Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

In January 2011, hundreds and sometimes thousands of Jordanians began protesting like clockwork on Friday afternoons; they continued to do so for nearly two years. The crowds were small compared to those in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain, but the turnout was sustained and marked a significant uptick for Jordan, where peaceful protest had not been uncommon. But by 2013 the demonstrations declined in both size and frequency. The regime weathered the main storm of the Arab uprisings, and without having resorted to violent repression. Many in the regime credited top-down reforms, including a revised constitution and amended laws on parties, public gatherings and elections. The political elite, including King ‘Abdallah II, spoke in terms of a reformist democratic march, through which Jordan would show the region a third way between the stark alternatives of revanchist authoritarianism, on the one hand, and upheaval and civil war, on the other. Jordan’s “Arab spring” would be about evolution, not revolution.

But relative quiet is not acquiescence, and the protesters fell back for many reasons. Some eyed the increasing devastation of the Syrian civil war with growing dismay and feared undermining their own country’s stability. Some became disillusioned with what they viewed as a façade of a reform process. Some, of course, had been arrested in various crackdowns, especially those who were seen to have crossed the red line between criticism of the government and attacks upon the monarchy itself. Others simply waited for the next wave of protest, or redirected their energies into other avenues of resistance, such as independent journalism or public awareness efforts via mediums such as the arts. Still others turned to single-issue activism: Rather than advocating for substantial change at the national level, they might instead strive, for example, to save the Berqesh forest in ‘Ajloun from state over-development or to prevent the construction of a nuclear power plant near Mafraq. [1]

Indeed, Jordan has seen a revival of activism in the post-uprising era, including with protesters taking to the streets. Protests against a proposed gas deal with the state of Israel in 2014 soon grew into the largest movement in the country since the uprisings era. This movement was striking for its level of organization, its innovative strategies and tactics, and its diverse membership, drawn from every stratum of Jordanian society. “The campaign against the gas deal is a new kind of Jordanian protest movement,” stated activist Thoraya El-Rayyes. “The activists in the movement have moved beyond sloganeering, [by] conducting serious research on the deal and entering into informed policy debates about energy security and the development of the national energy sector.” [2]

The movement’s organizers consciously tried to move beyond forms of mobilization used by activists in the past. They hoped not only to influence the gas deal itself, but also to transform political activism and even political participation in Jordan. “We want people to rethink government and citizenship,” noted one activist. Even if the campaign failed in its policy goals, activists argued, it could at least be a partial success by energizing the public, revitalizing the protest movement and reintroducing a national front for democratic opposition and civic engagement into Jordanian politics.

A New Activist Movement

In September 2014, Jordan’s National Electric Power Company (NEPCO), with the backing of the Jordanian government, signed a letter of intent with Noble Energy, a company based in Houston, Texas. The letter called for Jordan to import natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean Leviathan field that is controlled by Israel. Government officials argued that the deal would shore up Jordan’s energy supply by fulfilling at least 40 percent of Jordan’s liquefied natural gas needs. The deal would save the kingdom $600 million per year, spokesmen claimed, as Jordan would import 300 million cubic feet of gas per day.

Many Jordanians were angered that the kingdom would cut a deal of this magnitude with Israel, and not just because they view the Leviathan field as rightfully Palestinian, rather than Israeli. Many were also alarmed at the timing and nature of the agreement. Average Jordanians found out about the deal—just as they had learned of the negotiations earlier that year—not from the regime or the Jordanian press, but from Israeli and international media. The timing of both the talks and the deal were highly contentious, given the summer 2014 Israeli assaults on Gaza during the latest chapter in the Israel-Hamas war. Many Jordanians expressed concern not only about the fact of these Israeli operations, but also about the high death toll among Palestinian civilians.

The Jordanian regime could not have picked a more controversial partner for a gas deal. Jordan is an energy-dependent country, but activists argued that buying gas from Israel amounted to Jordanian society subsidizing Israeli military raids and occupation. The slogan of the emerging protest movement became, “The gas of the enemy is occupation.” Activists intended for the slogan to have a dual meaning: By buying Israeli gas, Jordan was subsidizing Palestinian occupation; but the deal also allowed Jordan to be “occupied” by affording Israel so much control over the kingdom’s energy supply.

Organizers of the movement did not aim immediately to take to the streets, however. Instead, grassroots activists gathered for a meeting to plan a response and chose to focus on research before mounting a protest. The government was not forthcoming with information about the deal, so the activists sought to collect as much data as possible. A coordination committee worked with Platform, a London-based think tank, to obtain detail on the deal, including how money from Jordanian taxpayers and electricity consumers would effectively be directed toward the Israeli government itself via taxation of the gas purchases. The committee presented its findings at a press conference, setting the stage for mobilization of a broader movement.

On December 28, 2014, the campaign held the first of several national conferences expressing opposition to the gas deal with Israel. Individual activists and civil society groups were joined by a wide range of other participants, from professional syndicates, political parties, labor federations and independent trade unions to the hirak youth organizations forged during the 2011-2012 protests, as well as the influential association for retired military veterans. The Jordanian contingent of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement also joined the coalition, but it was just one of more than 30 groups to do so. [3]

The coalition against the gas deal rallied progressive, leftist and liberal forces together with Islamist, centrist and nationalist political parties. The Islamic Action Front, both of Jordan’s Baathist parties and the Stronger Jordan Party all participated, among many others. While prominent leaders of the Society of Muslim Brothers marched on some occasions, Islamists did not mobilize the entirety of their rank and file. The diminished number of Islamists gave many leftists and progressives confidence in their own efforts, since they were turning out significant numbers to events without having to rely on the Islamists’ constituency.

Methods of Protest

Once the activists had carefully researched the gas deal, they adopted a series of actions designed to raise awareness of its terms, stoke public opposition and pressure the government to change its policy. These actions included marches and protests aimed at guaranteeing continued media coverage and public attention. The campaign was so successful that in early December 2014, before the first national conference, legislators debated the issue on the floor of Jordan’s Chamber of Deputies, the elected lower house of Parliament, with activists watching from the galleries. MP Hind al-Fayez arrived with a placard featuring the logo of the campaign, and MP Rula al-Hroub spoke strongly in favor of its goals both in Parliament and at protest events.

On December 10, 2014 the Chamber of Deputies voted 107 to 13 in favor of a non-binding resolution that called on the government to abandon the gas deal completely. Activists saw the resolution as a huge victory. “I really think this kind of call for accountability from a grassroots secular campaign is unprecedented in recent years,” noted activist Mary Nazzal-Batayneh at the time. “If it weren’t for us, Parliament wouldn’t have deliberated on the issue to the same extent.” [4]

Continued protests kept the issue in the public eye and sustained the movement’s momentum. In March 2015 the coalition staged a protest of more than a thousand people, the largest in Jordan since the height of the Arab uprisings. “This was the first time after the ‘Arab spring’ that all these people came together and worked together on a single issue,” noted lead organizer Hisham Bustani, “and one of the main things the campaign did was to link topics and concerns together.” He argued that ultimately the movement is about more than gas or Israel or Jordan’s concerns over either. The campaign’s broader and fundamentally democratic goal was to both revitalize and transform civic activism, citizenship and governance in the Hashemite Kingdom—an aim entirely compatible with the regime’s official positions on reform in Jordan.

“We also tried to redefine the relationship between the citizen and the state,” said Bustani. “We talked about the taxpayers’ money—our money—and how it is being used.” These goals were underscored not only by the specific protest actions of the movement, but also by its emphasis on research and on sharing facts and data with the general public. “The idea is to respect the audience,” Bustani continued, “to empower them and to get them the information they need.”

In September 2015, the coalition moved beyond marches and protests to stage a unique event—a public tribunal that put the gas deal in the dock. Working with members of the bar association and prominent lawyers, activists held a mock trial, compete with prosecution, defense, judges and jury. They argued the cases both for the gas deal and, of course, against it. [5]

New Deal, New Protests

In September 2016, the Jordanian government announced that it had officially signed the deal between NEPCO and Noble Energy. [6] Given the high visibility of the opposition campaign and its successes, coalition leaders and many activists and supporters across the political spectrum were startled. The announcement was made a week after parliamentary elections but before the new national assembly could be seated. The new agreement met with stiff resistance across Jordanian society, however, and helped to remobilize a range of Jordanian protest movements as activists returned to the streets. [7] While Jordanian officials had sought to advance the gas deal quietly, they had inadvertently revitalized street protests and opposition movements. [8]

Many activist movements in Jordan, especially since the outbreak of Arab uprisings, have been accused of being Amman-centric and sometimes even West Amman-centric (a reference to the wealthier side of Jordan’s capital that casts movements as elitist). But from the outset, coalition leaders had organized at the grassroots level, and they attempted to extend their reach beyond the capital. Although protests were held in other cities, the larger marches and demonstrations took place in Amman. Activists said that their efforts to organize elsewhere, including demonstrations in the smaller cities of Irbid and Zarqa, were often blocked by state and local officials.

In the capital, the campaign was able to organize and hold protests with relative freedom in some locations but not in others. Marches in downtown Amman after Friday prayers were usually unimpeded. But marching to the Fourth Circle—an intersection next to the office of the prime minister—was a red line for the state: For the first time since the campaign was launched two years earlier, security forces arrested protesters, although all were later released without being charged. [9]

Campaign activists also encountered resistance, some escalating into scuffles with police, in a protest during which they rolled out a 30-meter-long banner bearing the movement’s slogan: “The gas of the enemy is occupation.” Security forces first thought that activists were setting up a tent. While the regime is usually tolerant of marches and demonstrations of limited duration, it has tended to block long-term sit-ins or occupations of urban space. The banner was successfully unfurled, however, with aerial photos of the event gracing the front pages of many Jordanian newspapers the next day. [10] Campaign activists also showed up at other events—including the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, held in Jordan in the fall of 2016—wearing T-shirts and carrying signs bearing the campaign’s slogans. Some even gave T-shirts to neighborhood kids to promote the movement and its goals. “This is a campaign on the ground,” said Bustani, “not just a virtual presence.”

Other measures expanded the campaign’s support across society, including among Jordanians who were not otherwise involved in the movement. One popular action was to turn off lights (and hence tie the gas deal to the generation of electricity in Jordan) simultaneously across the country for one hour each week. These coordinated “blackouts” continued for several weeks in succession and garnered the participation even of people who considered themselves non-political. [11]

Implications for Protests and Political Activism in Jordan

In February 2017, the coalition held its third national conference on the campaign against the Jordan-Israel gas deal, again gathering a large and diverse group of political activists and movements hoping to maintain momentum. Activists in the campaign had also compiled a report that they sent to Jordan’s Anti-Corruption Commission, charging that many aspects of the deal seemed dubious. They have yet to hear back from the commission.

While many protest movements emphasize dissent against a particular policy or practice, the coalition against Israeli gas aimed also to advance policy alternatives while building a new notion of political engagement. The problem with the gas deal, they argued, was not only economic: It also threatened Jordanian sovereignty and independence. Over-reliance on Israel, of all states, was dangerous for Jordan’s future. Furthermore, the economic transactions involved in the deal would mean that the Jordanian state and its citizens effectively would be subsidizing the occupation of the Palestinian people.

As an alternative, the coalition argued that a new liquefied natural gas terminal in Jordan’s sole port, ‘Aqaba, would ensure that Jordan would never need to rely on Israel, or indeed any single country, as a supplier. Such a terminal would open a world of options for the kingdom. Another alternative suggestion, and one in sync with the regime’s stated development priorities, was to development alternative and renewable energy sources, especially solar and wind power. Nuclear power was not presented as an alternative because campaign members did not agree on the issue. Jordan may indeed have strong opportunities in renewable energy. Energy Minister Ibrahim Saif is charged with developing wind and solar power in the kingdom as part of Jordan’s strategic development and energy plans. In March 2017, Jordan also began construction of its first oil shale-fired power plant, adding another source for its electrical energy needs. [12]

Within the coalition itself, however, some activists are frustrated that the Israeli gas deal seems to be proceeding despite both large-scale opposition and the existence of numerous alternative suppliers. They argue that the deal is fundamentally political, resulting in part from extensive US pressure, rather than economic necessity. “Even the government’s own projections suggest that the need for gas will decrease, not increase, so we don’t actually need Israeli gas,” said Bustani. “It is a political deal. It has no economic value.” [13]

Even as the Jordanian gas deal with Israel proceeds apace, many activists argue that their efforts have secured perhaps even more valuable outcomes—reenergized political activism in Jordan and a national front connecting major constituencies across the kingdom. A Jordanian public that is reengaged not only in protest, but also in civic life more broadly, may well begin to rethink the meaning of government, citizenship and political participation.


Endnotes

[1] See Nicholas Seeley, “The Battle Over Nuclear Jordan,” Middle East Report 271 (Summer 2014).
[2] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from interviews by the author, conducted in person in August 2016, by e-mail or via Skype.
[3] “Jordan BDS Statement on Gas Deal with Israel,” Jadaliyya, October 2, 2016.
[4] Curtis R. Ryan, “Not Running on Empty: Democratic Activism Against Israeli Gas in Jordan,” Middle East Report Online, April 16, 2015.
[5] The website for the public tribunal on the gas deal is here.
[6] Osama al-Sharif, “Jordanians Fuming Over Gas Deal with Israel,” al-Monitor, October 5, 2016.
[7] Zena Tahhan, “Jordanians Reject ‘Stolen Gas’ in Israel-Jordan Deal,” Al Jazeera, October 3, 2016.
[8] For an insightful analysis of cycles of protest in Jordan, see Naseem Tarawnah, “The Jordan-Israel Gas Deal and Our Perpetual Déjà Vu,” The Black Iris, October 6, 2016.
[9] Jordan Times, November 12, 2016.
[10] Jordan Times, October 22, 2016.
[11] Multiple articles on the gas deal and the campaign against it have been assembled by Jordan’s innovative 7iber group, a collective committed to serious investigative journalism and new media.
[12] Jordan Times, March 16, 2017.
[13] Interview with author. See also Hisham Bustani, “Importing Israeli Gas: Jordan’s Self-Harming Energy Choice,” Middle East Eye, September 30, 2016.

How to cite this article:

Curtis Ryan "Reviving Activism in Jordan," Middle East Report 281 (Winter 2016).
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