Order, reform, and stability: such might be the byword of the Hashemite monarchy, which seemingly weathered the Arab Spring with no incidents of violence. The government managed to skillfully showcase a gradual ‘democratization’ of the system in response to popular demand for political change. However, the severe crackdown on the opposition throughout 2020 shed light on a coercive system, the functioning of which was long invisibilized, together with its opponents. The condemnation of this repression as well as the varied and continuing demands of its society seem to bear out the end of the enchanted interlude that the monarchy had enjoyed after 2011.
The information cited in this article was collected by its authors over the course of various field studies in Amman between 2017 and 2019, as well as remotely in 2020. For safety and privacy reasons, the interviews have been anonymized.
In Jordan, the crackdown was as harsh as it was unexpected. In 2020, at the height of summer, the Court of Cassation banned the country’s main opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. A few weeks later, authorities announced the shutdown of the teachers’ union, and around one thousand of its members were arrested for participating in protests. In addition to this major police intervention, Jordanian journalists were forbidden from reporting on the teachers’ protests; about fifteen were arrested for violating this order. The last episode in this series of repressive actions was the arrest of renowned cartoonist Emad Hajjaj after he published a cartoon mocking the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
This series of events clashes with the image that Jordan strives to present, that of a stable Middle-Eastern country, with a strong record of economic and political reforms. But the country’s recent history shows that its political system relies on the coercion and repression of dissenting voices. The somber fiftieth anniversary of the Black September events in 1970 between the Jordanian military and thousands of Palestinian fighters, is a reminder of the regime’s long history of political violence. Social and political protests were also suppressed for decades under martial law, though with greater subtlety.
Starting with the phase of ‘democratic opening’ in the 1990s, control over dissenting opinions became more discreet. The electoral system that was chosen in 1993 led to a weakening of the opposition movements, and journalists were closely supervised to ensure they would echo the official narrative of a country ‘in the process of democratization’.
Thus, the 2020 crackdowns are not so much a reflection of a deepening authoritarianism, as a surfacing of practices that had hitherto been hidden. This analysis focuses on the factors behind the unmasking of the coercive strategies deployed by the ruling power. The narrative of the never-ending ‘reform’ of Jordan’s political system, claimed to be underway since the 1990s, has gradually lost its credibility, in the face of continued repression of political parties, trade unions, and the media. Those coercive practices progressively came to light in three major stages.
The first stage was a long term process that began just after the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring. While they promptly announced and implemented political reforms, the authorities simultaneously sought to weaken opposition voices, especially that of the Muslim Brotherhood. The second stage began in 2019, when about fifteen political activists were arrested for posting messages on social media that criticized Jordan’s regime or the King himself. The third stage is the recent repression of journalists, of the teachers’ union and of the Muslim Brotherhood yet again.
The economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic led to a shift in the authorities’ strategy towards stricter, and thus more visible, preventive repression. Their aim is to stifle any potential social movement, even at the expense of their image as an increasingly democratic country. At the same time, in response to the increasingly strident demands voiced by established political groups, the central authorities tightened their grip on the country through a broader crackdown intended to reassert their control. The latest stage thus seems to mark the end of an ‘enchanted interlude’ for the Hashemite monarchy, which since 2011 had managed to maintain its image as a regime that could both control and appease its people and popular demands without violence.
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