The Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, had expected about 50,000 people to attend. But many commentators noted that professional associations and unions did not participate in the protest and that Jordanian flags outnumbered those of the IAF among the crowd. The people, however, would not be taken lightly, demanding constitutional reform, stating that the alternative could be a popular revolt. Echoing softly behind the protests was the voice of ousted Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh, reminding Jordan’s leaders that spring is a season that always returns.
The so-called “Arab Spring” has made little headway in Jordan. Some might say it has taken root, but is blooming slowly. Jordanians took to the streets in the weeks and months following the uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but never in the same numbers, and with far less aggression. Jordanians have called for political reform, but not for outright regime change. These largely non-partisan and non-sectarian protests have echoed earlier protests in Jordan calling for further democratization and an end to corruption in the government. New developments mixed with old disparities to bring a new tenor to the long tradition of public protest in Jordan.
Friday’s protests came on the heels of, but had been planned prior to, King Abdullah’s dissolution of parliament a day earlier and his stated desire for new parliamentary elections before the end of 2012. Jordanians, though, have a long history of political protest. The right of public political assembly was enshrined in Jordan’s first constitution, ratified in 1952. These rights were ostensibly suspended during the martial law period from 1957 to 1989, but political protests continued. A political reopening occurred in 1989 as Jordan saw the rise of multiple political parties, an active and open press and a political activism and dialog not often associated with a Middle Eastern country.
Political protest in Jordan, however, can take on many tones, some familiar, some unique to the other countries in the region. At the core of many issues in Jordan has always been the question of political identity. A nation carved out of an Imperialist map, further stressed and threatened by the changes in the region around it, being Jordanian is not always as simple as its sounds. Since the Emirate was created in 1922 it has become a nation of tribes and clans, of Arab and non-Arab peoples, of Muslims, Christians and Druze, of Jordanians and a majority of the population who identify themselves as Palestinian.
The idea of who is a Jordanian and who a Palestinian is fundamental to identity politics in Jordan. It starts with the formation of the State of Israel, the 1948 Jordanian occupation of the West Bank and the subsequent influx of refugees into Jordan following Israel’s 1967 occupation of the same region. It continues with class division, economics, military and security service and even education. Palestinian citizens of Jordan can be denationalized by law, although the King has ordered the cessation of this practice. Electoral laws that favor Jordanian dominated rural areas over Palestinian-heavy urban areas have been a focus of the recent protests.
Recent events suggest that Jordan’s freedom of the press may also be under threat. The Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists reported that twenty-four verbal and physical assaults against journalists occurred in a four-month period. Police or security services trying to prevent coverage of protests in the country committed many of these assaults. A new press and publications law was recently passed and endorsed that would allow the government to block certain websites from being accessed within the Kingdom. That same law would hold the owners or officers of public websites criminally liable for comments posted on their sites. The passage of this law led to a protest where activists staged a mock funeral and carried a coffin labeled ‘Freedom of the Internet.’
Jordan is facing an energy crisis, which is taking a toll on its delicate economy. Jordan imports nearly 95% of its energy needs, including a heavy reliance on natural gas from Egypt. During, and since, the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Cairo, the pipeline between Egypt and Jordan (which also supplies gas to Israel) has been attacked, and shut down, more than 14 times. Jordan is seeking nuclear power as an alternative to power industry, provide municipal electricity and power badly needed desalination plants. Recently, King Abdullah has accused Israel of interfering in this goal.
Jordan suffers from a strained economy. High unemployment, rising fuel prices and a heavy influx of refugees from Iraq and, more recently, Syria further strain the delicate financial picture. Jordan faces recurring budget deficits and borrows heavily from the IMF and World Bank, as well as from its Gulf neighbors. The King has implemented a privatization scheme, which has helped foster foreign investment, but further strains unemployment figures as private companies end an era of reliable government employment figures. Jordan was forced to seek an exemption from UN sanctions against Syria that threatened to further damage it financially.
So, the question remains, is an early spring returning to Jordan? Recurring protests against the government, public outcry against censorship laws and ongoing stress in the economy and public pluralism seem to suggest that it is likely. King Abdullah faces a unique situation, however, with an opportunity to meet growing demands for constitutional reform, to allow for free elections to combat corruption and to further position Jordan for a more successful economic future.By Ted Graham, Aslan Media Columnist