Last Friday, a crowd of men set off from the local mosque in the small southwestern city of Tafilah to deliver a gift to the chief of the secret police at his office on the other side of town.
“It's a woman's dress,” explained Majdi al-Qabalin with a twinkle in his eye, “because he's a coward.” Along the way, they called out chants addressing King Abdullah II: “You saw what happened to Mubarak, Qaddafi and Ben Ali,” they cried. “No to Abdullah, no to Hussein!”
At the time, the streets of Amman still quiet, such calls seemed an impossibility for the rest of Jordan. That all changed on Tuesday, when protesters took to the streets in cities across the country repeating the rallying cry of Arab revolutions, “the people want the fall of the regime,” even, significantly, in central Amman. The immediate trigger for the unrest was an announcement of cuts to fuel subsidies, part of a package of austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a sorely needed two-billion-dollar loan. But red lines fell away as protesters began naming the king as responsible for mismanaging them into this predicament, even from the steps of the royal court.
Tafilah, a small city tucked into dramatic, austere mountains some 180 km south of Jordan's capital of Amman, could never have been predicted to be at the vanguard of such a movement. It is a tiny province, representing little more than one percent of the total population of Jordan, which is based almost entirely in and around the capital city. As stereotypes would have it, as an East Bank and tribal community, it was once widely believed to be a bulwark of support for the monarchy.
Not so, say residents; as they tell it, they've always had a rebellious streak, even leading a coup attempt in 1973 and rioting succesfully against IMF-imposed price rises in 1989. Their sense of grievance, they say, is exacerbated by the sense that the royal family have been ungrateful guests in a country not really their own.
“When the Hashemites came from Saudi Arabia on camels with nothing, we protected them. And now they've destroyed us,” explains Majdi. “We have cement, potash, petroleum, copper, phosphates. And yet we have the worst economic situation in the whole country.”
Whatever the history, communities in Jordan's northern and southern tribal areas, including Tafilah, have been willing to practice lesse majeste the longest and with the most flair in the kingdom. In turn, they've been punching above their weight in shaping Jordan's political narrative as tensions have escalated. The city's native sons have practically made a sport of violating the red lines of the Jordanian regime, making up the bulk of the activists who have landed in prison for insulting the monarchy over the past two years. Each week, they have mobilized protest actions designed to zing those at the top, from dress deliveries to anti-corruption dances.
In no small part, the cities outside Amman have led the charge because the economic pinch facing Jordan is being felt most sharply in their communities. Neglected by economic-development projects in recent years, they have been squeezed by stagnating wages even as rising fortunes in Amman have caused prices countrywide to soar.
“The country is ruled by the capital, for the capital. Everything came to be centralized around the seat of power,” says Yusuf Mansur, a Jordanian economist with EnConsult. “These areas have been completely missed. Local government is there only for security purposes, nothing else.”
With the lifting of the fuel subsidies, pressure on those communities has increased yet again, arguably to a breaking point. This time, unlike during previous instances of popular discontent, the royal court may have run out of ways to deflect those feelings onto the elected government, which has already changed four times in just one year. With little faith that the next one will be any better, opposition leaders, including both the Amman-based political parties and the decentralized grassroots movements in the tribal hinterlands, nearly all plan to boycott the upcoming elections scheduled for Jan. 23. At the same time, economists say the fuel subsidies are just the tip of the iceberg of the court's fiscal problems.
“This subsidy isn't going to be the only one to be cut. Others will have to follow. Yet things are just that expensive now in Jordan that people can't afford to hand over much more,” said Edmund Morris, a development consultant.
As calls for the downfall of King Abdullah II now take hold in the central districts of Amman, the challenge to the monarchy has grown even more acute. Still, the places to watch remain the upstarts on the margins like Tafilah, where the gloves are more likely to come off, galvanizing sustained public outrage. It is there that this week's demonstrations took a turn toward violence, as protesters and security forces alike fired guns in the air and lobbed rocks at one another, injuring at least six and resulting in nine arrests. Other tribal areas like Maan, Salt, Madaba and Karak saw protesters overrun and ransack a number of government buildings. In the most serious incident, security forces shot and killed one man, Qasi Omari, 22, in the northern city of Irbid on Wednesday night. As protests continued into the evening on Friday, Nov. 16, Jordan's security forces were promising an “iron fist” to contain the unrest.
Despite the escalation in rhetoric, bringing down the regime remains a murky goal. Even in Tafilah, where Hashemite-bashing has become such a pastime that toddlers have memorized Abdullah and Rania jokes, the calls for the king's downfall continue, subtly, to leave room for interpretation.
“Yes, of course I want the regime to fall, and I expect it will very soon,” says Mohamed Salem al-Oran, a protest leader with such long-time grievances against the monarchy that he once attempted a military coup against the late King Hussein in 1973. (His plot uncovered, he and his co-conspirators instead snatched a private plane and made off for Algeria, a honeymooning Italian couple still on board). His current definition of “downfall" hardly looks like revolution, though; the Hashemites still get to stay, albeit with significantly reduced powers.
“I want a constitutional monarchy and a new government, like in Great Britain,” he says.
Should that fail to materialize, however, his prescription is harsh: “It will be the revenge of poor people against rich people. The anger of poor people is what will bring down this regime.”
Katie Paul is a journalist based in Amman. She did a Fulbright fellowship on the impact of web connectivity among young people in Syria and has written for Human Rights Watch, Newsweek, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter @bupkispaulie.