingdom” Yom, S. L. (2014). Tribal Politics in Contemporary Jordan : The Case of the Hirak Movement. Middle East Journal, 68(2), 229 247.

In contrast to the demands usually put forward by Transjordanian tribes as concerns jobs and redistribution, the Jordanian youth movement (al Hirak al Sha‘abi al Urduni) launched a more ambitious and comprehensive challenge to Jordan’s political economy beginning in 2011.

After initially embracing an anti-austerity agenda focused on reforms installed under the IMF’s tutelage, al-Hirak would turn their sights upon the political domain proper by calling for revisions to the Electoral law and the Constitution as well as for greater pluralism, greater popular participation in government, and for limits on monarchical power. In opposition to the mainstream political parties and Jordanian elites, they even went so far as to demand a reform of the regime and the abdication of King Abdullah II.

Al-Hirak’s repertoire of action took different non-violent forms of “civic action, from demonstrations and sit-ins to strikes and boycotts”. Due to a number of reasons, however, the movement gradually lost strength from 2013 onwards, partially due to the State’s reactions against it but also due to the evolution of the Syrian war.

Once security became the sine qua non of Jordanian politics, al-Hirak could be framed as a threat to the monarchy and Jordan’s stability, which opened it up to backlash from the security apparatus. Human rights Watch counted more than twelve arrests of the coalition of activists and journalists in aMarch 2019 report1https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/06/04/jordan-crackdown-political-activists. Though the Jordanian Hirak has not succeeded in achieving its main demands for political change, it has managed to change the range of possibilities available to popular forces when it comes to voicing discontent and challenging power.

Does it mean that all political parties taking part in this process are not being critical at all with international aid? Are they just being co-opted by the aid?

Of course not, it is important to distinguish between different parties. It’s best to answer with a brief anecdote. During my research I attended a political parties’ fair that was organised by the American International Republican Institute (IRI) and they had invited all political parties in Jordan. The event was meant to strengthen political parties and connect them better with Jordanian youth. The parties that did come were precisely the ones that were less known by the public and for which the narrative of the ‘democracy promoters’ really made sense: they didn’t have a program, any outreach, they were set up by some businessmen who had lived in Europe for a while then come back and wanted to have some publicity. These kind of one man show parties are indeed the ones that need to be trained more.

‘Democracy promoters’ were only interacting with these organisations because the really critical parties, with significant domestic backing and support, didn’t accept the International Republican Institute as a mediator for processes of democratization to begin with. When I met with a representative of the Islamic Action Front for instance, the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, he just laughed. He showed me the invitation and said “no, we don’t need to be trained by the Americans, we know very well what we do and we certainly don’t need to be trained for democracy by the International Republican Institute“. In general, one can say that the more critical the parties are, the less likely they are to interact with US and European ‘democracy promoters’.

On another note, you did not really touch upon organisations being supported by international aid that are critical towards the regime, such as some alternative media. Which space would you say is left to organisations that contest the regime and are supported by international aid?

I am very critical of ‘democracy promotion’ interventions in the country and overall think that they reinforce authoritarian power structures. They also shift blame for authoritarian power away from the regime towards the Jordanian public at large by basically portraying Jordanians as not yet being ready for democracy, as having the wrong political culture and still requiring a lot of external training and intervention. So these interventions are problematic because they ignore the actual foundations of authoritarian power in the country.

That said, I do not think that all external aid is necessarily problematic. I think there are some exceptions. Indeed, smaller organisations and projects have interesting effects and may help to challenge authoritarian power structures. Often, the most interesting are the ones that do not require massive amounts of money at all, and where the external donor is not that prominent. On the opposite, the kind of programs where you have massive USAID posters standing behind the event are hugely counterproductive.

Box 4 – The « conspiracy » and the highlighting of political repression

A few days before the celebration of its centenary, the Hashemite Kingdom faced a relatively unprecedented political crisis: according to the regime’s telling and as would be announced by Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi, in April of 2021, a royal coup attempt had been plotted by a number of prominent political figures, and was only stopped due to the interventions of the Jordanian security services.

Counted amongst the alleged conspirators were the King’s half-brother Prince Hamzah Bin Hussein, the former head of the royal court and ex-Minister of Finance Bassem Awadallah and the former King’s envoy to Saudi Arabia Sharif Hassan Ben Zeid. If the Jordanian regime managed to quickly cover up this affair, the events nevertheless pushed Jordan to the centre of international news coverage and highlighted the repressive character of its political system.

In a shocking video recorded during his house arrest and aired on media throughout the world, Prince Hamza even denounced the corruption and political repression that had imbricated his brother’s regime. Beyond royal intrigue, the events have also led observers to pay attention to the general political climate in Jordan.

As even a superficial review would suffice to establish, this is a climate eternally flirting with crisis. While the monarchy enjoys a reformist image, to suggest that political and economic life has progressed in such a manner as to satisfy Jordan’s citizen-subjects is to close one’s eyes to reality, as is well attested by the waves of popular actions that have swept Jordan over the past decade, none the least of which were led by the Teacher Union in 2019 and 2020.

The royal crisis also evinced the extent of the government’s control over the media in contemporary times; trying to defuse public tensions, the Attorney General of Amman has decreed a gag order in order to prevent any media or ordinary citizen from publicly discussing the matter.

The last events happening a couple of weeks ago, the alleged coup attempt, have challenged the discourse of ‘democracy promoters’ in the country. How would you say they can react to it, are they able to change at all or reform their programs or simply stop them?

I think this popular claim of Jordan being an ‘oasis of stability’ and as a state that is gradually reforming and liberalising is extremely strong. It has been there for decades and a number of actors are invested in this claim. This does not at all mean that the reality reflects that claim, but as long as major international actors, including the US and the EU, have an interest in maintaining this narrative and this image of Jordan as a gradually democratizing, liberalizing and reforming state, they will do everything necessary to maintain it.

During my research I have repeatedly been surprised at how heavily invested US and European diplomats and organisations are in this narrative of Jordan as democratizing and liberalizing. And the Jordanian state does that relatively well as well, especially the King. He plays well into these narratives and uses the right kind of language. He totally internalizes the notion of liberal democracy being the ultimate goal where Jordan should move to, and with the highly patronising notion that only the Jordanian population is not there yet, and that we need external funding and training until Jordanians eventually understand what democracy is really about.

During my own research, tons of practitioners told me that they don’t know how to spend the money. So there is a strong political will to portray Jordan as reforming and as liberalising. Jordan is the key recipient of ‘democracy promotion’ funding worldwide so most practitioners simply don’t know how to spend the money. So the gap between the discourse of Jordan as liberalizing and reforming and the actual reality is widening more and more. But I don’t see that discourse ending or coming to an end any time soon.

Discover the work on Benjamin Schuetze
Promoting democracy, Reinforcing authoritarianism, Cambridge University Press, 2019. 2

This article is produced in partnership with Sine Que Non.
A record of the live interview is available here: https://soundcloud.com/user-412551715/sqn2-episode1


  1. See « When repression leaves the shadow » ↩︎
  2. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/promoting-democracy-reinforcing-authoritarianism/39B35DCAD9D8F7B39A899F4A0CE99F5C ↩︎