Openness as Political Culture : The Arab Spring and the Jordanian Protest Movements

Abstract: This study is an exploration of the origins of the Arab Spring in Jordan and across the region. Based on ethnographic fieldwork among the leadership of the Jordanian protest movements, it suggests a new way of understanding why these movements fell apart. A recurrent theme in accounts of the political movements that emerged in Jordan and the Arab world more generally in 2011 is that the unity that initially appeared on streets and squares never transformed into a viable coalition but instead dissolved. A common way to understand why the Arab Spring’s promise of a less authoritarian society was not fulfilled is to look at the center of a political system and explain why it did not become more democratic. These explanations depend on an alternative that we know only through our counterfactual imagination: a united opposition capable of bringing about a democratic system. Instead of imagining a united opposition and explaining why it was not realized, the thesis starts with the fact that the Jordanian opposition was deeply fragmented, but that there were attempts to counter this fragmentation by coordinating and specifying its demands. These attempts fell apart due to something more general than ideological, ethnic or religious divisions within the Jordanian opposition. They were based on a way of conducting politics that was uncommon among the leadership of the protest movements as well as among their opponents. These attempts were characterized by an emphasis on political ideas and programs rather than patronage and by an orientation toward political dialogue, which some Jordanians described in terms of “infitāḥ” (openness) and contrasted with a more polemical form of politics. This ethnographic study puts this more unusual form of politics into sharper relief and shows how it was rooted in political practices and values as well as comparable types of education and social life. This allows us to see how democratization is a movement that is not only political but also cultural, which takes shape in political activism, education and social life.

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