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Youth revolts and political opposition in Jordan

- December 20, 2018
Protesters demonstrate outside the Prime Minister’s office in Amman on June 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Raad al-Adayleh)

Jordan is experiencing a new cycle of anti-government protests driven by youth activists, with last week’s demonstrations ending in violence. Another round is happening Thursday night despite harsh weather. The unrest echoes the summer��s anti-austerity revolts that toppled the previous government; the underlying discontent still simmers.

Jordanians chafe under nearly 19 percent unemployment, a new International Monetary Fund-backed tax law, and corruption scandals (the latest a massive fake cigarette scheme).  The new government of Prime Minister Omar Razzaz has lost public confidence, not least because of controversial measures like a proposed law regulating social media.  All this is destabilizing a vital U.S. strategic ally dependent upon billions of dollars in foreign aid, whose king has visited Washington six times (the most of any Arab leader) since President Trump’s inauguration.

However, beyond anti-austerity frustrations, something else is churning. The tribal foundations of the ruling monarchy are crumbling due to generational turnover, and the rules of politics are radically changing. Our research on youth activism has highlighted this, showing how today’s upheaval reflects the enduring legacy of the Arab Spring. This is no Islamist resurgence, or revival of civil society associations.  Democratic parties remain a non-factor in parliamentary elections.  Nor are these upswells of Palestinian nationalism, the boogeyman of Jordan’s security apparatus, which is perennially nervous about a population that is two-thirds Palestinian. Instead, Jordan’s turmoil reveals the raw power of generational identity in catalyzing contentious politics.

Young activists push for participation

More than 70 percent of the population is under 30. Many teenagers and millennials, especially from traditionally loyal tribal communities, see attacking government policies and questioning the legitimacy of the century-old Hashemite crown as normal routines. Sparking their collective action is not only frustration at neoliberalism but political disempowerment. They thirst for a voice in decision-making that goes beyond townhall dialogues or elections for a toothless parliament. They reject an obsolete social contract that culturally requires obedience from its youngest subjects. Yet they have been frustrated by an unresponsive regime, oblivious that Jordan may be ground zero for a new Arab Spring.

What makes this opposition volatile is its free-flowing, networked nature.  Youth demonstrations are leaderless but come in weekly waves, with each successive protest often larger than the last as participants learn and adapt. This iterative dynamic contrasts with the more professional events organized by older activists, such as October’s march for constitutional monarchy and periodic pro-Palestinian rallies, which are easily contained one-off events. Whereas last summer’s campaign were partly spearheaded by Amman-based activists, the current wave began when an anonymous Facebook group, Al-Ahrar (Free), called for a Nov. 30 Amman protest repeating the familiar slogan of Ma‘nesh (We Are Broke). A few hundred appeared. The next Thursday, Dec. 6, was Khamis al-Sha‘b (Thursday of the People), which gathered over a thousand protesters in pouring rain. A week later, last Thursday’s event drew several thousand more under the banner of Mish Saktin (We Will Not Be Silent).

Each protest was bigger than the one before, and participants recited accumulated slogans from their “memory bank” of mobilization. Beyond this, the profile and strategies of youth activists are striking. First, while Islamists, unionists, and former MPs freely joined these protests, most youth participants had no affiliation with any formal group or civic platform. They were swayed not by ideological appeals but the emotive desire to publicly express their opinion. Second, there has been no single coherent issue. Different clusters of activists demanded varying economic or political reforms, from repealing the tax law to curbing royal absolutism. Such pluralism is difficult to stamp out. Whereas officials can suppress traditional opposition by suffocating their organizations, as happened with the Muslim Brotherhood, this new generation of activists must be suppressed individually.

Third, there was a geographic inversion of past revolts. While protesters congregated in the same public circle near the Prime Ministry, they originated from all over the kingdom.  Many hailed from rural hirak, or tribal youth groups.  Whereas past tribal unrest, from the 1989 riots to the 2011-12 hirak revolts, rocked peripheral towns like Tafileh and Dhiban, now youths from those peripheries have learned to converge upon the capital to force political confrontation. Finally, these protests employed symbolic politics targeting the monarchy. For instance, many participants donned the red kufiyah headdress associated with tribal Jordanian patriotism. This broadcast a powerful message: these were not radical or foreign elements but tribal constituents loyal to the kingdom – although not necessarily to its leadership.

The state’s security crackdown

The state has also upgraded its own strategies. Political dissent has proven perilous, as outspoken critics are arrested and journalists threatened under anti-terror statutes. Jordan’s own human rights monitors believe political detainees are being tortured. However, last Thursday’s Mish Saktin protests revealed a far more securitized response. Activists reported being intimidated by security services and local authorities long before reaching Amman. Once there, they faced not just hundreds of riot police but drones constantly shadowing them.  One interviewee believed that those drones, or perhaps street-level facial recognition cameras, enabled intelligence agents to capture certain individuals with eerie efficiency.

Yet what shocked protesters the most was the appearance of the Badia Forces. A crack gendarmerie renowned for its brutality, the Badia troops have not deployed in urban zones since the deadly 1986 Yarmouk University riots. The state thus trafficked in symbolism of its own, flaunting the ease to which it could once again wipe out youth resistance. Simultaneously, officials sought to deprive tribal demonstrators of their authenticity by accusing overseas dissidents of orchestrating the protests. Not long after, King Abdullah announced his first general amnesty law to pardon thousands of people, while reminding the public of Jordan’s difficult circumstances given the Syrian refugee burden and ongoing Jerusalem crisis.

Such rhetoric embodies the Jordanian state’s conventional armory, with the government deflecting blame and the king showing compassion. The hardened security responses, however, reveal disdain with youth engagement. Paradoxically, as scholars of mobilization know well, such dismissiveness from above only begets more agitation from below. Even when repression does manage to end weekly waves of protest, youth activists are simply on hold – learning, communicating, and planning until the next crisis explodes.

Sean Yom is an associate professor of political science at Temple University and author of “From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East” (Columbia University Press, 2016).

Wael Al-Khatib is an independent anthropologist and researcher based in Amman.