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Doubling Down: Jordan Six Years into the Arab Uprisings

[Another example of logo and design efforts at state propaganda in Jordan] [Another example of logo and design efforts at state propaganda in Jordan]

The political economy of Jordan today is characterized by greater degrees of authoritarianism and neoliberalism than was the case in 2010. Yet two trends in knowledge production on Jordan seem to claim otherwise. The first of these trends privileges narrowly defined security concerns. The second assumes the best of intentions by a core group of those in power. Whether through reporting or analysis, authors of either suasion typically ignore the machinations of authoritarianism and neoliberalism in Jordan, their varied effects on sociopolitical dynamics, and forms of resistance against both.

Jordan did not feature the types of anti-regime mobilizations many of us followed so closely in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Yet it did feature a series of weekly demonstrations, an attempted Tahrir-like occupation, labor agitation, impromptu rioting, and more. Such mobilizations did not feature the numbers we saw elsewhere, whether in absolute or relative terms. Nor did they coalesce around a demand for the fall of the regime, even if that demand surfaced episodically and in isolation. There are reasons of this state of affairs, and there is no need to rehash them here. Suffice it to say that they have little to do with the alleged benevolence of the monarchy or the loyalty of the population. Rather, they can be found in the same sets of historical, institutional, sociopolitical, and strategic factors that help explain the divergent trajectories of those countries that did feature anti-regime mass mobilizations. Equally important, the regime in Jordan has since 2011 engaged in a set of measures designed to (1) consolidate control over possible sites of resistance to its agenda and (2) further intensify its pre-existing revenue-generating strategy. The counterrevolution, so to speak, is in full effect.

Initially, the regime in Jordan sought to limit the potential growth of existing mobilizations for genuine change, which included undermining the very existence of those mobilizations. Such an immediate—if evolving—strategy awaits researchers and/or analysts who are willing to look beyond the palace and explore both formal and informal processes of negotiation, coercion, and competition that undergirded that strategy. Yet beyond this strategy, the regime and its allies implemented a series of substantive shifts that sought to limit speech and affiliation, concentrate political authority, and deepen the exclusivity of the economic development model underway in the kingdom. This is to say nothing of the post-2010 role Jordan has played in the regional counterrevolution, nor the pre-2010 history of all these practices. 

Legal and Practical Restructuring in the Wake of the Uprisings

What follows is a brief outline of some of the more salient ways in which the regime has actively sought to double down on its authoritarianism in the wake of the uprisings, and their reverberations in Jordan.

The regime in Jordan heavily regulates speech, and it has utilized specific legal and bureaucratic techniques to intensify that regulation. The combined effect has been to further chill speech across the Jordanian public sphere, in research and analysis collectives, political organizations, independent activists, and laypersons.

Since 2010, but particular once the threat of mass mobilization was mitigated, the regime increasingly prosecuted those individuals that intentionally or unintentionally crossed red lines. Jordanian law has historically criminalized speech that can be deemed critical of the king, government officials, state institutions, religion, and foreign governments and states. The mechanism for criminalizing and prosecuting such speech has shifted over time, and the regime has several options when doing so. The net effect has been a series of arrests, prosecutions, and convictions of dissidents, activists, journalists, editors, and laypersons. Many of these charges were based on public criticisms of official foreign or domestic policy as well as public debate and discussion about pending laws and initiatives in the kingdom. Some of these charges were based on existing civil and criminal laws. However, the regime prosecuted the bulk of them through the State Security Court on the basis of the Anti-Terrorism Law (modified in 2014) and Ministry of Information gag orders (issued frequently in 2015 and 2016).

In addition to prosecuting individuals, the regime has pursued a policy of stricter control over media outlets—specifically websites that offer analysis, commentary, and opinions. This was most effectively accomplished through modifying the Press and Publication Law in the wake of the uprisings to define online news outlets as any “electronic publication that engages in publication of news, investigations, articles, or comments, which have to do with the internal or external affairs of the kingdom.” Such outlets are now required to register with the Ministry of Information. On the one hand, failure to register can and did result in the regime issuing a blocking order to Jordanian internet service providers. On the other hand, registration requires that websites have an appointed editor-in-chief who was a member of the Jordanian press syndicate for at least four years. It is worth noting that this syndicate is part of a legacy of the regime’s corporatist control over interest representation, and thus longstanding pillar of regime control over journalists. This is to say nothing of how difficult attaining membership in the syndicate is for journalists whose work experience is limited to online outlets or for non-journalists who are nevertheless qualified to run such websites.

The regime also regulates public affiliation. Whether it is through the Political Parties Law (passed in 2015) or the Law of Association (passed in 2006), the regime has set very specific definitions for legally-sanctioned types of public meetings and efforts at community organizations. The net effect has been to bring activists and others under closer scrutiny of the Ministry of Political and Parliamentary Affairs and Ministry of Interior. The creation of new laws and modifications of preexisting laws has enabled the regime to more effectively break up informal and formal groups/meetings by concerned citizens seeking to educate themselves, debate current affairs, and mobilize to advocate for their particular vision of Jordan.

In 2014, the regime reinstated capital punishment after what many human rights organizations considered an eight-year moratorium. The eleven men executed in December of that year were already convicted and serving sentences due to their affiliation with al-Qa‘ida in Iraq. Yet in retaliation for the Islamic State’s capture and murder of Jordanian air force pilot Mu‘ath al-Kassabeh, the moratorium on capital punishment was ended and the regime executed the eleven men.

Such restrictions on speech and affiliation, along with the reinstatement of capital punishment, are occurring within a historical legacy of authoritarianism and contemporary context of unaccountability. Despite several documented allegations of corruption, excessive force, and violence by members of the police and gendarmerie, not a single member of either two coercive institutions has been found guilty of such violations. In all such cases, investigators and prosecutors are internal to these forces. Furthermore, the judge panel responsible for ruling in such cases (referred to the police court) is comprised of two “police judges,” meaning individuals drawn from the institutions they are being asked to giving a ruling about. 

In such contexts, talk of guaranteed freedoms and accountability borders on the absurd. Yet perhaps of equal concern are the set of constitutional amendments enacted in the context of the uprisings. Central to these amendments is the addition of a paragraph giving the king exclusive power to appoint a broad array of positions. These are: the crown prince, the regent, the speaker and members of the senate, the head and members of the constitutional court, the chief justice, the commander of the army, as well as the heads of the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) and the Gendarmerie. Previously, such appointments required the approval, however formulaic, of the prime minister and relevant cabinet ministers. An additional amendment allows those with dual nationalities to run for parliament and/or hold cabinet positions. Yet another allows for cabinets to continue to “govern” in case of a prime minister’s death, under the leadership of the deputy prime minister. If public statements in the early days of the Arab uprisings claimed to be managing a transition toward a constitutional monarchy, the combined effects of actual changes indicate the concentrations of powers in already centralized monarchy.

Lingering Questions

Despite the above legal and institutional shifts, mainstream media outlets and many researchers and scholars continue to discuss the regime in Jordan through the adage of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Such characterizations minimize the intentionality and effects of a broader set of measures designed to concentrate power and undermine oppositional discourse and mobilization. At the same time, little to no attention has been given to what is undoubtedly two of the most significant macro-level developments since the uprisings: the fiscal transformations in the government budget (including subsidy cuts and foreign loans/grants disbursements); and the attempted evisceration of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (which has featured specific participation by various state institutions). This is to say nothing of other developments such as the assassination of Jordanian dissident Nahed Hattar and the implications of his case for broader questions of freedom of speech and incitement to violence; the Jordanian-Israeli gas agreement; or any other number of issues.

During the initial stages of the uprisings, and attempts at opposition mobilization in Jordan, the frequent refrain of “forever on the brink” was used to describe politics in the kingdom. At the time, some of the more critical analysts claimed that such statements were premature and designed to hedge one’s bets. Today, in what some claim to be the post-uprisings moment in Jordan, many cling to the term “between a rock and a hard place” to describe the regime. Jordan as a state and population has for too long been problematically described as dependent and complacent, respectively. Yet if anything, the last six years reveal most of the knowledge produced on Jordan to be precisely that: dependent on regime statements and complacent with its doubling down. All the while, sociopolitical and institutional dynamics continue to shift in specific ways, betraying the reality of popular desires of meaningful change, regime policies of counter-revolution, and a regional-international context that complicates the rational choices of those seeking more accountability, transparency, and social justice.

Starting Points

We often write in critique of, or out of frustration with, existing reporting and analysis. In the coming years, knowledge production on Jordan is sure to surge due to a range of factors—prominent among them the shifting calculus among prospective researchers concerning fieldwork options. It is in this spirit that I conclude this article with a listing of three articles that I think are worth highlighting as models of critical analysis and scholarship in Jordan during the uprisings.

• Fida Adely, “The Emergence of a New Labor Movement in Jordan,” Middle East Report 264 (Fall 2012).

• Sarah Ababneh, “Troubling the Political: Women in the Jordanian Day-Waged Labor Movement,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 48, no. 1 (February 2016).

• Tariq Tell, “Early Spring in Jordan: The Revolt of the Military Veterans,” Carnegie Middle East Center (4 November 2015).

 

No consideration of critical knowledge production on Jordan would be complete without acknowledging the work of the 7iber Collective (among others). They are an example of how the uprisings transformed certain individuals and organizations in such a way as to continue its possibilities. Whether journalists, researchers, or analysts, we would do well to draw some inspiration if not take some queues from their body of work.  

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