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When is Something, Something? Jordan’s Arab Uprising

[Jordanian protesters from the Islamic Action Front and other opposition parties hold a demonstration after Friday prayers in Amman, Jordan, 16 November 2012. Friday’s march constituted the biggest single bloc yet to call for the end of the US-backed monarch’s regime. The crowd of some 2,500 also chanted slogans reminiscent of last year’s uprisings in the region. Image by Raad Adayleh/AP Photo.] [Jordanian protesters from the Islamic Action Front and other opposition parties hold a demonstration after Friday prayers in Amman, Jordan, 16 November 2012. Friday’s march constituted the biggest single bloc yet to call for the end of the US-backed monarch’s regime. The crowd of some 2,500 also chanted slogans reminiscent of last year’s uprisings in the region. Image by Raad Adayleh/AP Photo.]


Throughout the early months of 2011, and the Arab uprisings, I was living and conducting research in Jordan. I paid close attention to the reverberations of the Arab Spring on the ground in Jordan, and grew frustrated with the absolute lack of attention, or worse yet, dismissal of political developments there. I cannot count how many times I heard the refrain, “But nothing is happening in Jordan” or “Nothing will ever happen in Jordan.” In response, I ask here “When is something, something?

In 2012, events in Jordan began to garner further attention by Middle East scholars in the US and the US media. Policy analysts writing for forums such at Foreign Policy’s Middle East channel and Al-Jazeera finally began to acknowledge that Jordan was witnessing some pretty significant socio-political transformations. However, with few exceptions such analysis concluded with the assertion that little will change in Jordan after all. 

Many of the scholars with whom I have discussed Jordan have expressed skepticism about political developments there. When I have described some of the most significant socio-political transformations in Jordan, at conferences, in meetings, or in conversations with colleagues, a typical response has been, “But has there been any real shift?” As protests in Jordan continued and could no longer be completely ignored, I began to hear: “But is there a united opposition?”;, “What do protestors want anyway? Do they really want a change?”;, or, “Is there any alternative?”. Growing increasingly frustrated with the "but will anything really happen in Jordan?" chorus, I have been giving a lot of thought to what undergirds such short-sighted analyses.

As a Jordanian-American and an anthropologist who has conducted ethnographic research in Jordan for over ten years, I have found the terms of analysis continually reproduced for Jordan deeply problematic on two key fronts. Firstly, the reversion to a set of categories and binaries significantly simplifies the realities of Jordanian socio-political life. These simplifications stem in large part from the reliance on vague notions of tribes and tribalism, upon which the most significant binary, that between so-called “East Jordanian Jordanians” who are typically defined as “the tribes” and Palestinian Jordanians––who are then by default in this configuration “non-tribal”––is built. Liberal usage of “tribes and tribalism” to characterize Jordan evades the real work of understanding how kin-relations function in people’s lives and how this has changed and continues to change. 

The second issue that emerges in the discourse on Jordan is the norm by which meaningful political change is measured––and this is an issue much broader than Jordan and scholarship on Jordan. It seems to me that an assumption persists within political analysis of developments in the region that, absent revolt and regime change, nothing of any significance is happening. Have we learned nothing from the events of the past two years? Social scientists currently scramble to understand how and why uprisings unfolded in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, and other places. But what happened in Egypt and in Tahrir did not emerge out of a vacuum. The work of creating organizational mechanisms, of building courage in the face of repression, of building networks had been long in the making, as scholars such as Joel Beinin and Asef Bayat pointed to even as theories of persistent authoritarianism––that has now morphed into the persistence of monarchy––dominated political analysis. 

Indeed, even as Jordan erupted into wide-spread protests on the evening of 13 November, protests that are large, spreading, and increasingly violent, one of the first analysis to be written––before the day was even over––was entitled “Why not Jordan?” I found this piece to be in many ways a breath of fresh air. Rather than reinforce the dominant characterization of Jordanians as somehow inherently incapable of any kind of social or political transformation due to their “tribal” nature and because of the Jordanian/Palestinian divide, the author points to the role of the United States and regional developments in shaping political possibilities.

Nevertheless, in a week in which protests (that have been persistent since January 2011) escalated significantly in what Jordanians are calling the “November Revolt” why write a piece about what is not happening in Jordan. What is the form and pace of political change that needs to happen to warrant acknowledgement as an important “event” or development? What is the bar by which significance is measured? And by whom? Does one need regime change to argue that significant political transformations are underway?

Since at least 2008, I have sensed a palpable shift in the anger directed at the regime. There of course were always those who were anti-regime and against monarchs and monarchy, but what coalesced in 2008 was a growing sense that a class of elites closely tied to the regime were robbing the country’s resources under the guise of privatization, while the majority of Jordanians were struggling under the weight of increased prices in food, fuel, and basic commodities. The combination of this deepening economic crisis and the growing anger with corruption was tangible in 2008. Significant labor actions beginning in 2006, which have grown exponentially since January 2011, were also part of this picture. Jordan was also witnessing increased incidents of violence on university campuses, among clans in different regions, and incidents of violence directed at the police.  

And then came the Arab uprisings. These events of 2011 propelled and accelerated forces that were already at work in Jordan and had been for some time. Jordanians were no longer afraid to protest, and no longer asked permission to rally, march, or strike. Citizens were no longer afraid to criticize the government and were increasingly no longer deterred by red lines surrounding criticism of the royal family, despite arrests aimed at policing these red lines.

Political transformations are not zero sum games. For anyone familiar with Jordan, the events of the last few days––and the anger that is being directed at government institutions and the king––are no surprise. This was long in coming. Although much is unpredictable at the moment, and Jordanians are understandably afraid that violence will grow, I wonder, will political analysts continue to argue that little has changed in Jordan? Regardless of what happens in the days to come, much has changed. It has been changing. Indeed change, an inevitable product of the constant power/resistance dialectic that characterizes the politics of everyday life, is a constant in social life, even if it does not count as a “something” in policy debates in the United States. Much would be gained by focusing on what has happened and is happening rather than what is not.


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