Jordan | A Measured Spring

Everyone wants change in the Hashemite Kingdom, but no one wants to topple the king

Jordanians gather after Friday prayers outside the al-Husseini Mosque in Amman to demonstrate against rising unemployment and government graft. COURTESY MYA GUARNERI
01 May, 2012

FRIDAY NOON PRAYERS FIND THE FAITHFUL SPILLING out of al-Husseini Mosque in downtown Amman. They crowd the street and sidewalks, bowing between vendors. Four men kneel alongside a folding table loaded down with silver faucets, showerheads and handles. Others prostrate themselves next to a display of cheap plastic shoes. Those who can’t afford prayer rugs kneel on crushed cardboard boxes.

Some men don’t even have cardboard: They bow and put their heads on the asphalt.

As prayers end, the people rise—and the protest begins. Members of the Jabhat al-’Amal al-Islami (Islamic Action Front—IAF—a powerful political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Jordan’s biggest opposition party, which Parliament is now seeking to ban) organise the demonstrators in neat lines which, slowly, make their way down the street. The crowd, which numbers about 1,000, comprises mostly men. A small group of women brings up the rear of the procession.

Mufida Shakra, a mother of five, is among them. Shakra studied law and sharī’ah (Islamic law) in Kuwait and “Alhamdulillah,” she says, “I work as a teacher [of] sharī’ah.”

Shakra’s thanking God that she has a job. While 92 percent of Jordanians are literate, and many attend university, the official unemployment rate hovers at 13 percent. Unofficial estimates put joblessness at a staggering 30 percent.

In much of the Arab world, men are expected to provide for their family, and do not marry until they are financially stable. But, because Shakra has an income, she was able to help her unemployed 26-year-old son start a family.

I gave him the money to marry,” she says, touching her hand to her chest. “He’s a graphic designer [with a university degree]—and he doesn’t have work. No job. He’s sitting at home. It’s a very bad situation here, really.”

Even if he had found a job, it probably wouldn’t have been of much help. Wages in Jordan are low compared to the cost of living, and Jordanians are finding it increasingly difficult to buy basics, including food.

The country’s distribution of wealth is just one of the protesters’ troubles. Demonstrators are also calling for greater government transparency, elections and an end to the corruption that they blame for their economic woes.

While concern about corruption isn’t new, what is new is that Jordanians are not limiting their criticism to government officials. They’ve taken the unprecedented step of critiquing the monarchy itself, a move equated with sedition and punishable by jail time.

In a February 2011 open letter to the ostensibly reformist King Abdullah II, Jordanians accused Queen Rania Al Abdullah of “stealing money from the Treasury”. It also called on the king to return the properties that have been given to the queen’s family. “The land belongs to the Jordanian people,” the authors wrote.

The letter reveals anxieties not just over the distribution of wealth but over who gets to control Jordan itself. Its signatories were 36 East Bankers from prominent Bedouin tribes; it took aim at Queen Rania, who is of Palestinian descent.

Perhaps because Jordan is a young state, still forging its national identity, sharp lines divide who’s in and who’s out. Those who were here before or during Jordan’s establishment in 1946 as a sovereign state are considered native ‘East Bankers’ with far more entitlements that those who came later—the outsiders. And they include the Palestinian refugees who arrived in the wake of Israel’s creation in 1948 and during other crises in the Middle East. Today, Palestinians constitute a majority of Jordan’s population. East Bankers fear that reform will mean increased Palestinian involvement in Jordanian political life. They also worry that the Palestinians will turn Jordan into their national homeland.

The thrust of the letter to the king was that Palestinian Jordaninans, his wife included, don’t care about the state or about public interests, a common sentiment among East Bankers.

Shakra and her husband are children of Palestinian refugees who were driven from their homes when the state of Israel was created. Even though she speaks to me in English, Shakra calls her parents’ hometown, Jerusalem, by its Arabic name, Al-Quds.

Her fingers trace the edge of her white hijab, tucking in stray hairs as she says, “I am from Al-Quds. I don’t want any country but [Palestine].”

And she wants the Jews out of Palestine, she adds. In the meantime, however, “Jordan is important to me.”

Despite her many grievances, Shakra is quick to add that she feels the king has done a lot for the people—she just wants him to do more.

Her comment points to one of the crucial differences between the protests in Jordan—which began in January of 2011—and those that brought down the regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In Jordan, people simply want reform—they do not want to topple the king.

This Friday’s protest reflects that. Chants—led by three men standing on the back of a pickup truck draped with the Jordanian flag—do not include calls to overthrow the monarchy. They run the gamut from a demand for a Jordan free of corruption to a free Palestine to “the Jews are pigs” to solidarity with the Syrian people.

The scattershot of slogans points to another reason why Jordan’s revolution is yet to take off. The energy that could be harnessed into a broad-based, popular movement is largely being channelled in multiple directions towards specific demands. In December, a small group of women protested the Citizenship Law, which does not allow Jordanian women married to foreigners to pass their Jordanian citizenship on to their children. In February this year, 20,000 teachers rallied in Amman to protest stagnant wages. The next day, hundreds of Jordanians demonstrated against changes made to the Social Security Law.

While Islamists led the recent protests, their participation in demonstrations has been inconsistent. They were in. Then they were out, and the unions and leftist organisations were running the show. Now, the Muslim Brotherhood’s IAF is back in. But for how long? And to what end? No one seems to know.

There’s another reason that Jordan is yet to see its spring: people here fear a revolution. Throughout all strata of Jordanian society, there is a consensus that widespread unrest would only exacerbate Jordan’s divisions, throwing a match on the proverbial tinderbox.

It’s not just the Palestinians who are causing apprehension. The number of Syrian refugees is growing daily. And many also find the East Bankers’ tribal Bedouin affiliations worrisome. A revolution could turn into a messy power struggle like that being played out next door, in Iraq.

Faced with unrest, the Jordanian government has played on the country’s fault lines to keep the small protests from snowballing into a bigger movement. So for now, Jordanians are making only modest demands. But, according to Hamed El Eid, a 47-year-old engineer and a member of the IAF, the people are getting impatient.

“Several months ago, the government promised us that it will make a big improvement,” he says. Improvement, however, has been “very, very slow”.

El Eid wears glasses, a crisp blue dress shirt and a navy windbreaker. His gray beard is neat and close-clipped. As we walk down the street, El Eid explains that while the Muslim Brotherhood has bounced in and out of the protests, he, personally, has stayed with them from the start.

“And I will continue,” he adds. “I will not stop until [the government has] satisfied all our requirements.”

He ticks the demands off on his fingers: “A parliament that will be elected in a transparent way without any corruption; we want to take out the corrupted people and put them in prisons because they have stolen from the country.”

Because a majority of the IAF’s supporters are Jordanian Palestinians, I ask El Eid about his national origin. He seems slightly offended. He straightens his glasses and answers, “Regardless of whether [our] grandfathers are from Palestine or Jordan, we are all Jordanian citizens. [The family’s roots are] meaningless when we are working on this issue [of reform]. We want to improve Jordan.”

Just as Palestine is not just for Palestinians, El Eid explains, “All Arab people are requesting [the liberation of] Palestine,” and Jordan is not just for East Bankers.

When asked if Amman will become Cairo, El Eid, like others, says he doubts it. The economy is a little bit better in Jordan than in Egypt, the situation a little less desperate. “Here, our requirements are for improvement; [in Egypt] their requirements are for change.”

By the time we reach the end of the street, the 1,000-strong crowd has thinned. Most of the demonstrators have dropped out of the lines and have taken refuge from the midday sun under the awnings that hang over the sidewalks. “Look,” one protester says, pointing at a group of men who have stopped to buy some sweets, “they’re getting a snack.”