On April 3, 2021, Prince Hamzeh bin Hussein of Jordan was confined by the Jordanian armed forces to his home and cut off from outside communication, catapulting Jordan into turmoil and into the global spotlight.

Jordanian protesters shout slogans against the Jordanian government raising gasoline prices during a demonstration demanding political reforms, in Amman, June 15, 2012. Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

Son to the late King Hussein and half-brother to the current King Abdullah II, Hamzeh was accused of the vague crime of conspiring to “undermine the country’s stability.”[1] Initially, the events of April 3 were presented to Jordanians and the world as a foiled coup attempt. The arrests of 17 prominent officials—including the highly unpopular Bassem Awadallah, former head of the royal court—were presented as proof of a long-gestating plot, perhaps with foreign (such as Saudi Arabian) collusion. The unlikely pairing of neoliberal policy architect Awadallah and Prince Hamzeh was met with substantial disbelief.

Some analysts subsequently speculated that the arrests were a smokescreen to obscure a royal family rift. In the wake of the restrictions on Hamzeh’s movements and communications, palace sources suggested to the international press that the regime’s actions were motivated by the prince’s March 14 visit to console the families of several hospital patients who died due to an oxygen shortage in al-Salt. According to this narrative, Hamzeh’s visit was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” because the prince’s actions were perceived as undermining a similar visit days later by Abdullah’s son, Crown Prince Hussein. Since naming Hussein crown prince in 2004 (replacing Hamzeh), the king has attempted to position his son as a force for youth empowerment and economic opportunity. In this way, Hussein represents an effort to re-brand but also advance Jordan’s neoliberal trajectory. It is this trajectory that has weakened the economic position of Jordan’s many East Bank tribal communities, which continue to see Hamzeh as their ally within the royal family.

Hamzeh’s comments also echo elements of activist discourse that have been popularized by labor and youth activists over the last two decades, in the run-up to, during and following the 2011 Arab uprisings.

While journalists and scholars have speculated about the veracity of the accusations, the significance of Hamzeh’s recorded statements made during his confinement remains less well examined. In the first publicly released recording, made in English, Hamzeh decried the current conditions in his country, including corruption and economic mismanagement. These statements are much more than the desperate remarks of a disgruntled prince. They are a rare public airing of grievances from within the royal family that also reflect the daily experiences of Jordanians caught between 20 years of public sector austerity and the pandemic-compounded threat of mass impoverishment. Hamzeh’s comments also echo elements of activist discourse that have been popularized by labor and youth activists over the last two decades, in the run-up to, during and following the 2011 Arab uprisings. For these reasons, the prince’s rhetoric promises to resonate far beyond the immediate crisis and its denouement.

 

The Evolving Articulation of Grievances in Labor, Youth and Popular Movements

 

The first of Hamzeh’s recorded statements was released to the BBC on April 3 after he was confined to his home. He said, in part:

I am not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, for the corruption and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years and has been getting worse by the year.

 

I am not responsible for the lack of faith that people have in their institutions. They [the country’s leaders] are responsible.

 

Unfortunately, this country has gone from one that was at the forefront of the region in terms of education and healthcare, in terms of human dignity and freedoms, to one in which even to criticize a small aspect of a policy leads to arrest and abuse by the security services. It has reached the point where no one is able to speak or express an opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed and threatened.

 

This is a very sad and unfortunate turn for a country that as I said used to be in the forefront of the region. And the lives and futures of our children and their children are at stake if this continues. Their well-being has been put second by a ruling system [which] has decided that its personal interests, that its financial interests, that its corruption, is more important than the lives and dignity and futures of the more than 10 million people that live here.[2]

Hamzeh’s rhetoric strikingly reflects activist discourse dating back to pre-2011 workers’ protests, which framed the economic and political struggles of working class Jordanians as “two sides of one coin.”[3] When used by labor and popular activists, this kind of critique has proven to be transgressive not simply in terms of challenging the monarchy’s legitimacy (which it sometimes did), but also in disputing the legitimacy of the state’s entire neoliberal trajectory since 1999.

For example, in 2006, dissent in the form of sit-ins and demonstrations organized by day wage workers, primarily employed in the Ministry of Agriculture, brought the plight of supposedly privileged public sector workers into the public spotlight. These activists, both men and women, included many from the economically neglected rural governorates—mostly populated by the East Bank tribal communities loyal to Hamzeh. They deployed class-based critiques of the government’s austerity policies, rollback of public sector hiring and the rising cost of living.[4] Along with a 2009 strike at the Port of Aqaba and the 2010 mobilization of public school teachers, these workers’ movements made disparate but related claims against the state; protested in public and government spaces; violated laws requiring union mediation for worker disputes and prior state approval for protests; and garnered considerable public support. As one Jordanian editorial stated: “Without the slightest hesitation, it can be said that the movement of Jordanian daily workers constitutes a unique example of an authentic social and democratic movement, […] Their fate is considered an indication of the fall of one of the prevailing social political myths in the country, that is, the myth, claimed by the state, that state agencies protect, absorb and favor rural people.”[5]

In 2011, these currents of labor activism fed into a rising wave of popular and youth activism.
In 2011, these currents of labor activism fed into a rising wave of popular and youth activism. The first demonstrations of Jordan’s Arab uprising began on January 7, 2011, in the peripheral town of Dhiban, the home of the day wage workers’ movement. These protests were motivated by locals’ sense of economic and political abandonment under King Abdullah. This malignant neglect stood in stark contrast to the close relationship Jordan’s East Bank tribes had historically enjoyed with Abdullah’s father King Hussein, and which Hamzeh also actively cultivated. Thereafter, numerous other decentralized movements (dubbed collectively as al-Hirak, meaning “the movement”) began to emerge across the governorates, eventually intersecting with demonstrations in Amman on March 24, 2011, when protestors attempted to indefinitely occupy Dawar al-Dakhiliyya (Interior [Ministry] Square). Organized by activists representing nearly the full spectrum of Jordan’s opposition movements—both new and old—the protests brought labor, youth and popular activists from across the country into direct contact with each other, many for the first time. In the process, activists were forced to articulate their grievances and demands together in ways that could appeal to broader domestic and even international audiences, for example by focusing on aspects of the state’s neoliberal project that had broad symbolic resonance, such as the regime’s program of privatizations.

Under King Abdullah, privatizations had rapidly accelerated in the 2000s from their more cautious pace under King Hussein. Like elsewhere in the region—and indeed throughout the global south—public sector assets were frequently undervalued, sold at absurdly low prices to politically influential investors, stripped of their profitable assets (like land and capital equipment) and ultimately dismantled. This new wave included privatizations in the critical mining sector, in particular the 2006 sell-off of the Jordan Phosphate Mines Company (JPMC). Employees of the JPMC and those living in the mining regions were most directly affected, with thousands of layoffs occurring in the rural mining areas, coupled with continued freezes on hiring.[6] Workers were aggrieved at the highly opaque circumstances of the sale as well as the corrupt practices of the new CEO, Walid El-Kurdi, the king’s uncle through marriage. More generally, Jordanians have been acutely aware of the problems with many of the privatizations and know that privatization proceeds do not, to paraphrase one activist, go to into the “pockets” of ordinary citizens.[7]

Thus, on the one hand, workers’ mobilizations, such as among day wage workers, teachers and port workers, stemmed from localized—by sector or geography—state policies. On the other hand, by 2011, both labor activists and popular movement activists shared a sense of outrage regarding certain neoliberal so-called reforms on the national level. The often-cited 2010 “economic communique” of the National Committee of Retired [Military] Servicemen (NCRS) specifically criticized the JPMC privatization as corrupt and demanded an inquiry into its origins. Consequently, by the time of the March 24, 2011 protests, both labor and popular activists were beginning to articulate their narrow grievances together through broadly resonant discursive focal points like the privatizations. As one labor activist explained:

The… government waged war on unions. These [abuses] made us think of new ways to struggle for change: using protests and echoing people’s grievances about the government, such as economic policies that raised the prices of basic goods used by the poor, increased unemployment and poverty […] We have also demanded a special tribunal against the corrupt individuals who sold national assets such as phosphate mines, transportation and water [by granting foreign companies exclusive mining and management rights] at prices that didn’t reflect their value.[8]

 

Activist Discourse During the Arab Uprisings

 

While the March 24 protests were violently broken up by police and pro-regime thugs the day after they began, activists’ transgressive practices and discourses persisted. Hirak demonstrations proliferated across the governorates in which activists fused workers’ grievances with their own. One Hirak activist explained that, “we gave to [the worker movement] a social aspect that is much more political; we understood privatization as a social problem (our economy, our companies).”[9] Resistance to the privatizations continued to be expressed in protest signs and chants using language such as “corruption” and “theft.”

Activists explicitly connected the corrupt nature of privatizations to the authoritarian, and thus unaccountable, nature of their enactment, as orchestrated by King Abdullah and his cadre of technocratic elites.
Activists explicitly connected the corrupt nature of privatizations to the authoritarian, and thus unaccountable, nature of their enactment, as orchestrated by King Abdullah and his cadre of technocratic elites. An activist described this process by saying that in the 2000s “new faces” came to power—“the neoliberals”—who “sold everything…You cannot survive if they are selling off all your resources.”[10]

In November 2012, mass protests again erupted in Amman. The proximate cause was a government-announced increase in fuel prices. During the demonstrations, direct criticism of the king rang out in the streets of the capital, punctuated by the rallying cry heard in protests throughout the region: “the people want the fall of the regime.”[11] Alongside these chants and more reformist slogans, royalist protesters made their own radical demand, calling for the king to be replaced by his brother, the former crown prince—a slogan that had previously gained some traction on social media and in Hirak protests in the governorates. Hamzeh, many believed, might be able to bring back the Jordan his father had forged, and which King Abdullah and Queen Rania had “stolen” through corruption, privatization and state repression. During the November protests, merely voicing this demand was threatening enough to land several protestors in jail.

Jordan’s uprisings ultimately broke down in 2013 under the weight of state repression and fears that protests might spiral out of control, as in Syria. The uprisings’ ultimate significance in Jordan was dismissed by many observers when it became clear that no significant changes or reforms were forthcoming. But mass protests were revived in 2018 and these suggest that the enduring legacy of 2011–2013 may be in the perseverance of structurally-oriented discourses that propose a more direct and existential challenge to the monarchy. For example, one refrain—repeated during the labor and popular protests that emerged in the summer of 2018 in response to an IMF-imposed regressive tax law—specifically indicted the regime’s subservience to the dictates of “the damned [International] Monetary fund!” When the same tax law was revised and reintroduced in December 2018, protesters were very clear about the class and political roots of their economic discontent: “[i]f the government revised the tax exemptions for the powerful capitalists and combated tax evasion, it would not need to raise taxes on the poor.”[12]

Then, in September 2019, public school teachers—who in 2012 had been able to win the reinstatement of their union after more than 50 years of struggle—organized their 140,000 members in Jordan’s longest public sector labor strike. The strike was organized in response to the government’s failure to live up to a three-year old agreement to increase teachers’ wages. Garnering near-universal public support, the strikers survived state repression, public smear campaigns and legal chicanery and they emerged victorious.

These same structural critiques—implicating Jordan’s economic and political elite in Jordan’s debt and destitution—would later echo in Hamzeh’s subversive recording of April 3, 2021.

 

Pandemic Crackdown on Dissent

 

The global coronavirus pandemic that began in late 2019 is threatening to reverse the gains of the last five years of social activism. In particular, teachers’ jubilation at their victory proved ephemeral. While using the pandemic as a smokescreen to crack down on public expression and activism, often under the guise of purposely vague anti-terrorism laws, the government also implemented a freeze on public sector raises in April 2020. The freeze flew in the face of the deal the government made with the teachers’ union in 2019 in order to end the strike, which had included a 50 percent wage increase. When teachers organized protests in response, the state acted swiftly, with the attorney general ordering the closure of the Teachers’ Syndicate for a period of two years, shuttering the association’s offices and arresting hundreds. As explained by a lawyer for the syndicate, the government closed the syndicate because it “has become ground zero for those who want to gather, for the middle class to voice their dissatisfaction.”[13]

In the face of the highly repressive crisis environment in Jordan today, the connection between citizens’ economic immiseration and the unaccountable policies of the state are, if anything, even more apparent. Economic hardships (unemployment and the cost of living were both untenably high even before the pandemic) are juxtaposed against visible demonstrations of the state’s capacity to strictly enforce quarantines and arrange for the door-to-door delivery of food. The same government that can conduct mass arrests of teachers is somehow unable to properly supply hospitals with oxygen. Of course, it was this latter deficiency that set off the chain of events leading to the clampdown on Hamzeh’s movements and communications. Notably, when the king’s own visit to al-Salt was met by enraged crowds, one of their vocalized grievances was a condemnation of the privatization of the potash company. Hence, decades of neoliberalism, uneven pandemic policy, economic collapse and the recent surge in COVID-19 cases have in many ways overdetermined the current moment.

If nothing else, these accumulated crises have primed Jordanians to internalize the most transgressive elements in the prince’s remarks, especially the accusations of corruption, incompetence, state repression and the prioritization of “personal” and “financial” interests over the “futures of our children and their children.”
If nothing else, these accumulated crises have primed Jordanians to internalize the most transgressive elements in the prince’s remarks, especially the accusations of corruption, incompetence, state repression and the prioritization of “personal” and “financial” interests over the “futures of our children and their children.” In a recording that Hamzeh apparently made of his conversation with the army chief on the day of his confinement, before he released his statement in English to the BBC, he positions himself as both above and representative of all Jordanians: “I am a free Jordanian, the son of my father (King Hussein). I have the right to mix with my people, people of my country and to serve my country.”[14] His words constitute simultaneously a knowing indictment by a member of the royal family and a cry of dissent from an ordinary citizen.

The fact that a figure as powerful as a former crown prince could be silenced for voicing such critiques has only intensified many Jordanians’ identification with Hamzeh and with what his remarks represent. Over a month after the prince’s confinement, Twitter hashtags expressing support in Arabic, such as “We are All Prince Hamzeh” (kulna al-amir hamzeh) and “Prince Hamzeh Represents Me” (amir hamzeh yumthaluni) are ubiquitous. Crucially, Hamzeh’s speech is likely to reverberate in future episodes of political contention, having added a royal imprimatur to activists’ hard-won critical discourse.

 

[Matthew T. Lacouture is a PhD candidate in political science at Wayne State University.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Jillian Schwedler, “Jordan detained a prince. The government’s determined to squash political dissent,” The Washington Post, April 5, 2021.

[2] BBC News, April 4, 2021.

[3] Matthew Lacouture, “Privatizing the Commons: Protest and the Moral Economy of National Resources in Jordan,” International Review of Social History 66/S29 (2021).

[4] Sara Ababneh, “Troubling the Political: Women in the Jordanian Day Wage Labor Movement,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 48 (2016): 87–112.

[5] Ahmad Abu-Khalil, “Mohammad Snayd,” Ammon News, December 5, 2010. [Arabic]

[6] Claudie Fioroni, “Bridging the Gap: Social Divides and Coalition Building in the Phosphate-Mining Industry in Jordan,” Mediterranean Politics 24/4 (2019).

[7] Hirak activist, interview with author, Amman, Jordan, March 1, 2019.

[8] Mohammad Snayd, quoted in “Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (IX): Dallying with Reform in a Divided Jordan”, International Crisis Group (2012), p. 8.

[9] Hirak activist, interview with author, Amman, Jordan, March 29, 2019.

[10] Hirak activist, interview with author, Amman, Jordan, April 30, 2019.

[11] Curtis Ryan, Jordan and the Arab Uprisings: Regime Survival and Politics Beyond the State (Columbia University Press, 2018).

[12] Laith Fakhri Al-Ajlouni and Allison Spencer Hartnett, “Making the Economy Political in Jordan’s Tax Revolts,” Middle East Report Online, February 24, 2019.

[13] Tula Connell, “Jordan Teachers ‘Will Not Back Down’ in Face of Assaults on Union,” Solidarity Center, February 24, 2021.

[14]Recording Emerges of Heated Exchange between Jordan’s Prince Hamzah and Army Chief,” al-Arabiya, April 6, 2021.

 

How to cite this article:

Matthew Lacouture "The Prince’s Speech and Activist Grievances in Jordan," Middle East Report Online, May 18, 2021.
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