The Arab awakening through the lens of young Jordanians  | Lina Shannak
The Arab awakening through the lens of young Jordanians Print
Lina Shannak   
In the wake of the Arab spring, a young Jordanian student who was attending a political debate told the audience about his encounter with a senior official in the General Intelligence Department, an entity that continues to interfere in the country’s political affairs.

The student urged the audience to speak out, bypass any taboos and express their long-held resentments, assuring them they would not be prosecuted. According to the participant, the senior official explained that the department intended to "loosen its grip" and allow people to express their opinions, at least for a short period of time.
The Arab awakening through the lens of young Jordanians  | Lina Shannak
Crowds of Jordanians chanting slogans and calling for wide-scale reforms ©

Whether the promises of the officer were genuine or not remains open to question but the Arab spring has certainly hit Jordan, albeit with a different pace and agenda as many taboos have been discussed in public including the prerogatives of the Monarchy.

The Identity's question
The question of identity is probably what makes the Arab spring in the Hashemite Kingdom very different. It is an intricate dilemma that has shaped local politics for decades.

50 % of Jordanian citizens are of Palestinian descent. The issue of equal political rights have been fueling heated disputes in the country as East-bank Jordanians fear that such a step could threaten their privileges and help realize the "alternative homeland" scenario, whereby Jordanians of Palestinian origins would give up their right of return and opt for permanent resettlement in Jordan.

The identity's issue, a dilemma that denies Jordan a unified national identity, has affected the Jordanian spring in, at least, three respects: number of participants, divisions among protestors and the provision of a stigma to discredit the movement, albeit the latter is no longer applicable today.

As Tayseer, an activist with Pro-Islamist tendencies, observes, the number of protestors and people taking to the streets to express solidarity with the Palestinian cause have reached thousands, while calls for homegrown reforms have attracted a much smaller number of advocates.

He admits that he is worried about an Israeli attack against Gaza at this specific moment, because the crowds who will protest will "definitely outnumber Jordanian reformists and slowly bring the Jordanian movement to an end."

The young self-proclaimed "open-minded" Islamist says that his colleagues and friends of Palestinian descent do not engage in any calls for reform in Jordan, as "their parents warn them of such activities and seek to avoid any prosecution, they are constantly reminded that they are only guests and that any reform process taking place in the 'host country' does not concern them".

Although he needs Jordanians of all creeds to move and join the other forces calling for reform, Tayseer is aware of the fears that arise from such a step. He explains that this will be perceived as a "threat" against East Bankers' privileges and influence in the public sector, army and security forces and may lead to heated disputes.

He cites the 24th March protest, a movement calling for the implementation of wide-scale reforms, as an example. Opponents of the movement used violence to put an end to what they saw as a "Palestinian plot to overthrow the regime" even if the movement was not mainly comprised of Jordanians of Palestinian descent. The incitement that followed the attacks on protestors was largely based on racist discrimination and plagued the mainstream and electronic media for months.
The Arab awakening through the lens of young Jordanians  | Lina Shannak
Participants from the"24 March" movement stage sit-ins and demand a comprehensive reform ©

These contradictory stances towards equality and the concepts of "citizenship", two prerequisite pillars of a democratic state, are clearly manifested in the agendas that protestors are pursuing.

According to Ghassan Yonis, a young Jordanian activist, in a Friday protest, "you are likely to find people marching next to each other and calling for entirely different purposes". He explains that "right-wing tribal leaders" are worried about a growing Palestinian influence and propose a series of steps to curb this influence.

He notes that these forces are against the amendment of the elections law to have a more representative parliament. The amendment would enable Jordanian expats to vote and Jordanian women to pass their citizenship to their children. They believe these amendments could empower Jordanians of Palestinian origins.

While these tribal forces are mostly driven by their fear of a Palestinian presence, Yonis notes that others are calling for a civil state for all, safeguarding equal political rights for all citizens irrespective of their race, religion and gender. "And they protest together, next to each other, while holding contradictory agendas", he says.

As Yonis observes, a large segment still believes that the regime, with the current status quo, is the only way to hold the "demographic structure" together. Moreover, the "opposition has not demonstrated any signs to encourage people to ask for an elected government". Until this situation changes, Yonis says the majority cannot be blamed for their silence.

While the "Palestinian-Jordanian" card is normally used to discredit a movement, Nahed Hattar, a prominent leftist politician and an activist, told a group of young Jordanians attending a Q&A session that the regime cannot use this "card" now, given the fact that the protests are largely led by East Bankers, the traditional backbone of the regime. His statement reveals a lot about "who is entitled to speak" and "who can count the blessings" in actuality as opposed to the theoretical equality stated in the constitution.

Fear of Muslim Brotherhood

Similar to the political discourse in other Arab countries, Islamists have long served as a pretext to deter democracy. Regimes claim that if democracy is actually realized, Islamists will rule the countries through ballot boxes and turn them into theocratic states. Jordan is not an exception. The official narrative does not deny that there are certain repressive measures that are needed in order to curb the influence and power of Islamists.
Opponents of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, rely on different reasons to justify their stances. As the majority of members and supporters are Jordanians of Palestinian origins, the demographic structure of the political party is a major factor.

Others oppose any potential measures that may be pursued by Islamists to limit personal and civil freedoms. With regards to this aspect, Tayseer explains that "Jordanian society, with a few exceptions, is largely conservative even without considering the Muslim Brotherhood issue". Tayseer, therefore, reminds the opponents that any policy will be "legitimate" as long as it represents the "free will of the people". He adds that he does not mind having a Christian prime minister as long as there is a general consensus, negating many stereotypes of Islamists.

However, Maher Nammari, a leftist young activist, claims that Islamists are trying to divert the attention from the real issues at stake and turn the conflict into a religious one. According to Nammari, the real conflict is "a result of capitalism and privatization", leading countries to lose their sovereignty and become puppets of the West and the US. He points out that Islamists "do not have an alternative agenda and won't be able to change this blind adherence to western capitalism". Thus, he advises the American President Barack Obama and the west to allow Islamists to rule in the Arab world as they "will not threaten western interests in the region".

The Arab awakening through the lens of young Jordanians  | Lina Shannak
Police barrier protecting protestors from stones being hurled by opposite groups. ©

Ready for democracy?
A description that depicts the people as "incompetent" for democracy is very often used to justify the persistence of the status quo. A narrative that claims the country "will be torn apart by chaos" is promoted to counter reform efforts.

According to Yonis, this narrative holds some water, if "we are talking about legislations and political awareness". Indeed, "we need to amend the elections' law before speaking of an elected government and we also need to work on mindsets that favor voting on tribal grounds as opposed to political agendas", he says.

If the official narrative is true, Tayseer believes "we should hold accountable whoever made us incompetent for democracy, although we were ready to practice it in the fifties". He cites the "historic elections" that took place in 1956 in Jordan and resulted in the formation of Jordan's only elected government as a proof of "our democratic abilities".

Without undermining the notion of "security and stability", a description that has long characterized the country, Tayseer affirms that "we have witnessed an escalation of violence in different parts of the Kingdom in the recent years" and this, in his opinion, threatens the stability and security more than the calls for reform. On the contrary, reform will "protect the people’s interests and protect the regime from any potential disenchantment caused by corruption".

At the end of the day, the status quo is "persistent" not because of the strength of its proponents but rather due to the divisions among the opponents. These divisions are perhaps echoed in the statements of a military veteran who has been heavily involved in calls for reform. The "patriotic" Jordanian is not concerned by the constitutional amendments that were enacted a few months ago. However, he is doing his utmost to protect the country from a growing "Palestinian presence" and the "alternative homeland" scenario.

In his opinion, "constitutional amendments come and go, but the real battle is on the land now, if it ever becomes an alternative homeland for Palestinians, we will never reclaim it!"

Lina Shannak