In Jordan, Fears of Wider Clashes

Jordanians are protesting a cancellation of popular fuel subsidies, a decision that hit its poorest citizens hard. Tamer al-Samadi reports that the protests have taken on an even sharper tone, with some protesters now calling for the fall of the regime.

al-monitor Protesters from the Islamic Action Front and other opposition parties shout slogans during a demonstration against rising fuel prices after Friday prayers in Amman, Nov. 23, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.

Topics covered

refugee camps in jordan, protests, palestinian

Nov 27, 2012

A few meters away from the Jordanian Royal Court in the center of Amman, Thabet Assaf broke into unusual chants and slogans.

"We are no longer slaves," he said that night, following the government's decision to raise fuel prices in a country whose deficit amounts to roughly $21 billion.

That night, numerous chants rang out, attacking sovereign institutions in the country. When Al-Hayat went to report in front of the gates of the courthouse, which was surrounded by soldiers in tanks and hundreds of masked security men heavily armed with weapons and tear gas, the chants voiced one single truth: that a new awareness is taking shape. In the wake of the Arab Spring, a generation of young Jordanians apparently does not care about the limits of expression that characterized "traditional" political forces and that the post-Nov. 13 Jordan (the day of the price liberalization) is no longer the same.

The young white-faced and bearded Assaf shouted in front of prominent security leaders — who merely watched — that "Jordanians are heading toward a real revolution." 

The movement was limited to certain elites from Amman, particularly to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and some activists from cities of the south, the north and the center. The streets of the kingdom were full of thousands of Jordanians engaged in protests described as the most violent since the outbreak of demonstrations in January 2011.

The decision to raise fuel prices gave rise to new speeches and slogans which included explicit calls to "overthrow the regime," a slogan which had been isolated over the past months to remote eastern Jordanian cities.

Also, this decision prompted Palestinian citizens to join the movement, following a year and a half of political abstinence. In fact, even before Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour finished announcing his economic decision, Palestinian refugee camps rose in rebellion. Al-Baqaa camp (west of Amman) witnessed violent riots between protesters and police forces, similarly to the two camps of al-Hussein (central Amman) and Azmi Mufti (northern Irbid).

During these protests, which quickly became an almost daily occurrence as they gathered momentum, demonstrators used unprecedented terms such as "revolution," "uprising" and "October uprising" inspired by the "April uprising" of 1989. This vocabulary earned the blessing of the Brotherhood and the National Front for Reform led by former Prime Minister Ahmad Obeidat, thus garnering political momentum.

The Brotherhood did not hesitate to exploit the atmosphere of tension, which led to attacks on police stations, road closures and the burning of cars and government buildings, killing two demonstrators and injuring dozens. Since high-ranking leaders were absent from the demonstrations, perhaps for "tactical' reasons according to observers for the group, thousands of young people participating repeated for the first time slogans that called for overthrowing the regime.

For its part, the group merely gave brief responses according to which “the cheers of its cadres do not represent the stated position of the Muslim Brotherhood.” However, Zaki bin Arshid, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan (who is rebelling against the group's traditional limits) rushed to release a remarkable statement that caught the attention of formal decision-making institutions.

According to this statement, Jordan is facing three scenarios: “corruption, reform or regime overthrow.”

The Brotherhood did not settle on just issuing these unprecedented statements. They even sought to focus their protests each night at the Ministry of Interior Circle (in central Amman), which is one of the most sensitive areas in the country. However, this endeavor was met with severe rejection on the part of the authorities, which turned the roundabout into a military barracks in the last few days and prevented people from approaching it at night.

This prompted official sources interviewed by Al-Hayat to reveal a decision to ban protests at the Interior Ministry roundabout after security reports warned against turning this famous roundabout into a square similar to the Egyptian Tahrir Square.

According to other security recommendations, the recent violence in the kingdom suggests the possibility of new and wide clashes that could lead to unrest in the coming weeks.

Yet still, the Brotherhood continued to escalate, and they succeeded alongside popular and tribal movements in burning thousands of voting cards belonging to those protesting against the decision to raise prices. After angry demonstrators spontaneously burned their cards in the last few days, these "movements" decided to organize campaigns aimed at destroying more cards.

Researcher Mohammed Abu Rumman told Al-Hayat: "Jordan is no longer as it was in the past, and comparing the current situation with the 1989 situation is also inaccurate because today's impasse is more complex and more widespread, and what happened over the past few days is serious and dangerous."

The protests against price rises that started in 1989 and that led to a great democratic transformation, as Abu Rumman said, were nothing but an ephemeral spark. In fact, the slogans raised by demonstrators in that era did not go this far.

Abu Rumman's statement was confirmed by a raucous political meeting called for by the famous tribal figure Faiz al-Fares in the village of Umm Rummana near the Jordanian capital. This village is predominantly settled by tribes descending from Jordan's major Bani Sakhr tribe. The meeting, which took place two days ago and was attended by hundreds of representatives of tribes affected by the economic decisions of the government, was characterized by a sharp tone, and participants launched an "ultimatum" to return what they say is "the people's looted money," threatening to "internationalize the crisis" that is plaguing the country.

Obeidat had invited tribal dignitaries and figures to a similar meeting several days ago. Obeidat, who hails from a village in the remote north, talked during the meeting about the internal concern, saying that his country "is suffering from a ruling deviation" and that the Jordanian regime "is messing with the citizens’ lives."

Obeidat tried hard to acquit about 300 young men that were in prison, according to Jordanian human rights organizations, on charges of chanting intense slogans.

Such slogans prompted Abu Rumman to say, "We are indeed living a serious and deep political and economic crisis."

"Even if the state exceeded the first wave of protests, the rationale behind the widening protests and conditions are still very active, and there is a wide range of political conditions fueled by unemployment, poverty and feelings of social deprivation," he added.

In a voice closer to rage, Abu Rumman, who hails from the city of Salt neighboring Amman that is historically known for its absolute loyalty to the regime, said that "the recent protests have left deep scars in the political regime, shaking the credibility of the political process."

He added that he frankly does not know where things are going in light of this "complicated political and economic crisis."

However, minister Samih al-Maaytah, government spokesman, who for years was a top Brotherhood leader, tried during his interview with Al-Hayat to downplay the recent protests by saying that the slogans calling for the overthrow of the regime "by no means represent the political or popular opposition."

Maaytah, a good observer of the protests escalating in front of the government headquarters in the Fourth Circle area, repeatedly stressed that "Jordan is strong and will manage to escape this crisis," saying that "despite our different perceptions of the details, no one disagrees on the regime."

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