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Jordan's Brotherhood bets on economic plan to improve its image

The Islamic Action Front has begun an economic plan for Jordan, potentially heralding a shift in strategy away from political reforms and more on public policy.
Women stand in front of a poster depicting al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock during a protest organised by the Jordanian Islamic Action Front in Swaymeh, at the Dead Sea area near the border between Jordan and Israel June 6, 2014. The protest is part of the Global March to Jerusalem initiative, marking the 47th anniversary of Israel's capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. REUTERS/Majed Jaber (JORDAN  - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST ANNIVERSARY) - RTR3SK3K

AMMAN, Jordan — On July 6, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm in Jordan, held elections for its Shura Council. The recent vote for the party’s main legislative body received wide coverage, a product of the well-known disagreements between self-described “hawks” and “doves” within the IAF. Less newsworthy but potentially more significant was a July 2 news conference announcing the party’s economic blueprint for Jordan, which Al-Monitor attended. It was the most extensive policy proposal put forward by the Ikhwan since the early 1990s.

Prepared over a two-year period, the plan is part of a broader overhaul of the IAF’s image. Although full details will be released before the next parliamentary elections as part of an overarching policy document titled “The Jordan of Tomorrow,” the timing of the announcement offers some insight into the IAF’s current predicament.

Since Oct. 5, 2013, the IAF has faced what may well be its most serious challenge since its founding. The Zamzam Initiative launched by leading moderate Muslim Brotherhood figures disenchanted with the IAF has raised the specter of a damaging internal rift. Zamzam disagrees with the IAF’s confrontational stance with the regime and eschews its traditional focus on political reforms and regional affairs. In contrast, it promotes a more moderate, conciliatory approach, including non-controversial institutional reforms and inclusive national dialogue.

Meanwhile, sources within the IAF told Al-Monitor their belief that the regime was backing Zamzam to perpetuate discord within the Muslim Brotherhood, as part of a broader campaign to discredit the organizations since the military coup in Egypt in July 2013.

Calls for reform within the IAF have only increased since three of Zamzam’s leading members were expelled in late March. Just last month, an unsanctioned summit attended by over a hundred dissenting members in the northern city of Irbid declared a “popular uprising” against the IAF’s leaders. Their main demands included a change to the current leadership through a consensus election and the exclusion of “elements of aggravation,” within the party.

In light of brewing internal divisions, the economic strategy is the IAF’s newest attempt to foster party unity while bolstering popular support. In the press conference announcing the proposal, IAF Secretary-General Hamza Mansour said, “This strategy is not specifically for the Islamic Action Front, … the strategy is for the country.”

The move to policy comes after a time in which the IAF’s major figures have toned down their anti-government rhetoric and minimized their public appearances. Following the Brotherhood’s surprising victory in elections for the Jordanian Teachers’ Union, there has been wide speculation around the IAF’s political strategy. Its economic blueprint illustrates what may become the party’s new approach, a tedious but necessary focus on public policy issues.

At the IAF news conference, Mansour hinted at this change of strategy, “The party has dealt with economic issues in the past, through electoral statements and the press, but this is the first time we treat the problem by way of a systematic analysis.” The proposal is not about scoring political points but, “to diagnose reality and offer recommendations.” Copies of the strategy have been sent to the Royal Court, the prime minister and the parliament and will soon be placed on the IAF’s website.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Suleiman al-Shiyab, head of the IAF’s economic team, worked through the econometric analysis in the soon-to-be-released policy document. He delineated the often neglected sectors that were put under the microscope: fertilizers, garments, pharmaceuticals and the aluminum industry. All 12 of the country’s governorates were examined, weaknesses identified, strengths highlighted and opportunities outlined.

Shiyab was careful to stress that the blueprint is bereft of ideology: “The study is scientific: We used official reports released by the government and reputable international organizations,” he said. “Over 81 sectors were examined. Our team included 65 experts from academia, the private sector and former state officials, most of whom do not identify as Islamists.”

Shiyab was careful to stress the IAF’s goals in releasing the report, “The citizenry’s quality of life is decreasing while costs are increasing. The challenges for Jordanians are becoming more difficult with every passing day.” Yet the impetus behind the announcement inevitably emerges: “We are tired of the government claiming that the opposition is just about slogans and scoring political points.” He proudly said, “We are the first political party to release a detailed economic blueprint, now the government and the people can see clearly that we, too, can offer concrete solutions.”

IAF political official Murad Adayleh reiterated the party’s efforts, embodied in the blueprint, “to both clarify the current economic predicament and help solve it,” in an interview with Al-Monitor. Given the government’s tenuous relationship with the opposition, he said he was not surprised that the IAF has received “no real response from the executive branch, positive nor negative.”

For the moment, the government remains tepid in its response. In comments to Al-Monitor, Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammad al-Momani, a government spokesman, said, “The IAF’s plan will be sent to concerned ministers and the relevant committees. Their suggestions are very much welcomed.” Momani denied alleged government meddling among the Islamists, “We treat the IAF like any other political party. They are part of the national fabric.” “We will give answers to IAF’s strategy if required,” he said. “We hope this signals a more meaningful engagement in public affairs.”

Does the government prefer an Islamist turn toward economic policy debates? At the moment this remains unclear, although IAF members insisted that they would not abandon their traditional emphasis on political reforms. In comments preceding the news conference, Mansour said, “Economic progress should be preceded or accompanied by real political reforms.” 

Close examination of the proposed blueprint, obtained through confidential sources by Al-Monitor, reveals a more complicated picture. The econometric analysis is extensive, as is the detailed examination of the problems that ail the Jordanian economy. The goals are also laudable: comprehensive development, optimal utilization of natural resources and lowering poverty rates.

Less clear are the concrete measures needed to reach these objectives. Beyond increasing economic growth to reduce Jordan’s bulging deficit, specific policy recommendations, especially regarding sensitive budgetary issues, remain sparse.

When pushed on this point, Shiyab said it should come as no surprise. “The blueprint is part of a six-year effort. The next step will be identifying the types of projects that can make our assessment and vision a reality.”

The IAF’s elections for the Shura Council seem to confirm its new approach. Economic issues will be placed front and center. By electing Abdul Mohsen Al-Azzam over previous President Ali Abu Sukkar, the IAF appears to be adopting a more conciliatory tone. Although hawkish in his positions, Azzam is dovish in his vocabulary; his first remarks focused on external threats to Jordan and the need for national unity.

While the message of the Shura Council election has been assessed as directing a “message of peace” toward state organs, the ultimate goal may be to minimize internal party divisions while moving the arena of debate toward the economy. 

As Jordanian citizens continue to suffer the consequences of economic mismanagement — decreasing growth, higher inflation and rising inequalities — the IAF appears to believe that this is a debate it can win.

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