An expanded campaign to silence outspoken critics of the Jordanian government has followed the October 20 assassination of USAID official Lawrence Foley in Amman. On the pretext of unsubstantiated speculation that Foley’s killing was orchestrated by a group of Islamist militants, the regime has arrested foreign and local journalists, detained prominent professionals for their political activities and cracked down on “Wahhabis” who it fears might foment opposition as the likely US-led war on Iraq approaches. Given Jordan’s proximity to Iraq, its reliance on Iraqi oil and widespread sentiment among Jordanians that a new war can only multiply the injustices being visited upon the Iraqi people, the regime is concerned that countrywide protests might threaten the stability of the monarchy, if and when formal hostilities commence.
Thus far, the southern city of Maan has borne the brunt of the anti-opposition campaign, which has left at least six dead and over 100 still in prison. Beginning on November 8, local police, with the assistance of Special Forces units, imposed a six-day curfew and conducted house-to-house searches for weapons as well as residents deemed threatening to state security. The largest-scale armed fighting between government troops and domestic groups since the Black September conflict with the PLO in 1970 ensued in Maan’s streets, as soldiers fired heavy machine guns at buildings from which gunfire came. Although the curfew was lifted after a week, tensions flared again on November 24, when clashes led to a further civilian death.
The entire area surrounding Maan remains a closed military zone. Save a small number of commercial vehicles bringing in food and basic provisions, traffic does not enter or exit the city. The army maintains a virtual siege through a heavy military presence, although the second curfew has been lifted and schools and government offices have recently reopened. Periodic house-to-house searches continue, and Maani citizens report trashed homes, unnecessarily shattered windows, demolished walls and personal items confiscated without justification, or even a receipt. The government has declared Maan a “weapons-free zone,” reporting high voluntary compliance with a program for residents to turn in all manner of arms. While the continued standoff suggests less than full compliance, Maanis complain that Jordanians elsewhere in the country have not been pressured to surrender their firearms, which are common even in cities.
The Jordanian regime, known in Washington as a “moderate” Arab state, has portrayed its targets in Maan alternately as drug dealers, weapons smugglers and Islamist extremists with connections to Kabul. But the resistance of Maani residents to the army’s incursions illustrates both the high nationwide level and the complex origins of resentment toward the government.
Center of Unrest
Maan is home to about 100,000 Jordanians, primarily of non-Palestinian descent. When the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was forged out of Mandate Transjordan, Maan and other southern cities provided an important base of support for the royal family. Numerous military and special security personnel are still recruited from the Maan area. In recent decades, residents of this “desert city” have taken to the streets in protest multiple times, often to voice their anger at the plight of the Palestinian and Iraqi peoples. Most notably, however, Maan has been the center of significant unrest sparked by the regime’s program of “economic reform” recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). If Maan is well-known in Jordan for its pro-Palestinian, pro-Iraq and anti-structural adjustment opinions, these views are widely shared, though less militantly expressed, throughout the country.
By 1988, Jordan had accumulated foreign debts in excess of $6 billion. The government could not meet its financial obligations and was forced to devalue the dinar by 50 percent. With the end of the Iran-Iraq war, trucking towns like Maan were already suffering from decreased transport between the Aqaba port and Iraq, Jordan’s most important trading partner. In early 1989, Jordan began implementing the first steps of a structural adjustment program, which the regime had concluded with the IMF months earlier. In April, the government began to lift several price supports, including a fuel subsidy, sending gasoline prices up by 30 percent overnight and hitting Maan’s trucking industry particularly hard. Riots broke out in the city the day the reforms went into effect. The unrest spread quickly throughout Jordan, coinciding with the start of Ramadan and reflecting nationwide dissatisfaction with IMF-inspired policies.
Though the early demands of the rioters did not include calls for democracy, the late King Hussein initiated limited political liberalization in an effort to deflate dissent on economic issues, or at least to direct dissent into channels the state could monitor and control. Together, the national elections in 1989 (the first since the suspension of Parliament following the 1967 war) and the National Charter drafted a year later created an atmosphere of optimism, despite the continued deterioration of the economy.
Between Amman and Iraq
When Jordan failed to lend its support to the US-led coalition during the Gulf war of 1990-1991, Washington “thanked” Jordan by unilaterally cutting aid to the monarchy, a move with severe consequences for the country. War-interrupted commerce between Aqaba and Iraq and the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990 brought Maan’s economy to a virtual standstill. Meanwhile, Jordan struggled to absorb some 300,000 migrant workers who were forced to return from the Gulf countries where they worked. The workers brought home their liquid assets, but this temporary influx of funds most benefited the construction, service and financial sectors around Amman. Maan, 135 miles to the south, was devastated.
Facing accumulating debt, the loss of US aid and the decline in remittances from Jordanians employed in the Gulf, King Hussein began as early as 1992 to reverse some of the political reforms, though keeping the veneer of democratization. Political parties were legalized, but the electoral system was changed to disadvantage opposition parties and favor pro-regime candidates. In Maan and other southern towns, the popular independent Islamist Layth Shubaylat spoke openly against the regime, its corruption and its move away from Iraq. Following one particularly fiery speech, he was sentenced to death for “high treason,” though he was pardoned just 48 hours later.
The regime’s turn against Iraq was part of an aggressive effort to rebuild its relations with Washington. In 1994, Jordan concluded a peace treaty with Israel—becoming only the second Arab state to do so. By 1996, Jordan had reestablished its status as a pivotal US ally (along with Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and accelerated its economic restructuring program. In August of that year, Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Kabariti implemented a second wave (after 1989) of lifting government subsidies, as required by the IMF. Maan, as well as various locales throughout Amman and several cities in the south, again erupted in protest. While rallies in Maan were large but peaceful, the army was sent to restore calm in the mountain city of Karak, where it remained for five days.
Again in 1998, Maan’s residents demonstrated repeatedly against the missile attacks of the Clinton administration on Iraq. The attempted arrest of Shubaylat, who had criticized the US and defended Iraq in a speech in Maan’s main mosque, caused such protest that the army placed the city under siege for 40 days. Eight people were killed as the troops sought to maintain control of the streets, while police combed houses to confiscate weapons and demonstrate the regime’s ability to extend its control into Jordanians’ private space. Shubaylat was quickly released, but the humiliations of 1998 were not forgotten.
Retreat from Democracy
With the ascent of King Abdallah II to the throne in February 1999, tensions between the regime and the voices of political dissent have not so much changed course as intensified. The new regime has stressed its commitment to neoliberal economic reform, clearly betting that the further retreat from democracy will be offset by improvement in the economy. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in October 2000, the regime has adopted increasingly harsh measures to quell dissent. Over 100 “temporary laws” severely limit freedoms of expression and assembly, broadening the penal code to such an extent that criticizing “friendly nations” or even signing a petition may be punishable as a threat to state security. Professional associations have also come under attack, with several leaders arrested for criticizing state policies, notably toward Israel, Iraq and the US. Protests and rallies are illegal without a permit. Press freedoms have been dramatically curtailed with the closing of the Amman office of the satellite TV network al-Jazeera and arrest of foreign and local journalists attempting to cover the protests.
Meanwhile, Jordanians greatly resent that various “temporary laws” also have been used to enact economic reforms, some specifically benefiting families loyal to the regime. Former MP Toujan Faisal was convicted and imprisoned in May 2002 for publishing online a letter critical of a temporary law increasing the cost of car insurance that personally benefited the family of Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb. Another temporary law denied her and others convicted of misdemeanors in the State Security Court the right to appeal. Though Faisal was released in early July, one of Jordan’s most active and forthright opposition voices is now ineligible to run for public office.
Maan, Under Siege Again
Recent events in Maan must be understood as part of this series of restrictions on political freedoms. In addition to the arrest of three members of the Professional Association’s Anti-Normalization (with Israel) Committee—a body which was recently declared illegal—the regime has decided to target dissident voices in the southern part of the country. Among the over 140 arrested between November 8-14 was Shubaylat. Days earlier, Muhammad Shalabi, a cleric known as “Abu Sayyaf” and said to be connected to the militant Islamist group al-Takfir wa al-Hijra, which has roots in Egypt, had been arrested at a police checkpoint, receiving a gunshot wound to the arm in the process. Police report that tribal elements sneaked him out of the hospital, though Shalabi reported leaving freely and retreating to his father’s home in Maan to rest and recover. Regardless of which story is true, few dispute that the subsequent manhunt for Shalabi served as an excuse to ferret out other political dissidents in the city. For its part, the government maintains that it seeks only to apprehend “gangs” of drug dealers and arms traders.
Animosity between the regime and Maan residents had been intense since January, when a youth arrested for a misdemeanor died mysteriously “of kidney failure” after several days in custody. Maanis rioted in protest, attacking government property and police vehicles. A police officer later died from his wounds. The city was placed under siege for more than five days, while government officials blamed the officer’s death on Islamists, and local tribal leaders for giving them refuge. Thus when Special Forces and later the riot police and army troops, tanks and helicopters surrounded Maan in mid-November, anti-government sentiment was already running high.
The government’s focus on Shalabi and the so-called gangs of drug dealers and arms smugglers masks a much wider breadth of dissent in Jordan. Like Shubaylat, Shalabi hails from southern Jordan. Both are largely independent Islamists with no formal ties to the Muslim Brotherhood or to Jordan’s largest political party, the Islamic Action Front. But whereas Shubaylat has a significant popular base of support as a vocal critic of the regime’s relations with Israel and its turn toward the West, the more extremist Shalabi has, if anything, a very small and localized following. Despite initial regime hyperbole about “Wahhabis”—a claim officials stopped making after the first week of protests—Maan is far from a hotbed of Islamist radicalism. Its residents are highly conservative and religious, but tribal affiliations hold much more sway there than do Islamist extremists. Tribal leaders in and around Maan offered Shalabi refuge not because they share his radical Islamist ideology, but because they oppose the regime’s heavy-handed crackdown on voices of dissent and violations of private spaces. Shalabi is now said by the government to be hiding in the mountains outside Maan.
In late October, the regime launched a massive public relations effort, plastering the phrase “Jordan First” on billboards, banners, posters and bumper stickers across the country. “Jordan First” was surely chosen so that no Jordanian could oppose the campaign without appearing unpatriotic. Anyone expressing support for Palestinians or Iraqis, for example, is not putting Jordan first. Anyone critical of state policies in this “time of war” is not putting Jordan first. Like the “anti-American” label that has reemerged in the US since September 11, 2001, “Jordan First” is aimed at quieting anyone who dares to question state policies.
Some Jordanians express support for the campaign, both publicly and privately. They point to the economy, which remains in dire straits despite recent jumps (and likely future increases) in US aid to the kingdom. The problems of Palestinians and Iraqis certainly warrant attention, they say, but Jordan needs to attend to its own needs first. Others, however, see the campaign as a means of suppressing political dissent. Anyone who fails to put Jordan first may be seen to “harm the interests of the state,” and therefore may be punishable under the harsh penal code. Still other Jordanians evince concern that the campaign was intended to profit particular companies, and to reframe structural adjustment programs in such a way that criticism is extremely difficult.
In any case, the “Jordan First” campaign comes at a time when severe political repression and the government’s rhetoric justifying it have come to be seen as the imposition of a regime of fear in anticipation of the war on Iraq, and the possible spread of the intifada into Jordan or the rise of Islamist extremism in the country. Jordanians are not buying the government’s stories, but with the ongoing arrests of journalists, professional association leaders and independent political activists, virtually all avenues for expressing political dissent have been closed. This is not a policy that will bring stability to Jordan; rather, if continued, it will certainly lead to the emergence of more radical opposition movements.