This is a review of Jillian Schwedler, Protesting Jordan: Geographies of Power and Dissent (Stanford University Press, 2022), José Ciro Martínez, States of Subsistence: The Politics of Bread in Contemporary Jordan (Stanford University Press, 2022) and Jessica Watkins, Creating Consent in an Illiberal Order: Policing Disputes in Jordan (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
For Western policymakers, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan looks like a progressive and stable Arab country. Its ruling monarchy is doggedly pro-American, having long decided to support Western strategic interests in the Middle East in return for generous dollops of foreign aid and military assistance. Since taking power in 1999, King Abdallah II has often appeared on global English-language news programs to present Jordan as an island of moderation—a country pressured by economic downturns, regional wars and refugee influxes but which stands resilient in the face of all these crises. Jordan appears as an oasis of stability without revolutions or conflicts, a placid society happy to host tourists at the glittering five-star hotels of Amman before shuttling them to famed touristic sites like Wadi Rum and Petra.
Such manicured imagery might fill global media, but it says little about Jordan’s domestic politics. The Hashemite monarchy and its repressive institutions, the military and security forces, grip tightly to power in what has long been an authoritarian system. It is this duopoly—rather than the elected but toothless parliament—that appoints the government, while a bloated bureaucracy carries out its policies and laws. The Hashemite state suppresses speech, stifles the media, arrests dissidents and ensures that no real opposition movement threatens its fiat.
The small community of Jordanian specialists within academia and think tanks are aware of the kingdom’s autocratic structure. Yet, uncovering the carapace of Jordan’s authoritarian rule speaks little to the intricacies of social life within the Hashemite Kingdom. Three superlative recent books from Jillian Schwedler, José Ciro Martínez and Jessica Watkins address this gap to reveal an easily ignored reality: Life under autocratic rule is predicated not solely on fear or violence but on the creative accommodation of state power. The Hashemite regime’s writ touches Jordanians not just through repression but through mundane experiences.
These three important ethnographies capture the everyday politics of authoritarian rule by focusing on common scenes of daily life—street protests for Schwedler, buying bread for Martínez and interacting with the police for Watkins. All three venues hold vast symbolic and political importance, as they represent sites where citizens and state confront one another, sometimes productively and sometimes contentiously. Two shared themes about Jordanian politics and authoritarianism emerge from these works. First, citizens experience the authoritarian state in the quotidian rhythms of everyday life. They watch as officials build fences around public squares to discourage protests, as inspectors fine bakeries that charge more than the government-mandated price and as police officers settle tribal disputes through informal mediation. These slices of governance demonstrate that the state exists not just in institutions or violence but through the often stunningly banal practices that flourish within the sinews of daily social life.
Second, authoritarian rule does not produce an obeisant citizenry denuded of autonomy. Jordanians frequently question their king or government’s judgments when its policies clash with their own sense of justice. They protest corruption and unemployment on streets and highways, criticize the rising cost of bread and gas due to vanishing government subsidies and complain about police ineptitude, particularly when crimes like domestic abuse are ignored. They demure not as rebels but as social voices pining to make sense of their government, one that they agree to obey most of the time but which elicits dissonance as well. The supremacy of the state is never absolute, even in a country whose autocratic stability has become a Western talking point. People find messy, creative ways to sabotage its reach or accommodate its demands.
Seeing the State through Protests
In Protesting Jordan, Schwedler shows that protests are integral to understanding the relationship between the Hashemite regime and its population. Jordanians make protests, and protests make the state. As she notes, most observers only care about protests—“people assembling in public to express some form of claim-making” (7)—when they explode into mass crowds and attract global headlines. In Jordan, however, protests tend to be small and isolated. They seldom produce significant political change because they are easily ignored or contained. Even Jordan’s largest demonstrations during the Arab Spring, which drew tens of thousands, were eclipsed in size by the national uprisings of Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.
Schwedler admonishes readers to focus not on the outcomes of protests but on their internal processes. Within the act of protest, the “flows, practices, affinities, understandings, and histories” of the national state become visible (14). Historically, Jordanians have mobilized in public spaces to demand all sorts of things, such as political rights, land and jobs. The responses of authorities, meanwhile, have ranged from targeted arrests to minor reforms designed to defuse tensions. There is seldom bloodshed, and most protests are forgotten. But repeat this scene tens of thousands of times over the past century, involving any sector of Jordanian society—workers, tribes, Islamists, students, refugees—and the result is a cauldron of social contestation. Both citizens and the state intermingle in protest sites to assert their identity, envision the future and lay out diverse claims about what the government should do.
Through historical documentation, interpretive analysis and decades of fieldwork observing protests, Schwedler describes how protests have shaped Jordan’s citizenry, spatial landscape and state institutions. Chapters two and three illustrate how protests molded the country’s historical political development. Many Western histories of Jordan gloss over the period between the 1920s and the 1940s, the colonial decades in which the British-backed Hashemite monarchy supposedly forged a stable political order in this scrubby expanse on the Jordan River’s east bank. In reality, as Schwedler elucidates, colonial state-building was haunted by “acts of resistance and rebellion” (61). Tribes across the newly created Emirate of Transjordan rejected Hashemite rule, much as they had rebuffed Ottoman governance before World War I.
Local tribes initially rebuffed the Hashemite state’s “spatial imaginary” and its new laws, which suddenly territorialized what had been a borderless hinterland (28). In response to major disturbances, the burgeoning state disciplined and absorbed its new subjects. For instance, it utilized military employment and rural welfare to tie the economic fates of some tribes to its own survival. Fear of protests even shaped Jordan’s urban geography. The monarchy picked tiny Amman as its capital because it was sparsely settled—an easy place to lock down if unrest erupted. Subsequent urban development schemes in the capital followed “European modernist ways of seeing and ordering urban spaces” (89). From the layout of roads to the organization of neighborhoods, authorities designed Amman to constrict the flow of people, the dual result: chronic traffic but also few wide-open spaces that could host mass protests.
Indeed, protests involve space as much as people. As Schwedler convincingly argues, in Jordan, protests share a synergetic relationship with their built environment. Spaces such as streets, lots and roundabouts serve as sites for demonstrations, also influencing how and why citizens protest in the first place. Chapters four through six impart this vital insight by exploring how issues of space and spatiality factored into major uprisings from the 1940s through the Arab Spring and the 2018 wave of anti-austerity demonstrations.
These middle chapters brim with powerful observations. For example, Schwedler notes that protests develop “spatial routines” or rules of behavior tailored to match the physical surrounding (125). Tribal demonstrators outside of Amman burn tires on rural highways, while the Muslim Brotherhood inside of the capital specializes in Friday marches: Each group leverages a tactical repertoire that makes the best use of their respective environments. Protests also come in astonishing varieties, from overtly “transgressive” events—think rowdy rallies insulting the king—to “nontransgressive” gatherings that are so orderly and regular as to become almost ritualistic, such as demonstrations against the Israeli occupation (143). While transgressive protests tend to occupy more public space, not all protests have similar political meanings. Where protestors come from and what they do matter immensely. A tribal community with historically close ties to the monarchy that sends 50 jobless activists to Amman to protest at the royal palace has far more significance for the regime than a weekly gathering of Islamists that attracts 500 peaceful marchers.
In the final two chapters, Schwedler argues that authoritarian regimes fear the consequences of uncontained protests. How the Hashemite monarchy and its repressive institutions repress protests depends “on not only the claims being made, who is making them, and how they are being expressed, but in what spaces they are located” (210). Jordan’s regime shrewdly protects its Western-friendly image by tolerating many large protests, but it operates with its own repertoire of effective containment tactics to ensure they do not escalate. For instance, authorities know how to precisely position police and gendarmerie forces around a crowd to intimidate protesters while discouraging bystanders from joining. In Amman, officials have also disemboweled public spaces by enclosing them with “foreboding fences, caging, and military vehicles” (240). An infamous example can be found at the Fourth Circle, a traffic roundabout near the Prime Ministry, where tall fencing and gendarmerie posts make it difficult for the large crowds that gathered here during the Arab Spring to return.
Throughout the work, Schwedler challenges readers to rethink the politics of modern protests by interrogating their meaning under Jordan’s authoritarian power structure. Protests are not static attacks on normality; they are frequent and normal expressions of commonplace struggles. They enable Jordanians to assert claims and challenge their regime’s rules, but they also elicit autocratic responses. Protests represent frontiers where state power is exerted and negotiated and where the state itself becomes seen.
The Politics of Bread
Jordanians do not need to protest to feel the imprint of Hashemite authority. Bread subsidies, the topic of Martínez’s States of Subsistence, provide one of the most prominent examples of how social policies, too, represent a nexus of state-society interaction. Many political scientists study food through the mechanism of prices, since rising food costs can instigate popular discontent. Yet, food matters in another way: It commands cultural and political importance by revealing how a society relates to its government, particularly one that promises to subsidize food to bolster its legitimacy.
In Jordan, as Martínez notes, no other consumable item influences casual chatter and political debates as much as bread (khubz ‘arabi). For nearly 50 years, government-funded subsidies enabled even poor Jordanians to purchase bread at their local bakery. Bread represents not just a dietary cornerstone but also a state practice—a “social object” through which the Hashemite regime performs its role as caretaker to “manage life at the level of the population” (11). Bread is, therefore, an ideal foil for national politics, and bakeries serve as flashpoints where the state and its citizenry see one another. Unpacking this “charged force field of experiences, promises, and obligations” (19) propels Martínez’s study, which combines historical observations of Jordan’s political economy with ethnographic analyses gleaned from fieldwork, including many months spent working at Jordanian bakeries.
Martínez shows that autocratic rule must be performed through policies that make it appear sensible to its beneficiaries. Subsidizing bread embodies one such performative practice for the Hashemite monarchy whose welfarist logic drives chapter one and parts of subsequent chapters. In 1974, the government began subsidizing bread through a complex scheme of grain imports, flour distribution and price controls in response to hyperinflation and an army mutiny. What followed was the state’s “wholesale expansion of centralized intervention” into public life (49). Subsidies for bread and other goods like fuel accompanied the enlargement of the civil service and military, which began hiring more tribal Jordanians to lower unemployment—as opposed to Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who had represented a demographic majority since 1948.
By the time King Abdallah II took power in 1999, the Jordanian state had inculcated a distinctive model of governance—what Martínez terms “Hashemitism,” meaning the promotion of “order, stability, national unity, and monarchical rule” as the basis of Jordanian identity (211). Subsidizing bread was a pillar of this system.
The value placed on bread subsidies makes it easy to understand why Jordanians have protested so vociferously against the neoliberal economic policies championed by Abdallah II and his technocrats. One such policy was the 2018 replacement of the subsidy with a US-inspired system of targeted cash payments to low-income families. That the government justified its slashing of universal social benefits in the name of fiscal responsibility meant little to Jordanians. Their distaste for means-tested welfarism had been sculpted by the performative practice of subsidizing bread, which for two generations turned “citizens into consumers and entitlements into commodities” (222).
Martínez also shows that Jordanian bakeries are more than humdrum commercial establishments. He provocatively suggests in chapters two through four that bakeries are cultural institutions that channel government power. Inside of every bakery resides the shadow of the monarchy and the literal scent of the state: For individual customers, the fragrant smells and sounds of fresh bread being made every morning represent a “stately sensation” (77)—a sensory experience that reminds Jordanians about the social impact and political presence of their regime. The constant scheduling of official inspections, likewise, brings workers into close and often ritualistic contact with the government. Bakers and inspectors play an elusive game around the “imprecise mandates” of food safety standards (106). Inspectors are told to punish bakeries that violate the Ministry of Industry’s standards, but bakers know shuttering too many bakeries will leave local families hungry. Corners are cut and wry smiles exchanged as these actors reach unspoken agreements to maintain the status quo for the sake of public interest.
Such interactions feed into the industrial system of bread production, “the result of ordinary people exercising practical skills and tacit knowledge” (131). Yet this system also incubates internal tensions. As chapters five and six show, social policies under authoritarian rule are always unfinished projects. Its participants flit between obeisance and disobedience when convenient. For instance, some bakers bribe officials to secure flour that exceeds their quota lest they fail to meet local demand. Martínez sees such actions indicating not political opposition but social responsiveness: Local bakeries enable “moral and effective economic action,” and bakers often violate the technical rules while fulfilling their public charge (175). Bakeries, in essence, are paradoxical places. They substantiate the capacity of Hashemite rule, but they also provide space and sustenance for citizens to question, and sometimes resist, that rule.
Much as Schwedler filters political struggle between citizens and the state through the act of protesting, Martínez sees the consumption and production of bread as a microcosm for how Jordanians coexist with authoritarian power. There is no other book about the politics of subsidizing bread in Jordan, certainly none that bestows such a memorable conclusion. An authoritarian state does not exist in a vacuum. It must perform certain practices to make its presence felt among a population. Still, even autocratic power that looks stable and secure from the outside can seem contingent and pliable from within.
Penetrating the Police
The Jordanian state makes its presence felt in social life by penetrating protests and bakeries. Where citizens experience its authority most viscerally, however, is through everyday policing. While the Hashemite regime wields other coercive organs, such as the military, gendarmerie and intelligence directorate, the civil police (Public Security Directorate, or PSD) and its nearly 60,000 personnel embody governmental power. The PSD participates in repression by arresting dissidents or containing protests, but these actions represent relatively rare interjections into public life. In more routine ways, Jordanians encounter the police everywhere else—at traffic circles, public buildings, government offices, urban hotels, rural municipalities, touristic sites and the airport.
Watkins’ Creating Consent examines this ubiquity of the PSD to make a potent point: Policing produces autocratic rule, as the day-to-day grind of law enforcement leaves the deepest impact on how Jordanians see their state. The “low policing” of non-political crimes, such as theft, speeding, assaults and murder, allows the PSD to extract “integral hegemonic consent” (18). The police shape popular narratives of justice—as agents of the state, they solve crimes, uphold the law and deliver public trust to the monarchy. The PSD also intervenes within tribal communities to resolve personal disputes, resorting to informal mediation rather than applications of criminal law to ensure peace. For many citizens, such practices make the Hashemite state appear both legible and judicious.
Employing historical research, local documents and qualitative interviews in the field, Watkins shows how the PSD has obtained such weighty influence. Chapters two and three trace how policing helped forge the tribal-state bond that underlay Jordan’s political development. The tribal-state alliance, which gave the monarchy a favorable base of tribal supporters from the 1930s onwards, revolved around not just giving patronage to the largest tribes but also the cultural privileging of tribalism as a “defining feature of order” and national identity (44). Only tribal Jordanians were authentic Jordanians. Policing enshrined this conflation. Rural tribal communities provided the manpower for the police, and the police, in turn, reflected these origins by adopting a conservative stance that saw any public disturbance as an intolerable threat. After the PSD was created in 1956, this pattern continued: Palestinian-Jordanians were excluded from its ranks, while the new agency enjoyed the untrammeled license “to take a pervasive and intensive approach towards security” (89).
Security, however, is a fuzzy term. During Jordan’s martial law period (1957–1989), many officials interpreted security to mean arresting protesters, students and other critics in order to clear the public sphere of opposition. But Watkins shows, in chapters four through six, that security also came to mean ensuring a subjective sense of equilibrium in tribal communities, so that crimes are quickly resolved and conflicting groups do not spiral into escalating retaliation. This form of security requires legal pluralism or the deliberate non-enforcement of criminal laws, enabling local parties—individuals, families and tribes—to settle their grievances informally rather than through the police or court system. Instead of the absolute force of criminal law, authoritarian policing requires “discretion in intervention” (112).
Such fluidity operates in varied ways. Watkins’ discussion of blood crimes, or offenses causing physical harm, in tribal communities offers one example. Although the Jordanian government abolished tribal courts in 1976, the PSD still promotes “customary traditions for dispute management” (119). After traffic accidents, personal assaults and even murders, the police aim to prevent tit-for-tat violence between parties by engaging local shaykhs, who in turn begin the process of negotiating a truce or compensation. What outsiders see as atavistic tribal justice serves as an efficient way for the police to restore peace among feuding Jordanians. These resolutions bring parties into intimate and binding arrangements and “are often far quicker to conclude than criminal court cases” (135). A similar recourse to informality shapes the policing of domestic violence. The Family Protection Department, a specialized PSD unit, prefers to deal with marital abuse by encouraging victims to attend government-run “reconciliation committees” with their husbands, rather than press legal charges (162). Such mishandling persists, given the gendered taboo against public discussion of domestic abuse. Adherence to social codes trumps enforcement of legal codes.
The results of community policing were much the same as tribal dispute resolutions, where public order and lawfulness coalesced through informal practices and relationships. This observation echoes in Watkins’ concluding supposition: More than guardians of autocratic power, the police are social agents who embed that power into society by operating within its trenches. Low policing, not just larger exercises of repression and violence, makes that power visible. But in doing so, it also renders that power contestable. Like Schwedler and Martínez, Watkins shows that by “analytically privileging the everyday over the dramatic,” readers can witness how Jordanians see, perceive and interact with the Hashemite state (26). Resolving crimes may attract less attention than arresting the opposition, but it fulfills an important role in crafting authoritarian rule in Jordan.
Asking New Questions
These three books are not conventional works of mainstream political science. They offer insightful, rich and unparalleled accounts of social life under authoritarian rule by borrowing heavily from other disciplines, such as critical theory, cultural and legal anthropology and political geography. Their eclectic concepts reflect this interdisciplinarity. Furthermore, they ignore the usual questions that preoccupy political scientists—questions of whether the Hashemite state will collapse, or alternatively, whether it will ever democratize. These grand inquiries about the future of Jordanian stability have been asked countless times already by other analysts, and there is precious little to add. Instead, these books accomplish another urgent, essential task: They ponder how the power of an autocratic state can seem imposing yet limited at the same time. In doing so, Schwedler, Martínez and Watkins illustrate that everyday politics can be found everywhere—in forgotten protests, neighborhood bakeries and even traffic law enforcement. Such are the enduring lessons that Jordan provides.
[Sean Yom is associate professor of political science at Temple University. He is currently completing a book on Jordan entitled Politics in an Accidental Crucible.]