In response to multiple waves of protests, including a surge of protests in 2019, the Jordanian state has worked hard to establish and enforce five red lines for the protests not to cross in order to rein in the potential impact of unified protests across the kingdom. 


 

Like elsewhere in the region, Jordanian activism declined but did not disappear after the peak of the Arab uprisings from 2011 to 2013, especially in the shadow of regional conflicts and rising insecurity. But from 2014 onward, Jordan has seen a resurgence of protests, demonstrations and activist movements. The sheer breadth of activist movements across the Jordanian political spectrum suggests the potential for a broader unified opposition coalition that could demand major change in the Hashemite Kingdom. But in practice this has proven to be difficult to achieve.

Public school teachers protest during their strike in Amman, Jordan, October 2019. Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

In response to multiple waves of protests, including a surge of protests in 2019, the Jordanian state has worked hard to establish and enforce five red lines for the protests not to cross in order to rein in the potential impact of unified protests across the kingdom.[1] These red lines include, among other things, prohibitions on certain protest tactics and targets as well as deeper restrictions on cross-sectoral and national organizing. The result is a state of contentious politics as the state and protestors face off across these red lines. But in the context of mounting social, economic and political grievances against the state that include corruption, unemployment and declining living conditions—as well as new national uprisings over similar grievances across the region—it is uncertain how long these red lines can hold back widespread demands for change, or whether the state will have to add major reforms to its policy tool-kit in order to stave off its own national uprising.

Resurgent Protests since 2011

Jordan did not experience a national anti-regime uprising in 2011 like Tunisia and Egypt, but it did see mass mobilization in the form of (mainly) pro-reform demonstrations. New movements and actors emerged from this regional wave as part of a growing configuration of protests and grievances in Jordan, and these continue to pose a major challenge to Jordan’s political system.

Activists from the town of Dhiban in the central Madaba governorate south of Amman—regarded by many as the epicenter of Jordan’s uprising—claim credit for starting the protests in January 2011. Dhiban activists formed the first of many movements that together became known as the Hirak—mainly youth-led activist movements that also sprang up throughout the kingdom, including in Kerak, Tafila, Ma`an, Mafraq, Irbid, Zarqa and Amman. Many Hirakis have roots in Jordan’s tribal and East Jordanian communities and see themselves as representatives of an authentic Jordanian society that is increasingly estranged from the Jordanian state.

The Hirak in 2011 represented a new form of activism and organization in Jordan, adding to the established activism of Jordan’s trade unions, professional associations and leftist, pan-Arab nationalist and Islamist political parties.[2] For several years prior to 2011, Jordan had seen a resurgence of labor activism.[3] The emergence of the Hirak broadened and in many ways deepened the politics of opposition across the kingdom. Unlike the traditional opposition parties, the Hirak were mainly rooted outside the capital in cities and towns large and small. Hirakis see themselves as activists in genuine grassroots movements, organized along local lines and committed to democratic principles for organizing the movements themselves. They organize against corruption and to challenge the state on what they see as misplaced policies and priorities.[4]

The Syrian civil war, meanwhile, split traditional activist groups inside Jordan. While many secular leftists and nationalists supported Asad, most Islamists—including the Muslim Brotherhood—strongly opposed the Asad regime and called on Jordan to support the rebels. As the war worsened and hundreds of thousands of refugees fled Syria for Jordan, Jordan’s streets were quieter, but the opposition—now divided—was far from acquiescent. Activists continued to rail against corruption and the status quo, even though they briefly limited protests and other public expressions of dissent—a calm before the next storm.

Jordan remains beset with myriad problems–refugees, corruption, fiscal crises and economic recession—let alone the implications of the Deal of the Century.

One of the first signs of an activist revival came from Jordan’s movement against Israeli gas. In 2014, Jordan’s National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) announced that it had signed a letter of intent with the Noble Energy company to begin importing gas from the Leviathan field, controlled by the State of Israel. Jordanian public opinion then and now was strongly opposed to the agreement, seeing it as de facto Jordanian subsidization of occupation of the Palestinian people. The movement against Israeli gas formed in response, but also attempted to create a new form of activism in Jordan. In addition to protests, it undertook extensive research on the effects of the state’s gas policy and presented alternative policy approaches for the country. The movement re-energized many Jordanian activists and crossed ethnic, religious, class and gender lines in an attempt to create an inclusive and nationally representative movement.[5] While the anti-gas movement failed to derail the state policy, it did force parliament to vote in December 2014, 107 to 13 against the deal—albeit in a non-binding vote.

As innovative and organized as the anti-gas movement was, it did not bring out the massive numbers that have turned out to protest austerity measures mandated by International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreements over the years.[6] As with the landmark protests of 1989, IMF-inspired austerity measures have proven to be the quickest route to reviving protests in Jordan, motivating tens of thousands to take to the streets nationwide. In November 2012, Jordan saw some of its most volatile protests, with protesters hurling stones and Molotov cocktails at state security forces in clashes over price increases for heating and cooking fuel. Those protests died down after several days of clashes, but they echoed the 1989 protests in anger and intensity.

In June 2018, protesters returned to the streets nightly throughout the month of Ramadan in the largest protests since 2011. IMF conditionality programs had pressured the government to further cut the budget, reduce subsidies and reform (and enforce) tax laws. A proposed new income tax law generated what first appeared to be a middle-class tax revolt—most Jordanians are too poor to pay income tax. But the protests quickly expanded in composition and focus. Organizers called for a day-long work stoppage across all major sectors—the first general work stoppage in Jordanian history. The turnout soon outnumbered the organizers and core activists, leading to nightly protests for days afterward in Amman and other cities throughout the country.

Both traditional and Hirak forms of activism were well-represented in the 2018 Ramadan protests, but so were ordinary citizens who subscribed to no party, professional association or Hirak movement. The protests were among the most diverse in Jordanian history, ranging across age, class, ethnicity, race and gender. The protests were also effective: The government suspended the new tax laws, and Prime Minister Hani al-Mulqi and his cabinet resigned. The new prime minister, Omar al-Razzaz, was widely regarded as a liberal and a reformer, but he was also a former World Bank economist, representing the kind of neoliberal approach to political economy against which so many Jordanians were railing.[7]

In the wake of the massive June 2018 protests, other movements also caught fire, some in unexpected ways. A handful of protesters, for example, staged a march from Aqaba (Jordan’s port in the south) to Amman. Hundreds joined them along the way, hiking on foot to the capital, demanding jobs in Jordan’s difficult economy. This March of the Unemployed caught the imagination of many across Jordanian society, who followed this journey on social media. The grievances of these activists were familiar to most Jordanians, striking a sympathetic chord with many: unemployment, the unaffordable cost of living and the basic issue of personal dignity.

Other protests have focused on foreign policy issues with profound domestic implications. Jordanians across the political spectrum rallied against the Deal of the Century—the supposed peace deal of the Trump administration helmed by the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Jordanians widely feared that the deal promised not a chance for peace but capitulation for the Palestinian people. Many Jordanians also worried that the deal would force Jordan to accept millions more Palestinian refugees. Conservative nationalist Jordanians had long opposed watan badeel—the idea of Jordan as an alternative homeland for Palestinians. But now Jordanians across the spectrum were worried that such an alternative was what their US ally had in mind. The deal triggered numerous demonstrations, including large rallies by Islamist and leftists organizers in June 2019.[8]

Still other protests emerged far outside the capital, including volatile protests in the border town of Ramtha after the government attempted to rein in the illegal trafficking of goods to and from Syria. But it was the October 2019 teachers’ strike that most comprehensively mobilized not only grassroots protesters across the country, but also much of public opinion behind them. Shortly after the academic year began, Jordan’s public school teachers began a nationwide strike demanding a 50 percent increase in salaries—an increase they argued had been promised three years earlier. The government responded that it was unable to afford such a large outlay of spending, especially during a recession and under yet another series of IMF austerity measures. Four weeks later, the government conceded, agreeing to salary increases ranging from 35 to 75 percent.

Five Red Lines

In response to the growing potential of widespread dissent illustrated by the resurgent protest movements over a wide array of national grievances, the Jordanian government sought to establish and enforce red lines that citizens are not to cross. While some red lines are known and consistent, others have emerged more recently. Activists and protesters tend to be familiar with what Jillian Schwedler calls a script for protests–a clear understanding of what kinds of protests and locations for protests are acceptable to state authorities.[9] Some of these red lines are longstanding, but others have emerged or shifted in the wake of the 2011–2012 protests. There are (at minimum) five key red lines for protest and activism in Jordan.

  • Focus on the government, not the monarchy

 Like many regimes in the Middle East, Jordan maintains laws on Lesse Majeste. It is illegal to verbally or symbolically attack the king, queen or monarchy directly. Protesters instead direct their anger at the government, particularly the prime minister and cabinet, even as they are aware that the king sets policy. Protesters have been successful in generating enough pressure to oust numerous governments, from the April 1989 austerity protests to the many governmental changes during the 2011-2012 uprising (including five prime ministers and cabinets in less than two years).

While prime ministers have acted as shock absorbers of political dissent, Jordanians joke that prime ministers are appointed in order to be fired. Most protesters refrain from directly criticizing the monarchy, but during and since the 2011 uprising, a small but growing number has crossed that red line. Some Hirak protesters, for example, engage in dances, songs and chants that directly criticize the king or queen. But most do not. Even at the height of the uprisings in 2011, most Jordanian protesters remained moderate in their positions, adapting the regional chant from “al-sha`ab yurid isqat al-nizam” (the people want to bring down the regime) to “al-sha`ab yurid islah al-nizam” (the people want to reform of the regime).

  • No insulting key allies

The regime has sometimes been more tolerant of criticism of the Jordanian government and policy than it is of any attack on its key allies. As a small country with a weak economy, and one that is prone to chronic fiscal crises while remaining deeply dependent on foreign aid, Jordan has tried to rein in critiques that might be seen or heard in the capitals of some but not all allies. The regime tends to be especially sensitive to any slights against the Arab Gulf monarchies. Zaki Bani Irshayd, for example, a leader of Jordan’s Islamist movement, was arrested in 2014 not for his activities on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamic Action Front political party, but because he authored a Facebook post critical of the United Arab Emirates. More recently, in 2019, four soccer fans were detained after making derogatory chants about Kuwait during a Jordan-Kuwait football match in Amman. Jordanian officials quickly apologized to their Kuwaiti counterparts, and they launched an investigation and branded the chanters as hooligans unrepresentative of the views of Jordanians. While Jordanian officials do not like direct verbal attacks on their many European allies, they are far more concerned about insults against their allies among the Arab Gulf monarchies.

  • No long-term occupation of protest spaces

Like many other states across the region, Jordan responded to the 2011 protests by tolerating protests only in certain spaces and of limited duration. No long-term camps were permitted, as the government feared anything that approximated the iconic Tahrir Square protests in Egypt that helped spawn the Occupy Wall Street protests later in 2011. Even on a much smaller scale, the Jordanian government broke up any effort to establish encampments, particularly in Amman.

As Schwedler notes, government efforts to restrict protests have led to shifts in urban geography, planting flower beds and erecting ornate fences ostensibly to beautify squares; those projects also closed off those spaces to protesters.[10] For activists, one of the most well-known spaces for protest is the Fourth Circle, the location of the Prime Ministry. The center of the now-fenced traffic roundabout is no longer an accessible place for protesters to gather. The massive June 2018 protests against tax hikes and other austerity measures initially began at that circle, but the gendarmerie quickly closed down that space and forced protesters to relocate to the nearby parking lot of the Jordan Hospital. The Fourth Circle itself remains mostly off-limits.

  • No linking the capital to the governorates

After the 2011 protests saw increasing links between the Hirak movements in the governorates and activists in Amman, the government has sought to prevent such linkages from deepening—in essence, establishing a new red line. Activists complain that they are being deterred from linking with counterparts elsewhere in the country, preventing protests from building from local phenomena to a unified or national movement. Activists in the movement against Israeli gas, for example, were blocked–physically–from spreading their activities outside of Amman to cities like Irbid and Zarqa. Police intercepted their convoys of vehicles, blocking them and forcing them to turn back. Other activists have run afoul of the intelligence services only when they have tried to extend their local protests and connect to activists in other governorates. State sensitivities appear to have increased in the wake of the nationwide June 2018 protests.

  • No cross-class or cross-national alliances

The newest red line seeks to restrict the emergence of cross-class alliances. The teachers’ strike of 2019, for example, worried many government officials because, as many activists in that strike noted, their middle-class grievances were easily relatable to Jordanians in similar social and economic circumstances. Indeed, the teachers’ strike hit a sympathetic cord among many Jordanians. Like other segments of Jordan’s supposed middle class, the teachers could not afford anything close to a middle-class lifestyle. Many Jordanians feel that they should be part of the middle class in terms of their level of education and employment, and yet they cannot obtain a middle-class standard of living. Low wages combined with rampant inflation, leaving many Jordanians feeling economically marginalized. Amman consistently ranks as one of the most expensive cities in the region.

The Razzaz government barely survived the 2019 teachers strike, which remained limited to just one sector. But what if other social forces had joined the strikes and protests? The government is fearful that after acquiescing to many of the teachers’ demands, other sectors will be inspired to strike.[11] Most worrisome is the possibility of a relentless series of work stoppages or–worse–the emergence of simultaneous strikes in solidarity.

The worry over cross-class alliances is born of the fear of a nationwide movement. A unity of labor, Hirak and traditional activist sectors could mount a major challenge to the regime. While such an alliance has yet to emerge among Jordan’s many protest sectors, one of the most influential to emerge in the past decade has been the retired military veteran’s movement.[12] If that movement threw its weight behind another strike or protest, that could be a game-changer. Indeed, even as the government argued that it could not afford to meet the teachers’ salary demands in 2019, it quietly increased the pensions of the retired military officers. The king himself praised them as foundational to Jordan’s stability and standing as a state.

Citizens Have Red Lines, Too

As the government extends its red lines, protesters do not always honor them, pushing against the boundary to make their point but retreating to fight another day. Activists are angered and resentful when the government abruptly shifts the red lines, in effect changing the rules of the game, or when it itself oversteps its boundaries in ways that activists see as violations of the script.

Organizers of the June 2019 protests against the Deal of the Century, for example, felt that they had not crossed known red lines. They begin their protest march at a shopping area in the affluent neighborhood of Abdoun where the US embassy is located. They then marched peacefully toward the embassy but, as expected, were prevented by the gendarmerie from reaching the embassy grounds a few blocks away. There they held a peaceful demonstration, with prominent figures in the traditional opposition leading chants against the deal and urging the government to remain steadfast against it. Given that the king had himself expressed opposition to the deal, the demonstrators were surprised when key organizers or chant-leaders were detained following the event by state security officials. Many activists complained that through such harassment, the government had not honored its own red lines. Similarly, striking teachers demanded—and eventually received—an apology from the prime minister for what they regarded as inappropriate coercion at the outset of their strike.

Jordan remains beset with myriad problems–refugees, corruption, fiscal crises and economic recession—let alone the implications of the Deal of the Century. Many government officials feel that given these challenges, protesters should scale back their efforts, lower the political temperature and rally around the country at a time of need. But activists argue that these issues and challenges are precisely why there will be more protests—and why they are necessary. Jordan, many argue, is always in some sort of time of difficulty and need. If activists honored calls for “not now, later,” the time for expressing dissent would never come.

The October 2019 teachers’ strike hit a nerve with many Jordanians, who identified with their grievances and goals. One might have expected some backlash from parents whose children were out of school for four weeks. But Jordanians identified with the striking teachers because they shared the same concerns: the high cost of living, inadequate salaries, the inability to make basic ends meet, corruption in government and public life and the belief that they–the teachers or all Jordanians, really–had already suffered and sacrificed enough. Jordanians deserved support, dignity and respect. The government has expanded its red lines in order to rein in protests, but it has had to do so because protests persist around grievances of corruption, governance and the poor quality of daily life. Until the government substantively addresses these issues, protests in Jordan will continue; especially as both government and opposition in Jordan are well aware that these are many of the same issues that have brought massive protests to the streets of Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Sudan and across the region. The regional context of protest—and what some see even as an Arab Spring 2.0—is precisely why the state has taken a harsher stance, reinforcing old red lines and creating new ones. But the regional protests are also why many activists are just as determined to cross those red lines.

 


ENDNOTES

[1] Much of this analysis is based on interviews conducted by the author during 12 research trips to Jordan between December 2010 and September 2019.

[2] For details on the various forms of opposition, see Curtis R. Ryan, Jordan and the Arab Uprisings: Regime Security and Politics Beyond the State (Columbia University Press, 2018).

[3] Fida Adely, “The Emergence of a New Labor Movement in Jordan,” Middle East Report, 264 (Fall 2012): 34-37.

[4] See Sara Ababneh, “Troubling the Political: Women and the Jordanian Day-Waged Labor Movement,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 48 (2016): 87-112; Sean L. Yom and Wael al-Khatib, “Jordan’s new politics of tribal dissent,” Foreign Policy, Middle East Channel. August 7, 2012; and Sean L. Yom, “Tribal Politics in Contemporary Jordan: The Case of the Hirak Movement,” The Middle East Journal 68, no. 2, (2014): 229-247.

[5] Curtis R. Ryan, “Not Running on Empty: Democratic Activism Against Israeli Gas in Jordan,” Middle East Report Online, April 16, 2015; and Ryan, Reviving Activism in Jordan: The Movement Against Israeli Gas,” Middle East Report, no. 281(Winter 2016): 6-9.

[6] The movement also staged mock public tribunals and periodic “black outs” in which citizens turned off their lights and power at specific times across the country. The movement drew on a host of opposition groups and insisted on inclusive and democratic governance within its own proceedings. Other single-issue movements mobilized at the same time, for example, to oppose nuclear power near Mafraq and to prevent deforestation in Ajlun. See Nicholas Seeley, “The Battle Over Nuclear Jordan,” Middle East Report, 273 (Summer 2014).

[7] See Sara Ababneh, “ ‘Do you know who governs us? The damned International Monetary Fund’: Jordan’s June 2018 Rising,” Middle East Report, June 30, 2018; Curtis R. Ryan, “Why Jordanians are protesting,” Washington Post, Monkey Cage Analysis, June 4, 2018.

[8] Mohammad Ersan, “Jordanians and Palestinians rally in Amman against Trump’s ‘deal of the century’,” Middle East Eye, June 22, 2019.

[9] See the extensive work by Jillian Schwedler on protests, including “More than a Mob: The Dynamics of Political Demonstrations in Jordan,” Middle East Report 226 (2003): 18-23;“Cop Rock: Protest, Identity, and Dancing Riot Police in Jordan,” Social Movement Studies 4, no. 2 (2005): 155-75; and “The Political Geography of Protest in Neoliberal Jordan,” Middle East Critique 21, no. 3 (2012): 259-70.

[10] See Jillian Schwedler’s “Political Dissent in Amman, Jordan: Neoliberal Geographies of Protest and Policing,” in Sanford F. Schram and Marianna Pavlovskaya, eds., Rethinking Neoliberalism: Resisting the Disciplinary Regime (New York: Routledge, 2018); and her “Routines and Ruptures in Anti-Israeli Protests in Jordan,” in Frederic Volpi and James M. Jasper, eds., Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings: Mapping Interactions between Regimes and Protesters (Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

[11] Osama al-Sharif, “After Amman gives in to striking teachers, more protests could come,” al-Monitor, October 16, 2019.

[12] On the activism of the military veterans in Jordan, see Tariq Tell, “Early Spring in Jordan: Revolt of the Military Veterans,” Carnegie Middle East Center. November 4, 2015; and Assaf David, “The Revolt of Jordan’s Military Veterans,” Foreign Policy, The Middle East Channel, June 16, 2010.

 

How to cite this article:

Curtis Ryan "Resurgent Protests Confront New and Old Red Lines in Jordan," Middle East Report 292/3 (Fall/Winter 2019).
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