Just after midnight on May 15, 1986, some 75 Special Forces of the Public Security Department stormed a dormitory at Yarmuk University to put an end to a student demonstration. They tear-gassed and clubbed the students with “a zeal that bordered on the ruthless,” according to witnesses. At least three and probably six students — men and women — were killed in the melee, scores were injured and hundreds detained. Three of those killed were Palestinians.
The demonstration began as a protest a week earlier over increased tuition and fees. When the school administration expelled 32 organizers, the protest swelled to about 3,000 students, 20 percent of the student body. A day of tense negotiations broke down over how to terminate the demonstration. Officials rejected the protestors’ demand to disperse after marching out of the campus; the authorities feared the precedent of a demonstration witnessed by the populace. One reason the university was set up a decade ago 100 kilometers away from Amman and 20 kilometers outside of the nearest city, Irbid, was to distance the students from any large population centers.
The immediate grievance of tuition fees followed months of growing tensions. A month earlier the school administration broke up demonstrations against the US air attacks on Libya. After the May confrontation, the regime attempted to blame the left for the bloodshed. On May 17, the Mukhabarat seized members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and nearly the entire politburo of the Jordanian Communist Party. Officials came to realize that Islamist militants rather than the left had come to play an important role in the Yarmuk events. A popular Yarmuk math professor was running as an Islamist in a parliamentary by-election in Irbid in June, and was heavily favored to win. The regime made sure he did not. “According to local townspeople,” Robert Satloff later wrote, “voters had to wade through streams of agents and security troops before reaching the ballot boxes. Along the way, agents would ask voters whom they planned to vote for and not-too-subtly suggest that a vote for Nuseir was not a wise decision.”