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A ‘manufactured’ crisis

Jun 04,2014 - Last updated at Jun 04,2014

Dozens of dissenting members of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood gathered this week in a rare summit demanding the overthrow of the movement’s conservative opposition in what marked one of the greatest challenges to face the opposition group in decades. 

Yet, despite calls for an open rebellion against the movement’s leadership — what many in the press are terming a “Brotherhood uprising” is not all that it seems.

In a highly publicised “Brotherhood reform” summit, some 100 members representing 20 of the movement’s 35 branches across the country gathered in a private villa near the northern city of Irbid at the behest of former overall leader Abdul Majid Thneibat to discuss overhauling the group’s “secret” governing body dominating the movement and reforming its conservative-dominated executive council.

Participants called for overhauling the movement’s leadership structure, separating the Brotherhood from its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), and even launching a rival Islamist political movement.

The dissenting Brotherhood members closed their conference with calls for a second reform summit in Karak to “export the uprising” from the north to the southern region.

The roots of the “uprising” can be traced to the recent “Zam Zam” controversy — a crisis that divided the movement after the conservative leadership banned three leading liberal members for their ties to a pro-reform political movement of the same name.

In an April decision, the Brotherhood’s internal court moved to expel Rheil Gharaibeh, Nabil Al Kofahi and Jamal Al Deihesat for their involvement in the launching of the so-called Jordan Build Initiative, or Zam Zam, a loose coalition of prominent Jordanians across the political spectrum designed to reach national consensus on the country’s democratic reform process.

In its decision, the internal court said it expelled the trio — all leading liberal members and outspoken critics of the conservative overall leader Hamam Said and his deputy Zaki Bani Rsheid — for breaking internal regulations barring members from taking part in rival political movements.

After a year of no-shows at internal court sessions and public rebuttals critcising Said, the Brotherhood’s executive council finally moved to excommunicate the trio, citing the move as one of “last resort” intended to preserve unity, rather than allowing it to be viewed as a result of the Jordan Brotherhood’s decades old conservative-liberal rivalry.

Yet, instead of putting out the flames of dissent, the court unleashed a political firestorm.

Within days of the April decision, dozens of senior members of the group threatened to resign over the decision — which Gharaibeh and his Zam Zam peers painted as a “blatant” and “petty” act of revenge by Said and Bani Rsheid.

It was amid these public calls for leadership change that Thneibat and his group of “reformers” held their Irbid summit, announcing a movement-wide “uprising”.

With over 500 members publicly throwing their support for the so-called “reform uprising”, and similar summits set to be held across the country, it would appear that the Brotherhood’s conservative leadership is outnumbered and the shroud of secrecy that has cloaked the movement’s internal decision-making process for decades ripped apart.

Still, the prognosis of those within the movement and the Jordanian media ready to pronounce the political “demise” of Said, and even of the Brotherhood itself, may be premature, at best, and, at worst, divorced from reality.

Rather than being a grassroots movement, as depicted by its leaders, the reformist uprising has so far been dominated by members of the Brotherhood’s liberal wing long suffering from a decade decline in both influence and numbers.

Kofahi, the disgraced Zam Zam member, is said to be behind the initiative; he calls for imposing term limits on the position of the overall leader — a stipulation that would conveniently prevent his rival, Said, from seeking another term.

Despite Thneibat’s backing, the Irbid conference failed to attract a single member of the group‘s leadership or shurah council — the largest governing body within the movement — to form any faction, liberal, conservative, moderate or otherwise.

More notably, the movement failed to gain the support of prominent reformists such as Abdul Latif Arabiyat, former senator and leading voice of the Brotherhood’s liberal wing, who has pushed behind the scenes for the Islamist movement to settle the crisis behind closed doors rather than air its grievances in public.

Thneibat has yet to make inroads with like-minded reformists in the Brotherhood, who have distanced themselves from a movement many view as little more than a vehicle for the former overall leader to stage a political comeback.

Rather than a popular uprising, the Zam Zam crisis has all the makings of a personal power grab.

The leadership has depicted Zam Zam and the “reform uprising” as everything from a “failed coup” by Thneibat to a crisis manufactured and stoked by outside forces, with Bani Rsheid warning on Tuesday of a new campaign by the government to “divide the Brotherhood”, targeting the movement’s internal organisation.

The truth likely lies in between — authorities would probably be more than happy to sit back and watch a divided Brotherhood limp into the next elections.

Yet amid internal and external challenges, Said’s and his inner circle’s hold on the Brotherhood appears to be more secure than ever.

In a series of internal polls in May, conservatives extended their dominance over the IAF’s shurah council — the political party’s governing body — grabbing as many as 60 out of the council’s 80 seats.

Said, meanwhile, has deftly handled the crisis by reaching out to the movement’s liberal and moderate wings, suspending the controversial court decision, allowing the moderate’s choice of the IAF secretary general, Salem Fallahat, to run uncontested and forming a taskforce headed by Arabiyat to mediate a return of the Zam Zam trio to the group.

In recent statements and speeches, Said has even borrowed from liberal Islamist talking points, calling for a wider dialogue with the government and hinting at participation in upcoming parliamentary elections — key demands by moderate members, which often split the two factions.

Beyond the media hype and bold statements, the Jordan Muslim Brotherhood is confident that it has ridden out the rough waters of the Zam Zam crisis, knowing that it has a support of its majority, no matter how vocal the minority gets.

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