Maan, Jordan – This southern city – known for violence, riots, and clashes – received worldwide attention last week when new chants and flags were raised, alarming Jordanian authorities.
Dozens of men carried a banner calling the southern city the “Fallujah of Jordan”. Waving al-Qaeda flags as they chanted sectarian-inspired slogans, they celebrated the military gains of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) – the group that has since re-named itself the Islamic State – in neighbouring Iraq.
Security officials immediately summoned the protest’s organiser, Issam Abu Darwish, a 38-year-old engineer working for Maan’s municipality, for investigation; his family said they have not heard from him since. Abu Darwish’s brother, Ahed, said his brother organised the march in support of Sunni Muslims that are oppressed in Iraq.
The Jordanian authorities and Salafist leaders both denied any links to the Maan protest, and said there is no organised branch of ISIS in Jordan. “It is just a group of six men who organised the protests as individuals,” said the governor of Maan, Ghazi Shamaylah.
Nusra and ISIS, but there is no organised ISIS here.”]
“Yes, there are supporters for ISIS in Jordan as Salafists are divided in their support between [al-Qaeda affiliated party, Jabhat al-] Nusra and ISIS, but there is no organised ISIS here,” Mohammad Shalabi, known as Abu Sayyaf, the leader of a Salafist movement in Jordan, told Al Jazeera.
“If there is a leadership for ISIS in Jordan, they should come out to the public,” Abu Sayyaf added.
For many, support for these groups stems from growing frustration with police violence in Maan. According to residents and local activists, police violence has left ten people dead this year, mostly during police raids and searches.
“The police can arrest whoever they think presents a threat to the society, but they must be turned into [the] justice [system], not killed by police officers,” said Anas Abu Karaki, a professor of IT at the University of King Hussein in Maan.
Abu Karaki said raising ISIS flags could lead to a further crackdown on residents. “I am Muslim too, and these guys are Maanis, too. But our main concern is combating police violence against our people,” he told Al Jazeera.
Located 220km south of Amman, Maan was the epicentre of Jordan’s “April Awakening” in 1989, when protests erupted over a raise in the price of commodities, and spread to the cities of Karak and Salt, among others. The protests then evolved to a demand for more basic freedoms in Jordan, and as a result, martial law was lifted in the Kingdom and parliament was re-instated after being suspended for eight years.
But since then, the city’s residents – numbering about 100,000 people – say they have been marginalised from the government’s developmental projects. The city has an unemployment rate of 19 percent, as opposed to the average of 12.1 percent nationwide. Maan also has the highest poverty rate, at 24.1 percent, compared to a national average of 13.1 percent, recorded in 2010.
According to Hassan Abu Hanyah, an expert on Salafist movements in Jordan, ISIS attracts young people from poorer areas like Maan. “Such extreme organisations work when there are problems… such as sectarianism,” he said.
“Although Jordan does not have the Sunni and Shia division, it has social, economic and security problems it needs to address,” Abu Hanyah told Al Jazeera.
On June 25, young, mask-wearing men raised al-Qaeda flags during a protest against the killing of a Maan resident, Aref Abu Darwish. Abu Darwish was killed during a Jordanian SWAT team raid on his house – an attempt to arrest his brother Mehdi Abu Darwish – that left two other family members injured, including one in critical condition.
“If they do not stop killing our people, we are all becoming ISIS,” said a protester in his 30s, who didn’t give Al Jazeera his name, as he chanted, “Freedom is from Allah, Go Away Abdullah”, referring to the King Abdullah II. Protesters also called for sacking the Interior Minister, Hussien Majali, and Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour.
The Jordanian government refused to comment on these matters despite repeated Al Jazeera requests, while the Ministry of Interior Affairs referred Al Jazeera to the Maan governor.
The governor, Shamaylah, told Al Jazeera that police were trying to arrest Aref’s brother, Mahdi Abu Darwish, who is wanted for serious crimes, without specifying what these crimes were. His family denied the allegations.
, you are wanted.”]
The arrest attempt couldn’t have been done differently, Shamayleh added. “You know in the US, the police can shoot immediately if a criminal is dangerous, but here police officers get wounded and shot at back,” Shamayleh said.
Meanwhile, the Abu Darwish family refuses to bury Aref. “We will not [bury him] until the government apologises for this massacre they held at our house,” said his sister Nisreen, a 23-year-old schoolteacher.
Sporting purple bruises over her legs, she told Al Jazeera gendarmerie officers kicked her as she was trying to defend her brothers, and shocked her with a taser. “I never supported extremism or chaos in our country, but now that we felt the bitterness of injustice and humiliation at our home, I have come to believe if you are [from Maan], you are wanted,” she said.
A month ago, violent riots erupted in Maan and lasted for almost a week after a resident was killed by a police officer. Jordan’s Interior Minister, Hussien Majali, told parliament then that the government was conducting an arrest campaign for 19 “dangerous people”, wanted for issues like drugs and theft.
After the latest round of violence, The National Center for Human Rights issued a statement calling for calm and condemned the “excessive use of force” and “horrifying raids” on communities in the search for wanted suspects.
With the security situation deteriorating in neighbouring Iraq, the Jordanian authorities have intensified national security by sending troops to the Iraqi border and by allocating emergency funds to recruit 3,000 gendarmerie forces for this year.
Further, after passing its amended controversial anti-terror law, which broadens the definition of terrorism,
the Jordanian authorities have made it impossible for Jordanian fighters – which analysts and Salafist leaders estimate to number between 1,800-2,000, fighting in Syria and Iraq – to return to their country.
Early this month, a military court sentenced four men to between two-and-a-half to four years in prison for joining or attempting to joining opposition groups fighting in Syria. Last week, ministers and parliamentarians held a meeting to discuss the situation in Maan and the challenges facing Jordan. The media was denied access to the meeting.
To stem these tensions, critics say it is time for the Jordanian authorities to make serious improvements to the country’s economic and social problems. “Jordan should address problems in Maan before it is too late,” said Jordanian writer and political analyst Mohammad Swedan.
“They often talk about developmental programmes over there, but it is either such programmes are not real, or they need to rethink how they are doing things.”