Active since the early 1990s, Emad Hajjaj is a prominent Jordanian political cartoonist renowned for his critical depictions of local, regional, and international developments. Hajjaj became a household name through his character “Abu Mahjoob”; sporting a worn-out suit and tie, red Shemagh and Agal, he represents the common Jordanian man and his daily political, social, and cultural concerns. On 26 August 2020, police arrested Hajjaj. It was the first time in his career, and transpired in the wake of publishing a cartoon critical of the recently announced UAE-Israel agreement on his social media pages.
The cartoon depicts the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan holding a dove, emblazoned with the Israeli flag, spitting in his face. The caption reads “Israel asks the United States to not sell the F-35 aircrafts.” Jordan’s cybercrimes unit took Hajjaj and charged him with “undermining relations with a foreign country.” Jordanian law classifies this crime as an act of terrorism and places Hajjaj’s case under the jurisdiction of the State Security Court. Several journalists and other citizens expressed their solidarity with Hajjaj and protested his arrest. In addition, local and international human rights groups, civil society organizations, political cartoonists, activists, and journalists widely condemned the arrest. Hajjaj was released on bail four days later on 30 August and his charges were downgraded. He will instead stand trial in civil court for the charges of slander and libel, potentially facing between six months to two years in prison if found guilty.
US-brokered normalization between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel is triggering new rounds of repression in Arab states. In particular, the recent arrest and release of Emad Hajjaj illustrates how Jordan, a resource-strapped country with volatile neighbors, attempts to strike a difficult balance between domestic and international political pressures while engaging in unpopular policy decisions, particularly in times of crisis.
Why Arrest Hajjaj Now?
The timing of Hajjaj’s arrest raises several questions. The cartoonist has long commented on sensitive social and political issues, and he is not a stranger to controversy around his cartoons. But despite the long reach of Jordan’s authoritarian security apparatus, he had managed up to this point to avoid arrest—perhaps thanks to his popularity in Jordan. This is despite the fact that his satire touched the highest echelons of the regime. Hajjaj portrayed the country’s sitting monarch King Abdullah II, in a cartoon months after his ascent to the throne in 1999. In it, the king appears as a prisoner, a student, a tourist, and a reporter—a warning to the Jordanian public that the king is omnipresent and always watching. It is a criminal offense to publicly critique the royal family and Jordanians have been arrested for “insulting” the king before. Hajjaj has also received death threats in the past for some of his more controversial work. Thus, his recent arrest begs the questions: Why arrest him now? What makes this cartoon different?
Hajjaj’s arrest comes just a few weeks after the 13 August 2020 announcement of the Israel-UAE peace agreement, or the Abraham Accord. The regime in Jordan has long faced competing domestic and international pressures pertaining to all Israel-related matters. Jordanians by-and-large have long been critical of policies favoring or otherwise normalizing relations with Israel. Earlier this year, the country featured massive demonstrations condemning a Jordanian-Israeli natural gas deal signed in January. According to a 2018–19 Arab Barometer survey, approximately eighty percent of Jordanians surveyed were opposed to Arab states’ coordination of foreign policies with Israel, further demonstrating the public’s hostility to policy decisions that normalize relations with Israel.
In spite of the unpopularity of normalization efforts with Israel, Jordan has maintained peaceful relations with its neighbor for over twenty-five years. The resource-strapped kingdom leverages its regional status and close alliance with both Israel and the United Arab Emirates as a means of securing needed economic assistance and foreign aid. According to the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation, Jordan was the third-highest recipient of Emirati foreign aid in 2017, receiving 476.2 million US dollars. Additionally, an estimated 250,000- 300,000 Jordanians live and work in the Emirates, annually sending home millions of dollars in remittances—a critical component of the economy. Jordan is similarly, though much more historically, reliant on the United States. According to the US State Department, Jordan obtained nearly 1.5 billion US dollars in aid during 2019. This makes the US the kingdom’s single largest provider of bilateral aid. Having developed a historical dependency on such revenue streams, the regime in Jordan is unwilling to alienate its allies in the United States, the Gulf, or Israel even if that means engaging in policies opposed by most of the population.
The kingdom’s current economic difficulties have made the regime particularly sensitive to public discourse that is critical of the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Hajjaj is not the first Jordanian to face similar charges under the counterterrorism law for criticizing the Emirates or publicly commenting on Israel-related issues in print or online media. For example, prominent Muslim Brotherhood politician Zaki Bani Irsheid was sentenced in 2015 to eighteen months in prison for criticizing the United Arab Emirates in a Facebook post. That same year, university pharmacology professor Eyad Qunaibi was sentenced to two years in prison for having published a Facebook post commenting on Jordan’s ties to Israel.
The cases of Hajjaj, Irsheid, and Qunaibi are examples in a much broader set of repressive prosecutions. Others include Jordanian activists involved in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli, not to mention the broader constellations of those critical of the regime’s authoritarianism and developmental policies.
Two laws in particular make it possible for such arrests to be made. The first is the 2006 anti -terrorism law, amended in 2014 to broaden its reach. The second is the 2015 cybercrimes law, which was also similarly amended in 2019. Broad and vaguely defined counterterrorism and cybersecurity laws expand the range of offenses that can be considered terrorism or cybercrime offenses. For example, when the 2006 anti-terrorism law was amended, it loosened the requirement of a direct connection to violent acts. Instead, it now includes references to acts that “sow discord” or “disturb public order.” This means that anything as simple as a Facebook post criticizing the regime or its relations with a foreign country can be labeled as terrorism for its mere potential to “sow discord.”
These charges are often difficult to appeal since they fall under the jurisdiction of the State Security Court instead of the civilian courts (whether criminal or civil). The State Security Court is less independent of the monarchy and more responsive to the interests of the executive because it is a military court and the royally-appointed prime minister in turn appoints its judges. Additionally, cases brought to the State Security Court are less transparent and defendants’ rights are circumscribed. These vaguely defined laws and how they operate within the Jordanian legal system by way of the State Security Court give the regime yet another tool to repress the regime’s opposition, police speech, and curtail popular dissent.
These vague counterterrorism laws have been widely applied to control public discourse on foreign affairs. According to a 2015 report by independent Jordanian media outlet 7iber, more than one-third of all counterterrorism arrests made that year were for charges related to “carrying out acts that expose the kingdom to the risk of hostile acts and disrupting its ties with a foreign country.” This not only suggests that many of the offenses classified as “terrorism” in the country are based on a broader understanding of the concept, but also that Jordan takes criticism of its foreign patrons and allies seriously.
The move to arrest Hajjaj can be understood as a regime maneuver through competing pressures from above and below. By arresting Hajjaj in the first place, Jordan appeases its patron powers like the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel through repressing public outcry over Israel-related policies. The arrest also shifts the debate to questions of freedom of expression and mobilizations around it. By the time the charges are dropped, decreased, or transformed into a prison sentence, the original policy in question has become a fact of life. This strategy is critical, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequent economic crisis. While Jordan has long struggled economically due to its limited natural resources, developmental policies, government debt, and rampant corruption, it especially cannot afford to anger or alienate its foreign backers at this time as the pandemic has already deepened the country’s pre-existing economic difficulties.
On the domestic front, although Jordanians initially supported strict measures to counter the virus, their patience with the government is beginning to wear thin as the crisis drags on. The country remains under a state of emergency and many Jordanians continue to feel the economic fallout of the pandemic as they remain un- or underemployed as a result of virus. Not to mention, the country currently has more COVID cases than it did when the state of emergency was imposed and the quarantine began, prompting popular tensions rooted in economic uncertainty and concerns about the potential return of restrictive measures.
Implications for Repression in Jordan
In an interview following his release, Hajjaj specifically noted that red lines in public discourse are becoming increasingly difficult to recognize given the advent of social media and the shifting landscape in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Before social media, political cartoons could only be published through traditional outlets such as magazines and newspapers and they had to be approved by both editors and government censors. Now, artists, activists, and their sympathizers can disseminate political cartoons or opinions on their own accord with little prior supervision. Additionally, Hajjaj noted that the limited political opening ushered in by the Arab uprisings has made it difficult to readily identify red lines, as there is greater tolerance for political criticisms than there was before 2011, but it is still difficult to know how far is too far. This is especially true given that Hajjaj and other popular media figures like him have long commented on similar issues, such as normalization of relations with Israel, without facing legal consequences.
The phenomenon of arresting vocal critics of the regime or the status quo can be seen as a means for the regime to send a signal to the public of what kinds of criticisms will and will not be tolerated. However, these signals are often mixed, as counterterrorism and cybercrime laws are often inconsistently applied when policing political discourse. Not to mention, the red lines in public discourse become even murkier when other public figures, such as the king’s half-brother Prince Ali bin Hussein, have also criticized the UAE-Israel agreement online. In one since deleted tweet, the prince shared an op-ed featuring an image of a poster calling Bin Zayed a traitor. On another front, this year’s protests against the Israeli-Jordanian gas deal were largely tolerated. This suggests that the regime is not entirely intolerant of dissent, especially as it pertains to its foreign relations. As a result, the line between the acceptable and unacceptable remains blurry to those that want to speak out. This lack of clarity fosters an environment of self-censorship within the kingdom, especially when one considers the stakes given the potential deployment of counterterrorism.
Finally, the significance of the early release of Hajjaj cannot be understated as it also highlights the persistent competing tensions the country faces. Given the rigidity of the State Security Court, it is rare for those charged with terrorism to be released before serving the minimum fourteen-day investigation period. Yet, Hajjaj was released much earlier due to widespread domestic and international backlash. His arrest prompted local protests as well as a global social media campaign calling for his release. The attorney general’s decision to release Hajjaj early is another example of the kingdom’s acute sensitivity to local and international pressures.
The arrest and release of Emad Hajjaj is the latest incident in a long series of events illustrating the challenges Jordan faces while navigating its international commitments and domestic political tensions. The normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel and the peace process more generally will continue to put Jordan in the difficult position of attempting to strike a balance between its domestic and international political pressures.