The daily lives of Syrian refugees in Jordan have always been difficult, but until the winter of 2014-2015, they were defined more by concern about making ends meet than outright panic.
Imagine living in a refugee camp. For most, that phrase is enough to conjure images of makeshift tents, dusty pathways, queues for water and food, and above all, fear. Now imagine living in Zaatari refugee camp in a northern part of Jordan 7.5 miles from the Syrian border and Dar‘a region, sharing an area only about three square miles with 100,000 other refugees in one of the most densely populated “cities” in the Arab world, with near-constant shuffling and reshuffling of households, food and water distribution points, and other services, and refugees arriving and leaving all the time. Who, would you imagine, is responsible for keeping you and your family safe, fed and housed? Who will help you make sure your children can go to school, and do so safely?
There is a name whispered in opposition circles in Syria — an insurance policy against what after three years of conflict seems inevitable. If you are injured very badly, there are two imperatives: Get to the Jordanian border. Then, get to Umm ‘Abdallah.
“She’s the one,” says Muhammad ‘Ali Shamboun, a limping young man from Dar‘a now living in Amman. He motions to the unimposing woman, about ten feet away, whose succor he has been awaiting for two years. “If she says, ‘Do this operation,’ it’s done.”
A carpenter all his life, ‘Ala’ never imagined himself wanting for something like a chair or a bed. But today his blue plastic seat is a luxury. After fleeing war in Syria, ‘Ala’ and his family were homeless in Jordan for roughly 18 months. But since January, the father of three has lived with a dozen other refugee families in a furnished apartment building on the outskirts of Amman.
‘Abd al-Qadir is tall, handsome and unassumingly stylish. With his well-cropped beard, Bob Marley T-shirt and Nike kicks, the young man would not look out of place on the gentrified streets of Brooklyn, the art scene of Belleville or the bustling beaches of his dream destination, Rio de Janeiro. Instead, he lingers in Amman, confronting dark news from home with a disarming smile.
One stated justification for US strikes in Syria and Iraq is to protect the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The old joke about Jordan’s political geography — that the country sits “between Iraq and a hard place” — seems morbidly, and not at all amusingly, appropriate once again. Violent conflict is intensifying on three borders: Syria is aflame, in the third year of a horrific civil war; Iraq is racked with renewed internal strife; and now Israel is again bombarding Gaza, with Palestinian civilians suffering the bulk of the casualties and Hamas firing mostly useless rockets in response. Speculation has begun about a third intifada.
Bassel Burgan is a Jordanian businessman and a leader of the movement to stop the Jordanian government’s plans to generate nuclear power. Jillian Schwedler, an editor of this magazine, conducted this interview with Burgan by e-mail on June 24, 2014.
What, in your view, are the important factors motivating the push for nuclear power in Jordan?
Jordan is facing a power crisis. Resource-poor, the small desert kingdom imports 96.6 percent of its energy, according to government statistics, at a cost equivalent to 20 percent of gross domestic product in 2011 and 2012. More than a quarter of that fuel goes to generating electricity. Future demand is expected to grow rapidly, as Jordan is still in the hump of its demographic transition — in 2012, 37 percent of the population was under the age of 15. Population growth alone will sharpen the hunger for fuel, but so, too, will the need for new industries to provide jobs for the large youth population, and the aspiration to modern, middle-class lifestyles. In addition, Jordan is the constant recipient of refugees from the region’s crisis zones.
Not surprisingly, a visit to the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan is mainly a depressing experience. Yet there are elements of inspiration here as well.
On May 26, Syria’s ambassador to Jordan, Bahjat Sulayman, received a terse letter from the Jordanian government informing him that he had been declared persona non grata and had 24 hours to leave the country. The expulsion of the Syrian ambassador may have seemed sudden or startling, but it had been brewing for quite some time. What is more surprising, in fact, is that it didn’t happen sooner.
A recent report suggests that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may be looking to expand…again. The report says that, during a March summit, the group of six Arab petro-princedoms extended invitations to both Jordan and Morocco to join a pan-monarchical military alliance. And there is a chance, at least, that the GCC states would include a nominal republic, Egypt, in a broader regional military and defense pact (although it is not clear if Jordan, Morocco and Egypt would need to join the GCC or the military bloc would be a separate entity).
Celebrations rocked Gaza and the West Bank when Muhammad ‘Assaf, who grew up in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, won the region-wide singing competition known as “Arab Idol.” But spontaneous street parties also broke out in many other parts of the Arab world, including in neighborhoods across Jordan.
An hour and a quarter north of Amman the rural highway rolls through the remote desert hamlet of Zaatari without slowing. The town’s lone intersection is too sleepy to need a stop sign.
Raise the subject of Arab military-industrial production and the country that springs to mind is Egypt. A historian might recall Iraq’s early arms industry; a Gulf analyst might think of the weapons development projects being financed by the United Arab Emirates. Few would think of Jordan. But according to promotional literature, Jordan’s armed forces have entered joint venture partnerships with at least 26 foreign defense companies,  to produce everything from pre-packaged field rations and boots to backpack-portable drones and armored vehicles.
“We do not know our destiny. The Jordanian government might ask us to leave at any moment,” said Hana, a widow in her fifties. “There is no rest for a guest.”
For months prior to Jordan’s parliamentary elections, concluded on January 23, both the state apparatus and the opposition had been building up the contests as a moment of truth. The state presented the polls as a critical juncture in the execution of its strategy of gradual political reform; the opposition, riding the momentum of two years of concerted street protests, staged a boycott it hoped would delegitimize the whole endeavor.
The November 13 withdrawal of fuel and electricity subsidies has sparked vigorous demonstrations in Jordan, prompting renewed speculation about whether the wave of Arab uprisings that began in late 2010 has finally arrived in the Hashemite Kingdom. Indeed, amidst the rush of scholarly attempts to explain why uprisings did or did not occur in various Arab countries in 2011, Jordan is proving a stubborn case. Jordan fits nearly all the criteria for an uprising, but sustained protest has yet to take root.
Although Jordan may appear little affected by the Arab uprisings, as early as January 2011 Jordanians were in the streets for the same reasons Tunisians and Egyptians were: protesting against economic conditions and privatization of state resources, demanding the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet, and calling for political reform and an end to elite corruption. The protests persist, with marches nearly every week, and include traditional opposition groups like the Muslim Brothers and leftists, as well as self-proclaimed “popular reform movements” that are forming throughout the country. At least two umbrella organizations have emerged to bring these movements together.
Despite sharing some of the socio-economic and political problems that propelled uprisings in other Arab countries, Jordan remains an exception to the trend. And if it can be kept that way, much of the world inside the Beltway will celebrate.