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How Jordan's protest movement mattered

- October 27, 2014
Demonstration in Jordan in 2011. (Dana M. Moss)

Scholars have long been concerned with the effects of state repression on dissent, but attempts to understand repression’s effects have produced paradoxical results: Sometimes repression succeeds in quashing mobilization, and sometimes it fails by inciting a backlash.

This dichotomy has been a sticking point for repression studies because researchers have typically reduced state-challenger interactions to two quantifiable variables: violence and protest. The problem with this approach is that states and activists both use a range of tactics, and massacres and revolutions are not the only possible outcomes of repression, nor the only ones worth studying. Unfortunately, social scientists know surprisingly little about how both sides end up at the bargaining table, rather than embroiled in bloody conflict.

These gaps are particularly apparent in discussions of non-democracies, which are often conceptualized as completely intolerant of challenge. But as political scientists have shown, most post-Cold War authoritarian states have allowed for some political competition and civil society to emerge (within strict limits). These states are more accurately characterized as “liberalized” authoritarian ones than totalitarian-style autocracies.

So, what are the different means by which a regime represses activists, and how do activists respond? And why does this tit-for-tat contention often produce dialogue and bargaining? My study on repression and response in the “liberalized” authoritarian Kingdom of Jordan, published recently in Mobilization, offers some answers.

Using interviews with more than 50 reform-oriented activists across Jordan in 2011, I find that the regime attempts to monitor, control and undermine activism in seven ways. Notably, violence and imprisonment comprise but one type of repression. The regime also mobilizes counter-groups to harass and undermine reformers; they threaten, slander and send activists to the State Security Court; they censor them and deprive them of the resources necessary to continue their activities; they “disattend” to activists by selectively ignoring their requests to establish organizations and conduct programs; and they conduct surveillance, question them informally and attempt to dissuade them from advocacy. These last three tactics, which I collectively dub “outreach,” are usually conducted by intelligence, or Mukhabarat, agents.

The activists in my study responded to this repertoire in two main ways. First, they transformed the Mukhabarat’s outreach into opportunities for dialogue. As one reported, “When we want a message to go directly to the Mukhabarat, we say it clearly on the telephone so that they hear it!” Activists often welcomed the chance to challenge the regime in person. As one leader gleefully recalled, being summoned by the Mukhabarat made her so happy that she “didn’t wish to leave,” because it gave her a chance to berate the officer with a litany of demands.

Second, activists perceived all other forms of repression – from being physically assaulted to purposefully ignored – as threatening the very survival of their advocacy efforts. As such, they took their grievances public. Activists demonstrated in front of government offices in order to shame specific officials and demand the immediate reopening of a dialogue; they also activated their alliance networks – what political theorist E. E. Schattschneider refers to as “drawing in the crowd.” By exposing the regime’s dirty laundry in the media, through international human rights organizations, and among the tribal elite, activists undermined the regime’s credibility as the source of reform, unity and stability.

Here’s the key point: These actions typically prompted regime officials to invite activists back to the bargaining table. And while this was no guarantee that activists would have their demands fulfilled, forcing the regime to stand down in and of itself signaled a short-term success.

This pattern of repression and response exemplifies a dynamic I call “contained escalation,” which helps to explain why Jordan’s Arab Spring was characterized by an escalation in mobilization without a revolution. While the regime eased its repressive measures, dropping charges and lifting surveillance in some cases, activists played upon the threat of revolution to capture the regime’s attention and force officials to negotiate on specific grievances. A period of accommodation prevailed as long as demonstrators did not mimic the familiar methods or refrains of nearby revolutions. And as long as the regime continues to treat reformers with relative restraint in order to maintain calm in the streets, demands for reform will not evolve into calls for a revolution, and the status quo of contained escalation will prevail.

While more research is needed to generalize, it is likely that Jordan is not exceptional. Any illiberal regime seeking to maintain an authoritarian status quo, a reputation as liberal and street-level stability is likely to react to reform-oriented dissent in a similar fashion. Recent studies of protest movements in China support this claim. When activists threaten the veneer of social harmony by taking their politics outdoors, this forces officials to act as “firefighters” in order to contain the sparks of dissent without the use of delegitimizing violence. In China, Jordan and elsewhere, we can see how the imperative to preserve stability forces regimes to turn confrontation into bargaining – and how this dynamic shapes activists’ strategies.

If we want to understand what repression does to activism, we need to understand how repression is perceived in all of its forms – rather than assuming that violence is the only thing that really matters – and analyze how activists adapt to these mixed methods. And we need to pay better attention to the ever-changing character of authoritarianism in many parts of the world. In countries such as Jordan and China, regimes continue to repress and impose significant limits on reformers, but these limits have limits. And lastly, we should attend to cycles of contention that exist before the onset of crises – and treat non-revolutions as outcomes worthy of study, too.

Dana M. Moss is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and co-founder of The Yemen Peace Project.