Although coercion is enshrined in the very heart of the Jordanian regime, its coercive practices have become increasingly harsh and visible since the Arab Spring. The first target was the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the major established opposition groups. Then, the government focused on individual dissenters, especially through the Electronic Crime Law, which led to the arrest of about fifteen activists in 2019. The year 2020 marks a new phase in the unmasking of state repression, with the decision to shut down the teachers’ union and the detention of more than one thousand of its members.
Repressive practices more visible
The Muslim Brotherhood was one of the first main targets of the Jordanian government, echoing the repression they suffered in Egypt and Saudi Arabia starting in 2013. They had a personal enemy in Fayçal al Shawbaki, the new head of intelligence services, appointed a few years earlier1.
Some of the Brothers, called reformists, launched the ‘ZamZam’ initiative in 2012 (named after the hotel where the launch meeting took place), bringing together more than 500 Jordanian public figures who signed a charter calling for political reform. In 2015, Jordanian security services took advantage of these early signs of dissension within the Brotherhood to ban the long-established organization, informing the Brothers that their bylaws were no longer compatible with the Jordanian Law on Associations.
At that point, two important members, Abdul Majid Thneibat and Rhayyel Gharaibeh, left the Brotherhood to create a rival organization, the Muslim Brothers Association (جمعية الإخوانالمسلمين). Several of the Brotherhood’s offices and financial assets were transferred to the new organization. Although this new association did not trigger a massive shift – it only won three seats at the 2016 general elections – it did strip the Brotherhood and its political arm of part of its power in the national political arena.
In 2015, Zaki Bani Irsheid, the Brotherhood’s deputy comptroller general, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for criticizing the United Arab Emirates. The Jordanian Anti-Terrorism Law, which is frequently wielded against political opponents, was used to justify his highly-publicized arrest. Since it was amended in 2014, the law has categorized as terrorism any action that could ‘harm [Jordan’s] relationship with a foreign country’ (art. 3), while the concept of terrorism has been broadened by the same amendment to cover anything that could ‘disturb the public order’ (art. 2).
Beginning in 2013, political repression went hand in hand with the increased centralization of power. In 2016, a constitutional amendment was adopted, allowing Jordan’s king to appoint various senior state officers, including the president, the members of the Judicial Council, the Army Chief of Staff, the head of intelligence, and the chief of police, as well as the president and members of the Senate, without needing the government’s approval, as was hitherto necessary (art. 40). This strengthening of the king’s powers went relatively unnoticed in Jordan: it was overshadowed by the electoral reform announced the same year – although that reform had been in the pipeline since 2011 – and by the adoption of the Decentralization Law in 2015.
In 2019, repression reached new levels as it was intensified and extended to a broader spectrum of political opponents. Three members of the IAF were arrested between March and December 2019, along with about fifteen activists, including several members of the Bani Hassan, one of the largest Jordanian tribes. More often than not, those arrests were motivated by social media posts (see article in Arabic).
This wave of arrests came in the aftermath of the 2018 protests, which represented an unprecedented time of public opposition to the government and even to the monarchy, especially from the main Jordanian tribes. This large-scale social movement led to the dissolution of the government, followed by a harsher political response with the appointment of Salameh Hamad, known to have little patience for protests, as the new Minister of Interior, and of General Ahmad Husni as head of intelligence. According to the decree of appointment, Husni was required by the king to keep an eye on anyone who dared to go against ‘the foundations of the Jordanian constitution’.
Political parties, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Jordanians of Palestinian origin are no longer the only targets, as criticism of public authorities can now come from any group of the population. In addition to the arrests of activists mentioned before, repression began to affect sectors that had previously gone relatively unscathed, namely the media and trade unions. A Jordanian journalist describes the intimidation she was subjected to:
‘I received a phone call from intelligence services after I posted on Facebook about the tax law [a tax reform that led to a wave of protests in June 2018]. They asked me to come to their offices, I went there alone, I was really scared (…) They asked me to write a new Facebook post that was more positive about the tax law.’
On top of the traditional psychological pressure exerted by security services, some journalists working for foreign or national publications were also beaten and arrested by police during the teachers’ protests, the media coverage of which was banned by the authorities.
The teachers’ union, which had been promised a wage increase in October 2019 after a one-month general strike, was instead subjected to violent repression by the authorities, causing the union to shut down in July 2020, just before thousands of its members were arrested in August. Overall, 2020 marked the third stage of a process in which the regime’s authoritarian practices became increasingly widespread and visible. Until then, legal amendments, arrests, and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood were carried out with relative discretion – that is, except for Zaki Bani Ersheid’s sentence – and the executive branch had refrained from violently suppressing protests for two decades.
The fact that a trade union had been forced to shut down, especially one that was founded just after the Arab Spring, was also unprecedented in Jordan’s history. The frequent use of gag orders, banning journalists from reporting on certain type of news, has been heavily condemned as well by the media and international organizations, in a country where freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution (art. 15).
Loss of legitimacy and a tarnished image of democracy
The teachers’ protests, which have been ongoing since 2019, have allowed both observers and Jordanian authorities to fully grasp the political clout of professional unions. Recent events highlight the broad legitimacy that they have gained, as well as their capacity to pressure the central state. In October 2019, after more than a month of strikes that paralyzed dozens of schools, and given the public’s support for teachers, who are seen as representatives of the working- and middle-class, the government had to yield to their demands.
However, the importance of those organizations is nothing new: trade unions became alternative venues for protest when martial law was in effect from 1957 to 1991, and when political parties were outlawed.
Teachers were also able to create a convergence of struggles among the opposition to the authorities’ repressive practices. The union embodied resistance to both austerity measures and attempted repression by the state, which no political party had managed to do until then. This remarkable achievement is at least partly due to the ‘de-ideologized’ and non-denominational nature of the union, which allows it, unlike the IAF, to stand up for the interests of the entire population, in spite of the regime’s attempts to portray it as being controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood publicly and repeatedly expressed its support for the union, especially during the August 2020 wave of arrests. Mourad al Adaylah, the Secretary-General of the IAF, also organized several official visits, accompanied by a delegation of the party, to meet the members of the union who had been liberated since the end of the summer.
This unprecedented civil disobedience movement – the last general strike before this one took place in 1989 – took Jordanian authorities by surprise and tarnished the image of a stable country under control. In this unusual context, the government’s decision to dissolve the union in July 2020, immediately after announcing a wage freeze in the public sector, can be more fully understood.
Demonstrations in support of teachers were held all over the country, in spite of the the ban on gatherings of more than twenty people due to the state of public health emergency. Because of this ban, the Court likely had not anticipated such protests, unlike those that took place in 2011 and 2018, which were strictly controlled by the state. The heavy repression that followed was both visible and relatively unprecedented; it seems to have been a deterrence measure meant to assert the government’s stability and authority at the expense of its democratic façade.
Obviously, this strategy entails consequences both inside and outside of Jordan. On August 19th, 2020, the Office of the United Nations High-Commissioner for Human Rights urged Jordan to reverse the decision to close down the teachers’ union, calling it a ‘serious violation of the right of freedom to association’. The crackdown on the demonstrations in support of teachers is also an unheard-of event for Jordanians themselves, who condemn the continued use of public health measures to justify the ban on protests.
The political authorities’ legitimacy has been severely weakened by these events. Earlier large-scale popular uprisings focused on economic grievances, such as purchasing power, but the regime’s repressive practices now seem to have shifted the focus onto its authoritarianism. Consequently, the government’s tight grip undermines the image of democratization that the monarch has tried to project, especially after 2011.
The ruling power has tried to invisibilize, or at least to make amends for, the repression of the past few months by announcing that general elections would be held on November 10th, 2020 after having been postponed due to the Covid-19 epidemic. However, this announcement seems to be producing the opposite of its intended effect. In spite of the efforts made by the independent electoral commission, which was created in the wake of the Arab Spring to encourage citizens to vote and reassure them of the transparency of the electoral process, voter turnout is likely to be at least as low as in previous years.
In 2016, only 37% of registered voters actually cast ballots. The number of votes won by the opposition will be determined by voter turnout, in a climate of harsh repression, and the IAF predicts massive interference by the intelligence services2. The party’s spokesperson made a press statement:
‘Many reasons lead us to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections. (…) [especially] the context of the elections even before they start, and we have proof (…) of very strong pressure, surpassing anything we have seen in the past (…) Candidates are being pressured not to run in the elections.’ (interview, in Arabic)
Journalists for the left-wing daily newspaper Al-Ghad3 highlighted the apparent contradiction between the holding of general elections and tribal consultations4 and the prohibition of certain trade union elections, such as that of the lawyers’ union, officially due to the coronavirus pandemic. Under the Jordanian system, before every election, the country’s tribes and large families hold ‘internal consultations’ before every election in order to choose the candidate that will represent them. Naturally, they do not always reach a consensus, so several members of a tribe may run concurrently.
Other political parties that had been known so far for their friendly relations with the authorities have spoken out against the upcoming elections, for which both repressive and public health measures will prevent them from organizing election rallies. One member of the National Constitutional Party has voiced his objections to the elections in the media and on social networks. On September 10th, he wrote in a Facebook post: ‘We will not trust you or your elections, because of your inflexibility, your security measures, your promises of freedom and your lies.’
The events that have unfolded over the past few months have led many media and political actors to expose the political system’s democratic façade, despite having previously agreed to play the government’s game while understanding its limits. The election process and its results in November will reveal how effective this questioning of the official discourse actually was.
The events of 2020 uncovered authoritarian practices inconsistent with the image that the Jordanian regime wants to cultivate outside its borders. With the successive reforms implemented since the 1990s, the authorities were determined to defend a record that was almost a rarity for international donors: political stability, economic prosperity, and democratic pluralism. But behind this discourse, a discreetly coercive system was maintained, invisibilizing both social demands and their repression by the authorities.
Beginning in 2011, the growing number of protests was accompanied by intensified repression, which became more visible than ever in 2020. The past few months seem to have marked the end of an enchanted interlude for Jordan in the wake of the Arab Spring. As with the Moroccan monarchy prior to the Rif movement in 2016, the Kingdom of Jordan managed to maintain the appearance of addressing social protests without violence and without undermining its political legitimacy.
That illusion is now gone, as protests and criticisms are mounting in all sectors of Jordanian society (tribes, political parties, trade unions, the media, etc.), forcing the authorities to broaden and publicly reveal their repressive practices. Beyond the consequences for the national political scene, this unmasking could have repercussions for Jordan’s relations with its foreign partners, including states, international organizations, and development agencies, which are key to the economic performance of the ruling power.
Continue reading the report
- See the report by the Foundation for Strategic Research (2017), ‘The Muslim Brotherhood Movement: from Pillar of Monarchy to Enemy of the State’
- The party finally decided to run for elections.
- Founded in 2004, first private daily newspaper in Jordan. It is considered as the main paper that is relatively critical of political authorities, especially after various investigations on social issues. Their criticism is tolerated and integrated to the political system, as was illustrated by the recent appointment of former editor-in-chief Jumana Ghuneimat as Minister for Media Affairs and government spokesperson in 2018.
- Before every election, tribes and clans hold ‘internal consultations’ in order to choose the candidate that will represent them. Naturally, they do not always reach a consensus, so several members of a tribe may run concurrently.