Angry protestors in the Jordanian city of Karak and further south in Tafileh on August 2 denounced the government for the miserable conditions facing ordinary Jordanians: high unemployment, rising prices, corruption, and increased social violence across the kingdom. Despite the fact that the debate about political reform in Jordan has largely fallen off the radar, periodic Friday protests still occur and indicate that all is not well in the Hashemite Kingdom when one scratches below the surface. In particular, Jordanian youth—who comprise 70 percent of the population with an estimated 30 percent unemployment rate—are frustrated by the lack of opportunity and seek new ways to shape their future. Young Jordanians could emerge as agents for change, a topic explored more deeply with a new Hariri Center Issue Brief Jordan’s Youth: Avenues for Activism, and the degree of their cohesion and coordination across social, economic, and identity divides will largely determine the prospect of a mass protest movement.

The grievances mobilizing protesters like those in Karak and Tafileh are commonly articulated by a broad spectrum of the Jordanian population. But social divisions among Jordan’s tribal competitors, and between secularists and Islamists, urban and rural populations, and Palestinian- and East Banker-communities have prevented a coordinated or cohesive political opposition movement from emerging. External factors have dampened much of the early enthusiasm for Arab Awakening sentiments, including the instability caused by the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise and fall in Egypt, sustained militia violence in Libya, and the brutal civil war in neighboring Syria. While mass uprisings led by youth on the scale of Egypt, Tunisia, or Yemen have not emerged in Jordan, this is not because young Jordanians have aspirations that are any different than their counterparts abroad. Rather, the incentives and constraints are different than their cohorts in neighboring countries.

Young Jordanians are not passive, nor are they disinterested. While youth participation in formal politics has been disincentivized by the domination of elders in political parties and a minimum age requirement of thirty to run in parliamentary elections (which limits young peoples’ inclination and ability to influence policy), young Jordanians do have the opportunity to engage in various forms of political activism. Many are seeking avenues to engage more actively, whether through the East-Bank affiliated Herak movement, the Islamic Action Front (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and best-organized party), emerging political parties with youth platforms, civil society organizations, or internet-based youth platforms like the Facebook Parliament. As older generations remain largely invested in the status quo and have too much to lose by rocking the boat, Jordanian youth have a great deal to gain by shifting the balance of power. With those under the age of thirty-five comprising nearly 70 percent of the country’s population, youth have both the numbers and the impetus to play an important role in pushing for political change and institutional reform.

In response to social unrest and regular demonstrations demanding greater political freedoms, King Adbullah II pledged a reform program with substantive amendments to the country’s constitution and electoral law, greater authorities for parliament, and an environment that fosters civic engagement and political party development. After two years, it appears that the king’s ambitious agenda has produced little tangible change, leaving many disappointed and doubting the sincerity of the promises. Yet the need for real political reform cannot be ignored or postponed indefinitely. In April, 51 percent of Jordanians polled believed that things in the country are going in the wrong direction, and by July this number had increased to 55 percent, according to surveys conducted by the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. In the July poll, only 45 percent of respondents said they are satisfied with the performance of the House of Representatives, while 62 percent said they do not support the current prime minster. Perhaps most alarming, 86 percent of Jordanians polled believe that financial and administrative corruption in the country is widespread.

The crises in Syria and Egypt have bought Abdullah some time and breathing room to deliver on electoral and parliamentary reforms and anti-corruption measures. Pressure on the government has eased, exhibited by months of relative political calm following large and repeated demonstrations reaching a peak in March 2012, and then again in November 2012 with price hikes. Common wisdom suggests that this is only a short-term reality for the government. Ultimately, the same pressures that led to the protests will reemerge—particularly when the anticipated 15 percent increase in electricity prices take effect—if no steps are taken to address the fundamental causes of public discontent in the kingdom.

Political openness and responsiveness on the part of the government is essential to ensure stability and future development in Jordan. The palace, however, is sending the opposite message if it is trying to convince the Jordanian people that it supports opening the political space and protecting basic civil liberties. The punitive Press and Publications Law is a case in point, which blocked access in July to more than 300 websites that failed to register with the government. From a practical standpoint, the impact may not be that severe since most websites are able to get around the blockade, but it has widespread symbolic importance and it sends the message that the government seeks to restrict access to information and impose censorship on Jordanian citizens. The lack of leadership on political reform can also be seen with the absence of any serious efforts to revise the electoral system in order to create a more representative and equitable body in parliament.

The urgency of external and regional issues—the conflict in neighboring Syria, the social and economic burden of more than a half million refugees, the prospect of renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and the ongoing quest for donor assistance from the United States, Gulf countries, the World Bank, and the IMF—has shifted the attention away from the conversation about the country’s political reform process. However, failing to proactively mitigate the underlying grievances that are driving Jordanians into the street, both economic and political, is a recipe for disaster, and those frustrations may erupt in spontaneous and unexpected ways.