Jordan’s Islamists were stunned when they lost control of one of the kingdom’s largest professional unions for the first time in more than 25 years. On May 4, the Islamists’ list, Injaz ("accomplishment" in Arabic), failed to win a majority of seats in the Engineers Association, while the centrist civil coalition Nu’mou ("Growth") clinched six of the 10 seats on the association's council, including the posts of president and deputy. The Islamists' loss is more than symbolic, perhaps pointing to a shift in Jordanian voters' mindset.
For decades, Islamist candidates have competed against a leftist coalition of nationalists, Baathists and members of the Palestinian Fatah movement for control of major professional unions in Jordan. Since the mid-1990s, the Islamists, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, had controlled the Engineers Association’s council and most of its branches.
The Engineers Association, established in 1948, has 22 branches across the kingdom. It elected its first council in 1958, and by the end of last year counted 146,460 members, making it the second largest union in Jordan after the Teachers Syndicate. In addition to providing training and various services to its members, the association also plays a political role. For example, its Anti-Normalization Committee, which opposes full diplomatic and economic relations with Israel, is one of the most influential groups in the country, as is its Palestine Committee. These committees frequently stage demonstrations and sit-ins to protest Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories, coordinating activities with other professional unions.
When Jordan banned political parties in 1957 following regional and domestic turmoil, professional associations emerged as key political actors. Parliamentary democracy, with political parties recognized by the state, only resumed in 1989. By that time, professional associations had become so entrenched in political life that newly forming political parties, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front (IAF), had a tough time luring voters.
Between the 1993 legislative elections and the most recent vote in 2016, the IAF was the only political party able to influence outcomes, like forcing the government to amend the controversial single-vote election law. Even when it boycotted the 1997 and 2010 elections to protest the election law, it remained the only relevant opposition bloc.
In the past few years, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has been weakened by splintering and divisions stemming from internal disputes and government pressure. In the 2016 elections, the IAF formed an alliance with nationalist candidates to broaden its appeal. It won 16 seats, but its performance in the legislature has been controversial and disappointing for many of its supporters. This may explain this month’s loss at the Engineers Association elections.
Oraib al-Rintawi, head of the Amman-based Jerusalem Center for Political Studies, believes it is too early to tell whether political Islam is in retreat in Jordan. “We have not yet entered the post-political Islam era, and we will not have a [full] democratic life without the participation of the Islamists,” he told Al-Monitor.
“The Islamists need to adopt democratic values and incorporate them into their discourse,” Rintawi went on. “They need to boycott and denounce takfiri thinking and move toward the center.”
Rintawi believes civil society movements shouldn't yet celebrate victory, but some disagree. Former Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher, a founder of the Civil Coalition Party, wrote May 9 in the daily Al-Ghad, “The real outcome of the [Engineers Association] elections is that a genuine civil current is emerging in Jordan.”
Muasher pointed to the success of candidates who ran on civil platforms in Amman’s Third District in the 2016 legislative elections. “Despite heavy opposition to this current from various sides, accusing it of being against religion and with a sectarian agenda, it was able to dislodge the Islamists from one of their strongholds,” he said.
Khaled Ramadan, who successfully ran on a civil platform in 2016, told Al-Monitor why he thought the Islamists had lost control of the association: “Because of their narrow party line view, which is exclusionist and unable to face the challenges, while the Nu’mou list believes in pluralism, inclusion and equality.” Ramadan added, “This is the future, and when you consider that the association’s members will reach a quarter of a million in four years, you can imagine how they will influence all aspects of life in the country.”
The controversial reaction to the Engineers Association vote by an Islamist deputy, Saud Abu Mahfouz, underlined the criticism of the Islamists’ exclusionist and anti-democratic beliefs. He issued a statement blaming Injaz's loss on the “mobilization of leftists, secularists, liberals, nationalists, Nasserites, Baathists, Freemasons, atheists and gays in addition to government agencies.” The Nu’mou coalition immediately denounced him and a number of association members threatened to sue him for libel.
Ad-Dustour columnist Hussein al-Rawashdeh, who writes about Islamist movements in Jordan, does not find the Islamists' loss surprising. “Internal bickering inside the movement and its failure to meet current challenges have alienated their supporters, especially the youth,” he told Al-Monitor. “Unless the Islamists change their discourse and become more inclusive, they will be punished. But if they do and adopt a progressive national program, then they might still make a comeback.”