Jordanians send message to opposition: Let's take it slow

Popular opposition to the Jordanian monarchy is strong, but it will not manifest itself in massive anti-government uprisings like elsewhere in the region.

Jared J. Kohler
In Amman's Jabal Hussein neighborhood, a protester headed out ahead of the line where protesters took refuge from tear gas used by security forces earlier this month.

Jordanians poured into the streets this month, staging hundreds of protests after the government announced that it was reducing fuel subsidies. A number of them devolved into riots or clashes between police and protesters as demonstrators chanted, "The people want the fall of the regime."

After two frustrating years of minimal gains, some opposition members seemed to even welcome a confrontation, or at least see it as an opportunity to pressure the regime. 

But the anger that drove November's protests quickly faded: Opposition leaders continued to call for demonstrations, but fewer people showed up. By Nov. 23, the now-traditional Friday protest in Amman drew only a few hundred demonstrators who braved the rain. For the moment, Jordan's fuel price crisis appears to have ended, and its swift conclusion suggests the opposition underestimated how high a premium most Jordanians place on stability.

Activist Mothanna Gharaibeh says the angry rhetoric of protests earlier in the month has actually scared people away.

"Those 'revolution' people, they don't really understand how strong the regime is," Mr. Gharaibeh says.

Despite the slow pace of reform, when the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies asked Jordanians in October if they believed political movements should continue protesting in the street until their demands were met, or if they should participate in elections and try to achieve their desires through Parliament, an overwhelming majority chose elections.

"A majority want those political parties to be part of the reform process through constitutional ways," says Walid Alkhatib, the head of the center's polling unit. The poll was taken before the gas riots, so the results were not affected by any backlash against the recent violence, but rather point to a deep-rooted desire for stability and incremental change, even among many Jordanians who are dissatisfied with the reforms so far.

That conservatism is something protesters will be trying to take into account, as they to try to win people to their side before the next crisis comes.

The next stand-off

The date for the next crisis is already set: Jan. 23, the date of the next parliamentary elections.

Dissatisfaction with the legislature has been a major opposition complaint for years. In 2011, the government responded by passing a new elections law, meant to change a voting system that makes it very difficult for political parties to get candidates into parliament, and leaves many of Jordan's urban areas radically under-represented.

The king also revised the country's constitution, saying that the changes would pave the way for a cabinet of ministers formed by Parliament rather than appointed by the crown. But opposition leaders and analysts say those changes are cosmetic. Several opposition parties, including Jordan's powerful Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, have already announced a boycott of the new elections.

If the polls are seen as illegitimate, it will be a substantial blow to the state narrative that reform is underway, but at a measured pace.  Already an argument is brewing over voter registration, which concluded on Oct. 15. Nearly 2.3 million Jordanians have registered to vote – roughly 70 percent of the electorate – according to Hussein Banihani, spokesman for the Independent Election Commission created in 2011.

The commission will oversee the January polls – the first time they will not be run by the interior ministry. 

While the voter registration figures seem to contradict the argument that Jordanians are not satisfied with the changes in the system, opposition figures say it does not represent actual buy-in. Several activists complained that people were pressured to register by the state, or were registered without their consent, because of a provision in the registration procedure that allows people to sign up family members for the polls.

"Our next target is those who registered already, to try to convince them not to go for elections," says Saed Oran, an activist from the economically depressed southern town of Tafileh, which has been a protest hotspot for months. 

No mass uprising

The argument over poll registration frames the larger debate over whether Jordan's protest movement is representative of widespread discontent, or whether it is the work of a dissatisfied minority, asking for more change than the Jordanian public wants.

The University of Jordan poll sheds some light on the matter: According to Mr. Alkhatib, when Jordanians were asked whether the reforms enacted in 2011 were enough, the population was genuinely and deeply divided – substantial numbers accepted and rejected the measures. The survey is not published yet, but Mr. Alkhatib says the exact numbers will be released soon.

The activist, Gharaibeh, is part of a small group who eschewed massive demonstrations, instead responding to the fuel price hikes with peaceful, hyper-local protests in some of Amman's poorest neighborhoods. "You [can] go to a place, and ask all the people of Jordan to spend money to stand with you, get beaten and smell tear gas," he says. "Or you [can] go to them."

"Who says change has to happen in two minutes?" he asks.

He hopes going into neighborhoods and talking about national problems like poverty and state corruption will engage more people with the reform movement. Eventually, he believes, those people will come out to protest themselves, whether it's in a week, a year, or longer.

In Tafileh, organizers from the opposition expressed similar sentiments.

"All Jordanians are working for one goal, the reforms, before we [think about] changing the regime," said Ibrahim al-Oran, a young organizer there. "We don't want to be like Syria. ... We want to live in peace. We will work in the long term, until we can change the regime in peace."

Gathered in the chilly Ottoman fortress that has become their de-facto headquarters, leaders of Tafileh's opposition explained that their movement, too, has its roots in popular anger. Protests there surged in response to waves of arrests of opposition figures, and again after the fuel price hikes. But Saed Oran says the tactics are changing.

"We are becoming institutionalized," he says. "There is a  management committee, media and communications with the public. ... At first we put peaceful pressure on the government, and then we started not paying the taxes that they are demanding from us. And then we put political pressure by boycotting the local elections."

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