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Jordan detained a prince. The government’s determined to squash political dissent.

Criticizing the king is considered an act of terrorism

- April 5, 2021

Jordan’s Prince Hamzeh bin Hussein — eldest son of Queen Noor and the late King Hussein — was put under house arrest Saturday in connection with an alleged conspiracy to “undermine the country’s stability.” Videos posted on social media showed heavy security forces in the wealthy Dabouq neighborhood in West Amman where several royal palaces, including Hamzeh’s, are located. Some 20 individuals were arrested or detained.

A few hours later, Hamzeh recorded a video message via satellite phone that his attorney shared with the BBC, stating that his phone and Internet access and his security detail were all removed. Expecting to lose his satellite connection as well, he said he was being detained for speaking out against government corruption and its intolerance of any political dissent.

A coup plot is high intrigue for Jordan, where the Hashemite regime portrays itself as an oasis of stability in a sea of unrest. King Abdullah II is not popular, but many view his continued reign as preferable to alternatives that might include Islamist rule, a descent into civil war or a loss of power for Jordanians of East Bank descent.

How should we understand this alleged plot and the regime’s intolerance of even the mildest political dissent?

Growing dissent

For years, Hamzeh has outspokenly criticized corruption. Members of the royal family and security officials have repeatedly urged him to rein in his comments. But other prominent voices have also criticized the regime and its policies. In 2010, a group of retired military officers issued a statement that criticized the king and queen over corruption, neo-liberal economic policies and the handling of the Palestinian problem. That was the first such public airing of dissatisfaction with the king from within loyalist circles.

As I document in my forthcoming book, more and more people have been criticizing Abdullah in recent years, although doing so breaks several laws. In 2011, during an unprecedented day of uprisings amid the Arab Spring, one protester even burned a photo of the king.

Notably, more Jordanians of East Bank descent — traditionally a key support bloc for the regime — are now publicly criticizing the king, posting social media videos of themselves at protests. Crowds routinely chant accusations at the king as intelligence agents film them on mobile phones. Several versions of a “corruption” dabke — a dance traditionally performed at celebrations — condemn the king directly, with videos of them circulating on social media. For a growing portion of Jordanians of East Bank descent, direct criticism of the regime is no longer taboo.

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The government has tried to silence this growing dissent through harassment and draconian changes to its anti-terrorism and cybercrimes laws; such criticism is considered an act of terrorism. Intelligence agents seek any excuse to shut down free speech, arresting and detaining citizens for trivial acts such as repeating on social media a rumor already in wide circulation or publishing a cartoon online satirizing the peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Pandemic restrictions on public gatherings have provided further pretext for more arrests. Riot police arrested dozens commemorating the anniversary of the violently dispersed March 24 protests 10 years before.

If those arrested come from powerful tribes or have government connections, they are often quickly released. Those with fewer connections, such as antinuclear activist Basel Burgan, are subject to long “administrative” detentions, sustained harassment and trials in which judges do not presume innocence. Hamzeh emphasized this lack of tolerance in his video and in a voice recording issued Monday morning. He said he was told that he was being detained merely for being present at a meeting in which the king and regime were criticized.

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Why now?

Jordanians have taken to the streets in large numbers on several occasions since May 2018, over taxes, unemployment and cuts in subsidies, and when a hospital’s depleted oxygen supplies led to several covid-19 deaths. Parliamentarians and other opposition voices have openly criticized Jordan’s recently signed new agreement with the United States, done without the National Assembly’s approval. The agreement allows U.S. troops in Jordan to carry weapons and transport military equipment and lets U.S. ships, aircraft and military personnel enter without a visa. Jordanian government officials responded that nothing in the agreement violated Jordan’s sovereignty.

Whether the alleged coup plot was real or the government invented it to silence dissent, it’s particularly significant that some members of the royal family have moved against others.

Among East Bank-dominated security agencies, small divides have emerged in recent years around quiet criticism of the king. In East Bank circles more broadly, some have suggested that Abdullah may be Jordan’s last king, and a few even have called for an end to the monarchy. As my book and others have documented, Hamzeh’s name periodically comes up in such discussions as a possible alternative to Abdullah.

But while Hamzeh has been a vocal critic of government corruption, one of the others arrested, Bassam Awadullah, former head of the royal court, was not. Indeed, protesters have widely and repeatedly criticized him of corruption in overseeing the country’s privatization of state-held industries.

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So what’s behind the arrests? Without any meaningful free media in Jordan, Jordanians are speculating on social media. The government stated that foreign elements were encouraging “sedition,” so some think that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could be involved. Awadullah was formerly a special envoy to Saudi Arabia until he became Mohammed’s personal adviser. Others suggest that perhaps the regime’s goal was to use the supposed foreign conspiracy to silence Hamzeh while arresting the highly unpopular Awadullah — a possible public relations move that backfired when Hamzeh’s video emerged.

Conspiracy or no conspiracy, the regime is throwing its security services’ full force into suppressing political dissent, adding Jordan to the growing list of countries that are becoming more repressive and less democratic.

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Jillian Schwedler (@DrJSchwedler) is professor of political science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center and a nonresident fellow at the Crown Center for the Middle East at Brandeis University. Her latest book, “Protesting Jordan,” will be published by Stanford University Press in 2022.