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Jordan accuses teachers union of 'economic crimes' in crackdown

Activists claim Jordanian government is applying "defense laws" to suppress dissent during economic downturn.

AMMAN, Jordan — As the COVID-19 caseload rises once again in Jordan, the government calmed fears that a complete lockdown would be reinstituted, heeding the advice of Jordanian economists who warned that the economy “could not bear such a move.”

Though Jordan seems to have survived the coronavirus pandemic relatively unscathed thus far — 1,532 cases and 11 deaths to date — there have been major economic consequences of what was dubbed “the world’s toughest lockdown.” According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, by the end of the year a quarter of the country’s labor force will be out of work and gross domestic product is expected to have shrunk by 5% — Jordan’s first economic contraction in over 30 years.

Seemingly in anticipation of coming economic turmoil, the Jordanian government has adopted a harsh stance against dissent. On July 25, it shuttered the country’s largest independent labor union, the Teachers Syndicate, rolling back post-Arab Spring democratic reforms that had allowed the union to open in 2012.

Since closing the 140,000-member union, the government has detained all 13 representatives on the leadership council on undisclosed charges and arrested over 1,000 protesters who took to the streets in opposition to the decision, according to the union’s lawyer, Bassem Frehat.

The government has also issued a gag order prohibiting the media from discussing details of the case and arrested local and foreign journalists who have covered the ensuing protests.

The government has relied on defense laws granted in March to arrest and detain protesters. The government initially invoked the defense laws to better combat COVID-19, with the guarantee that they would be applied “within the most limited scope possible” while “protecting public liberties and the right to self-expression.” 

However, Frehat accused the government of using the defense laws “selectively to restrict the protests” and exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to get rid of the syndicate.

The government has cited concerns over the pandemic as the reason for its prohibition of protests, but Frehat expressed skepticism about this reasoning. “I have seen cells where they keep 21 detainees in a 3-by-3-meter [97-square-foot] space, without masks,” he said.

Frehat also told Al-Monitor that though most of the detained protesters were released, around 200 are still in prison on the basis of their political affiliation. Many protesters were released on bail, having to promise that they would not protest again or else have to pay amounts as high as 500,000 Jordanian dinars ($705,227). In contrast, according to Frehat, a typical bail amount for suspected drug dealers is generally 30,000 dinars.

The government insists the closure of the union was ordered by the judiciary in “reference to economic crimes,” but analysts generally see it as an attempt to stave off another strike by the union. In 2019, the teachers union was promised a wage increase after a four-week strike, but the increase was canceled after the government froze all public sector salary increases in April.

The teachers union is also widely seen as dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned July 15, contributing to a narrative that the closure of the union is a continuation of the government’s crackdown on the Islamist group.

Members of the union who spoke with Al-Monitor said the Muslim Brotherhood had a presence in the group but did not make up the majority of its ranks. Members said the size of the union prevented any one group from dominating it or turning it into an ideological body.

The government’s heavy-handed tactics against the union quickly elevated what was essentially a wage dispute into a national cause. There have been protests occurring throughout the country regularly since the end of July, and the slogan “With the Teachers” (Ma’a al-Ma’almeen) has become a rallying cry.

At one such protest in the northern city of Irbid on Aug. 13, passersby watched as security forces quickly broke up a socially distanced human chain in front of the governorate’s administrative building, arresting those who refused to disperse. “I don’t understand, the government is just pouring fuel on the fire,” one onlooker remarked.

After the protest, the secretary of the Irbid branch of the teachers union, Firas al-Khateeb, told Al-Monitor that the government’s treatment of protesters is unprecedented and a sharp break with the openness to dialogue it had presented prior.

He said the existence of the union itself was a hard-won victory, only opening in 2012 after years of civil organizing. He further expressed worry that if the union should cease to exist, Jordan’s civil society would lose its largest independent body and suffer as a result.  

Jordan’s closure of the teachers union and restrictions on freedom of speech have also earned it international rebuke. On Aug, 19, the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights called for Jordan to reverse the closure of the union and criticized it for “serious violations of the right to freedom of association and expression.”

Jordan is just one of several countries in the area to pass sweeping emergency powers legislation in the wake of COVID-19. In neighboring Egypt, for example, new emergency laws have expanded the state’s powers to surveil and detain its citizens.

The entire region is expecting a large economic downturn due to COVID-19, and protests over living conditions are being seen in Beirut and in Baghdad. How governments will choose to respond to the pandemic and the ensuing unrest will determine the future of their civil societies — or in some cases, what remains of them.

So far, the liberal application of defense laws to quash dissent across the region bodes a dark omen for the Middle East’s post-COVID future

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