Dispatch

Awash in U.S. Aid, Jordan Escalates Repression

A street vendor’s plight highlights violations that Washington would prefer to ignore.

Teachers in Jordan film a demonstration against the government's decision to dissolve the teachers' union and arrest its leaders in Amman.
Teachers in Jordan film a demonstration against the government's decision to dissolve the teachers' union and arrest its leaders in Amman.
Teachers film a demonstration against the government's decision to dissolve the teachers' union and arrest its leaders in Amman, Jordan, on July 29, 2020. Hundreds of teachers were arrested that day. Sherbel Dissi photos for Foreign Policy
By , an independent journalist and writer focusing on social justice and environmental issues across the Mediterranean.

IRBID, Jordan—As she looked out the window of her bare, dimly lit living room in October, Mervat Hamda counted the days since the authorities took away her son Anas al-Jamal: 138. “He is more than my son—he is my closest friend,” she said as she showed me family photos in their home in Irbid, a city in northern Jordan. “Anas is our joy, our light, our laughter.”

Jamal, a 25-year-old street vendor and activist, came of age during the Arab Spring, a time that saw dictators toppled and wars break out in the region. Jordan was spared major unrest, but Jamal joined the wave of protests that did take place in the country, demanding greater freedoms for Jordanians and becoming active on social media. “He wanted to participate and to stand with the oppressed,” his mother said. Since then, Jamal has engaged with youth-based movements demanding reform and criticizing Arab countries’ agreements with Israel. He’s known for leading chants at protests, and, in late 2021, he joined an opposition party.

“Everyone in Irbid knows Anas. He is very popular and loved here,” said a young man at a cafe near where Jamal worked in Irbid’s bustling city center. (The young man’s name has been withheld due to the sensitive political situation.) “But he has been targeted by authorities because he is not afraid to speak out.”

IRBID, Jordan—As she looked out the window of her bare, dimly lit living room in October, Mervat Hamda counted the days since the authorities took away her son Anas al-Jamal: 138. “He is more than my son—he is my closest friend,” she said as she showed me family photos in their home in Irbid, a city in northern Jordan. “Anas is our joy, our light, our laughter.”

Jamal, a 25-year-old street vendor and activist, came of age during the Arab Spring, a time that saw dictators toppled and wars break out in the region. Jordan was spared major unrest, but Jamal joined the wave of protests that did take place in the country, demanding greater freedoms for Jordanians and becoming active on social media. “He wanted to participate and to stand with the oppressed,” his mother said. Since then, Jamal has engaged with youth-based movements demanding reform and criticizing Arab countries’ agreements with Israel. He’s known for leading chants at protests, and, in late 2021, he joined an opposition party.

“Everyone in Irbid knows Anas. He is very popular and loved here,” said a young man at a cafe near where Jamal worked in Irbid’s bustling city center. (The young man’s name has been withheld due to the sensitive political situation.) “But he has been targeted by authorities because he is not afraid to speak out.”

Jamal has been detained five times in the last three years. He was first arrested in 2019, ostensibly for working as a street vendor without a license. Since then, he has been harassed, threatened, and detained for his political activities, said his lawyer, Loai Obeidat. Jamal’s most recent arrest was in May. He was accused of “disturbing relations with a foreign country” for a Facebook post he made criticizing the United Arab Emirates, a key Jordanian ally—an act the state classifies as “terrorism.” After three months of being held without a trial, Jamal went on a hunger strike. It lasted three weeks, his mother said, only ending when his health seriously deteriorated.

The mother of political prisoner Anas al-Jamal looks through the window of her living room.
The mother of political prisoner Anas al-Jamal looks through the window of her living room.

Mervat Hamda, the mother of political prisoner Anas al-Jamal, looks through the window of her living room in Irbid, Jordan, on Oct. 8.

Anas al-Jamal's mother shows his portrait.
Anas al-Jamal's mother shows his portrait.

Jamal’s mother shows his portrait in Irbid on Oct. 8.

The government’s silencing of a poor street vendor sparked outrage among many Jordanians. In September, dozens of people demonstrated in Amman, the capital, in front of the headquarters of the country’s Independent Election Commission, a body mandated to conduct transparent elections and promote democratic processes, to protest the escalating harassment, repression, and silencing of dissidents. Holding photos of Jamal, demonstrators demanded his release. Online, activists have circulated lists with the names of dozens of other people they say were also detained for social media posts.

Over the past decade, protests have grown in Jordan, a country where the king holds all significant powers. Even though the Parliament’s lower house is elected, the chamber wields little influence. Strikes, demonstrations against austerity, marches of unemployed youth, and protests against Jordan’s controversial deals with Israel have become commonplace.

But dissent in the kingdom is usually expressed cautiously. Draconian cybercrime and anti-terrorism laws criminalize libel and slander, and criticism of foreign rulers can be punished as an act of terrorism. Most activists refrain from directly criticizing the monarchy—a red line that could land them in jail—and simply call for more jobs, better living conditions, less inequality, a more accountable government, and greater opportunities to participate in political life. Yet the state has met growing popular dissent with heightened repression—and when activists are more outspoken, it is usually poor, disenfranchised people like Jamal who face the harshest consequences.


King Abdullah II's portrait in a roundabout in Amman on Oct. 19.
King Abdullah II's portrait in a roundabout in Amman on Oct. 19.

King Abdullah II’s portrait in a roundabout in Amman on Oct. 19.

Jordan is often praised by U.S. leaders as an Arab model of democratization and moderation and depicted in Western media as a comparatively liberal, gradually reforming monarchy in the Middle East. But this image stands in stark contrast to recent reports of the government’s approach to dissent.

“The climate for political expression is the worst it has been in decades,” said Jillian Schwedler, a political scientist at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. The government has used the COVID-19 pandemic “as an excuse to crack down on activism,” she said, as the 2020 declaration of a state of emergency—which still hasn’t been lifted—gave the prime minister sweeping powers to curtail civil and political rights. Last year, Freedom House, which tracks political rights and civil liberties worldwide, downgraded Jordan from “partly free” to “not free,” citing the harsh restrictions on freedom of assembly and crackdown on Jordan’s teachers’ union after a series of strikes and protests over salaries.

“There is an urgent need to address the downward spiral on rights we are seeing in Jordan today,” said Lama Fakih, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. In September, her organization published a report on Jordanian authorities detaining, interrogating, and harassing activists, journalists, trade unionists, and members of political parties, as well as their family members, including restricting their access to basic rights such as work and travel. The report found that authorities use “vague and overly broad” laws to arrest and charge citizens.

Jordanian authorities also limit media freedom, Human Rights Watch has documented, through harassment, arrests, and gag orders that prevent journalists from reporting on sensitive issues, such as recent leaks that Jordanian King Abdullah II has amassed luxury properties abroad and massive wealth in Swiss bank accounts.

Jordanian police stand during a protest around Amman's Fourth Circle.
Jordanian police stand during a protest around Amman's Fourth Circle.

Jordanian police stand during a protest around Amman’s Fourth Circle, a historical gathering point for protests next to the prime minister’s office, on April 11, 2019.

“Over the years, I’ve seen activists’ lives being destroyed by the regime—their businesses crushed, extended family members being prevented from attending university, daily harassment,” said Schwedler, who has spent 25 years researching dissent in the kingdom. “The closing of public space is virtual and physical—you have no venues for expression.” On the streets, spaces for gathering have been fenced off or landscaped to become inaccessible to protesters. Online, censorship and surveillance have grown. Schwedler’s new book, Protesting Jordan: Geographies of Power and Dissent, the first in-depth study of rebellion in the kingdom, is “not currently available” as an e-book in Jordan—an indication it was most likely banned in the country.

Growing repression comes as the kingdom grapples with record-high unemployment and internal turmoil.

Growing repression comes as the kingdom grapples with record-high unemployment and internal turmoil after last year’s royal feud and alleged coup attempt involving the king’s half-brother Hamzah bin Hussein. The pandemic made an already struggling economy even worse, with the unemployment rate spiking to 25 percent in the first quarter of 2021 and to 50 percent among young people. With social protections weakened after decades of economic liberalization and austerity policies, many Jordanians are unable to afford the rapidly rising costs of living.

“The economic situation is absolutely dire. Everybody believes the unemployment rates are even worse than the official figures,” Schwedler said. “There seems to be a lot of development projects in the capital—big, splashy, showy projects—but there is a lot of resentment. Most people feel they don’t have access to that version of a Westward-looking, cosmopolitan Jordan.” As discontent and frustration among citizens grow, authorities are trying to contain dissent.


A man walks next to a mural of the Jordanian flag in Amman.
A man walks next to a mural of the Jordanian flag in Amman.

A man walks next to a mural of the Jordanian flag in Amman on March 22.

Despite the erosion of civil liberties, Jordan remains one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid in the world. The country emerged over the past few decades as a key U.S. ally for logistical support in Iraq and Afghanistan, counterterrorism operations, and intelligence cooperation. In September, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi announced “the longest and the largest” memorandum of understanding between the two countries that will see Washington provide $10.15 billion in aid to Amman over the next seven years. “The U.S. has gone above and beyond for Jordan,” he said after the deal was signed.

Compared with other Arab governments’ human rights records, Jordan’s intolerance of dissent might seem lenient. But human rights defenders say it should be taken seriously by donor countries, particularly those that provide direct assistance and training to Jordan’s security agencies. “Jordan is seen as less bad than some of the other regimes the U.S. is still allied with, but I don’t feel it deserves congratulations … just because it’s not massacring protesters or dismembering dissidents with a bone saw like Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” Schwedler said.

Escalation of repression is often followed by high-level promises of reform to show Jordan’s supposed commitment to liberal democracy. Last year, Abdullah announced the creation of a committee tasked with advancing political reform, which recommended amending laws on political parties and emphasized the need for “full respect for human rights and the creation of a safe space for fundamental freedoms that would enable political participation.” But many experts say such measures have led nowhere.

The view from Jamal's living room in Irbid on Oct. 8.
The view from Jamal's living room in Irbid on Oct. 8.

The view from Jamal’s living room in Irbid on Oct. 8.

“Calls for reform have been there for decades, but this idea that Jordan is an oasis of stability moving toward reform is a facade,” said Benjamin Schuetze, a researcher at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute in Germany and the author of Promoting Democracy, Reinforcing Authoritarianism: US and European Policy in Jordan, a book that is also “not currently available” in Jordan.

“This idea that Jordan is an oasis of stability moving toward reform is a facade.”

Schuetze said U.S. and European funding for so-called democracy-promoting initiatives helps support Jordan’s facade of democratization and ends up reinforcing state control and existing power structures. Funding for the Jordanian regime continues to grow, he said, because the United States and the European Union are interested in maintaining the status quo of intelligence cooperation as well as the kingdom’s ties with Israel and its willingness to host more than a million Syrian refugees.

In 2021, a controversial U.S.-Jordan defense agreement allowed U.S. forces, aircraft, vessels, and vehicles free entry into Jordanian territory. It also gave U.S. troops permission to carry weapons freely and implied that U.S. soldiers may be immune from prosecution in Jordanian courts. “Jordan is seen as a key ally, a local base in the region from where the U.S. projects its military power,” Schuetze said.

But the hundreds of millions of dollars that Washington is pouring into security and military programs each year aren’t exactly meant to protect Jordanians, Schuetze said. “The kind of security promoted by the U.S. is primarily the security of the Jordanian regime, U.S. geostrategic interests, and private businesses,” he said.

Jamal and his family, for one, have no illusions of security. Two weeks after I met with his family, Jamal was finally released on bail on Oct. 23. But he still faces charges under Jordan’s anti-terrorism laws and is waiting for his trial, which has been postponed several times.

His family and lawyer said he received threats that if he didn’t stop his activism, he would be unable to find work or pursue an education.

“He is very weak,” his mother said over the phone a few days after he was released. “With the hunger strike, he became very thin and debilitated. He can’t work.” Jamal is the sole provider for his mother and siblings, and the arrests have placed a heavy burden on the family. His mother said he wants to go abroad, where she believes he would be safer. But she isn’t sure he would be able to leave the country, since authorities have imposed travel bans on several activists.

“He needs a safe place. He needs to recover,” she said. “Here, he faces too many restrictions.”

Marta Vidal is an independent journalist and writer focusing on social justice and environmental issues across the Mediterranean.

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