Jordan: The unspoken turbulence

As events in Egypt unfold, Jordan watches closely.

But while Egypt is the topic of conversation, in a sense Jordan is really thinking about itself.

“It’s not healthy or precise, because it’s not about understanding the details of what’s actually happening. It’s looking at the local through what you could call the lenses of events in Egypt,” explains Sawsan Zaideh, a media analyst at 7iber, an online multimedia initiative based in Amman.

Whenever the Islamists raise their heads, a targeted media campaign ensues immediately, in what Zaideh describes as a “chorus.” But even when the Islamists in Jordan are quiet, they may be subjected to media attack or a crackdown. “Each time the Brotherhood in Egypt win a victory, the government gets scared and attacks the Jordanian Brotherhood,” she says.

It’s a worn cliché, but somewhat true to say that Jordan is a small and divided country. Its population numbers no more than seven million. The main dividing line is said to be between East Bank Jordanians — those who inhabited the area before the influx of Palestinians in 1948 — and Palestinian Jordanians.

This historical detail has troubled the country’s politics of nationalism and identity, and also defined the monarchy’s quest to control the fate of that history by trying to maintain tight control over these contentious politics.

There has been even greater attention in Jordan on neighboring Syria than on Egypt. The government has been clamping down on the influx of refugees and has allowed the United States to build up a military presence protecting the Jordanian-Syrian border. If the US were to attack Syria, the flow of refugees to Jordan would intensify. There are three camps for Syrian refugees in Jordan already, in addition to the 13 existing camps that house Palestinian refugees.

Zaideh, 7iber’s media analyst, also points to upsurge of stories in the press that vilify refugees. Newspapers are full, she says, “of stories of Syrian refugees committing some crime or another.”

The fear of the influx of Syrian refugees is both political and economic.

“The talk is about the economic side,” says Ahmed al-Sholi, an assistant researcher at the Centre for Strategic Studies researcher at Amman University. “But it is very much about political instability. These people [Syrian refugees] are not coming from an earthquake or some other natural disaster. They are coming from a situation of revolution, and many of them were involved in some way.”

Zaideh explains that there is a “psychology” among activists and those involved in politics that Jordan is a small country whose fate is determined by events around it.

“The Arab country that is most affected by what happens in other Arab countries is Jordan. It has no stable dynamic,” says Sholi.

This focus on crisis as it unfolds in surrounding Arab countries — one eye on the unfolding crisis, the other eye fearfully looking to what this holds for Jordan — feeds into governmental rhetoric. The monarchy promises reform and security in a sea of turbulence.

“The first card [the government plays], when it comes to any demonstration, sit-in, any unrest at all, is that you will set the country alight,” Sholi explains. “They play on this fear of chaos and instability.”

People look at what is happening in Syria and in Egypt, and it adds to their fear of chaos, says Reem al-Masri who works on research and development at 7iber.

In thinking about the effects of this fear, she points to the protests in November of last year against cuts in fuel and electricity subsidies, meant to address the budget deficit and secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund. People took to the streets both in Amman and the governorates, and clashes with security forces ensued.

Masri thinks that the fear of unrest partly explains that while the announcement in 2012 was met with wide-scale demonstrations, since then, the prices of fuel and electricity been raised twice with hardly a bleat of protest.

But direct repression has also gone up, she says. Indeed, Sholi says that the protest movement in Jordan is up and down in terms of intensity, and the main determinant of its trajectory is state violence and repression. Sholi says that there are 150 who were arrested in previous protests on charges related to national security whose cases are still pending.

When mass revolt briefly seemed poised to spread across the region in 2011, Jordan also saw demonstrations. They were small, but not insignificant; and they didn’t come out of the blue, nor did they completely peter away. As an International Crisis Report released in March 2012 put it, “The season of Arab uprisings neither engulfed Jordan nor entirely passed it by.”

Prior to 2011, in 2007 non-contracted workers organized for labor rights on a scale not seen in Jordan for decades. In 2010 teachers also started organizing, and were able to establish a union for the profession for the first time since the 1950s, when the teaching union was shut down. The activist networks formed over the late 2000s also partly laid the way of demonstrations in 2011, says Sara Ababneh, researcher at Amman University’s Center for Strategic Studies at Amman University.

Fear and repression aside, the protest movement itself has its own internal weaknesses.

And yet, though workers and teachers joined the March 2011 protests, their economic demands were ignored by the movement as a whole beyond a vague call for social justice, Ababneh says.

Sholi describes the protests as “broad and vague, such as calling for an end to corruption or rule by the people.” For example, some of the leading activists are themselves against strikes, he says. “There is all this talk of the ‘wheel of production,’ like in Egypt.”

In the same way that Jordan’s power structure is centralized in Amman, the regular demonstrations and protests dealing with social justice issues that take place in the governorates tend to stay separate from political activity in the capital, says Ababneh.

The East Bank/Palestinian divide is so often used to explain Jordanian politics, but reality is always more complex than the alluring simplicity offered by such binaries. Indeed, the monarchy has been criticized for playing East Bankers and Palestinian Jordanians against each other well, and the bulk of its support comes from East Bankers who are over represented in the public sector, security services, and due to district divisions, parliament. Palestinian Jordanians, meanwhile, are to a large extent excluded from state and central authority positions.

The other set of dividing lines is around tribalism. The electoral system is not conducive to people voting according to national issues, but rather tribal identity and kinship ties.

“There is a status quo attack on ‘tribalism’ as being backward while it is also nurtured by the state. People vote according to tribal affiliation, as it is the only way to get services,” Ababneh says.

“Tribalism is a colonial and orientalist term,” she adds. “What we’re talking about is identity politics.”

But this talk of identity obscures other issues. “Jordanians of Palestinian origin are politically disenfranchised, of course,” she says. “But no one talks about the economic disenfranchisement of the East Bank, or of ‘tribalism’ in an economic sense.”

In this context of pronounced identity politics, the king projects himself as a father-like figure and a modernizing force. Presenting itself to the Western world as a moderate force, the monarchy’s cooperation in regional policies has been rewarded with aid from the US and the Gulf. The monarchy promises a path of political reform and national development — a path that must be trod gradually.

The king appoints the executive branch, can dissolve parliament freely, and even passes laws in its absence. And when protests, unrest or demands reach a certain level, the king reshuffles the cabinet and brings in another prime minister. Whether these moves will continue to appease the people remains an open question. And while Jordan closely monitors the turbulence beyond the monarchy’s borders, a sense that the country’s security could become untenable continues to loom.

Naira Antoun 

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