Situation Assessment 10 December, 2012

The November Uprising in Jordan

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Massive public protests broke out in Jordan following the government's November 13 decision to lift subsidies on petroleum byproducts, including gasoline, by levels ranging from 20 percent to 57 percent. The protests gripped the entire country for over a week, and their repercussions persist, particularly in the form of nearly daily calls for protests. These protests are qualitatively different from both the reform movement, which began in Jordan at the beginning of 2011, and other demand-driven protests over the last two years. This qualitative difference became apparent in how activists, politicians, and commentators began referring to the events after the lifting of subsidies: "the November Uprising" or "the November Intifada". This name is evocative of the April 1989 uprising, also dubbed an Intifada following a lifting of fuel subsidies. The 1989 uprising led to political liberalization in the country, prompting a return to parliamentary life and ending martial law.

The claim that these events were simply an immediate reaction to the government's decision to raise fuel prices is an incorrect, overly narrow analysis, as most of the protests that broke out in response to the decision quickly adopted purely political slogans and raised political demands, particularly because of the importance of this decision, and its impact on the lives of citizens of limited and middle income at the outset of winter. The debate within the public sphere, in addition to opinions based on a comprehensive reading of the situation and the motivations of the protests, all indicate that these spontaneous demonstrations-initially sparked by the price inflation-are an expression of the inflamed political tensions that have gripped Jordan since before the Arab Spring. However, instead of taking the Arab Spring as an objective historical opportunity to overcome this impasse, the policies of the Jordanian regime have worked to intensify these tensions. Other demands made by protestors, alongside the demand to rescind the decision on fuel prices, reflected Jordanian citizens' dissatisfaction with the reproduction of policies they had already been demanding a change in for over two years of protesting.

Jordanians can no longer accept the regime's promises of meaningful political reforms, which never see the light of day. The protests express a rejection of the regime's conception of reform. Jordanians have not swallowed the official discourse as expressed by Prime Minister Abdullah Nsour, who spoke of a crisis in Jordan's economic situation and mentioned a record-breaking budget deficit of 3.5 billion Jordanian Dinars (approximately US $5 billion), as well as the absence of any foreign support to alleviate this deficit. The dominant belief among protestors is that those who have governed the country for the past several years, driving it to the present situation, should shoulder the responsibility for this deficit. The November Uprising, as activists in Jordan call it, has turned into a direct protest against government policies and the methods employed to manage the country; these are policies that have not changed over the past two years of Jordan's movement toward political reform.

The Reform Movement

Jordan's reform movement, which was launched at the beginning of 2011, called for a fundamental revision of how the Jordanian state was administered, and specifically demanded deep-seated constitutional and political reforms. The aim of such reforms was to be the adoption of a parliamentary system based on a new electoral law that surpassed the present system, the paradoxically named "one person one vote" system, which restricts suffrage and bolsters the representation of traditionalist and tribal parliamentary candidates at the expense of those promoting political agendas. In the process, the present electoral law has made parliament less representative and less effective, and has reduced its supervisory and legislative capabilities.

The movement also demands that the government put an end to the security apparatus' meddling in the country's political and public affairs, promote civil and political liberties, provide justice among citizens, and fight corruption by bringing those suspected of such actions to trial. All of these aims were brought together in the slogan, which has become central to the reform movement: "the people demand the reform of the regime." This compares to "the people demand the fall of the regime" which was adopted by protesters in other Arab countries. The phrasing of the Jordanian slogan shows how Jordan's movement, which was initially established amid cumulative criticisms of the government's performance, was directly inspired by the Arab revolutions and by the movement's ability to specify a group of commonalities between the circumstances of governance in Jordan and those in the Arab Spring countries. While the reformists maintained that they intended to keep the existing regime in place, they also demanded that the government undertake far-reaching reforms that would change both the mechanisms used by the regime and its composition. These include the expansion of the powers of the Jordanian people's elected representatives in the shape of an elected executive authority, and an end to autocratic practices in governance. For the first three months of 2011, this reform movement was elitist in nature-in the sense that it was organized by existing political parties and youth groups that had sprung up alongside the Arab revolutions-though it was on the cusp of becoming more widely popular when the call for an open-ended protest came out on March 24, 2011.

A significant factor of its development occurred when, during March 2011, the regime dealt with the protest movement to prevent its maturation into a persistent popular struggle. The state's reaction to the protest came on March 25 in the form of a raid on the open-ended protest at the Ministry of Interior Roundabout, thereby preventing the rise of a prolonged movement with deep popular roots, similar to those in other Arab countries. The regime's political strategy succeeded in dealing with the situation by exploiting and intensifying the vertical divisions in Jordanian society. Such divisions included country of origin, such as East Bank Jordanians versus Palestinian Jordanians, and clan and tribal affiliations. This approach placed those behind the movement in a position where they had to spend several months defending and justifying their actions. They were adamant that the reform movement did not seek to topple the ruling regime, only to reform it, and that the protests were not part of a conspiracy by one sector of society or particular political force against others in a bid to gain more political advantages.

The objective reality facing Jordanian society and the accumulation of the state's policies, in addition to the weakness of the political and civil forces, were reflected in the reform movement. That is, the movement produced multiple and widespread local- and sector-based sub-movements, some of them even springing up within the confines of specific clans, therefore lacking overall coordination.

In certain aspects, this naturally imposed a double agenda on the reform movement in Jordan: one that was nation-wide and demanded political reforms in general and another that was local and confined to specific regions, focusing on the gains it could secure for a specific locality within the country or specific sectors of Jordanian society. Such a situation allows any organized state to fulfill some of the sector-specific demands while not having to budge on nation-wide political matters.

This fragmentation in the reform movement, and its transformation from a nation-wide trend to a localized one with double agendas composed of contradictory objectives, bolstered the extant dominance of a security-minded, conservative vision within the political regime when dealing with the movement. The end result was that the reform movement would never develop into an all-out, national struggle so long as it was only concentrated in areas with a high population density of East Bank Jordanians; areas with a population of predominantly Palestinian Jordanians, on the other hand, remained calm. As a result, the political regime was not yet threatened, nor was it compelled to make any concessions to the reform movement and change the rules of the political game.

Clear indicators that the government would back-peddle on its undertaking to carry out a complete revision of its administration and mechanisms, in order to replace it with reformist political agenda on its own terms, came in the summer of 2011. Such reforms were to include amendments to the constitution, changes to the governing structures for political and civil activities, and the combatting of corruption, but these measures in themselves would not have initiated genuine differences in the mode of governing. In other words, the model proposed by the government emphasized style and procedure, but ignored substance.[1]

The constitutional amendments, thus, failed to meet the standards the political forces, which had organized the movement, had hoped for. Later on, when the new Law of Election to the House of Deputies was passed, after 18 months of deliberations, it reproduced the same "one person, one vote" system in electoral sub-districts. This law entrenched the political influence of traditional social bodies, which are not based on voluntary membership, including clans and similar groupings (such as associations of families whose ancestry goes back to the same village). Their influence came at the expense of organized forces motivated by political agendas. In the process, the present electoral law made the parliament less representative, less effective, and reduced its supervisory and legislative capabilities.

The movement also demands that the security apparatus' meddling in the country's political and public affairs be brought to an end and that corruption be fought by bringing those suspected of corruption to trial. Still, the government was able to maintain a level of the credibility, and popular confidence, because none of its dealings with the reform movement's activists were violent or bloody. When Jordanian citizens compared this non-violent behavior with that of neighboring regimes, particularly the Syrian regime, this fact took on greater value.

The November Protests

The latest wave of protests were a response to an increase in fuel prices, but its significance lies in the fact that its features display other considerable differences with the reform movement and its usual demonstrations; these later protests were spread across the entire territory of the Hashemite Kingdom, giving them a national character since citizens from all cities, villages, and camps participated. More than 120 spontaneous demonstrations and marches broke out after the announcement of the hike in fuel prices, taking place in all of the major squares throughout all Jordanian cities. These protests attracted sectors of society who had not participated in the earlier, two-year-long reform movement. With a highly visible participation of secondary school students in the protests, the November Uprising saw a great diversity of age groups, particularly those under 20.

These later protests have also led to the boycotting of the upcoming parliamentary elections (scheduled for January of 2013) by some leftist political parties. This has expanded the numbers of those boycotting the elections, with some voters expressing their unwillingness to be complicit in an electoral process under the present circumstances by burning their voters' cards. Political parties have issued a number of statements demanding that the government rescind the decision to raise fuel prices, change the electoral law, form a national salvation government, and bring corrupt persons to trial: the very same demands made by the protestors.

Trade unions further played a part in supporting these protests through the partial strikes of both the engineers' and lawyers' unions. The most significant of such strikes in terms of impact on the public, however, was that of the teachers' union, known as the Jordanian Teachers' Association, which lasted for three days and affected 70% of Jordanian schools (figures based on the teachers' union). Notably, this last strike began on Tuesday, November 20 and remains active.

The demands made by these protests, the slogans chanted by the protestors, and the lyrics to the songs they sang differed from those of the reform movement. In fact, during the first four days of the November protest movement, before it could be disciplined by the political opposition groups' efforts, the chant in the streets was that of the Arab Spring: "The people demand the fall of the regime." It was only when efforts to discipline the movement by political groups succeeded that the chants returned to "The people demand the reform of the regime." Interestingly, protestors' criticisms of the cabinet, the security apparatus, political dignitaries, and the institutions of the regime were tempered in comparison to those directed at the king and his policies. This reflects a break with the previous practice of criticizing the cabinet, its advisors, and "unfaithful courtiers," bringing about the unprecedented criticism of the king himself.

This shift alone represents a qualitative change in the way in which Jordanian citizens view the political regime and their approach to dealing with it. For decades, the cabinet and state institutions had represented a kind of "buffer zone," absorbing popular anger around either domestic or foreign policies, shielding the king from such anger, allowing the king to remain above reproach. In such an arrangement, he was seen to be more of a referee, intervening at the right moment to change the cabinet or reshuffling political appointments to help regain the regime's vitality, which provided a measure of its legitimacy and some of its political tools. All of this has changed during the last wave of protests, with the prime minister's attempts to take sole, personal responsibility for the events having had a limited influence on the public.

A close observation of the Jordanian regime's approach to the protests at their outset would reveal that the regime was surprised not so much by the incidence of protests and demonstrations as by their expansion and increasing impacts. The regime was also surprised by the numbers taking part in the protests and the diversity of their backgrounds, in addition to their shock regarding the protestors' demands and the direct attacks against the king.

With the exception of the November 13 prime minister's recorded televised statement, in which he announced the rise of fuel prices, and a later interview with Al-Jazeera, the Jordanian state and its figureheads were nowhere to be seen in the media or the public sphere for more than 36 hours. This served to deepen the widely held feeling that the regime was in a state of shock over the progress of events. The prime minister used both of his media appearances to explain the difficult economic circumstances the country was facing, stating that there could be no going back on the decision to raise fuel prices.

The state's security apparatus was nearly incapacitated in dealing with such widespread protests, using force to disband them and arrest protestors and activists on a wide scale. More than 200 of the arrested protestors, some of whom were minors, remain detained. Additionally, the dissipation of the earlier reform movement into localized protests, which had been that movement's weakness, had become a source of strength for the new protest movement in light of the widespread participation of citizens from all origins, especially in the major cities.

The way in which localized and sectorial demands coalesced into comprehensive national demands in the November Uprising frustrated the regime's hopes that a crucial sector of society would not take part in the protests, ultimately exhausting the regime's efforts to suppress the movement. While the state's overall strategy for dealing with these protests was ambiguous, it did rely on three parallel methods, none of which was comprehensively used throughout Jordan. The first method was to withdraw the security forces from certain areas, possibly either to avoid confrontations with protestors or perhaps for other reasons that remain unclear. The second method was to have high-ranking members of the security forces and local state officials encourage groups of the population to attend "loyalty and belonging" rallies, a phenomenon that can be compared to the baltagia in Egypt or to other groups of pro-regime thugs during the Arab revolutions. The third method was to contain the demonstrations and violently suppress them.

Alongside the three above methods, the official discourse was that the state did not oppose peaceful protests; rather, they only stood against rioting. The official line also emphasized the supposed role of foreign agitators standing behind a number of these protests, suggesting that some of the major participants in the protests were non-Jordanians. The regime made another obvious choice in pointing the finger of blame at the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other political forces, for exploiting prevailing circumstances to organize a wave of protests with the duplicate aim of securing narrow political gains and foiling the coming parliamentary elections, which they had previously announced they would boycott. This discourse did not serve to diminish the protests, especially not during the first four days.

Looking Forward

These protests have introduced a number of new terms into the Jordanian political lexicon. Their spread across all regions of the Kingdom and all of the major sectors of Jordanian society provides evidence that Jordanian citizens are capable of overcoming the divisions within their society for the cause of defending their interests, particularly their collective economic wellbeing. The reliance on those divisions and the nurturing of sub-national identities for the purpose of strengthening the ruling regime and ensuring its stability can no longer be assumed to work. These protests demonstrated how the effectiveness of the security approach was limited and generally did not stifle the protests, nor did it end public discussions about the ruling regime.

Another shortcoming demonstrated by the November Uprising was the regime was the one related to the regime's media discourse, especially its suggestion that there was a presence of "infiltrators" serving foreign agendas through the protests. However, the Uprising also displayed the traditional approach of the political forces within the opposition, and their inability to contain the Jordanian's anger or convert that anger into clearly articulated political demands.

Although the slogan "the people demand the fall of the regime" was heard at most of the protests, this does not mean that the Jordanian public is now in a phase of open confrontation with the regime. Most indicators show that this slogan is open to discussion, and raising it is a tactic being employed to compel the regime to undertake major political reforms, whether constitutionally or in terms of legislation affecting political life.

The regime still has a few tricks up its sleeve to contain the political fallout from these protests, especially as they have not been engaged in violent and bloody confrontations with the people as of now. In this regard, the choices available to the regime include a bloodless coup within the structures of the regime, in which some of its major figureheads would change along with the formation of a new Cabinet with the support of a national consensus, in addition to amending the electoral law to guarantee wider political participation. Such steps would encourage the return of public trust in the regime, on the condition that such measures be presented together with a program for political and economic reform, the benefits of which are persuasive to the public.

Another obvious choice for the regime would be a compromise with the Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential organization on the ground, which they could then leverage to end the Brotherhood's support for protests and demonstrations. Such a deal would require a number of concessions from the regime, most important of which would be a change to the electoral law and a change in the deeply embedded mindset among the regime that rejects the Brotherhood's participation in government. Jordan's past experiences show that such deals lead only to temporary alliances that do not outlive their usefulness.

Should foreign financial support be forthcoming for Jordan, the regime might be able to continue its traditional methods of administering the country. At their core, such methods include winning the loyalty of specific social sectors and local leaders by providing services and employment in the public sector.

A reading of the Jordanian regime's behavior over the past two years, including the way it reacted to and dealt with the latest protests, demonstrates its ill preparedness to implement any far-reaching political changes it could present to the country's citizens to usher in a new phase of political life in Jordan. Political tensions in the country will thus remain in place; though the November Uprising is winding down, this does not spell the end of the outbreak of similar protests in Jordan. The spread of the protests across all sectors of society occurred because of the government's decisions on measures that affect their daily lives. This does not mean, however, that economic solutions to address the problem will suffice.





[1] Examples of these efforts include the formation of the National Dialogue Committee, a government initiative to draft a democratic Election Law and revise the Political Parties Law in March 2011. Additionally, King Abdullah II appointed a committee to revise the Constitution in April of the same year.