Tens of thousands of Jordanians took to the streets in support of Palestinians during the March and April 2002 Israeli invasions of seven of eight major towns in the West Bank. Remarkable enough for their sheer size (Jordan’s population is just over five million), most of these marches and rallies were also illegal, as the government had implemented a temporary law in August 2001 requiring organizers to obtain permits and assume personal liability for property damaged during events. Yet, outcry against Israel was so widespread that the regime feared appearing unsympathetic to Palestinian suffering. In a clear public relations maneuver, Queen Rania, herself Palestinian, led a highly publicized (and much photographed) solidarity march. Government officials scrambled to control the many marches in which protesters attempted to reach the Israeli embassy. Demonstrators carried placards and shouted chants demanding that the kingdom sever its ties with Israel and abandon the 1994 peace treaty, which they view as a failure.

Throughout these events, Jordan’s mainstream Islamists struggled to maintain their complicated status as both opposition leaders and allies of the regime. The Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), take pride in calling themselves a “loyal opposition.” Islamist-regime relations began deteriorating in the mid-1990s, but both saw the continued utility of a symbiotic relationship. With the continued deterioration of political freedoms under King Abdallah, however, these Islamists have been rendered more sensitive to charges that they have been coopted by the regime. In the spring of 2002, the Islamists faced acerbic critics who noticed that the uninspired stationary rallies of these long-time advocates of the full liberation of historic Palestine paled in comparison to the most contentious demonstrations against Israel’s reoccupation of the towns transferred to the Palestinian Authority in the Oslo era. A march on April 5 to “kick out” the Israeli embassy was a particular embarrassment, when 20,000 strong protested despite threats from the Ministry of the Interior, and Islamists were nowhere to be seen. The Islamists responded by organizing a “Sacred Crawl on the Zionist Embassy” (al-zahf al-muqaddas ‘ala al-sifara al-sahyuniyya), scheduled to commence after Friday prayers on April 12. The event, co-organized by the Anti-Normalization (with Israel) Committee of Union of Professional Associations, was intended to be a slow march toward the Israeli embassy. Other activists mocked the event’s title, saying that Islamists were now too timid to march, so instead they chose to crawl.

In the end, the event was called off by its organizers at the last minute, ostensibly because too many people seemed to be showing up. At a press conference at the professional associations’ complex in Shmeisani, Muhammad Oran told the assembled protesters to go home so as to “stop the bloodletting.” Various reports suggest that either King Abdallah or Prime Minister Ali Abu al-Raghib had directly intervened, threatening severe repercussions if the march went forward. Whatever the real reason, the last-minute cancellation contributed to the growing view that many prominent “opposition” figures were acquiescing to the regime.

Since the start of the second intifada in late September 2000, Jordan has witnessed its most extensive and violent demonstrations since April 1989, which sparked the move toward limited political liberalization. In the first week of October 2000 alone, the Jordanian government reported that 203 marches and 73 demonstrations were held in support of Palestinians. [1] In the past two years, tens of thousands of Jordanians have participated in hundreds of marches and demonstrations to protest a wide range of issues. In that time, the government has implemented some 125 “temporary” laws (so dubbed since the parliament was dissolved on June 13, 2001 in anticipation of the November 2001 elections, which have yet to be held). [2] While many of these laws have been aimed at quashing political dissent, waves of protest are likely to continue as long as the political and economic situation remains dire.

Political demonstrations in the Arab world receive international media coverage when marchers carry posters of Saddam Hussein, shout Islamist slogans or burn Israeli and American flags. Together, these images support the notion of a widening chasm between the “Arab street” and moderate, pro-Western regimes and their allies, notably the United States and Israel. Government officials in Jordan often portray local demonstrations as having external roots — Palestinian, Iraqi and Islamist — that have spread into Jordan. But the crackdown of King Abdallah’s regime upon political dissent shows that the Jordanian government is far less liberal than its reputation.

State of Protest

Demonstrators in the spring of 2002 encountered riot police, the general and special security services, the military and the secret police, who sought to disperse the crowds with dogs, water cannons, batons, tanks and tear gas, the latter including canisters that bore expiration dates long past. The police often arrested large numbers of protesters, seemingly with the sole intent of breaking up the crowds. Detained protesters were sometimes released without charge, mere hours later, but at great distances from the sites of the demonstrations. In other instances, detainees were held without charge in “administrative detention” for one or two weeks in harsh conditions. Images of these protests reveal only masses of people filling the streets, and not the diversity of participants: political parties, professional associations, civil society organizations, independent activists and passersby. Protesters spanned the political spectrum, from secular Marxists to conservative Islamists and tribal groupings, and many events were organized and coordinated across ideological divides.

The diversity of these events illustrates the dynamics of protest in Jordan that are seldom reflected in media analyses. At highly charged times when protests are inevitable, government officials prefer demonstrations organized by known political parties, where existing channels of communication ensure that the time and place of protest activities are known. Even so, police seek to lessen the turnout by stopping bus loads of protesters arriving from outside Amman. In contrast, the strongest police responses are reserved for events organized by independent activists, particularly those unwilling or unable to vet their plans through government channels. While quietly negotiated terms can sometimes buy space for protest activities, at other times a clear lack of unified organization can be an asset, as in the spring of 2002, when there was a “state” of mass protest more than a series of carefully organized events.

Even when on-the-ground leadership emerges spontaneously, text messaging, cell phones and Internet bulletin boards (where updates are posted to indicate which roads remain accessible) have become important means of communication among today’s high-tech Jordanian protesters. Text messaging proved so important that, on several occasions in April 2002, service failed at one or both of the competing cell phone services, MobileCom and Fastlink. Government officials deny orchestrating the crash, though executives of both companies insist that their services can handle high traffic. Neither service provider says they were told by government officials to suspend service.

While large-scale events are the most visible means of public political dissent, they are far from the only form of protest within the public sphere. Aware that police are often prepared to use force to shut down demonstrations, some activists sought other means of expressing their solidarity with Palestinians. One such event was the exhibition of a “Right of Return Quilt” in late 2001, an initiative organized — like many Palestinian solidarity events — largely by Jordanians of East Bank origin. Constructed over a period of several months, the quilt was made of hundreds of square panels, each bearing the name of a Palestinian village and embroidered in the traditional style of that village. The names appear in red (representing villages that have been destroyed since 1948) and green (for villages still in existence). Organizers displayed the quilt on the stage of the Royal Culture Palace in the Sports City complex; more than 7,000 people came to view it, though many were turned away due to long lines and lack of space. Some journalists reported that police prevented them from entering the hall to photograph the quilt.

As a corollary project to the quilt, the organizers distributed a petition demanding the complete right of return for all Palestinian people, explicitly rejecting the symbolic right of return with compensation that is frequently put forth as a viable option. The organizers intended the petition and the quilt — which has since been displayed for large crowds in Damascus and in Europe — as a peaceful means of publicly demonstrating solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Another protest event that took place in May 2002 was the formation of a “human chain” along Zahran Street, between the busy second and third traffic circles in Amman. The organizers, who were not affiliated with any political party, hoped to form an unbroken line of people along the road in front of the Iraqi embassy. Turnout was not overwhelming, with protesters spaced sometimes five meters apart along the mile stretch. But the police who broke up the demonstration attracted perhaps more attention than the event itself, arresting dozens and temporarily blocking traffic. At another event, organizers planned to have artists paint large solidarity posters at intervals along Gardens Street, in hopes of attracting the attention of passersby without mounting an event the government would find contentious. The “art protest” was canceled when sidewalks along large portions of the street were bulldozed for “repairs” the night before the event. Still another form of political protest — one that extends beyond Jordan’s borders into the Arab and Islamic worlds — is the boycott of American products. [3] Newspapers have published lists of acceptable alternative products, while small groups have sought to hold rallies in which American products are burned. One such event was held in July 2002 inside the professional associations complex. The police crashed the event, blocking surrounding streets and banning all cars and individuals from entering the area from 2:00 pm until 8:30 pm.

Rolling Back Reform

Frustrations with Jordan’s severe restrictions on the expression of political dissent, evident throughout the spring 2002 protests, date back several years. Freedom of speech was one of the first casualties in the reversal of democratic openings of the early 1990s, particularly when the government began to enforce legal provisions against criticism of “friendly nations” in order to quash dissent about the 1994 treaty with Israel. [4] For a time, some venues for free political expression remained open. From 1989 to 1997, the Islamic Action Front commanded the largest bloc in successive parliaments. Its deputies first opposed the treaty and then demanded that Jordan suspend it until the provisions of the Oslo agreements were fully realized. The treaty was never in danger, however, because the appointed Senate could veto House initiatives even if the Islamists had prevailed, which they did not. Still, the pluralist House provided an arena in which proposals anathema to the regime could be put forth for debate.

In the spring of 1997, freedom of expression began to deteriorate rapidly. King Hussein removed the relatively reform-minded Prime Minister ‘Abd al-Karim Kabariti and appointed the conservative ‘Abd al-Salam al-Majali, who had been the architect of the 1994 peace treaty. Majali quickly enacted harsh restrictions on press freedoms. His targeting of the press followed what many saw as an embarrassing moment for Jordanian journalism, when newspapers portrayed Ahmad Daqamseh —  the mentally unstable Jordanian soldier who had opened fire on a group of Israeli children, killing seven — as a national hero. Kabariti had outlawed the “I Love Daqamseh” bumper stickers and posters that began to appear around Amman, but Majali targeted the press itself. Unable to meet increased capital requirements of the new press and publications law, most weeklies immediately closed. The new law also underlined Majali’s efforts to silence criticism of Jordanian foreign policy, particularly with regards to Iraq, Israel and the US.

The response to the new press and publications law — officially a “temporary” law since the parliament had been dissolved in anticipation of the November 1997 elections — included a number of small public protests. The most important took place in May, when roughly 100 journalists demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office. Security forces arrested more than 50 journalists and damaged the cameras of foreign television crews attempting to record the event. [5] The demonstration marked the beginning of a long series of protest activities as the elections approached. By July, a broad coalition including two former prime ministers, several leftist parties and the Islamist Action Front, called for a boycott of the elections. Their statement, signed by 80 individuals, cited regime manipulation of the elections law (to produce a more pro-regime assembly) and restrictions on freedom of speech as primary reasons for the boycott. Although the 1997 temporary law was found unconstitutional in January 1998, new restrictive amendments were introduced in 1999 and passed by a parliament that, because of the Islamist-led boycott in 1997, contained few opposition voices.

The Professionals

The regime’s toleration of public political dissent declined further with the outbreak of the intifada. Police violently shut down dozens of the hundreds of demonstrations throughout the country through the end of 2000. At least two protesters were killed in clashes with security forces, a rare occurrence in Jordan. In August 2001, Prime Minister Abu al-Raghib issued a temporary law requiring organizers of demonstrations to obtain a permit from the local governorate three days prior to the event; the previous law had required only that notification be given. In addition, newspapers protested new restrictions that rendered additional topics of investigation and commentary off limits. In October 2001, the editors and publishers of ten weeklies sent a letter to Abu al-Raghib demanding the repeal of harsh new penalties on editors and journalists. These amendments to the penal code, they argued, “harm the Kingdom’s democratic image.”  [6]

In November 2001, the Union of the Professional Associations organized a rally inside their complex in support of the people of Afghanistan, despite having tried and failed to obtain a permit. Police halted the event after only 30 minutes, though only a few dozen were in attendance. According to ‘Abd al-Hadi Falahat, president of the professional associations’ governing council, a police officer approached him during his speech with orders to stop the event from Amman Governor Talaat Nawaiseh. “We went ahead with the rally [without a permit] because we believe we have the right to express our opinion on crucial matters,” said Falahat. The organizers had decided to hold the event inside the complex, expecting the government to consider it as a legal internal activity. [7]

Political debate continues to be restricted in other ways. Former parliamentarian Toujan Faisal was convicted in the State Security Court in April 2002 for publishing on the Internet an open letter to King Abdallah, which was reprinted in the Islamist weekly al-Sabil. The letter addressed Prime Minister Abu al-Raghib’s decision to raise car insurance rates, and Faisal questioned whether the move was really an issue of state security, boldly noting that Abu al-Raghib’s family would directly profit. A few months later, the regime for the first time closed a civil society organization for its criticism of government policies: on October 29, 2002, the license for the Jordanian Society for Citizen’s Rights (JSCR) was revoked for “violations of the Societies and Social Institutions Act,” ostensibly for the failure to submit annual budgetary reports to the Ministry of the Interior. For its part, the JSCR argues that it produced copies of the reports for each of the years in question. Amnesty International called the closure politically motivated, and “apparently related to public statements of the JSCR including those which criticized official policies on citizenship and numerous temporary laws.” [8] In November, the government banned the Anti-Normalization Committee of the Union of Professional Associations and all other “policy-oriented” committees of the Union. Just weeks later, leftist activist Hisham Bustani was arrested for publishing an online article in the Beirut-based literary magazine al-Adab detailing his detention earlier in 2002 in Juwayda prison. [9] The article drew attention to the physical abuse of prisoners and the use by riot police of expired tear gas. Bustani is a member of the now-banned Anti-Normalization Committee of the Union of Professional Associations, whose complex has at various times during 2002 been under virtual military siege. On several occasions, police arrested speakers right off the podium and disassembled sound systems as events were about to get underway.

Paradoxically, the regime is somewhat responsible for the extent to which the professional associations have become central players in mounting demonstrations and rallies throughout Amman. As alternative venues for political expression have been systematically closed, the professional associations — particularly the engineers’, lawyers’, doctors’, dentists’ and pharmacists’ associations — have utilized their positions on governing boards to express opposition to regime policies. All political trends are represented in these associations, from Islamists (who historically have dominated the engineers’ association) to leftists to nationalists and a similar range of independents. In the overall repressive environment, activists look for the few spaces — such as the professional associations — that remain somewhat open. Yet freedom of expression has deteriorated so badly that George Hawatmeh, editor of al-Ra’y, Jordan’s largest daily, has said that he has become so relentless in his censorship that he no longer worries about provoking the government. [10]

Islamists, Again

Jordan’s mainstream Islamists have long been at the forefront of political demonstrations. With the crackdown on virtually all other avenues for expressing political dissent, public support for Islamists, the only real political party in the country, seems to be growing. Yet the regime’s increasing repression is rendering the Islamists’ position untenable. On the one hand, IAF leaders have sought to maintain under King Abdallah the privileged status they enjoyed under King Hussein, particularly before the signing of the 1994 peace treaty. They often consult with government officials on organizing political demonstrations — in fact, the party was granted the first permit for an event the day after enactment of the August 2001 law. At times, the IAF has resisted organizing protest events with other groups, preferring to hold purely “Islamist” events both to claim full credit and to be sure to maintain control, thereby upholding informal agreements with the regime. Post-September 11, they have sought to distinguish themselves from militant Islamists, in part by showing restraint in their criticism of the regime.

On the other hand, opposition to the regime has grown with the deteriorating economic situation and the increased restrictions on freedom of expression. The government has sought to replace IAF-affiliated Islamic preachers with pro-government voices, and the Royal Court has attempted to undercut Islamist influence by taking up activities long dominated by Islamists, including contests for memorizing the Qur’an, charitable societies and conferences on Islamic issues. IAF Secretary General Hamza Mansour expresses much frustration over these moves, sharing with other political trends anger over the continued rollbacks of liberalization, the temporary laws and the harsh penalties for criticizing certain government policies. Under his leadership, Mansour says, the party will remain committed to working within a democratic framework, but he calls on the government to live up to its half of the bargain. [11]

While the Islamists are neither fully in opposition nor fully coopted by the regime, recent encounters suggest that the alliance they struck with King Hussein is growing less stable. Major tension emerged when the regime sought to control the outcome of municipal and student elections, where Islamists have historically performed very well. Municipal boundaries have been redrawn throughout the country, with many strong Islamist districts absorbed into others, lessening the Islamists’ numbers in locally elected seats. In the spring of 1999, the administration of the University of Jordan took a controversial decision whereby the university president would appoint the student body president and half of the members of the 80-seat Student Council, allowing open elections for only the remaining 40 members. Critics and supporters of the decision agreed that the move was aimed at curtailing the influence of Islamist students, who had dominated the council for several years. In response to the new structure, Islamist student leaders organized numerous campus protests. The police sealed off the campus, and on one occasion also surrounded the IAF headquarters, located several miles from the university.

Other conflicts between Islamists and the regime emerge because some local Islamist leaders defy the directives of the central party leadership. In April 2001, for example, a local Islamist branch organized a large demonstration in Sweileh, a northwestern suburb of Amman near the university. The demonstration was headed by Hammam Said, an extremist preacher and member of the IAF Consultative Council, who often sharply dissents from the party’s strategy of maintaining good relations with the government. In May, ties between Islamists and the government further deteriorated after the IAF organized more demonstrations in defiance of a government ban, and the police used considerable force to disperse the demonstrators. At a May 12 protest, for example, riot police unleashed their dogs, water cannons, batons and tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters at an IAF rally. One of the key speakers, then IAF Secretary-General ‘Abd al-Latif Arabiyyat, was hurt by an officer swinging a baton. Many argue that the injuries to this former speaker of the house marked a turning point in Islamist-regime relations. The IAF had been pushing the government in hopes of regaining some lost ground, forcing the regime to acquiesce to continue Islamist influence in many sectors. The harsh repression of the student protests and other IAF events angered many Islamists, who felt that the “bargain” with the regime had disintegrated. In the past year, however, the Islamists seem to have regrouped and pulled back in anticipation of the upcoming elections, which they plan to strongly contest. Under Mansour, the IAF is betting that even a weak alliance with the regime will be important to the party’s survival as other movements and venues for political protest — like the professional associations — come under stricter control. Such informal connections are likely to prove extremely important to “opposition” and opposition groups alike as the US — Jordan’s most important ally — continues with its “war on terrorism.”

Casualties of Wars

Several recurring themes run through the diverse protest activity in Jordan. First and foremost, Jordanians are extremely frustrated with the severe limitations on freedom of expression. Second, they are extremely dissatisfied with Jordan’s sagging economy, as reflected in demonstrations framed around international as well as domestic issues. Protests in support of Iraq include explicit criticisms of the costs of the sanctions on the Iraqi people, but those sanctions also have had a disastrous effect on Jordan. Hardest hit are trucking towns such as the southern city of Maan, the site of seven major protests since 1989. [12] In August 1996, residents of the mountain city of Karak and a few other towns demonstrated against the lifting of government wheat subsidies, which dramatically increased the cost of animal feed as well as bread. [13]

Even protests against Israel often entail critiques of economic reforms. In January 1997, several thousand Jordanians gathered in the exhibition hall in Marj al-Hammam, outside Amman, at the site of the first Israeli Trade Fair, an exhibition provided for in the 1994 peace treaty. The demonstrations were the largest since the harsh repression of the August 1996 riots in Karak, but also, for the first time, leading figures within the chambers of commerce and industry allied with Islamists, leftists and professional association leaders in the planning and execution of political demonstrations.

King Abdallah’s regime has a much weaker support base than that of his father. Accordingly, Abdallah has increased the role of security and intelligence forces in governance and relied on a cabinet composed of conservative technocrats, rather than politicians and reformers. The upper house of parliament, the Chamber of Notables — newly appointed in December 2001 — is now without the few dissenting voices that remained. Elections originally scheduled for November 2001 continue to be delayed, for the widely (if unofficially) acknowledged reason that popular support for the intifada and hostility toward a war on Iraq would translate into strong opposition showing at the polls, despite recent changes to the electoral law aimed at preventing such an outcome.

Underpinning the regime’s aggressive response to protest activities and expressions of political dissent is the reality that Jordan fared poorly after the 1991 Gulf war, when its decision to remain neutral was met with unilateral cuts in aid packages from the US, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. King Hussein worked for five years to rebuild the relations with Washington, a lesson not lost on his son. The most basic political freedoms have fallen as casualties while the government pursues the objective of close relations with the US. With its latest public relations effort, “Jordan First” (al-Urdunn Awwalan), a mix of economic reforms and admonishments to Jordanians to put their own issues ahead of foreign causes, the regime is gambling that improvements in the economy will offset the serious political dissent that now exists. In the meantime, protest events and political dissent in general are unlikely to be tolerated.


[1] Al-Dustour, October 8, 2000.
[2] The constitution provides for these temporary laws only in cases of national security, but the vast majority of the laws now in effect clearly cannot be justified on those grounds. See Jillian Schwedler, “Don’t Blink: Jordan’s Democratic Opening and Closing,” Middle East Report Online, July 3, 2002.
[3] See Sa’eda Kilany’s article in this issue.
[4] See chapter 6 in Marc Lynch, State Interests and Public Spheres: The International Politics of Jordan’s Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
[5] Sa’eda Kilany, Hurriyat al-sahafa fi al-Urdunn [Press Freedoms in Jordan] (Copenhagen: Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, 2002), p. 31.
[6] The letter was signed by the heads of al-Sabil, al-Hadath, al-Liwa’, al-Ittijah, Shihan, al-Bilad, al-Jazeira, al-Shahid, al-Hilal and Hawadith al-Sa‘a.
[7] Jordan Times, November 14, 2001.
[8] Amnesty International, “Jordan: Right to Freedom of Expression and Association Denied,” MDE 16/020/2002, November 11, 2002.
[9] Hisham Bustani, “Aliyyat al-qam‘ wa al-intihak: mu‘taqilu al-masira fi sijn al-Juwayda [Mechanisms of Oppression and Violation: The Case of the Detained Protesters in the Juwayda Prison],” al-Adab (December 2002).
[10] Anthony Shadid, “Pressure Builds Under Jordan’s King,” Washington Post, February 5, 2003.
[11] Interview with Hamza Mansour, Amman, June 2002.
[12] See International Crisis Group, “Red Alert in Jordan: Recurrent Unrest in Maan,” February 19, 2003 and Jillian Schwedler, “Occupied Maan: Jordan’s Closed Military Zone,” Middle East Report Online, December 3, 2002.
[13] Lamis Andoni and Jillian Schwedler, “Bread Riots in Jordan,” Middle East Report 201 (Fall 1996).

How to cite this article:

Jillian Schwedler "More Than a Mob," Middle East Report 226 (Spring 2003).

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