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.

Mohammad Hannon/AP
Jordanian protesters chant anti-government slogans during a demonstration against corruption in the Jordanian government in Amman, Jordan, Friday, Nov. 30.

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.

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. 

Privatization's impacts

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.

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."

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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