On Wednesday, June 16, 1987, police units entered the offices of the Jordanian Writers’ Association, ordered all writers and employees out, then searched and sealed the premises. The order to disband the Association came directly from the desk of Prime Minister Zaid al-Rifa‘i. Under the martial law in effect since 1967, he is also the military governor general of Jordan. The Ministry of Information claimed that JWA “members had gone beyond the Association’s aims by using the JWA as a meeting place to serve their own selfish interests.” [1]

Because all political parties and activities in Jordan are banned under martial law, organizations such as professional associations, alumni groups and even sports clubs have to some extent functioned to fill the void. The Writers’ Association was one of the few remaining legal forums providing some critical political and intellectual activity and discussion. Its 300 members included “unofficial” representatives of the Palestinian, Jordanian and Arab parties that exist clandestinely here, in addition to many independents. While the rather innocuous and divided JWA was an unlikely cover for covert activity, as the government claimed, it certainly was a venue for political discourse.

The regime’s timing was significant. Annual committee elections were scheduled for the next day. The JWA planned to host a conference of Arab writers in March 1988. “The government did not want the JWA in its current structure to host the conference,” said one member. The government immediately formed a new “writers’ federation,” comprising 40 coopted intellectuals and professors, many of whom have never published. The closure was also a message to other groups. “The action, and more specifically the way it was executed,” wrote journalist Lamis Andoni, “indicates that the government of Zaid al-Rifa‘i is becoming increasingly intolerant of dissent and reflects a rise in the power of the Public Security Department over much of Jordanian social and cultural life.” [2]

Even more discouraging than the government’s move is the lack of any public outcry. Under martial law since 1967, Jordanians and Palestinians living in Jordan have seen the steady erosion of their political, cultural and social freedoms. While this has happened across the Arab world, Jordan has been remarkably successful in legitimating repression. Public passivity is partly based on fear of reprisals; it is also partly a willingness to sacrifice democratic rights for social and economic stability.

Behind this lies the perception that the likely alternatives are either the chaos and destruction of Lebanon or the outright brutality and economic calamity of Syria. The Jordanian state has legitimized itself in areas other than those relating to democratic rights. Much of Jordan’s relatively small share of Arab petrodollars was used to develop services and infrastructure, spreading economic benefits. There is much less corruption here than in other countries in the region. Rather than baksheesh (bribes), wasta (connections) have characterized this very traditional, clan-structured society. Then there is King Hussein himself, on the throne for an unprecedented 35 years, his legitimacy seldom threatened by excesses of the security forces. He is publicly perceived as remote from the Da’irat al-Mukhabarat al-‘Ami (General Intelligence Directorate, or secret police), which is seen as a tool of the prime minister.

Behind the carrot of economic and social stability, however, is the stick of outright violence and repression. The bloody time of Black September 1970 is never forgotten here; the violent actions of the security forces at Yarmuk University in May 1986 served as a timely reminder.

Rule of the Mukhabarat

Under martial law, the Mukhabarat has become the most feared and powerful institution in Jordan, along with Public Security chief ‘Abd al-Hadi Majalli’s Special Forces, who stormed the Yarmuk campus. Two of Jordan’s most powerful former prime ministers — Mudar Badran and Ahmad Obeidat — both once headed the Public Security Department. The continuity of the Mukhabarat has led to some tensions between the politically-appointed officials of the prime ministry and the intelligence officers, mainly partisans of Obeidat and Badran. Obeidat tends to represent traditional East Bank interests; Prime Minister Rifa‘i, with his Syrian ancestry and connections, represents the newer, more pro-American segments of the elite who support an active Jordanian role in Palestinian affairs. The current head of the Mukhabarat, a Circassian named Tariq Alai al-Din, reportedly represents a compromise between these two factions; the head of the Public Security Department (police), ‘Abd al-Hadi Majalli, though his family originally came from Hebron, identifies with the East Bankers through and through.

All political parties are illegal under martial law, while the left parties are also banned under the (civil) Anti-Communist Law of 1953, which forbids even simple possession of party-related newspapers, documents or leaflets. Article 3 of that law punishes “communist” activity by imprisonment with hard labor for up to 15 years.

From 1980 to 1983, Jordan had hundreds of political prisoners. The number has now declined to between 100 and 200. Since 1982, a new class of prisoners are administrative detainees; Amnesty International reports cases of persons held for more than four years without being charged or tried. Virtually all prisoners are connected to Palestinian parties or the Jordanian Communist Party (JCP). Very few are Islamist activists. Most charges are based on “crimes” such as possession of papers, and on the testimony of informants. In 1978, following demonstrations against the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon, most of the central committee of the Communist Party were arrested after one member turned out to be a Mukhabarat informer. Most sentences were for 10 years. Charges, trials and sentencing fall under a three-man military court, under the control of the Mukhabarat and the prime minister. Attorneys here say that the court rules on the word of the Mukhabarat; often they do not even bother to produce confessions. Sentences are usually only one to two years, but rearrest is common and longer sentences do occur.

Beatings are frequent in prisons here, but there is not the same level of systematic torture as practiced in Syria and Iraq. The most frequent form of torture is farruj (“chicken” in Arabic), where the prisoner is hung upside down from an iron bar inserted between the knees with the hands and knees bound, and then beaten. In July, the JCP newspaper reported that special security forces entered a prison, demanded the location of the political detainees, evicted the regular guards and officers and then proceeded to beat the prisoners. A similar event was reported last year, and confirmed by attorneys here.

In the communiqués of the Committee for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms in Jordan, the frequently-raised points are: arrest simply on the basis of political beliefs; trial on same charges twice; prolonged detention without charges or trial; and threats to the families of political prisoners.

Palestinians from the occupied territories face the special threat of losing their citizenship if imprisoned, as the Israeli authorities require these to renew travel permits and residency. There are also reported cases of West Bank Palestinians being deported to Israel, where they face imprisonment.

The Passport Game

Probably every Jordanian citizen has a friend or family member with passport problems. Estimates of those whose passports are actually confiscated range from the hundreds to 20,000. At least 50,000 people are affected by some kind of passport control. In addition to outright confiscation, there are those people who retain their passports but are not allowed to travel, those allowed to travel with special permission each time, those forced to report to the Mukhabarat for regular interviews or face losing their passports. One account friendly to the regime describes the passport as “the main security control.” “Not just a travel document, as in the United States, it is needed to get a job. The General Intelligence Directorate must authorize its issuance. If you are in their black books you may not get one. Beyond that, to study abroad or work for the government you need a certificate of good conduct, which the GID issues.” [3]

Passports allow the Mukhabarat to monitor the highest “risk” segments of the population: students who studied abroad and became politically active, people who worked with the Palestinian resistance in Lebanon or Syria and, of course, Palestinians crossing the bridge. There are various aims to passport confiscation and the attendant interrogation. Most obvious is the desire to identify activists, extract information and co-opt collaborators. Through this system the Mukhabarat has penetrated most parties here. Defense attorneys tell stories of having four clients accused of membership in a party cell, all of whom have informed on the others. Because of this high level of penetration, the Mukhabarat is able to successfully use phone taps, often arriving at party meetings before the cadre themselves. Palestinians coming from the West Bank and Gaza Strip are routinely interrogated on activities in their villages and towns, even if they themselves are not involved. The threat over their heads is denial of permission to return to their homes across the bridge.

Now that the state is not facing a strong, organized opposition and the Mukhabarat feels secure in its level of information, another aim is to humiliate and cow actual or potential activists. Persons without passports are unable to work. The resulting marginalization successfully denies activists any social life, let alone political legitimacy. The Mukhabarat knows how effective social and economic pressure is in Jordan’s very traditional society. An oft-repeated refrain during interrogations is, “Why should the state spend money on you? Go stay with your parents and be a drain on them.” One immediate result is personal despair and alienation; in the long term, this policy isolates politically active people from their communities. These techniques are most effective against the Mukhabarat’s favorite targets: poor, badly connected East Jordanians suspected of supporting a Palestinian organization. Such techniques also work against middle-class Palestinian students or professionals. Cut off from satisfying work or financial independence, they become marginalized and susceptible to co-optation.

The Mukhabarat and Daily Life

The ubiquitous presence of the Mukhabarat is felt most strongly in the refugee camps. Informers among the camp population are numerous, and there are Mukhabarat officers in every ordinary police station. Virtually every project is controlled or at least watched, from YWCA sewing centers to sports clubs. Foreigners, especially the press or delegations, are forbidden from entering the camps without permission from the interior ministry, which is often denied. The regime is presently sponsoring the organization of Abu Za‘im, the former Arafat aide who broke with Fatah in favor of maintaining the PLO-Jordanian accord; his money, clinics and social clubs are flooding the camps, and his men also play the role of agents and enforcers.

The Mukhabarat increasingly affects the lives of Jordanians and non-camp Palestinians as well. Certificates of good conduct are needed for employment in all public sector jobs, including universities, and also more and more often for private sector jobs as well. Even taxi drivers now need clearance. Especially hard hit are teachers in elementary and secondary schools; private schools must send a list of their employees to the Mukhabarat each term for approval. One young Palestinian, who taught art in a private Catholic school, took her students on a day trip to see a Palestinian cultural exhibition; even though she had no political affiliation whatsoever, she lost her job the next year when the Mukhabarat withdrew her certificate. Private business companies reportedly submit names of their employees for approval even though this is not demanded by law, as a way of making sure there are “no problems” from the government.

A group’s license can be revoked without reason under martial law, with no right to appeal. The Women’s Union had become active in cultural and volunteer activities under unofficial JCP leadership. It was disbanded in 1983, and a pro-government official union was set up in its place. Similar steps were taken against the Jordanian Graduates Club; it had sponsored fairly open discussions to celebrate 1985’s Year of the Youth and held volunteer work camps every May 1st. In 1986 the government disbanded the existing committee and replaced it with pro-government functionaries; no functions have been sponsored by the club since then. Under martial law, all clubs, organizations, professional societies and unions must get permission from the Mukhabarat to hold any activity, and must have their founding officers approved.

Though they are legal under the Jordanian constitution, martial law bans strikes and demonstrations. The events at Yarmuk University in May 1986 show that the regime will not tolerate any public mobilization. After the US air raid against Libya, a small demonstration was held in Amman; police arrested most of the central committee of the JCP.

Freedom of the Press

When the 18th Palestine National Council (PNC) opened in Algiers on April 20,1987, the headline story on Jordanian evening news was the visit of a Korean delegation to Amman. There was no mention at all of the PNC. Censorship is a fact of life here; as with other forms of social and political control, the regime has evolved a system based on threats, co-optation and the unwilling but resigned participation of editors and journalists.

The issue was dramatized in January 1985 when Minister of Information Leila Sharaf resigned, the first resignation of a minister since 1957. One cause was King Hussein’s letter to the prime minister demanding stricter controls over the press and complaining about the general “tone” of media coverage:

I have noticed that a number of our newspaper writers have been…launching attacks on our social institutions and their customs and values…. I have become weary of a continued downtrend to frustration in which we see outlines in the newspapers every morning and evening, or in cartoonist drawings which can only cause desperation and lead to less because these frustrating elements tend to neglect all bright aspects of our life…. [4]

The ministry of information daily reviews the newspapers and meets with editors, providing guidelines and instructions on how to approach certain topics, and which topics should simply be omitted altogether. When the news of US arms sales to Iran first came out, journalists were told by their editors they could write articles critical of US policy, but also to be sure that there was nothing positive about the USSR in the same article or on the same page. In addition to the ministry, the government’s bureau of publications and publishing and a similar office in the royal court also function as censors.

Ministry briefing sessions are also used to ban journalists. Banning is not strictly legal here, and the government denies its use. There is no official notification; the minister suggests banning a journalist to an editor. Under the 1974 Publications and Press Law the government can close any paper without reason, and without right to appeal. If a banned writer complains, the government simply responds that the decision was made by the newspaper. One’s editor becomes the enemy, even if personally sympathetic. Banning means not only loss of work, but usually presages other problems such as passport confiscation, surveillance and interrogation.

Accreditation is another form of control. To be employed as a journalist, one must belong to the Press Association. The Mukhabarat must approve all applications, and uses the process to sift membership and also to promote collaborators and informers. A first indication of regime displeasure is often the denial of press credentials to cover official press conferences; this warning is usually sufficient to make a journalist retreat.

As with other forms of control, the process of censorship recreates itself. Self-censorship permeates the society. In the words of one Palestinian writer here: “I really feel as if a policeman sits on my chest and as if there is a scissor in my brain.” Editors and government censors are hypersensitive to every word and connotation. Writers joke about the techniques they have evolved to circumvent censorship. Most common is the “tactic of generalization” (ba‘ad in Arabic, meaning “some”), in which the phrase “in some Arab countries” or “in most Arab countries” prefaces all statements. To say “all Arab countries” is too direct and commits one to including Jordan.

Sometimes it is hard to know what is taboo at a particular time. Last February, Al-Sha‘b printed an article beginning “Abu Jihad arrived in Amman today to attend a meeting…” and the editor- in-chief was promptly fired. Newspapers are expected to promote “Jordanization” by conveying an appearance of cultural unity; and by not attacking Bedouin traditions. Investigative reporting is firmly discouraged; when it was revealed this summer that Amman residents had been drinking dangerously polluted water, only one paper, the English language Jordan Times, attempted any investigation at all. A journalist for Al-Dustour, who had a weekly column known for its “rude language” and willingness to gossip about prominent Jordanians, was fired this June. (The offices of Al-Dustour were across the street from the central Mukhabarat building. Rumor has it that the Mukhabarat called the paper to “remind him that he and his family live in a glass house, but ours is stone.”)

Books that can be sold in the market or ordered by schools and institutions must be approved by the official censor, the bureau of publications. The state tries to control not just information, but knowledge and alternative ways of thinking. There are alternative sources of news: the BBC, Radio Monte Carlo, or even Israeli television news. The majority of Jordanians are passive consumers of the three daily newspapers — ironically named Al-Sha‘b (The People), Al-Ra‘i (The Opinion) and Al-Dustour (The Constitution). Access to news and to any form of culture in general is severely circumscribed. As Amineh Adwan, a poet and literary critic, wrote recently: “Every time I write something, I think, what will I have to pay?” [5]



[1] Jordan Times, June 20,1987.
[2] Middle East International, June 27,1987.
[3] Arthur Day, East Bank/West Bank: Jordan and the Prospects for Peace (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1986), p. 52.
[4] Ibid., p. 32.
[5] Jordan Times, June 21,1987.

How to cite this article:

A Special Correspondent "“A Policeman on My Chest, A Scissor in My Brain”," Middle East Report 149 (November/December 1987).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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