Jordan’s ‘Arab Spring’ protests started as a peaceful small-scale demonstration against corruption in the town of Theeban in January 2011. Since then the protests have spread out to the outlying governorates, along with the rise of so-called popular movements. However, the unrest never reached the magnitude of the uprisings in countries such as Yemen, Egypt and Libya.
As in other Arab countries, protests in Jordan were being led by the Islamist movement, which dominates the political opposition, as well as by the popular protest movement which includes numerous pro-reform organizations.
The Jordanians mainly protested against corruption and favoritism.
Demonstrators called for investigations into regime corruption at almost all the protests.
Later the protests were directed against the worsening economic situation in the country. The deterioration of the economic situation is alarming as it could lead to a full-blown revolution as happened earlier in Tunis and Egypt.
Jordanian demonstrators demanded reform and change in general in a peaceful way. Lately however, some protests have turned violent. Last week dozens of people were injured during clashes between Salafists and pro-government demonstrators in the city of Zarqa.
Compared to the protests in other countries across the region, those in Jordan have been relatively sparse. This situation can be explained by a lack of organizational skills among the few political parties and an effective security system. In addition, from the outset, the protests’ consensus was that political and economic reform – not regime change – were the solution.
The fact that the Palestinians, who make up almost two thirds of the population, have not joined the protests may explain why there hasn’t been a full-blown revolution in Jordan.
However, the Palestinian Arabs in Jordan have good reasons to be angry at King Abdullah and his government. Although the majority of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, they have been discriminated against for decades.
This is something which King Abdullah in fact admitted when, back in 1999, he called upon his Jordanian (non-Palestinian) subjects to “end class divisions that have marginalized Palestinian citizens of the Hashemite Kingdom.” He also said at the time that “discrimination must end.”
This discrimination includes the refusal of the Jordanian Government to let Palestinians actively take part in the governing of the country. For example, the Palestinian majority in Jordan holds only 6 seats in a 120 member Parliament, while in Israel the 20 % Arab minority holds 14 out of 120 seats in the Israeli Parliament.
In addition the UN Higher Commission for Refugees confirms that Jordan’s government still treats the majority of its Palestinian citizens as refugees. Human Rights Watch reported in 2010 that King Abdullah’s government has been randomly cancelling passports of numerous Palestinians throughout Jordan, thereby destroying livelihoods and breaking up families.
Recently Jordan even revoked citizenship of PLO and PA officials. At the same time, a new electoral law sought to limit Palestinian representation in the Jordanian parliament even further.
Instead of taking responsibility for his government’s discriminatory actions, King Abdullah has accused Israel of being an ‘apartheid’ state. He made this accusation in an interview with the Washington Post about the failed peace negotiations between Israel and the PA which were conducted in Amman. The king said that “Israel will have to choose between democracy and apartheid”.
From the outset of the revolts in other Arab countries it was clear that King Abdullah was very concerned that a similar revolt could threaten his regime. He was therefore quick to announce reforms.
He has also been trying to divert the attention towards Israel by blaming the Jewish state for the shortcomings and failures of the Jordanian government, just like other Arab leaders have been doing for years.
Abdullah also tries to hide his opposition to the Syrian regime because he fears Assad’s repercussions and because the Jordanian economy largely depends on Syria.
The majority of Jordanian-produced goods are imported by Syria and Syria also serves as Jordan’s gateway to Lebanon, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. If the trade relations between both countries were to come to an end, the already weak Jordanian economy would receive a massive blow, which in turn could spark more protests and demands to topple the King and the Jordanian government.
One of the reform measures which Abdullah implemented included firing the government and replacing it with a new one. Similar actions were undertaken by Saudi Arabia, which uses its oil wealth to keep its citizens quiet.
However, the reform measures were not enough to satisfy the protesters and they demanded more extensive changes. Their demands included serious efforts to fight the regime’s corruption, a demand for an elected prime minister (instead of a prime minister appointed by the king), abolition of the senate (also appointed by the king) – or its transformation into a body elected by the people, and a demand to pass a new elections law.
In short, the protest and reform movement demands a decrease in the king’s powers and more influence and freedom of action for the parliament.
The protests continued, becoming more aggressive over time. Some protestors even publicly demanded that King Abdullah step down (there is a law in Jordan which forbids direct criticism of the Royal Family).
The tone of the demonstrations changed when the protesters saw that their situation was not really changing for the good.
Demonstrators started to display signs with slogans such as “there can be no reform under the current security grip” and “the people want freedom, justice and an end to corruption.” More recently various opposition members and groups have been accusing the King of being an “occupier”. They also accused Queen Rania of ruling the country instead of her husband.
In response to the radicalization of the protests, the regime has taken several measures to satisfy the Islamic movement and Bedouin tribes in Jordan. This included attempts to buy them off with money and positions of power.
The regime started to show flexibility on several issues which were previously considered sacred. For example, the king now said that he would be willing to curtail his own powers and that there might be talks about a constitutional monarchy.
The regime also tried to pacify the Islamists by starting a dialogue. This move came after it became clear that the Islamic parties were the driving force behind the protests which are taking place in cities all over Jordan almost every Friday.
In addition, the regime capitulated to the demand of the Islamic movement to free prisoners, including the release of 150 Salafi-Jihadist prisoners who were imprisoned for attacking security officers with swords during a rally in the city of Al-Zarqa which took place in April 2011.
Furthermore, the regime also announced that it would renew its contacts with Hamas. The relations between Jordan and Hamas were suspended in 1999 because of Hamas’s terrorist activities. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was subsequently expelled from Jordan, after which he moved to Damascus. In 2006 Jordan blacklisted the organization after an alleged weapons cache was discovered in the country.
Now the regime is trying to patch up things with Hamas, in order to satisfy the Islamists in Jordan.
Khaled Mashaal visited Jordan at the end of January 2012, allegedly to find a new home for Hamas’s headquarters which until then had been located in Damascus.
The US government however, immediately made clear that it would not tolerate the establishment of Hamas’s headquarters on Jordanian soil and warned that there would be serious repercussions if the regime did not prevent this from happening.
Shortly afterwards the Jordanian regime hurried to make it clear that Mashaal’s visit had no “political implications and does not signal a change in Jordan’s political agenda.”
In Israel pundits are worried that the Jordanian regime will not be able to hold off the Islamists in the long run. New concessions to keep the Islamists at bay will probably be necessary but could further destabilize the region.
These concessions will no doubt include a review of the relations with Israel. Already at this moment it is apparent that Israeli-Jordanian relations are deteriorating.
The (failed) Global March to liberate al Quds/Jerusalem (an anti-Israel manifestation that took place at the end of March) was, for instance, prepared at a conference in Amman last January.
In the same month Jordanian MP’s called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador. Recently a spokesman for the Jordanian government called Israeli actions against the continuing rocket fire from Gaza “barbaric aggression.” In the beginning of April, Jordanian state TV broadcasted an inciting sermon by imam Khaleb Rabab’a. He told worshippers that “Jordan’s army will destroy Israel and will regain Jerusalem from the killers of prophets.”