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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.

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But Dahabi is one man, and the perceived problem is widespread. Mr. Quran believes the "thieves" have taken so much that even basic needs can't be met. "There is no hospital in Tafileh, not a government one," he says. "Five years ago they wanted to build a hospital, so they started a project in the downtown area. It's now five years later and there's nothing there.... There is no money left."

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Even Mr. Al Mahasneh, who is adamantly opposed to the street protests and to anything that hints of "political" dissatisfaction, says people in Tafileh are fed up. He says he will pursue change in a peaceful way, by voting in the upcoming parliamentary elections. He and Quran still believe the regime can purge the corrupt officials and get the economy back on track.

Rbeihat and other activists disagree: The regime, they say, is incapable of fixing the economy because it is dependent on a corrupt system.

Monarchy remains untouchable 

Criticism of the monarchy remains a "red line" that most Jordanians are not interested in crossing. Rbeihat is one of the few willing to speak openly about the desire for a new regime – and even he is careful to say he wants a peaceful transition to a system that is capable of dealing with corruption and offering democracy.

In Tafileh's streets, protesters vehemently denied any implication that they stood against the regime.

"We are only mentioning the king because we want to get his attention on what's happening; he should start doing something about it, and making the reforms," says Sotke Qaisi, a retired military officer who participated in last Friday's protest. "It's like when you go to the hospital, and a nurse receives you and gives you a shot that won't help, so you start calling for the doctor."

But several demonstrations outside the Tafileh governor's building this year ended with stone throwing and anti-regime slogans. Both staunch loyalists and opposition members place the blame for those clashes on unknown outsiders who infiltrated protests to cause trouble. Opposition members suspect regime agents seeking to start violence to discredit the protest movement; others claim the interlopers are allies of the opposition, probably Muslim Brotherhood members, bent on whipping up a revolution.

Arab Spring a cautionary tale

Suspicion of the Brotherhood runs high in Tafileh, and references to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's recent power grab are frequent. For many, the Arab Spring has become a cautionary tale rather than an aspirational one.

"The people of Egypt or Libya or Tunis, or the Syrians, they went through a revolution and nothing has happened, nothing has been achieved," says Anas Shmeisat, a young man who came to listen to the discussion in Quran's repair shop. "Not freedom, not democracy – it didn’t improve their situation."

"All [Jordanians] want real change to take place, the reforms and fighting corruption, but red lines – security, constitutional reform, and [specifically] the King  – this should not be touched in any way," says Al Mahasneh. "If this happens it will lead to a civil war in Jordan which is going to be very bad, much worse than Libya or Tunisia, and never happened anywhere in the world."

Both Rbeihat and Al Mahasneh believe they represent the silent majority; both say 90 percent of the town is behind them. Both could be right. While much of Tafileh may not support street protests at the moment, the core concerns about corruption and a failing economy appear nearly universal.

At the moment, the protesters seem isolated, put on the defensive by the accusations of violence and anti-regime activity, and by their willingness to work with the unpopular Muslim Brotherhood. But with dissatisfaction with the state's performance running deep, that situation could very easily change.


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