The story is that Jordan has survived. Full stop. As for how and why the country emerged unscathed from the Arab Spring, there are myriad theories, variously citing the “maturity” of the Jordanian public, Western financial support, the UN’s management of the influx of Syrian refugees and last but certainly not least, the kingdom’s official “web masters”.
The truth is that all of the above helped the small nation to evade the promise – or threat – of change that everyone expected would eventually come, despite resistance from within, and finally usher in the political freedoms necessary to lay down the foundations for a modern, democratic state.
Instead, what we got was stability. The price for that stability is the perpetuation of what can only be described as the status quo and with it, the security apparatus’ firm grip on government and the preeminence of the old guard.
Consider this story: A young Jordanian musician, while introducing his group’s next act, made a light-hearted joke about the government’s mishandling of the recent snow storm in the kingdom. A security guard at the state-owned theatre took offence. An exchange of words led to a scuffle, after which the security guard called for reinforcements. The incident has now spurred a petition[Ar] calling for the resignation of the director of the theatre. For now, it seems the director of the theatre, Abdul Hadi Raji al-Majali[Ar], a well-known columnist, is going to remain in his post – basically, he’ll get away with it.
Although the musicians and their supporters pledge to continue their campaign calling for Majali’s resignation, there is no doubt that many Jordanians feel the incident was used as an example to warn the youth at large not to cross those invisible, but ever-present lines, even by jest.
Lip service to reform
Above all, the story highlights a general malaise where officials, with close ties to the system or at least have shared interests, enjoy a degree of impunity. The government, which has consistently paid lip service to reform, has essentially reaffirmed the old system of governance with its policies unchallenged and its agents above the law.
Case after case came up, where officials failed to deliever on their promises but got away unpunished. One example was when the government failed to take any action against perpetrators of tribal-inspired violence in Jordanian universities.
That is not to say that there are no repercussions for such bad governance in Jordan. While they- the officials-might be able -in some cases- to escape punitive measures in a court of law, however, in the court of public opinion, ordinary citizens, backed up by social media, professional associations and political activists, will continue to document such violations.
While they – the officials- might be able – in some cases – to escape punitive measures in a court of law,however, in the court of public opinion, ordinary citizens, backed up by social media tools, professional associations and political activists, will continue to document such violations.
Legal instruments – or what analysts have come to call “scarecrow tools” – are aplenty to ensure that anyone who oversteps the boundaries is very quickly brought back to “reality”.
Among the most important of such tools is the the Press and Publications Law, which continues to restrict freedom of speech rather than liberate it. In June 2013, the Jordanian government ordered three local Internet service providers to shut down nearly 200 news websites that have not been licensed by the state-run Press and Publications Department.
It claimed that they were not registered properly. Activists realised the move was meant as a gentle reminder that the taps can be closed at any time and that regardless of the freedom they feel in the “space” they inhabit, it was still a space the government can control. Despite their initial cries of protest, most bloggers and social media journalists eventually fell into line.
The government has also used state security courts to try civilians for participating in peaceful protests. Arrests included a young man who burned a poster of the king in 2012 for “undermining royal dignity” and 13 activists accused of “insulting the king”. Another 100 peaceful activists were dragged into the state security courts – where they have no right of appeal – to face a range of charges including disturbing the peace, damaging public property and insulting security officials. The court cases were seen as part of an overall plan aimed at addressing the public and warning them against acts of dissent. The activists facing charges were basically collateral damage.
In Jordan, the scene has been very skillfully managed through a number of tactics: A security apparatus that holds the keys to many of the state’s functions, a government with the power to guide the population, mainstream media in a single direction as well as the “scarecrow” tactics that serve as reminders of the perils of getting out of line. In sum, the population is suitably conditioned to protect the status quo for fear of the instability that may ensue.
Of course, the big story from Jordan is not only that it manoeuvered itself so skillfully while neighbouring countries fell to their knees around it, but that it managed to maintain the country’s socio-economic and political constancy in the midst of a bloody triangle. And, perhaps more interestingly, the real tale is how Jordan, somehow, exploited the regional chaos to guarantee its own stability.
As refugees continue to pour in from Syria – and now, again from Iraq – Jordanians are fully aware that there is no time for their domestic concerns. Despite their full knowledge that they have been outmanoeuvered by the system into submission, for the moment, they are willing to let it slide.
As one human rights worker in Jordan told me recently: “A ruler is best served by the status quo. The regime is comfortable today and is sitting on its podium surveying the scene. It doesn’t need to make any serious effort to fix or improve [things] because the status quo is stable.”
Nermeen Murad is a Jordanian writer based in London.