AMMAN, Jordan — At the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Abu al-Sukkar’s telephone would not stop ringing Tuesday. It was Election Day, the first time the Islamist organization had taken part after nearly a decade of boycotts, and Mr. Sukkar found himself in demand.
The deputy secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, the brotherhood’s political wing, Mr. Sukkar listed the party’s priorities: unemployment, poverty, health care, education, human rights, economic development, debt. He did not mention religion. Indeed, the party scrapped its old slogan, “Islam is the Solution.” Its new slogan: “Reform.”
In retreat elsewhere in the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood hopes to stage a comeback of sorts here in the relatively moderate kingdom of Jordan by calibrating its message. Eschewing the more radical language of Islamists in other parts of the region, the Brotherhood has emphasized bread-and-butter concerns and included women and Christians on the candidate lists it presented to voters on Tuesday.
“Our slogan of reform does not conflict with our Islamic values,” Mr. Sukkar said in between phone calls. “They are not two contradictory things.” But Jordanians do not want the convulsions they have seen around them, he added. “They don’t want the violent path to reform.”
By most assessments, when the votes are counted later this week, the Islamists will emerge with the largest single bloc in Parliament. That will still probably amount to no more than 25 of the 130 seats, leaving the government firmly in control of an institution that has little real authority in this monarchy anyway. But it will test the influence of Islamists in a country that has been a mostly calm haven in a region of turmoil.
“What the Muslim Brotherhood gets out of this is a platform allowing them to get their message out,” said Anja Wehler-Schoeck, the resident director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German organization that promotes democracy.
The brotherhood has been on the defensive in the last three years since President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the military in Egypt. Other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have banned the party or deemed it a terrorist organization, although it officially renounces violence.
Jordan stripped the Brotherhood of its license this year as well, but the Islamic Action Front, its political wing, remains registered and legal. Hoping to draw the Islamists into the system rather than leave them on the outside where they might grow more radical, the government adopted a new election law allowing bloc voting, reversing a two-decade-old system that worked against parties like the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, which boycotted the last two elections, agreed to participate this time. But even as the government cleared the way for the Brotherhood to run, it did not want the party to score too well and encouraged the splintering of Islamists into four factions. King Abdullah II scorns the Brotherhood, calling it “a Masonic cult” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing” in a 2013 interview.
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, the king called the elections a sign of Jordan’s growing democracy. “It is one more step in our country’s positive, evolutionary path,” he said, “a path to which we have insistently conformed, despite regional turbulence and a massive refugee burden.”
Jordan sits at the crossroads of chaos, uncomfortably close to the wars in Syria and Iraq. With 650,000 Syrian refugees registered and more unregistered, Jordan has been overrun by the flight from civil war and terrorism. Maintaining stability in Jordan is a top American priority in the region and the United States is providing $1.6 billion this year to help it cope with the crisis, making it one of the top recipients of foreign aid.
Apathy and cynicism marked the balloting on Tuesday. At polling places, there was a lot of politicking but few voters. Youngsters in colored vests handing out fliers vastly outnumbered actual voters as candidates searched for hands to shake. By day’s end, turnout was reported to be 37 percent.
Emerging from a women’s school with her index finger painted blue to show she had voted, Rasha Sharayha, 30, an accountant, said she was wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. “They’re too extreme,” she said. “Religion in general, too much of it is extreme.”
But Nermine Nashashib, 53, said she voted for the Brotherhood candidates because they understand everyday people.
“A lot of the people in the Muslim Brotherhood, they had to work hard to get to where they are — they still have to,” she said. “They’re not very rich like some of these politicians who don’t know about the struggles of the people, so they reflect the people better.”
Mr. Sukkar, the party leader, said Jordan’s version of the Brotherhood differs from the one ousted in Cairo. “In Egypt, they were forced in a way to fail,” he said. “There is pressure internationally and regionally for Jordan to fight the Muslim Brotherhood, but the government knows the reality of the Jordan context and the positive historical role it has played in Jordan.”
He said the party took a more inclusive approach in Jordan, even fielding four Christian candidates along with women in hopes of winning some of the seats reserved for women and Christians. “We are partners with other groups in Jordan,” he said.
Indeed, partly because of the Brotherhood, some 250 women are running, a record, and some analysts expect them to win more than just the 15 seats reserved for them.
Among those with a good chance is Reem Badran, the only woman to win a seat beyond the quota in the 2010 elections. However, her goal on Tuesday was to keep seats out of the hands of the Brotherhood.
Greeting voters outside a polling place in Amman, the capital, she cited Jordan’s historic resistance to the extremism more prevalent in its neighbors. “We’re still a moderate country,” she said. “Our mission, our agenda, is that we are moderate. This is No. 1.”
Ghazi Musharbash, a Christian candidate on the same list, said the Brotherhood was running for one reason. “They want to show the government or the state that ‘even though we are not legalized, people love us,’” he said.
Mr. Musharbash, who also served in Parliament in the past, said he decided to run again to keep the Brotherhood from winning one of the nine seats reserved for Christians. The idea of an Islamist party controlling one of those seats, he said, was unthinkable. “Really, this is kidnapping,” he said.
As he talked, a Muslim voter told Mr. Musharbash that he had cast his ballot for him.
“Muslims and Christians, there is no difference,” the voter said.
Mr. Musharbash beamed.
“See?” he said. “This is Jordan.”
(via NY Times)