Jordan’s Simmering Spring
Enough compromise. Jordanians are tired of being the good kids on the block.
Abdullah Mahadin is a 25-year-old Jordanian accountant by day and a leader of the Jordan Youth Movement by night. The movement, a loosely networked contingent of thousands of young Internet activists, was established a little over 3 years ago — partially inspired by the Arab Spring. But as Mahadin tells it, the festering protest movement in Jordan has been slow burning for several years. Many of his cohorts took to the streets prior to the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.
Widespread perceptions of government corruption, rising commodity prices, and lack of a fair trial system, are some of the major causes that have led to daily demonstrations by not just youth, but people of all ages: nurses, teachers, and even accountants like Mahadin. But despite growing discontent, Jordanians continue to protest with pause. The dire situation on the northern border with Syria, and more chaos to the West in Egypt, has cultivated widespread fears of civil war-like-unrest, preventing full-scale rage from pouring onto the street.
"There is a growing culture of protests. They may not be big like Tahrir Square, but they are everyday, scattered around the country," says Mahadin. "Many of them are spontaneous. There’s a lot of anger over labor rights, rising electricity prices and scarcity of water. We’re not at the point of full-scale revolution, but I think we’re near where Egypt was in 2010. We’re still watching what’s happening with our neighbors."
A lack of genuine judicial reform promised by King Abdullah, after the constitution was amended two years ago, is one of the core reasons for mounting frustration. Mahadin has been jailed three times since he became involved with the Jordan Youth Movement. He’s now facing a 15-year prison sentence for "lese majeste," (insulting the king) and inciting acts of terrorism — according to the state security courts he was tried by.
"The government keeps saying, ‘let’s start a new page, let’s start a new page,’ " says Mahadin. "But there’s never any action."
The amendments to the constitution have only made the justice system worse, says Leen Kayyaht, Mahadin’s lawyer. The amendments Kayyaht is referring were King Abdullah’s response to the growing wave of "Arab Spring" uprisings that led to a series of mass protests starting in January of 2011. One of the amendments Jordanians called for and got was the establishment of a genuine constitutional court system, and an end to civilian trials in state security courts — which fall under the direct control of the government and military.
But this amendment came with several caveats. The Jordanian government kept the state security courts intact, claiming they are constitutional. Civilians, they decided, will be tried in these special courts in cases where people are accused of crimes such as: committing terrorist acts against the state, smuggling weapons, trafficking drugs, or insulting the King — which has long been a crime in Jordan.
Unfortunately for Mahadin, he’s been charged with two of the crimes that will wind him up in a special court. According to Kayyaht, for the last two years (since the amendments were announced by King Abdullah) benign protestors have been sent before the state security courts for peacefully protesting issues such as the sharp rises in gas prices.
"There’s been over a thousand cases of people being tried in state security courts this year so far," Kayyaht noted. "It’s being used even more now than prior to the constitutional amendments. It’s so easy for them. All they need to do is say that they said something bad against the king publicly. Even people who aren’t activists are afraid now."
Kayyaht, who runs her own law firm, has been an active participant in the demonstrations. "The worst part of the so-called reforms is that the government says that many of the amendments to the constitution will only be fully implemented in three years," Kayyaht complains. "People have nothing to trust in anymore. The situation is beyond fear. They don’t have any faith in the government."
Despite that, Kayyaht laments that Jordanians find themselves in a quandary. "The people are waiting to see what will happen in Syria," Kayyaht says. "We have so many refugees now that the situation is very unstable in Jordan. Many in the protest movement are now divided by who supports Assad, and who supports the rebels. We need to wait and hope that Syria stabilizes before we can move forward."
And while the anger is palpable, and daily protests continue, Jordanians still just aren’t coming out in great numbers according to David Schenker, director of the program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.
"Many Jordanians look around and have determined that they don’t want Egypt and they don’t want Syria, says Schenker. "They’re very angry with many issues, and people are having a harder time everyday feeding their families. But they still don’t want the chaos of their neighbors."
Jordan, Schneker says, also has the unfortunate predicament of being one of the last in line with revolutionary aspirations. Although one might be tempted to compare the prospects of a Jordanian revolution to Tunisia — a much less violent revolt compared to its neighbors — Tunisia had the good fortune of being first. The bloody mayhem that followed in Libya, Syria, and now Egypt, was not a consideration.
"Tunisia is also a much more homogenous society then Jordan," adds Schenker. "Part of this also has to do with the divisions in Jordanian society."
Those divisions include Palestinians, who have their own grievances, and aren’t coming out in great numbers for fear of retribution. Many East Bankers have been arrested and beaten for openly opposing the regime and are fearful of further reprisals. There are also general disagreements within the protest movement among the leftists, Baathists (nationalists), and the Muslim Brotherhood, on how exactly to reform civil society.
Despite the divisions and fears, the near term threats to the kingdom remain very real. Almost all of the revolutions in the Arab world have in large part been about economics — with the exception of maybe Syria notes Schenker. And the economic woes of Jordanians will only intensify in the near term. The flood of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Jordan shows no sign of abating, exacting a heavy toll on the Jordanian economy. And more upheaval in Egypt has drastically cutback Jordan’s ability to import natural gas. Just this past month, the government, facing a ballooning multi-billion dollar deficit, and dwindling natural gas imports, approved another rate hike in electricity prices. Last year’s gas rate hikes brought thousands of Jordanians together in some of the largest protests yet.
"The economy showed less growth again this past quarter," says Schenker. "There will have to be more electricity rationing, and prices will go up by about 40 percent. The King will have to do that. That could push people over the edge."
The economic malaise coupled with the increasing prosecution of protestors, and recent blocking of hundreds of opposition websites, has likely only added powder to the keg.
"The king, I believe, genuinely wants to reach political reforms," says Schenker. But faces opposition within in his government, and in the General Intelligence Directorate," (Jordan’s powerful spy agency).
As Mais Masadeh sees it, the Jordanian people are sort of like a neglected child.
Masadeh, a 30-year-old Jordanian, works with a migration NGO in Amman. Ever since the war with Iraq began in 2003, the Kingdom has expended so much energy over the last decade dealing with refugees, border security, terror threats, and major economic fallout from two neighboring wars. Jordan, she observes, has had to serve as the oasis of stability in a chaotic desert region, and the consequences of those preoccupations keep bubbling over.
"The government is truly stretched thin," says Masadeh. "Unfortunately, creating new jobs — improving the economic situation, and passing democratic reforms, haven’t been the top priorities because Jordan has to deal constantly with other countries’ hardships."
Masadeh counsels patience and perseverance to Jordanians who are struggling. She sees the situation as one that is unique in Jordan’s history. The government she says has been overwhelmed with monitoring surging populations, increased smuggling of weapons and drugs from the Syrian border, and threats of attacks over the Internet.
"This is a situation of weighing the country’s security concerns vs. economic and democratic reforms," says Masadeh. "Once the country’s security situation is stable, the situation will improve."