- Published on Monday, 20 August 2012 07:09
- Category: Letters from Jordan
Within the Middle East, Jordan has long been a leader in Internet freedom. It is precisely for that reason that many free speech activists in the kingdom were deeply concerned when the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology sent letters to Jordanian Internet service providers (ISP’s) informing them of plans to block pornographic websites. This is actually the latest move in a broader debate within Jordan over freedom of speech and freedom of the Internet. No one in Jordan is actually advocating for pornographic websites; rather, many Jordanians are arguing that blocking sites is a dangerous precedent in a country that has prided itself on its Internet openness. It also comes at a time when the kingdom remains embroiled in raging debates about reform in the midst of the regional Arab spring.
State blocking of websites and attempting to control the Internet is commonplace in neighbors such as Syria and Saudi Arabia. But as long as the Internet has existed, Jordan has billed itself as a free Internet haven. This is explicitly part of the state’s campaign to encourage foreign investment and to create a very business-friendly environment. King Abdullah II, who ascended the Hashemite throne in 1999, has been a strong advocate of a modernized and globalized Jordan, linked to the Internet and embracing all forms of information technology, so that the kingdom remains open for business, investment, and trade.
Jordan’s population has higher levels of education than its counterparts in any other Arab country. It is also wired, and not just because of its many coffee houses. Jordanians were among the first in the region to embrace cell phones and information technology. The youth population in particular tend to be avid users of Facebook and other Internet sites. Blogs and online discussion groups abound, as do online newspapers, with new news sites popping up seemingly constantly.
And that is precisely why the timing and nature of the new Internet restrictions is so alarming to many Jordanians. Jordan remains in the midst of its own version of the Arab spring. Jordanian demonstrators have marched almost every Friday for the last 18 months, demanding greater political reform and an end to the corruption that they charge has marred the much-touted economic liberalization effort.
In the regional “Arab spring,” Jordan has attempted to carve its own unique path. The parliament has, for example, passed a series of reforms including amendments to the constitution, a new independent electoral commission, and new laws on parties and elections. King Abdullah has argued that elections need to be held before the end of 2012, and that these will comprise the final piece of the reform puzzle.
Opposition forces, however, remain unconvinced. They often argue that the reforms remain more cosmetic than real, and are particularly outraged about the details of the new electoral law, which they see as undermining their own electoral chances. Jordan’s largest political party – the Islamic Action Front, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood – has called for a boycott of the elections. Other opposition parties and even many of the popular movements (which have sprung up in virtually every town and city in the country) have said they too will join the boycott.
The regime is presenting itself as leading a historic reform effort, yet many in the opposition see the reform measures as lacking substance. Reviews outside of Jordan are similarly mixed. Major allies and aid donor countries, like the U.S. and the E.U. states, tend to applaud the regime’s reform program. NGO’s such as Human Rights Watch, in contrast, have harshly criticized multiple episodes of state moves against activists perceived to have crossed a red line by insulting the king or the monarchy.
All this comes in the midst of regional turmoil, as Jordan struggles to accommodate 150,000 Syrian refugees even as it remains mired in its own economic downturn. Jordanian security officials fear still worse effects from the spillover of the Syrian revolution and civil war. But that is also precisely why Jordan should continue to preserve is Internet openness in dramatic contrast to the collapsing police state to the north.
The irony, perhaps, is that Jordan’s educational and economic policies have created a generation of talented young Jordanians, who cross all the usual ethnic and social fault lines: they are of both Palestinian and East Jordanian origin, they are Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Circassians, men and women, and include those with backgrounds in every tribe and region in the country. These Jordanians have created everything from Internet business start-ups to online reform debates and political discussion salons. But the new Internet restrictions, no matter how well-intended, threaten to take Jordan down the slippery slope to other restrictions. For Jordan’s avid Internet users, the real question is what types of sites would be next? Blogs? News sites? Facebook? Twitter? Many activists argue that freedom of speech needs to be absolute, and that any restrictions must come from the user level alone, never from government.
But even aside from the arguments of democracy and reform activists, the new restrictions are also simply bad for business. And that last argument has tended to resonate more strongly with many in the regime itself. Jordan’s former Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Marwan Juma, weighed in on the debate appropriately enough via a Facebook post. The new Internet restrictions, he argued, constituted a “black eye” for Jordan. In a detailed eight-point statement, Juma provided a fairly definitive take-down of the new policy. “In the midst of a region of control freaks and enemies of the web,” he wrote, “Jordan has been the shining example of openness and freedom, resulting in many investments that enabled us to build our flourishing industry. And now almost 20 years later, and after serving as a model for the rest of the Middle East, we want to go back in time to the dark ages and put our heads in the sand, and at the worst possible time ever! … Let us keep the Internet open and free and maintain Jordan's position as a vanguard in the IT industry and protect our image as a country of openness and tolerance.”
But even aside from arguments in favor of Internet freedom for business or the country’s international reputation, there remains also the more poignant issue of regime credibility among its own people, especially regarding political change. Indeed, given the many other economic and security concerns and crises on hand, starting down that slope toward Internet restrictions is the very last place that the state should be expending its efforts. To the contrary, at a time when the authenticity of Jordan’s political reform process is the core question in Jordanian politics -- provoking raging debates and even an electoral boycott -- the regime should be at the very least retain its credibility on this point, by simply maintaining its original position: as advocate for complete Internet freedom.
Curtis Ryan is an Associate Professor of political science at Appalachian State University and the author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.