What Price Stability? Jordan’s Balancing Act

Image by jim.greenhill

At a time when the Middle East appears to be crumbling Jordan appears to be standing firm – a beacon of hope in a burning region.  But is Jordan really as stable as it appears? Are we just turning a blind eye to the compromises that come with such stability at a time of such uncertainty in the region?

The Jordanian government receive vast sums of money from the West,  and especially America,  in an attempt to ensure that the small kingdom remains stable and does not succumb to the problems faced by its neighbours, such as Syria and Iraq. In return, Jordan does a pretty good job at appearing to be more democratic and more free than many of the countries in the vicinity. Jordan has a constitutional monarchy and elections and there are frequent protests, which are usually not countered by police violence.

While this is certainly admirable, especially considering the context of the recent events and the modern history of the Middle East, is Jordan really such a beacon of democracy in the region? Or is this all just good political stage management?

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between. We cannot honestly say that Jordan is a free and truly democratic state,  but nor can we say that it is a brutal police state on a par with some of the neighbouring territories. Even in its darkest hours, the Jordanian security state has never reached the level of totalitarian brutality associated with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. A good example of this is the continued legal presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordanian politics. Banned in many other countries, the Jordanian version is legal and much more moderate, as it is allowed to continue to run for parliament.

However, there is a powerful security state. As the Amnesty International 2014/15 report says:

“The authorities maintained strict controls on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Government critics faced arbitrary arrest and detention; some were prosecuted and jailed.”

The Mukhabarat (GID),  or secret police,  do a good job at keeping dissenting ideas silenced. Several young activists have told me about the intimidation that they have faced at the hands of the Mukhabarat. Debates have been shut down, people questioned about what they wrote or said in public, while comments written against the government have been quietly erased.

This quiet pressure to suppress criticism of the king,  monarchy and government is rarely violent, rarely concrete and rarely tangible; it is usually a quiet word in a dark alley, a sinister phone call or a brief meeting. However, Amnesty International does also report incidences of violence and torture by the Mukhabarat. When the borders of Jordan are threatened by Daesh, many argue that the secret police is a necessary evil to root out any pro-Daesh feeling in the country. Yet it is not just Islamic extremists who are targeted, but young activists calling for more open debate and democratic systems. For example, three-month prison sentences were given to three peaceful pro-reform activists on charges of “undermining” the state and “insulting” the King.

A young activist based in the Jordanian capital, Amman, explained to me how the street protests are always very carefully managed – they are allowed to happen, but on the government’s terms. There are often marches on Fridays after noon prayers, but these protests are rarely against the government – they are often a reaction to events in the surrounding areas, and particularly events in Israel. The activist explains that there is little violence at these protests, but the secret police will always be present, talking to people and making sure that no one is saying anything too radical.

Another activist explained how more restrictions were put in place following the onset of the Arab Spring. Jordan saw widespread protests at the time – but these were eventually quashed. There are now laws restricting community organising, restricting much of the work of these young activists. More of their debates and events are being shut down during, or even before, the event. The death of Muath al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot killed by Daesh, provided a golden opportunity for this suppression to continue and even increase, all in the interests of national security.

Internet and journalistic surveillance and control is also prevalent. The majority of newspapers are controlled by the government, and very carefully monitored. Several journalists have been arrested or fired after they published articles that were either critical of the government, or discussed topics the government had requested were kept quiet. Several online news outlets are also periodically shut down under the 2010 Law on Information System Crimes.

The reason given by the security services for this tight grip is the increasing and very credible threat of Daesh and Islamic extremism. Ma’an, a poor town in the South of the country, raised the black flag back in July 2014, and in 2005 a terrorist attack saw over 50 people killed across Amman. Many more planned attacks have been foiled. Daesh is not far from the borders of Jordan, and it is feared that if their support becomes apparent within the country, Jordan could be next in the firing line.  Some leaders of Daesh have suggested that Jordan is on their target list, and propaganda coming from the group supports this.

Alongside this control and suppression, the government are also trying to bring in an extensive reform programme. Many say that it is too slow, too late and just talk and no action. Nevertheless, it is a positive step and one supported by many of Jordan’s financial and political supporters. The Mukhabarat certainly have less power than they did in the days they were nicknamed the ‘fingernail factory’, and are certainly more accountable, with a former chief arrested on corruption charges. The hope must be that the mounting security situation does not prevent reforms from being implemented. Instead of tightening its grip on the country, the government must tackle the problems threatening security inside the country, principally a lack of opportunities and public engagement. Only through such a concerted effort can Jordan become a true beacon of democracy in the Middle East

Image courtesy of jim.greenhill

Sophie Dowle

About Sophie Dowle

Sophie is a student studying BA Arabic and Islamic Studies at Oxford University. She has just finished her year abroad in Jordan.

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