If change comes to Jordan, it won't start in Amman
Since street protests began last year, Jordanians have warily eyed the southern towns that make up the regime's loyalty base. Residents there remain divided over where they stand on reform.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, about 70 protesters make their way down the main street of this small town in southern Jordan, snarling traffic on the narrow road and drawing black looks from motorists. More or less the whole town has just emerged from Friday prayer, and the street is packed with people shopping, chatting, or heading home for lunch. Many simply stand and watch the protesters go by, with expressions ranging from admiration to curiosity to derision.Skip to next paragraph
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The Tafileh governorate is the smallest in Jordan, with a population of only 85,000 people. Its central city is geographically isolated, in a hilly area bypassed by both of the country's main north-south highways. It's hard to imagine a tiny protest in this tiny town making waves across the kingdom – but a series of demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, punctuated by arrests and clashes with the police, did just that. While the protests in Amman have been far larger, it is Tafileh that makes the Jordanian government nervous.
The town has a reputation for loyalty to the regime. Unlike the big urban centers, which are heavily populated with Jordanians of Palestinian origin, most of Tafileh's residents are East Bank Jordanians, from the big southern tribes still regarded as the bulwark of support for Jordan's Hashemite monarchy. East Bankers have long received the lion's share of government jobs, and make up the backbone of Jordan's police and security services.
Essentially, analysts say, if protests can take hold in Tafileh, there's a good chance the foundations of the regime are shaky.
Many Jordanians downplay this argument, saying the demonstrations in Tafileh and other rural towns are purely economic, driven by high unemployment, and do not represent dissatisfaction with the political system – a contrast to the demands for democratization raised in large urban protests.
"The situation [in Tafileh] is very calm, settled.... Nothing serious is happening," says Rateb Al Mahasneh, a retired administrator from the Arab Potash Company and lifelong Tafileh resident. "For about two years now, there has been a group of young people demonstrating, and they are only calling for an improvement in the economic situation in Jordan."
Concerns beyond the pocketbook
But in Tafileh, economics and politics are not easily separable.
"It's not just about jobs," insists Ghazi Rbeihat, a prominent figure in the Tafileh protest movement. "This is a deception, when the media presents things in this way."
Mr. Rbeihat and other members of the Tafileh opposition do have economic concerns. The lack of jobs in the area is a problem, particularly the lack of government jobs, which have long been seen as the regime's way of paying back its loyalists.
Tafileh is relatively resource rich, and for years mines and factories producing cement, potash, and phosphate were major economic drivers here. Those industries were originally state-owned, but over the last 20 years they have all been privatized, something local residents say has drastically reduced employment opportunities, effectively cutting off Tafileh's economic lifeline.
Many economists say privatization has made industries more efficient and decreased the government's debts. But most Jordanians see it as fundamentally corrupt, a way for crooked officials and predatory international companies to line their pockets at the expense of Jordan's core industries. Any discussion of Tafileh's economic situation turns inevitably to the issue of state corruption.
"The director of the secret police was a thief," says Baker Quran, who runs a TV and satellite repair shop on Tafileh's main street, referring to Mohammad Dahabi, a former director of General Intelligence who was convicted on charges of corruption and stealing government funds.