Two Years to Arab Spring |

Due Time for Jordan's Own Arab Spring

The turmoil in the Arab world initially seemed to have passed over the Hashemite kingdom. But with a small yet stubborn democracy movement, a bad economy and a huge influx of Syrian refugees - the pressure is on Jordan.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

AMMAN - At first sight, the line of police vans parked near King Faisal Plaza in the old center of Amman last Friday morning was evocative of similar sights early last year in Tunis and Cairo. There were hundreds of uniformed police and plainclothes Mukhabarat security officers prepared to head off the anti-regime protests after midday prayers at the mosques. There were some major differences though.

The Jordanian police carried no clubs, tear gas, shields or other riot gear. Except for a handful of officers, they were all unarmed. They seemed calm and relaxed, and there was little tension in the air. As noon came and went, there were still only a few dozen faithful in the Al-Husseini Mosque, while the media cameras were already set up on the roof of the water fountain outside. Senior police officers walked by at a leisurely pace, smiling and chatting with the passersby.

Two years after the wave of revolutions swept over the Arab world, after regimes were toppled in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt and as the Syrian bloodbath is deepening, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has learned to live with a weekly antigovernment demonstration.

Just a month ago, it seemed that the opposition was becoming more violent. Tens of thousands took to the streets following energy price hikes and fought with police. Two protesters were killed and hundreds arrested. For a brief while, international attention focused on the chances of Jordan and King Abdullah II being able to survive.

Minutes after prayers began last Friday, the streets around the mosque were closed to traffic, but not to the hundreds of pedestrians streaming into the square. One vehicle was allowed by police into the crossroads, laden with Jordanian flags and sound amplifiers. Was this for the counterdemonstration of the king's loyalists?

One-thousand men prepared to prostrate themselves on sheets of cardboard laid across the street. One of the organizers, Osama Abbadi, who presented himself as the spokesman for the Islamist Movement's youth wing, explained: "We are protesting against the continued arrest of activists and for freedom of speech and the transfer of power to the people."

Does this include deposing Abdullah?

"We want the king to stay," he said, smiling. "But we don't want him to rule. He can be a king like in England."

Will protesters use violence to further their cause?

"No, we have seen the blood in Syria and we don't want to make the same mistakes."

Another police force could be noticed further down the road. Six long vans with darkened windows, filled with gray-uniformed gendarmes with rolled-up balaclava hats and body armor. These vehicles held the tear gas and would stay a safe distance away, but if things got out of hand they could come in.

At 1 P.M., long lines of men bowed; prayers were over and a demonstration immediately kicked off. It turned out that the loudspeaker van was allowed through by police for the protesters. One after another, men got up on its platform and led chanting against the regime. "In spirit and blood, we will redeem you Jordan," they shouted, and then began escalating the rhetoric with "the people will live with dignity or die" and "the people starve while the government steals."

At this stage, the demonstrators were not mentioning the king. He was present, however, in his absence. "Jordan, Allah - that's all," they shouted, dropping Abdullah from the holy trinity of every Arab dictatorship. The next orator got up and the rhetoric escalated further.

"Ya Abdullah bin Hussein," he roared, as a thousand echoed him. "Listen to us and understand. Change the system and you will end like Zine Ben Ali [Tunisia's deposed president]."

Addressing the king directly without his title is forbidden by Jordanian law and can lead to arrest, but now the police just smiled. The officers that did enter the fray were there to serve as buffers between the opposition and a small demonstration of royalists who shouted "Yaish [long live] Abdullah," and hurled at the pro-reformists "Dollars from Iran," claiming they were Islamists in Tehran's pay. The final speaker, a Muslim Brotherhood activist, promised that the struggle would achieve change very soon, before descending from the platform at 2 P.M. precisely.

With no need of an order, the hundreds of demonstrators dispersed quietly, and within minutes the busy street was back to normal. For just 60 minutes, they had the illusion of freedom to denounce the regime and speak their mind. But at 2, it was over until next week.

'Small and harmless'

Maj. Sayed, the commander of the gendarmes, was satisfied. "They are a small and harmless minority group," he said. The major was not worried that such protests will spawn scenes like those in Egypt. "In Egypt you have 80 million, here we are barely five million. Jordan is one family and we have democracy. The majority will never let the Islamists ruin things."

Has Jordan succeeded in stemming the tide of the Arab uprising? Judging from last Friday in central Amman, it certainly seems so. The Al-Husseini Mosque is no Tahrir Square or Tunis' Avenue Bourguiba. If the protesters had broken the rules, it would have been easy for the police there to roll them up.

But who said a revolution has to start in the center of the capital? In both Tunisia and Egypt, the ferment began elsewhere. The poverty-stricken towns of southern Jordan do have smaller but much more violent protests, but the overall impression is that nearly two years after the unrest there started, the Jordanian security services seem to have contained them without too much violence.

In the meantime, the Hashemite kingdom waits and wonders: Is the revolution around the corner, or have Abdullah’s subjects missed the opportunity to depose him?

“They are a tiny, noisy minority with no influence,” is how senior officials and royal courtiers disparagingly describe the protesters. There is some truth to that. At their most numerous, no more than 5,000 people participated in a single demonstration. Outside the hard-core, Jordanians have no appetite for revolution. But even if the great majority stay home, outside the bubble of the royal compound and fancy neighborhoods of west Amman, it is hard to find true supporters of the king and his government in the city. Some even claim that the protesters are doing a service to the regime by creating an illusion of freedom of speech in the kingdom.

Jordanians are divided over the king’s part in the repression. Some see him as a detached entity, living most of his life outside the country, allowing other powers to run Jordan.

On January 23, a day after the election in Israel, Jordanians will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. On the streets of Amman, there are no signs yet of campaigning, and no one knows who the candidates will be in the different districts. The one similarity to Israel is that, however the seats in parliament are allocated, everyone already knows who will hold onto power.

In the first months of the Arab Spring, King Abdullah promised in interviews that Jordan was undergoing a constitutional revolution that would turn it into a parliamentary democracy, and that the royal family would play mainly a ceremonial role in the future, similar to that in part of the democracies of western Europe. Recently, he has been giving fewer interviews, and though confidants say he has not given up his democratic aspirations, they explain that “they will take great care and generations to carry out.” Over the last two years, Abdullah carried out a dialogue with political parties and made dozens of amendments to the constitution, designed to strengthen Parliament’s authority. Changes have also been made to the electoral process, including the decision to select 20 percent of Parliament’s members by way of a national list. Eighty percent, though, are still elected by local constituencies, with the system heavily favoring the sparsely inhabited rural areas, where most of the voters are Bedouin tribe members, the Hashemites’ traditional support base.

Senior government officials explain that if the electoral system were to be changed immediately to one with equal-sized districts, it would harm all the democratic parties and favor the Muslim Brotherhood the only party with an organizational infrastructure which would gain a majority. Better to work gradually, they say.

Abdullah is not only worried about the rise of the Islamists. He has to balance their demands and needs with those of the Bedouin tribes, the Palestinian refugees and their descendants who make up a majority of Jordanians and also the “East Bankers,” the native Jordanians.

Even when the home front was relatively calm, the revolutions in other Arab countries had their impact on Jordan. The repeated sabotage of the natural gas pipeline from Egypt cut off both Israel and Jordan, which has to spend five times as much for fuel for its power stations, forcing the government to raise electricity prices steeply. The national economy lost $5 billion from this, to which has to be added the damage to tourism and trade.

Jordanian officials claim the temporary escalation in protests last month was not due to a demand for democracy, but to a combination of other factors including the price rises and the Israeli operation in Gaza.

Wired up

The al-Zaatari refugee camp was opened up less than six months ago, on a windswept plain in northern Jordan. Looking toward the horizon in every direction, one sees thousands of tents and trailers being set up for the thousands more refugees pouring in from the killing fields of Syria. The camp “veterans” have become used to the temporary life and have established in the camp’s central walkway a bustling market selling everything from basic foodstuffs to televisions.

A refugee’s life is difficult under any circumstances, but the people who have been displaced by the Syrian civil war are probably the first to maintain contact with their homeland via Skype and Facebook. Their Syrian mobile phones have coverage and the camp has “coffee shops,” in which the Free Syrian Army’s television channel is broadcast. “We have Daraa’s Facebook page,” says Kawani, an unemployed engineering graduate from the village of Tafes, in the southern district, where the uprising began nearly 23 months ago. “Every minute, someone updates it, so we know what’s happening at home.” Together with his cousin, also named Kawani, he has been in the refugee camp for the last two weeks.

Their story is very similar to that of many other refugees arriving at Zaatari from Daraa in recent days. According to them, the Syrian army units still loyal to President Bashar Assad are now too wary to station small forces in the area with a high level of rebel activity. The checkpoints at the entrances to most villages have been removed, and instead the army is firing artillery shells and rockets from afar at the villages’ houses.

“They burned our house down in the last bombardment,” says the second Kawani. “We used to fight as rebels,” he says, “but how much can we do with Kalashnikovs against tanks. And besides, we had to pay for the bullets ourselves and ran out of money.”

The resistance to Assad is becoming less a movement of local residents taking up arms or of defectors from the Syrian army. Now the fighting is mostly led by the experienced and well-organized warriors, with a steady supply of advanced weapons in other words, jihadist and Salafist organizations, whose members come from outside Syria. Senior Jordanian officials warn that Syria is about to become “a black hole sucking jihadists into it from around the world.”

The demonstration in the old center of Amman. "We want the king to stay," said an organizer. "But we don't want him to rule."Credit: Anshel Pfeffer
The al-Zaatari camp. Refugees maintain contact with their homeland via Skype and Facebook.Credit: Zarkasht Halaimzai

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