by Mordechai Kedar
Read the article in Italiano (translated by Yehudit Weisz, edited by Angelo Pezzana)Ever since December 2010, when the phenomenon known as the "Arab Spring" began in Tunisia, there has been one motto that passes, like a leitmotif through each Arab domain: "The people want to overthrow the regime". This motto is on all the posters used in the demonstrations, on the walls of buildings, on flyers that are handed out in the streets; the spokesmen of the various opposition groups and the demonstrating throngs cried it out hoarsely and repeated it again and again, as an unvarying mantra. This slogan may have been the most obvious rhetorical feature of public discourse in the Arab world during the past year and a half, because it signified the events that led to the collapse of the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and apparently in Syria as well. The intensity and strength of the use of this slogan was an indication of the height of the flames singing the feet of the seats of government in these states.
Jordan has managed until now to remain untouched by these problems, and King Abdullah II knew how to navigate matters of the kingdom in a way that such that the waves of the revolution that were washing the rest of the Arab world did not yet wash over his kingdom. In an article that we published here four months ago, we dealt with the problem that the Jordanian monarchy has with the Palestinian majority in Jordan. Within the past few weeks - mainly since the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco - a different sort of problem is now becoming apparent: the problem of radical political Islam.
This problem is not new, because radical Islamist groups have existed in Jordan for many years, however the monarchy knew how to put them in their place using a combination of the carrot and the stick: prison and torture on one hand, while allowing political and public activities on the other. But the political activity of the Jordanian opposition was always placed within the administrative frameworks of the state, meaning the monarchy made sure that their influence remained marginal. The principal framework is the law of elections, which undergoes basic and frequent changes, in order to make sure that the results of the "democratic" elections will create a feeling of openness, pluralism and legitimacy, but at the same time will preserve the status quo and prevent too great a change to the balance of political power.
Elections in Jordan have always been a source of tension between the regime and the political bodies for three main reasons: a) the natural public expectation that as a result of the elections an effective parliament will result, that will have genuine authorities, but this has never happened, because the laws of parliament can not contradict the decisions of the king and certainly can not remove him from his throne; b) the elections are supposed to reflect the attitudes of the population and its cross section of political opinion and social and cultural attitudes, and this doesn't happen either; c) parliament represents mainly the traditional trends and interests of the Bedouin tribes which are a minority among the population, and marginalizes other groups, including those with modern viewpoints.
Approximately two weeks ago parliament passed a new law dealing with elections that raised the number of representatives from 120 to 140 and determined that every voter would be able to choose two representatives: one from his local area and one from a national list, which is limited to only 17 seats. This significance of this apportionment is that local tribes will continue to have more political weight and the general, national ideological lists will have less weight. The increase in the number of seats intended for women from 12 to 15 arouses much criticism from all directions: the modernists and women's organizations want more seats, while the Islamists want a smaller number of seats allocated to women. The election law has not yet been enacted because the king has still not approved it, and apparently will not approve it because of public opposition.
However this hasn't succeeded in silencing the opposition: last Friday huge demonstrations were held in several of the cities of Jordan, demanding constitutional changes that would reflect the will of the street to allow the election of a parliament with real authorities and to establish a fair and effective government. These demonstrations streamed into the streets after Friday prayers, apparently under the influence of the sermons delivered by the clerics. We saw this phenomenon in Egypt in January of 2011, and in Syria during March and April of 2011: The mosque and Friday sermons serve as the match that ignites the barrel of gunpowder filled with the rage of the public and the will of the people to radically change the corrupt and illegitimate regime. The miserable economic situation in Jordan adds fuel to the fire, and strengthens the feeling of marginalization felt by not a few sectors.
Zaki Bani Irshid, the general supervisor of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Jordan, said during a demonstration: "The time has come for us too in Jordan to be happy like the Egyptian people are happy", while Ali Abu al-Sukkar, head of the Shura Council, the council of the "Islamic Action Front", that represents the Muslim Brotherhood, said openly and brazenly to the media: "Just as the will of the Egyptian people was victorious, thus the will of the Jordanian people will be victorious and the aspirations to see real reforms will be realized. Today, the voice of the Jordanian citizen echoes throughout all districts, as he emphasized that he will not be put off, nor will he accept partial solutions, trickery or manipulation regarding the public's expectations to see real improvement in governmental systems."
The message expressed through these words is that just as in Egypt the public succeeded to overthrow Mubarak and to set up a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood at the head of the pyramid of power, thus it must be in Jordan. There can not be a clearer or sharper message than this. The interesting thing about this demonstration is that leftist groups also took part in it, and this too is reminiscent of Egypt, because in the first phase of the demonstrations in Egypt, all of the groups who opposed Mubarak were united.
Slogans that were heard in the demonstrations were also interesting: people called the parliament (majlis al-nuab - House of Representatives) the pejorative "majlis al-doab" House of the Worms, and there were signs saying: "Start the Countdown", "Victory to the Will of the People", "Congratulations to Egypt", "Where is the Corrupt One? the Reforms Will Sweep You Away". "The Cost of Living is not Reasonable", "The Prices are on Fire and the Citizen is Worried". The king, recognizing the danger inherent in Friday demonstrations, with slogans and signs of this sort, froze the election law and sent it back to the House of Representatives to increase the number of seats for the national lists at the expense of the locals, and thus "threw a bone" to the demonstrators.
Security forces that accompanied the demonstration were not armed, however their presence in full uniform was conspicuous. The message that they sent was that as long as the demonstrations stay within the accepted norms they will be permitted to continue. Against this background it is important to note that for a long time in Jordan there has been sharp criticism against the cruelty with which the security forces act towards groups of radical Islamists, who call themselves "Salafia Jihadia", and whose goal it is to fight with the force of jihad, to return Muslim society to the good times, pure values and proper rulers that it had in the seventh century.
A 16-year-old youth, Layth al-Kalaulah, who apparently participated in the demonstration against the regime last weekend, was caught by an arm of the security force and underwent investigation under torture that included putting out burning cigarettes on his body. He is a resident of the city al-Salt, in the Jordan Valley, where there is activity of the Salafia Jihadia, and apparently the young man was a member of this group. This is not the first case that Jordanian security forces are accused of torture: In recent years the UN and a number of human rights organizations published reports on the use of systematic torture in Jordanian prisons on those who opposed the regime. Confessions were extracted from them illegally, and those responsible for the torture are not usually brought to justice.
It must also be noted that in Egypt a grievous event happened a number of months before the demonstrations broke out in January 2011, in which a youth in Alexandria was tortured to death, and this caused a stream of thousands of demonstrators to crowd into the streets. In the opinion of observers, this event strengthened the negative feeling of the population towards the regime, because photographs of the youth "before" and "after" were circulated in the various media and reached the masses. In Syria too, in the beginning of the events in March 2011, photographs of children and youths who had been tortured by the regime were distributed via the social networks, and these photographs poured oil on the fire of the demonstrations.
Al Jazeera, which broadcast live coverage of the demonstrations in Jordan last Friday, finished the report with this sentence: "The people want to reform the regime", which is clearly a variation of the sentence "The people want to topple the regime". In this way, almost overtly, Al Jazeera exploits the internal tensions in Jordan and tries to ignite the domestic front in this state as well, after the great success that this Qatari channel has already scored in setting afire the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya Yemen and Syria. The king will need great wisdom to be able to stand up against the rising waves of opposition, from within as well as from the direction of Al Jazeera, the jihadi channel of the Emirate of Qatar, whose rulers suffer from severe megalomania.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il) is an Israeli scholar of Arabic and Islam, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. He specializes in Islamic ideology and movements, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena.
Translated from Hebrew by Sally Zahav.
Links to Dr. Kedar's recent articles on this blog:
- The Brothers and the Muslms
- What's Next for Saudi Arabia?
- An Open Letter to President Asad
- The Suffering of Africa - Sins of Europe - Guilt of Israel
- What Drives Turkey?
- Engulfed by Fear
- The Syrian Crisis Spills Over into Lebanon
- The Frustrated Intellectual
- Syria, Iraq, the Gulf and the Iranian Tentacles
- The Failure of the Palestinian Venture
- Is Islam the Solution?
- Radical Islam in Africa
- What's Really Going on in Gaza?
- The Alternative Homeland
- The Real Thing
- The Division of Syria
- The Death Throes of the Lion
- An Old Governmental System in Formation
- Frustration and Extortion
- Thank You, Hamas
- Drums of War in the Gulf
- 2011: The Year of the Arab Winter
- And This is the Gate of Heaven
- In the Shadow of the Rising Islamic Crescent
- Who Stole My Revolution
- The Noose Tightens
- The Desert of Death
- Jihad Forever
Source: The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel. Also published in Makor Rishon, a Hebrew weekly newspaper.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.