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March 11, 2019 No.
1445

Ongoing Protests In Jordan Threaten To Destabilize The Regime

By: Z. Harel*

Introduction

The public unrest in Jordan is not dying down, and the frequent protests are threatening to destabilize the country. Not only are the kingdom's dire economic straits – one of the factors driving the protests – not improving despite harsh austerity measures,[1] but the situation is even worsening. Alongside the calls to address the economic problems, various political forces – including not only the traditional opposition but also tribal leaders, former regime officials and retired military officers – have been demanding political reforms and even calling to limit the powers of the King. [2] 

Several main forces have been active in the protests in Jordan in the recent months:

  1. The jobless, and popular protest movements: In mid-February jobless young people took to the streets, first in Aqaba and then across the country, to march towards the Royal Court offices in Amman in protest, where they staged a sit-down strike. Royal Court Chief Yousef 'Issawi, and senior government officials, have been meeting daily with the strikers' representatives and maintaining contacts with them in an attempt to resolve the crisis and persuade them to stop the march and the strike, but to no avail. In addition, for several months now, popular protest movements have been holding a regular Thursday demonstration across from the prime minister's office in Amman, demanding comprehensive political and economic reform. On several occasions, the demonstrators have shouted slogans against the King and demanded a constitutional monarchy.

  2. Tribes that constitute the regime's traditional support base (the tribes also participated in the Arab Spring protests in Jordan[3]): A protest movement identified with Jordan's largest tribe, the Bani Hassan tribe, recently posted on social media a harsh statement against the King, the Queen and their associates. The statement accused them of corruption and tyranny and of promoting their interests at the expense of the Jordanian people, and called for deposing the King and changing the system of government. Forces identified with other tribes expressed support for this statement, including the Bani 'Abbad and Bani Hamida tribes. 

  3. Former regime officials and military officers, many of them tribe members, have likewise been expressing displeasure with the conduct and policies of the regime. The National Follow-up Committee, a group of politicians and retired military officers, issued two statements in the recent months accusing the King and members of his court of corruption and poor management, and calling upon them to take measures to save the country, including limiting the King's powers.

  4. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the main opposition group in Jordan, has been exploiting the protests in the kingdom to score political points. Movement members have issued statements supporting the protests and criticizing the regime, and MB representatives take part in the demonstrations and have expressed solidarity with the protest of the jobless Jordanians. The former general supervisor of the MB in Jordan, Salem Al-Falahat, is a member of the National Follow-Up Committee, which issued the statements against the King.

In light of the public pressure, the regime has taken several populist steps, including, in early February, passing a general amnesty law nullifying the prison sentences of thousands of people convicted of various offenses,[4] but this does not appear to have calmed things down and the protests are continuing. Moreover, various incidents have caused the protests to intensify. For example, official documents leaked and circulated on social media, which reveal corruption in state institutions and the military and the appointment of officials at exorbitant salaries,[5] sparked so much outrage that the King himself was forced to respond. In a tweet, he condemned the leaking of the documents but also stressed that young people should be able to find employment compatible with their skills.[6]

This report will review the main forces involved in the recent months' protests in Jordan.

1. The Unemployed, And Popular Protest Movements

A major expression of the dire economic situation in Jordan is the rising unemployment rate, especially among young people. According to the Jordan Department of Statistics, which is subordinate to the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, at the end of the third quarter of 2018 unemployment reached 18.6%.[7] This is fertile ground for dissatisfaction, which in recent month has sparked protest marches to the Royal Court offices in Amman. 

For the past few months, young unemployed people in Aqaba, in the south of the country, have been protesting against their inability to find permanent work in the region, even though, they say, dozens of companies exist and a great deal of money is being invested. On February 14, a group of about 40 young people set out on a march from the city center to the king's palace in the city, where they held a sit-in. But only an hour after they set out, security forces arrived to disperse them. That same day, after being expelled from the vicinity of the palace and after concluding that the contacts they had been holding over the previous months with government elements and large companies in Aqaba in an attempt to find work there had failed, dozens of the protestors living in Aqaba announced their decision to march to the capital Amman, about 350 kilometers away. They explained that they intended to arrive on foot at the Royal Court offices and to conduct a sit-in there until their demands for permanent jobs were answered.[8] The march was joined by additional young locals as it moved towards the capital.

Moreover, in the following days, there were reports that many other young jobless people's protest marches had set out for the capital from governorates across Jordan – from Ma'an, Kerak, Dhiban, Al-Zarqaa, Jerash, Al-Mafraq, Ajloun, Irbid, and the desert region in the northeast of the kingdom.[9]


Young jobless people in December 2018, demonstrating in yellow vests in homage to French protests (Source: Al-Ghad, Jordan, December 12, 2018)

Following these reports, official elements in the kingdom hastened to establish contact with the marchers, in an attempt to solve their problems. Jordanian Prime Minister 'Omar Razzaz ordered the interior minister to involve the Aqaba governor in addressing the issue, and senior Labor Ministry official Adnan Al-Dahamsha announced, on February 18, that he had met with several marchers en route to Amman but had not managed to reach any solution with them. He said that all attempts by the Labor and Interior Ministries and by security officials to persuade them to turn back to Aqaba, including guarantees of private-sector jobs, had failed, because they had clarified to him that they would stop marching only if they were immediately given jobs in government companies such as the Port Authority, the Jordan-based Arab Potash Company, the Jordan Phosphate Mines Company, the Jordan Petroleum Refinery Company, and the Jordanian Navy.[10] Culture and Youth Minister Muhammad Abu Rumman said in a radio interview that the protesters had been offered jobs, but had refused, demanding positions with job security.[11]


Young jobless en route from Aqaba to Amman (Source: 7iber.com, February 20, 2019)

On February 21, upon their arrival at the Royal Court offices in Amman, marchers from Aqaba met with Royal Court Chief Yousef 'Issawi, who promised to comply with their demands within two weeks and to use his personal connections to obtain jobs for those under the age of 30 in the security apparatuses and for those above 30 at an Aqaba company. Also at the meeting was MP Muhammad Al-Riyati, who represents the Aqaba governorate; he confirmed to media that Al-'Issawi had promised to find work for 350 Aqaba jobless within two weeks. Following the meeting, the marchers stopped protesting, and the Royal Court provided buses to bring them home.[12] Later on, Al-'Issawi met also with representatives of jobless from other governorates, and according to several reports, they too were promised that their demands would be examined soon.[13]


Royal Court Chief Yousef 'Issawi meets with jobless marchers from Aqaba in front of the office (Source: Khaberni.com, February 21, 2019)

The government also took additional steps, apparently in order to show that it was working for the young jobless, including appointing a new chairman for the Aqaba Special Economic Zone (ASEZA).[14] On February 21, just before the marches arrived in Amman, government spokeswoman Jumana Ghunaimat announced that the government was closely following the marches and ordered the relevant authorities to act to create jobs.[15] Similarly, Prime Minister Razzaz met with a group of young political activists on February 20, and stressed to them that "empowering and employing young people is one of the most important things on the government's agenda" and that many of the young marchers had been offered well-paying jobs in the private sector.[16] 

However, it is evident that these moves by the Royal Court and the government are not helping; more marches of jobless are continuing to set out from across the country for the capital. Several groups are staging sit-ins in front of the Royal Court offices, and some protesters even announced a hunger strike.[17] Likewise, Jordanian media has reported daily on government representatives' efforts at dialogue with the protestors in an attempt to find a solution for them so that they would call off the sit-in, but so far these efforts too have not borne fruit.[18]

The Jordanian press has been covering the marches on a daily basis, while expressing solidarity with the marchers and holding the government responsible for the situation, especially in opinion pieces addressing the topic. For example, the editor-in-chief of the Al-Ghad daily, Makram Al-Tarawneh, wrote: "The marches of the jobless young people from the governorates to the capital reflect their desperation. They waited for even one wise government that would examine [the problem of] their unemployment and offer them some light at the end of the tunnel, but to no avail. On the contrary, all the governments [only] made their tragic situation worse by subjecting them to every possible experiment in the science of poor management… If the Royal Court has to intervene in every crisis created by the government's failure, why do we [even] need governments that solve nothing and only make the situation worse?!"[19] 

It cannot be ruled out that these articles, which place the blame for the situation on the government, are meant to divert criticism away from the Royal Court and the King, or even to prepare the ground for the dismissal of the government, a measure that has been taken during many previous crises in Jordan.

The jobless marches have also gained the support of popular protest movements in Jordan that have been demanding economic and political reforms and criticizing the economic and social situation in Jordan. These are local protest movements and social media groups such as Ma'anash ("we have nothing"), which calls for social justice and protests the regime's economic policy, and Mish Sakitin ("we will not be silent"), which protests the curbing of freedoms and the economic policy. Since November 2018, these movements have been organizing demonstrations every Thursday, attended by dozens to hundreds of activists, to protest the economic policy and the curbing of free speech. On several occasions the demonstrators have shouted slogans against the King and demanded a constitutional monarchy.[20] It should be noted that, at present, these protest movements do not seem to be united under an umbrella organization, and disputes occasionally emerge between them – although all of them seek to preserve the climate of protest and continue the Thursday demonstrations.

The organizers of these weekly demonstrations hold each of them under a different title, in an attempt to broaden their appeal and increase the number of participants. For example, one of the protests was dedicated to the issue of unemployment and support for the demands of the jobless.[21] The January 31, 2019 demonstration, held under the title "Normalization Is Treason,"[22] was dedicated to normalization with Israel, a topic on which there is an almost complete consensus in Jordan.[23] During the February 21 demonstration, an Israeli flag was spray-painted on the ground for the protesters to step on, and beside it the message "death to Israel," and slogans were chanted calling to cancel the peace agreement between the two countries.[24]


Israeli flag and "death to Israel" at one of the protest rallies in Amman (Facebook.com/albosala.media, alghad.com, February 21, 2019)

2. Tribal Forces Demand Regime Change, Ouster Of King

The climate of unrest has affected even the Jordanian tribes, which constitute the backbone of the regime. On March 1, a protest movement identified with Jordan's large Bani Hassan tribe issued a statement of unusual harshness against the King, accusing him and his family of behaving like "demigods" and demanding a change of regime. The statement said: "The crisis in Jordan is a crisis of the regime, not of [particular] governments. It is a crisis of corruption that stems from allowing the King, his wife and his family – who have surrounded themselves with a halo of sanctity, turning the two of them [the King and Queen] into demigods – to take over all the branches [of government], to do as they like and to expand the powers granted them in Jordan's constitution. This has led to the emergence of a sector of powerful  people who are corrupt and have sown ruin and destruction throughout the land under the personal patronage of the [King and Queen], and to the neutralizing of the Jordanian people and their exclusion from participation in decision-making and in self-governance. We have therefore shifted from the delusional stage of demanding reforms to [the stage of] demanding a comprehensive change to the system of government…"

The statement then urged the regime to heed the voices "calling for the establishment of a 'national rescue government'… that will undertake the running of the country" after the King relinquishes all his powers. The movement also came out against what it called the policy of silencing criticism, undermining freedoms and employing the security forces against oppositionists, and announced it was preparing a march of millions from all of Jordan's governorates to the capital, without specifying when it would take place.[25] 


"The Bani Hassan Tribe [Protest] Movement: Changing the System of Government is the Headline of Our Activity" (Facebook.com/profile.php?id=100011787754701, March 4, 2019)

Another large tribe, Bani 'Abbad, expressed support for the Bani Hassan statement and announced that the march of millions would take place on May 2.[26] Later it was reported that additional tribes, including Bani Hamida, had also expressed support for the Bani Hassan statements.[27]  Former MP Ahmad Al-'Uwaidi Al-'Abbadi, a prominent oppositionist in tribal circles, told Al-Jazeera TV that the growing criticism against the regime stemmed from the ongoing corruption and tyranny, the absence of dialogue between the state institutions and the people, and the security measures taken against the tribes.[28]

It should be noted that Bani Hassan dignitaries denounced the statement and the "straying group" that had issued it, and declaring their loyalty to the King.[29] Members of the Bani Hassan and Bani 'Abbad tribes even questioned the authenticity of the statement and the expressions of support for it, noting that the figures behind them were unnamed.[30] However, despite these renouncements and reservations, the publication of the statements against the King indicates that there are rumbles of dissatisfaction among circles that were known for their loyalty to the regime. This has caused concern in establishment circles. Former MP and minister Muhammad Daoudia, currently the board chairman of the Al-Dustour daily, expressed this concern in a March 6 column, writing: "We mustn't ignore the political statements being issued by various tribes... [and] neither should we demonize them. Those who issue [the statements] or support them base [their position] on agreed-upon national norms such as [the need to] condemn corruption, poor management and cronyism..." He called on parliament members "to dialogue with the angry young people, [for] they are your sons and grandsons... Talk to your sons, for they have justified demands on which we all agree."[31]    

3. Former Regime Officials And Military Personnel

Also taking part in the public protests are retired regime officials and military personnel, many of them tribe members, who were formerly part of the establishment. A group of politicians and retired military officers calling themselves the National Follow-up Committee issued a statement harshly criticizing the King. The committee, which includes former MP and labor minister Amjad Hazza' Al-Majali and the former general supervisor of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Salem Al-Falahat, accused the King and court of abusing their powers, stressed that Jordan isn't anyone's "private estate," and called to take measures to limit the King's powers.[32] On February 13, 2019, the committee issued another statement blaming the King and his associates for the dire situation in Jordan and demanding that he take a series of measures to save the country, including relinquishing some of his powers. The statement said: "A message to King 'Abdallah II, with the knowledge and permission of the Jordanian people: In the past few years, demands and appeals for reform and change have repeatedly been made to you by various forces, circles and groups among the Jordanian people, but none of them have been heeded. In fact, they were met with profound indifference and deliberate disregard. You have continued to sponsor a political and economic policy based on corruption and tyranny, which is destructive for the interests of the people and threatens the security and stability of the homeland. This has exacerbated the harm [suffered by] Jordanians, and impoverished them, bringing the country to the edge of the abyss..."

The National Follow-up Committee demanded that the King take a series of measures to save the country, including: reorganizing the Royal Court and dissolving all its subordinate institutions, among them the Offices of the Queen and the Crown Prince, and forming a legal committee to draft a new democratic constitution, without "all the flaws that cement the one-man autocracy" in Jordan. It also demanded to stop the King's trips abroad at the expense of the public by subjecting them to government approval, and to stop the unsupervised spending of public funds by the royal family and its associates. The statement ends with a direct appeal to the King: "You and those around you are directly responsible for the alarming fate that will befall this country unless you take the necessary rescue measures before it is too late."[33]

4. The Muslim Brotherhood Jumps On The Protest Band Wagon

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is another opposition force that frequently criticizes the government's policies in many areas, including the economy and relations with Israel. It seems that the MB is exploiting the current protest wave to score political points and attack the government. On February 20, on the eve of the arrival in Amman of the protesters marching from Aqaba, the political branch of the MB in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front, issued a statement expressing solidarity with the marchers' demands and stating that the rising unemployment, especially among young people, is a result of the authorities' economic policy and requires changing the political and economic systems.[34] On February 21, 2019, Ibrahim Abu Al-Sayyed, a member of the MB faction in parliament, and Murad Al-'Adaileh, secretary-general of the Islamic Action Front, came to the Amman suburbs to receive the marchers arriving from Aqaba. They expressed support for their demands and reiterated their accusations against the government's "failed" economic policy.[35] On March 2, Al-'Adaileh and other officials from his party visited the marchers' sit-in in front of the Royal Court offices in Amman, and called upon the government to perform its duties of providing jobs for young people and ensuring the Jordanians a dignified life.[36] In addition, according to some reports MB representatives occasionally attend the weekly demonstrations.[37] As stated, the former general supervisor of the MB in Jordan, Salem Al-Falahat, is a member of the National Follow-Up Committee that issued the statements against the King.


Left: MB official Zaki Bani Irshid at one of the Thursday demonstrations in Amman;
Right: MB officials Abu Al-Sayyed and Al-'Adaileh meet the marchers upon their arrival in Amman (Albossala.com, February 21, 2019)

 

* Z. Harel is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[2] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.1427, Growing Calls In Jordan To Enact Political Reforms, Limit King's Powers, December 10, 2018.

[4] Al-Rai (Jordan), February 5, 2019.

[5] Elaph.com, arabi21.com, March 5, 2019.

[6] Twitter.com/KingAbdallahII, March 5, 2019.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 3, 2018.

[8] 7iber.com, February 20, 2019; Albosala.com, February 16, 2019.

[9] 7iber.com, February 20, 2019; Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 21 and 22, 2019; Facebook.com/TjmshayrManHlAljrdy, February 21, 2019; Facebook.com/Herakwatan, February 20, 2019; Sawaleif.com, February 21, 2019; Almamlakatv.com, February 22, 2019; Sarayanews.com, February 21, 2019.

[10] Ammonnews.net, February 18, 2019.

[11] Assabeel.net, February 19, 2019. Also, the Aqaba Special Economic Zone (ASEZA), which administers and develops the region, clarified, in a February 19 announcement, that in the last three months it had hired 504 unemployed people in the governorate, and that jobs and training were offered to additional young people but they demanded jobs only in government companies, explaining that they offered higher wages and job security. Al-Rai (Jordan), February 20, 2019. 

[12] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 22, 2019.

[13] Almamlakatv.com, February 22, 2019; Raialyoum,com, February 23, 2019.

[14] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 20, 2019.

[15] Almamlakatv.com, February 22, 2019.

[16] Al-Rai (Jordan) February 20, 2019. Also, Planning and International Cooperation Minister Mary Ka'war announced, on February 24, 2019, the beginning of the implementation of a government program for creating 60,000 jobs over the next two years. Al-Rai (Jordan), February 24, 2019.

[17] Alghad.com, March 1, 3,  2019; alrai.com, March 1, 2019; Facebook.com/ahraralordoon, March 2, 2019; Facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012164316238, March 7, 2019; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 7, 2019.

[18] Al-Rai (Jordan), March 3, 5, 2019; Facebook.com/profile.php?id=100012164316238, March 4, 2019.

[19] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 24, 2019.

[20] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 15, 2018, January 18, 2019; facebook.com/HerakDhiban, December 7, 2018.

[21] Facebook.com/HerakDhiban, February 20, 2019.

[22] Facebook.com/2496144830412636, January 30, 2019.

[23] Elements in the protest movement criticized this move, stating that it "diverted the compass needle away from the basic demand for internal reform." Facebook.com/ahraralordon, February 1, 2019.

[24] Albosala.com, alghad.com, February 21, 2019.

[25] Facebook.com/HerakDhiban, March 1, 2019; Facebook.com/Zbboun.bh, March 1, 2019.

[26] Facebook.com/wadeaaljaafreh, March 2, 2019.

[27] Raialyoum.com, March 3, 2019.

[28] Aljazeera.net, March 5, 2019.

[29] Jfranews.com.jo, March 2, 2019, Al-Rai (Jordan), March 4, 2019.

[30] Raialyoum.com, March 3, 2019.

[31] Al-Dustour (Jordan), March 6, 2019.

[33] Facebook.com/HerakDhiban, February 13, 2019.

[34] Albosala.com, February 20, 2019.

[35] Albosala.com, assabeel.net, February 21, 2019.

[36] Assabeel.net, March 2, 2019.

[37] Raialyoum.com, January 7, 2019; albosala.com, February 21, 2019.