Jordan's crisis: Is an uneasy peace emerging?

Jordan protests against the king are the largest and most sustained since the start of uprisings in the region nearly two years ago, but the explosive protests expected this afternoon have yet to materialize.

Raad Adayleh/AP
Jordanian Protesters from the Islamic Action Front and other opposition parties hold a demonstration area after Friday prayers in Amman, Jordan.

Three days after Jordan's government sparked nationwide riots by drastically reducing subsidies on fuel, tensions remain high.

Since Tuesday night, as clashes broke out in one Jordanian town after another, media, analysts, and even local activists worried that Jordan had passed a point of no return, after two years in which a small, but persistent protest movement has pressed for democratic and economic reforms.

But the massive and explosive protests expected today have failed to materialize, raising hopes that an uneasy peace is again settling over the desert kingdom.

"I think everybody is really scared at what happened in terms of violence," says Mustafa Hamarneh, a prominent Jordanian analyst. "The last few days have been a very important wake up call for everybody. It is not a time for arm twisting. We need to think outside the box, we need to work together, and we need to save the country."

Despite the protests, the government defended its decision to drop fuel subsidies and effectively raise prices for cooking and heating gas by 54 percent, saying they are necessary to reduce a massive budget deficit. And state media has accused the opposition of seizing on popular anger and encouraging violence in its effort to unseat the government.

So far, only one person has been killed though dozens have been wounded and more than 100 arrested, in the first sustained wave of protests to hit the country since the start of uprisings in the region nearly two years ago. The end of Friday prayer has become the traditional time for protest in the Arab world, and after three days of at least partially spontaneous demonstrations, many worried that today's demonstration would be massive and out of control. 

Though a crowd of thousands gathered around the capital city’s downtown mosque and chanted aggressive slogans against the regime, this morning's protests were both peaceful and short.

Police presence was nearly invisible until a small group of pro regime extremists began singing and chanting. At that point police officers moved in to separate the two groups, and the square was swarmed by Jordanian riot police, or darak, who took up a horseshoe formation between them.

At one point there was a scuffle among the protesters, as a group of young men confronted the police. The darak stood, impassive, as hundreds of young men angrily shouted a refrain from the regional Arab uprisings, a line not heard in Jordan before this week: "The people want the fall of the regime."

The anger quickly subsided as protest leaders on a nearby truck drew the crowd back to chanting slightly less confrontational slogans: "Freedom is from God, whether you like or not, Abdullah," participants shouted.

Protests in the cities of Irbid and Mafraq saw similar minor confrontations at protests, according to Police Department Spokesman Mohammad Al Khatib, but they, too, were stopped without injuries or arrests.

The crisis has not passed

Many young activists say they will pursue further demonstrations tonight, near Jordan's Interior Ministry, an area that has seen several clashes between groups of young protesters and police over the past few days. Protests are also planned in other cities throughout the country tonight, according to some opposition leaders, meaning violence could still commence as night falls.  

In one hopeful sign, Mr. Hamarneh says some protest leaders would not participate in any demonstrations today in an effort to avoid violence.

"I think it was just a flareup, a spontaneous reaction, and not the way Jordanians usually conduct themselves," says Nimer Al-Assaf, the deputy secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, Jordan's largest opposition party. "I think, in general, people are sane, and will listen to the voices of reason, and will stop doing things like that."

Still, he says, the government should reverse the fuel price increases. "I hope they will cancel their position, and look for other means to mend [the budget]," he says.

Hamarneh's hope is that the violence will push the opposition to articulate a clearer program than it has previously, particularly on economic issues. 

"We need to move quickly, to really think outside the box about how to cut spending without affecting the poorer elements in this society," he says. 

'Wake-up call'

The violence may be diminishing, but the morning's demonstration shows that the opposition movement that began in Jordan two years ago is far from over.

"The government steals a lot of money, which the poor people need," says Lina, a pharmacy student from Amman, at the morning protest with her friend. They stood, holding hands and cheering among a large group of women in traditional Muslim dress. They asked to be identified only by their first names: Secret police harassment is still endemic in many areas of Jordanian society, particularly universities. But the girls said they had been coming to protests "since the beginning" in 2011.  "We feel there is no fairness," Lina said.

"We have come out for justice," said another protester, a man in his 40s in a gray sweater. "It is not fair: There are people in this country with lots of money and resources, and people with nothing. We want to live as one people, in justice and equality, without the thieves and the cheats and the corruption."

"We do not want to destroy Jordan. We are reformists, we want to improve our country, with dignity," he added just as a shout ran through the crowd, and a group of young men began running toward the police, shouting and pushing their way through other protesters, who were trying to get clear. The man in the gray sweater was pulled into the chaos before he could give his name.

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