The 2020 repression is but the most recent and visible manifestation of the longstanding coercive system that allowed Jordanian authorities to permanently establish their power. For decades, this authoritarian regime has relied on discreet methods in order not to jeopardize the image of a reformist government that they marketed to their Western allies.
Discreet but systemic repression
Since the end of the 1990s, development institutions have considered Jordan to be a country ‘in the process of democratization’, making it a favored partner for Western powers in the Middle-East. This status stems partly from the fact that Jordan was the second Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, in 1994. King Abdullah II has ruled the country since the death of his father Hussein in 1999, and has cultivated an image as a modern monarch in his approach toward government and his attitude toward the people. Desirous of maintaining the impression of a stable and reformist country, he responded to the 2011 Arab Spring protests – which, in Jordan, mainly called for political reforms1 – by amending the Constitution, dissolving the government, and creating an independent electoral commission, to guarantee democratic elections.
In July 2018, during the month of Ramadan, thousands of people took to the streets once again in an echo of the 2011 protests. This time, they were peacefully opposing a tax reform and a rise in fuel and electricity prices. While images of police officers laughing with protesters (in Arabic) went viral on social media, the King reacted to this lower and middle-class social movement by vehemently criticizing the government’s policies, leading to the resignation of the Prime Minister at the time.
In a way, those two events reveal the architecture of Jordan’s political system, in which the King has a central and overarching position. He is the supreme leader of the armed forces and holds executive power. In 2016, his authority was expanded by an amendment to the Constitution allowing him to appoint the state’s highest officials without the approval of the Prime Minister. He ratifies and promulgates laws, has the power to dissolve the Parliament, and establishes the electoral timetable. Under his authority, the Royal Court (al-diwan al-malaki) oversees the implementation of his decisions and initiatives. The inner workings of the court and daily activities of its committees are kept relatively secret.
Contrary to the Court and the King, the government, whose role is mostly limited to representation and policy execution, is a constant target of media attention. Currently, it is mainly composed of technocrats and must, above all else, ensure the equal distribution of ministries among the social elites of the country’s twelve governorates. The government also recruits through co-optation, which allows it to assimilate some political opponents and members of civil society. As for the Parliament, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, it is a remarkably weak and marginal institution. For instance, it is impossible for representatives to propose a bill if the government has not signed off on it first. Lastly, Jordan’s intelligence service is the centerpiece of the political system, although it maintains a low profile. Since the early 2000s, its powers have been expanded yet further in the context of the fight against terrorism (see HumanRights Watch report).
Jordan’s political system relies on a highly centralized, personalized power structure that favors authoritarianism. The intense repression of summer 2020 revealed the extent of the coercive apparatus, which had been hidden until then behind the image of a reformist country that formed the basis for the Kingdom’s outward stance. The control of all types of opposition – political groups, the media, unions, and organizations- is exerted through overt or covert repression at the hands of the military, the police, and the intelligence services.
This system was first established by martial law, an extraordinary measure taken in 1967 by King Hussein following the Six-Day War, to be abrogated in 1991. The law was justified by the need to strengthen the state against the growing influence of Palestinian forces in the country, and it led to the prohibition of political parties, the cancelation of elections and direct control over civil society for more than three decades.
This institutionalized repression peaked during the 1970 Black September confrontation, when the Jordanian Armed Forces killed 3,000 to 7,000 Palestinians2 – mainly civilians – who were living in the country. Fearing a political coup orchestrated by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s feddayins (members of armed groups), King Hussein, emboldened by the West’s support, violently crushed the social movement and drove the Palestinian organization out of the country and into Lebanon.
Twenty years later, in 1989, under pressure from strong large-scale protests and the admonition of international donors, who were prominent supporters of the monarchy, Jordan began a ‘democratization’ process. Hussein allowed political parties to reemerge; for the first time since 1967, general elections were held, and freedom of the press was guaranteed by law.
Democratizing for greater control
After 1990, the political authorities adopted a new repression strategy. Protests were no longer systematically suppressed, but they were targeted and inconspicuously controlled. The government also tried to respond to protests with social reforms. The massive protests of 1989 and 1996 which began in two Southern cities – Ma’an and Kerak respectively – illustrated this new approach. The popular backlash against the rise in oil and bread prices was still suppressed (20 dead in 1989, 200 arrests in 1996), but it led to the announcement of new political reforms and the repeal of martial law.
This reformist façade gradually molded Jordan’s national image over the last three decades. It went hand in hand with the invisibilization of repressive actions, especially after the Arab Spring, allowing public authorities to both preserve the monarchy’s power and contain protest movements. Under this strategy, the Royal Court demanded the resignation of the government twice, in 2011 and in 2018, to assuage protesters’ anger. However, the undermining of opposition forces continued, although more covertly than before.
In addition to all of the above, the electoral system is also used as a tool of coercion. After the Muslim Brotherhood – the biggest opposition movement in the country – won the general elections by a significant margin in 1989, with about 40% of Parliamentary seats, a royal decree replaced the system of multiple voting with the sawt al wahedou, the ‘one-man-one-vote’ or single non-transferable voting system. In 1989, voters could cast as many ballots as there were seats up for election in their constituency. But starting in 1993, they could only vote for one candidate, and they often chose a member of their own tribe or one of their relatives, who were accessible middlemen and with whom they had stronger bonds of mutual dependence.
This new voting system led to the high prevalence of votes for tribal candidates, rather than for political groups. Its purpose is to encourage a personal bond between voters and office-seekers, rather than a party-based link. This allowed the authorities to limit the number of votes cast in favor of political parties, especially opposition groups such as left-wing parties or the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. With only ten representatives out of 130, the IAF was the most prominent party in the House of Representatives (majlis al-nuwwab) between 2016 and 2020.
Control of the political arena is also ensured by electoral district boundaries, which reinforce the perception of elections as a patronage system and deepen inequalities between ‘Transjordanians3’, seen as supporters of the regime, and Jordanians of Palestinian descent, who are considered potential opponents. Since the reign of King Hussein (1952-1999), Jordanian authorities have tried to secure the loyalty of Transjordanians through patronage, by redistributing financial and symbolic resources, for instance in the form of public office jobs.
Electoral boundaries benefit majority-Transjordanian urban and rural areas, ensuring their over-representation in Parliament. In 1989, the new electoral cycle coincided with a national economic and political crisis, leading the regime to treat the Parliament as an institution made up of seats based on various levels of patronage, especially when it came to the Transjordanian regions. Representatives became brokers between the state and the population, granting select citizens preferential access to public funds, often in the form of employment and scholarships.
The difference in voter turnout between governorates shows that Transjordanians are the main beneficiaries of the system, as they hold more than 75% seats while representing less than 50% of the total population. The Amman and Zarqa Governorates, which are home to most of the Palestinians and Jordanians of Palestinian origin in Jordan, always register the lowest turnouts.
The rationale behind the electoral boundaries, and their effects, are summed up below by a former pro-Palestinian activist who is now a member of the left-wing Jordanian Social Democratic Party:
‘We believe that the best system would be to have a single national constituency, to allow party members and social and political movements to work together on a national list of candidates, and then be divided into groups in Parliament. But in Jordan we encounter a demographic issue, because if we only had one constituency for general elections, then there would be a risk that all of the representatives might come from the capital. And you know that in Amman (…) there is a Palestinian majority, so the demographic representation in Parliament would change and that frightens Jordanians.’
In 2016, a proportional voting system was established by law in order to satisfy one of the major demands of the 2011 protesters. The new system allows voters to choose as many candidates as there are seats in their constituencies, but the country’s constituency boundaries were kept in place. The same activist adds:
‘Now we have a proportional system, but it is based on small constituencies, whereas a proportional system should be based on large constituencies (…) But they don’t want any large political groups in Parliament. They want people to come as individuals, because in this new system it is hard for a list of candidates to win more than one seat per constituency.’
As a result, over the years, the Parliament gradually lost its credibility as an institution. During the summer 2018 protests, Jordanians were chanting slogans such as ‘In Jordan, we have a convenience store we call Parliament’ (في الأردن عنّا دكان، بسمّوها برلمان). Intelligence services are also often accused of interfering with election results4.
The Parliament is generally described as mere theatre, as it has no legislative role or control over the government, partly because representatives have to bend to the will of the ministries, which they consult every week in order to satisfy voters’ clientelist requests. To remain in the government’s good graces, representatives must support the executive branch when voting for amendments and important bills. Some of the representatives themselves share this critical view of the system, attributing their lack of political power to their clientelist dependency on the government. For example, a representative explains:
‘My position as a representative is difficult. Sometimes I have to be very weak when putting questions to a minister, because I know that I will have to ask him for favors for my voters the next day. If we weren’t constantly asking for favors, we would be stronger. But if I go and see a minister and ask him “Could you please transfer this employee to this section,” and he grants me that favor, then I won’t be able to stand up to him with the other representatives during the question period. We are always asking for favors, and many representatives suffer from that.’
In addition to undermining opposition forces, Jordan’s coercive system relies on control over information production in the country. Two strategies are used: making sure that the official version of events is as widespread as possible, and weakening or discrediting alternative voices. The official version is mainly disseminated by major daily newspapers such as Al-Rai and Ad-Dustour, which act as mouthpieces for political authorities.
Significant financial resources are invested to encourage young Jordanian journalists to contribute to a positive image of the country, as illustrated by the creation of a new public TV channel, Al-Mamlaka (‘The Kingdom’), where journalists are paid almost 800 Jordanian dinars (1 000€), nearly three times the average pay in the profession.
The close relationship between the Court and the media is not new. In 1976, King Hussein created the Jordan Times, the first English-language newspaper for foreign readers, which was quickly dubbed ‘The King’s newspaper’. A former journalist summarizes the links between the Jordan Times and political authorities:
‘As a journalist, my job was to translate the King’s messages for the world (…) To be honest I mainly reported on what the King did or said (…) We sometimes received a phone call in the evening to put some official statement on the front page (…), but we didn’t let ourselves be pushed around, we had to negotiate everyday with the political power, we had to compromise.’
In 2006, the Royal Court expanded its influence on the media by establishing the Jordan Media Institute (JMI), which was founded by Princess Rym (wife of the current king’s stepbrother, Prince Ali), and has become a reference for journalism training centers.
At the same time, public authorities resorted to a series of strategies to weaken and marginalize independent journalism. The Press and Publications Law was adopted in 1998 and it allowed the government to regulate the media by arbitrarily granting authorizations to publish. The law was used as a justification to close down more than 250 news websites in 2013 on the grounds that they were not in compliance with official conditions.
The Electronic Crime Law, amended in 2018, is another of the favorite tools of the authorities. This law was allegedly adopted to combat ‘hate speech’ – which remains a vague concept in the legal text – online, and it allows the arrest and arbitrary imprisonment of anyone who posts messages on social media that are considered politically or morally unacceptable. Control of the internet is all the more important politically as Jordanians now get their information online, mostly on Facebook (5.5 million accounts for 10 million inhabitants) in order to bypass the censorship imposed on public media.
On the internet, Jordanians can access opinion articles written by journalists that would be censored in national newspapers, posts by activists and political campaigners, and foreign media articles not subject to national media control. Following this shift of the public debate toward social media, the Electronic Crime Law and the Anti-Terrorism Law were recently amended to permit the arrest of dozens of political opponents, journalists, and activists for messages that they had posted on Facebook or on the application Whatsapp.
Since it was amended in 2014, the Anti-Terrorism Law has frequently been used against political opponents accused of ‘harming [Jordan’s] relationship with a foreign country’ (art. 2) or of ‘disturbing the public order’ (art.3), both actions being considered terrorism from then on.
Most journalists have been driven to self-censorship for fear of prosecution and the public humiliation campaigns that have been waged against dissident voices, while some citizens have had to creatively reinvent public debate in other ways. For instance, in 2013, a young jordanian co-founded Al-Hudood, a critical and satirical news publication written in Arabic and modeled after websites such as The Onion in the United-Kingdom or Le Gorafi in France. He explains the origins of Al-Hudood, which is now followed by nearly half a million people on Facebook:
‘People want to talk about politics,
but they can’t, so we found a back-door way to open the debate: we don’t do
journalism, we don’t do news, our purpose is to make people laugh and cry
through satirical articles, so that people can reflect on politics, and to
normalize satire in the public debate (…) We also want to criticize media
coverage, tell traditional media journalists that they aren’t doing their job.’
Continue reading the report
- While protesters in Egypt and Tunisia asked for the fall of the regime, demonstrators in Jordan wanted to reform it (الإصلاح).
- The number of victims is disputed, especially because the Palestinian ‘issue’ is a very sensitive one in Jordan at the moment. The lower estimates establish the death toll at 3 500.
- The term ‘Transjordanians’ refers to Jordanians whose families lived on the territory before 1948, whereas the Jordanians of Palestinian origin mainly arrived after the 1948 and 1967 exoduses. In Arabic, they are called ‘East Jordanians’ (شرق أردنيين ).
- During the 2007 municipal and legislative elections, the political opposition spoke out against election fraud. See for instance the interview with former president of Parliament Abdal-Latif Arabiyat (1990-1993), also a member of the Islamic Action Front.