Police blocking protesters after the arrests of the leaders of the Jordanian Teachers’ Syndicate, Amman

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Police blocking protesters after the arrests of the leaders of the Jordanian Teachers’ Syndicate, Amman, July 29, 2020

On an afternoon in late July, the central neighborhood of Amman where I live was suffused with stifled agitation. Schoolteachers were trying to gather for a protest in a traffic circle near the prime minister’s house. It has long been a popular spot for demonstrations, and to discourage them it has been covered with a hard plastic lattice and encircled by a spiky fence. That afternoon policemen were also posted on every corner for miles around, questioning drivers and turning pedestrians away.

The teachers’ syndicate, one of the few independent associations in Jordan, has been at loggerheads with the government for some time. Teachers were also on strike last fall, when I moved to Amman with my family. Back then I was surprised by how sympathetic people were to them, despite mostly negative media coverage and the disruption of the beginning of the school year. But the teachers’ most popular slogan was: “We’ll all go hungry together or we’ll all eat together.” It resonated in a country where one of the biggest complaints is the cost of living.

Jordan was already troubled by high unemployment and public debt, corruption, and social inequality before the pandemic struck. In response to Covid-19, the authorities instituted a countrywide lockdown that stopped its spread but also ground the economy to a halt. The inevitable slump may well bring more unrest, and the government has moved to preempt dissent and mass mobilization by imposing martial law, shutting down the teachers’ syndicate, and intimidating journalists. These measures may keep Jordan quiet, but they are unlikely to solve its current crisis, let alone its deeper problems, some of which date back to its creation.

Winston Churchill boasted that he created the Amirate of Transjordan with a stroke of his pen one sunny Sunday afternoon in Cairo in 1921. The unlikely kingdom was a consolation prize for Abdullah, the second son of Hussein, the sharif of Mecca, whose family, the Hashemites, were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Abdullah and his brother Faisal, encouraged by T.E. Lawrence, had led the British-supported Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire between 1916 and 1918. After World War I and the collapse of the Ottomans, Faisal became king of Iraq. Abdullah, the more ambitious and difficult of the two brothers, had hoped to rule over a new Arab nation that included Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula. Instead he ended up with a small, arid puzzle piece of land. Today Abdullah’s great-grandson King Abdullah II of Jordan is the only member of the Hashemite family still in power anywhere in the Middle East.

Throughout much of its history, observers have questioned the country’s ability to survive. The Israeli historian and Oxford professor Avi Shlaim, who has written several books about Jordan, describes it as “an impecunious and insignificant desert kingdom” and “a political anomaly and a geographical nonsense.” “Every article by a Western academic or journalist used to say that Jordan won’t exist for long,” Mustafa Hamarneh, the president of Jordan’s Economic and Social Council, an advisory body to the Jordanian government, told me last winter. He points out that the country has outlasted all these predictions, but “the problem is it hasn’t gotten its act together…. I used to start every talk by saying, Jordan is going through its most critical economic and political transition period. But it’s an endless transition.”

The country sits at the center of an extremely volatile region. In the east it juts into deserts shared with Iraq and Saudi Arabia; in the south it has a tiny toehold on the Gulf of Aqaba. In the north it abuts Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In the west one can gaze across the narrow, lush Jordan River Valley and the melancholy mirror of the Dead Sea onto Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Jordan has long been a buffer between its powerful and often belligerent neighbors, absorbing refugees from Palestine, Iraq, and Syria and investments from oil-rich Iraq and the Gulf countries. It has always depended on external patronage, but it has maneuvered adroitly between its backers, acting as a mediator in Middle Eastern conflicts and often punching above its weight in world affairs. In recent decades Jordan came to be seen as a crucial component of the regional order and of Israel’s security. Since 1989 it has been the recipient of major loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (the latest $1.3 billion IMF loan was agreed to in January 2020) and, since signing a peace agreement with Israel in 1994 as part of the Oslo process, of about $1.5 billion in US aid annually.

This small, heavily policed, US-backed kingdom seems like an exceptionally quiet place. Yet on a closer look Jordan’s stability begins to appear more like a balance so precarious that everyone, no matter how dissatisfied, fears upsetting it. The country exists in a state of “perpetual fragility,” as one local journalist put it.

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“Jordan is a semi-rentier state in that it relies to a great extent on foreign aid, much of it coming from the Gulf, on remittances from workers in the Gulf, and on investment from the Gulf,” says Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister. Yet all of these sources of revenue have been declining since 2014, along with oil prices. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, Jordan’s foreign debt was nearly 100 percent of GDP. Unemployment was 19 percent, and 30 percent among the young—figures that are now believed to have increased dramatically. The state bureaucracy, army, and police employ 42 percent of the formal workforce. In isolated towns in the interior, that figure rises to as high as 90 percent. Cutting these public sector jobs is seen as both a long-term necessity and a threat to the government’s survival.

Jordan isn’t just running a budget deficit; it is also running a water deficit. It is the fifth most water-poor country in the world, and climate change is expected to make the situation even worse: a study by Stanford University’s Jordan Water Project estimated that under current conditions, rainfall there could decrease by 30 percent and temperatures increase by 6 degrees by the end of the century. For decades Jordan has been drawing more water from its underground aquifers than can be naturally replenished. The Disi aquifer, which it shares with Saudi Arabia and which it began tapping in 2013, is not expected to last more than fifty years. Thousands of illegal wells are accelerating the process.

Municipal water is piped in once a week and stored in water tanks on buildings’ roofs. The country loses as much as 50 percent of its water to leaks and theft—often, reportedly, by large landowners and politically connected notables. Despite attempts to crack down on theft, pipelines carrying water to Jordan’s cities are regularly vandalized to divert tens of thousands of cubic meters to farms or to steal it for resale. In May an attack interrupted the water supply to parts of Amman and nearby areas.

In early March, in response to the spread of Covid-19, Jordan closed its schools, airport, and borders; within days, the government declared martial law. Soldiers and tanks were deployed at checkpoints across the country. For over a month, driving required a special permit (given only to essential medical and food delivery workers) and the streets were eerily empty. The only authorized activity was shopping for food, on foot, at local stores. Violators were fined and thousands of private cars impounded. A curfew was in place from 6 PM to 10 AM. The authorities even considered a total lockdown, with food deliveries made door-to-door; they abandoned the idea after four days, when buses delivering subsidized bread were mobbed by panicked crowds.

These measures largely succeeded: as of September 23 there had been only 6,042 cases and 35 deaths. There were so few cases that superspreaders became celebrities, named, shamed, and nearly stalked on social media: the father who infected guests at his son’s wedding, the pharmacist whose family didn’t follow quarantine rules, the truck driver who spread the disease at an iftar, the dinner breaking the Ramadan fast. The total lockdown was lifted, in stages, at the end of April (some restrictions have since been reimposed, for limited times and on particular areas). Borders remain closed, but the airport was partly reopened in September.

The economic effect of the nationwide closure has nevertheless been daunting. Jordan is home to two million registered Palestinian and 655,000 Syrian refugees (down from a peak of 1.5 million a few years ago). Many of them work informal day jobs and have been particularly hard-hit by the lockdown; refugee camps were sealed off entirely. Jordan is also home to an estimated one million foreign workers, many of them without legal papers, who work the jobs Jordanians don’t want—Egyptians as doormen, waiters, and construction workers; women from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia as maids and nannies. Many of them have lost their jobs and been stranded, unable to go home either because they owe residency fees or can’t get a repatriation flight.

The closure devastated the growing tourism sector, which was looking forward to its peak season and what could have been one of its best years. Petra, the ancient Nabatean site with its famous church carved into the pink rock, was sprayed with disinfectant, but with the airport closed, no visitors came. When, in June, my husband and I hiked up Wadi Mujib—a spectacular sandstone canyon carved by a river running to the Dead Sea—we had it almost entirely to ourselves.

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Some view the current crisis as a wake-up call. “We cannot sustain a rentier economy anymore,” says Muasher. “That economy has led to the killing of productivity, led to patronage, led to wasta,” he says, using the common Arab word for personal connections. “That’s the prevailing culture. You want a job, you have to have a wasta. It’s not your merit, it’s not productivity, that determined whether you advance or not…. You need to move from a rentier system that maximizes patronage to a productive system that focuses on merit.” Yet Muasher admits such a shift would take at least a generation to achieve and would require major reforms.

“Jordan does face real challenges and it is stuck in a real bind,” says Lina Ejeilat, one of the founders and editors of the independent news site 7iber (Ink). Its reporters have covered the lockdown in Jordan by focusing on its impact on ordinary people: doormen, truck drivers, café waiters, garment workers, small hotel owners. “The government’s options are limited,” Ejeilat told me. It is “putting out fires all the time.”

Jordan has long been shaped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the British withdrew from Mandate Palestine in 1948 and the first Arab-Israeli war broke out, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Israel’s leaders secretly coordinated to each seize parts of the territory designated for a future Palestinian state; the plan left Jordan in control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Abdullah granted Jordanian citizenship to his new Palestinian subjects, but this did not extinguish their nationalist aspirations. In July 1951 the king traveled to Jerusalem to attend Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa mosque. As he stepped across the threshold, a young Palestinian nationalist emerged from behind the door and shot him point-blank in the head. He also shot Abdullah’s fifteen-year-old grandson, the future King Hussein, but the bullet was deflected by a medal that the boy’s grandfather had insisted he wear that morning.

Hussein assumed the throne the next year and ruled until 1999, maneuvering his way through a long series of crises, conflicts, attempted coups, and assassinations. The young British-educated king turned out to be pugnacious, shrewd, and impulsive; he was a political survivor, bon vivant, and man of action who loved flying and riding motorcycles and was married four times.

In 1967 Hussein suffered the greatest loss of his reign. Despite misgivings, he was drawn into the Six-Day War, which resulted in the naksa, or catastrophe: Egypt lost Sinai, Syria lost the Golan Heights, and Jordan the West Bank and Jerusalem. An estimated additional 250,000 Palestinian refugees poured into the Hashemite kingdom.

For some time Hussein believed that he could regain the West Bank by trading peace for land with Israel, but negotiations led nowhere. Meanwhile, an independent Palestinian leadership emerged and based itself in Jordan, challenging the king’s authority. In 1970, in the civil war known as Black September, Jordanian army units shelled Palestinian neighborhoods and drove the Palestinian fedayeen, or freedom fighters, out of the cities and eventually out of the country. Hundreds of Jordanian soldiers and thousands of Palestinian fighters were killed.

After that, the Jordanian monarchy abandoned the idea of representing the Palestinian people and of regaining control of the West Bank. A division between so-called West Bankers (Palestinian Jordanians) and East Bankers (Jordanians from the interior of the country) emerged as an unspoken, fraught political fault line, with the government recruiting almost exclusively from East Bank Jordanians for its administration, police, and army. East Bank Jordanians worry constantly about the power of Palestinian Jordanians, who dominate the private sector but also complain about discrimination.

Since the signing of the peace agreement with Israel in 1994, relations between the two countries have been cooperative but chilly; Jordanian public opinion has never supported the deal. And for the last year Jordanian officials have been on edge over Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to annex 30 percent of the West Bank. The recent announcement that Israel will temporarily suspend annexation in exchange for the normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates has done little to allay Jordanian concerns. The government fears that annexation will enflame domestic opinion, or that it will be the prelude to Israel transferring Palestinians to Jordan.

This is not a groundless suspicion: Ariel Sharon was one of the most aggressive proponents of the “Jordan is Palestine” view, arguing that the best way to solve the Palestinian question was to topple the Hashemite monarchy and create a Palestinian homeland here. If Israel doesn’t want to rule over a majority-Arab population, “what option does it have but to try to get rid of a large number of Palestinians, and where would they go?” Muasher said to me. “That’s Jordan’s fear, that Israel today is working to threaten its existence, its security, its identity.”

For Jordan, the rapprochement between Gulf countries and Israel and the end of any prospect of a two-state solution have also put in jeopardy its regional role as a mediator. Muasher and others have gone so far as to suggest withdrawing from the peace agreement, although such a move would incur the wrath of the Saudis, the Emiratis, and the US, on which the country depends not just for direct aid but for access to much-needed international financing. But such financing cannot be counted on at a time when every country in the world is battered by the pandemic. Knowing this, the Jordanian government has been touting the importance of “self-reliance.” But, says Muasher, “if you’re going to ask people for more sacrifices, you have to give them a meaningful voice in running the country’s affairs.” Not to do so is “probably a formula for social unrest.”

King Abdullah II, who came to power in 1999, shares his father’s love for the army, athletics, and hobbies such as piloting helicopters, driving race cars, and riding motorcycles. (He is also a Star Trek fan and once had a walk-on role in the series.) And like his father, he is Western-educated (Sandhurst and Oxford) and has a great affinity for the United States, where he went to boarding school. The king views himself as a reformist and a modernizer. In a remarkably candid interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic in 2013, he complained about having to contend with deceitful Islamists, “dinosaurs” among tribal leaders, sabotage from his own intelligence services, and family members jealous of their perks. Yet like other would-be reformers in the region, Abdullah has shown little propensity for truly devolving power and little willingness or ability to stamp out corruption (a 2011 protest chant referred to him as Ali Baba and his entourage as “the forty thieves”). It is nonetheless rare to hear any direct criticism of the king, which is actually illegal. Hostility has instead focused on Queen Rania, a safer target: she has been attacked for her Palestinian origins, political influence, Western style of dress, and rumored lavish lifestyle.

While until now Jordan hasn’t experienced the kinds of uprisings and upheavals its neighbors have, it has had its share of protest movements in the last decade. Their demands can be summarized simply: more representation, less taxation. In 2011 and 2012, during the Arab Spring, protesters called for reform of the electoral system, which privileges the hinterland over the cities and well-connected individuals over political parties with actual programs. This yields a fragmented parliament elected on the basis of patronage networks, with no clout compared to the real centers of power: the monarchy and the General Intelligence Directorate.

The election law has been revamped repeatedly without altering its basic structure. In response to the Arab Spring, the king also committed to some constitutional reforms. But as elsewhere in the region, government concessions have been followed by a backlash. “After an opening in 2011, when people were demanding reforms, amendments were passed in 2014 and 2016 that actually concentrated power in the hands of the king,” according to Ejeilat. “More restrictive laws were passed: a media law, terrorism law, cybercrime law. People are being detained and taken to court for Facebook posts.” In a discussion I once witnessed among young Jordanians of modest backgrounds, it was striking how many times the word “fear” came up in connection with political participation. They tell you to join political parties, one boy said, but then you get a visit from your “cousin”—a euphemism for the intelligence services.

Protests broke out again in 2018 over an unpopular tax proposal and rising gas prices, and once again turned into broader complaints about corruption, the cost of living, and Jordan’s dependence on international financial institutions. Protesters chanted refrains such as: “Do you know who governs us? The damned Monetary Fund. Take your money and leave us alone,” and “Oh Shame, oh Shame, they have sold Jordan for dollars.”

The king’s response has been to temporize, introduce cosmetic reforms, and dismiss the government. Jordanian cabinets, appointed by the monarch, change with alarming frequency, which makes them unaccountable and ill-suited to carrying out long-term change. “It’s almost a prime minister’s job to take the blame and get sacked when the pressure mounts,” says Ejeilat.

A major complaint remains corruption, by which people mean many different things: the need to pay bribes; the handing out of government jobs based on personal connections; the privatization, in the 1990s, of national telecom, mining, and public transportation companies, including the country’s only maritime port; the siphoning of money from public contracts and foreign aid projects; the fortunes made by prominent politicians and businessmen who are close to the royal family.

For the poet and novelist Hisham Bustani, it is a highly controversial gas deal with Israel that is the “severest example of corruption, lack of development, how you destroy a country.” Bustani led a national campaign against the deal, which was first announced in 2014. The government refused to provide the text of the agreement to parliament, except on two occasions when it briefly circulated single copies to a committee that was given little time to read them. Parliament nonetheless voted against it, to no avail, twice—out of opposition to normalizing relations with Israel and concerns that the deal is not economically beneficial to Jordan (which already imports gas from Egypt through Aqaba).

Demands for change in Jordan have been tempered by the dire aftermaths of other Arab Spring uprisings, says Mustafa Tell, a writer and media executive from a prominent Jordanian political family (his uncle Wasfi Al Tal served as prime minister three times and was assassinated by a Palestinian militia): “The anger is there, the frustration is still there, but there’s a new thing: fear. The government plays a lot on what’s happened in Syria…. People say: I don’t care if I’m poor. I don’t care if I can’t voice my opinion. At least I’m not getting killed.” To undermine protest movements here, says Al Tal, the authorities co-opt their leaders and play up divisions between Islamists and secularists, East and West Bankers, urban and rural areas, refugees and citizens. But, he adds, “the biggest division today is between the haves and the have-nots.”

Inequality and segregation are woven into the geography of Amman itself, which is one of the most expensive cities in the region, even though the monthly minimum wage is only 220 Jordanian dinars ($310) and 15 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, defined as an income of less than $1 a day. The capital is a new city, a little more than a century old, its beige stone buildings spread over hills divided by deep gulches and highways. Especially in recent decades, it has grown quickly, haphazardly, and almost entirely at the service of the automobile.

A small historic center is the meeting point between the denser, working-class East Amman—where most Palestinian and Syrian refugees live—and spacious and luxurious West Amman, where foreign embassies, private schools, government ministries, and malls proliferate, and an espresso costs just as much as in New York or London. The farther west one travels in the city, the bigger the gardens and villas become, the more common the Range Rovers, Hummers, and Mercedes SUVs. There are neighborhoods full of imported food shops, ice cream parlors, and cafés, but no sidewalks.

“Amman is now ghettoed and ghettoized. The spaces where you can be integrated and be part of the heart of the city are very few,” says Samar Dudin, a theater artist and educator who grew up in the capital and is the regional director of the Ruwwad association. Ruwwad runs a community center, library, and educational space in East Amman, giving scholarships to underprivileged youth who volunteer in its programs. The area is home to one of the country’s oldest Palestinian refugee camps, and suffers from the usual problems of marginalized urban areas: high rates of unemployment, crime, drug abuse, and domestic violence. Ruwwad has supported local campaigns to get a bus stop, a police station, and a clinic. During the lockdown, Dudin told me, the organization distributed phone cards to its young volunteers; they spent days on the phone gathering data on families in need, and the center was able to deliver emergency food packages to over one thousand families. The library started a program lending laptops, smartphones, and tablets to children so they could do their schoolwork online.

In Jordan, “everyone feels they are a minority. No one feels they are a majority,” Dudin once told me. And yet during the lockdown, she says, “a lot of people mobilized, not just us. The greatest thing was to see the amount of energy and generosity of spirit.”

That spirit may now be fraying. One increasingly hears complaints that the government is making decisions unilaterally, with little consultation or explanation. Public debate has been stifled by martial law, nationalist propaganda, and intimidation. It is a crime to spread news that could “‘cause panic’ about the pandemic.” In April the general manager and news director of a popular news outlet, Roya TV, was arrested for a broadcast featuring poor Jordanians complaining of losing their livelihoods due to the lockdown. In August the well-known political cartoonist Emad Hajjaj was arrested for mocking the UAE’s decision to normalize relations with Israel.

Today, says Ejeilat, the authorities “are very aggressive. They have no patience. They want to get the message out: Nobody think of saying anything, everyone shut up.” The authorities have also chosen this moment to act more freely against political opposition. In July a Jordanian court ordered the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood—the country’s foremost political group, whose activities have long been tolerated—for not complying with a new law concerning political parties.

Then there is the teachers’ syndicate, which was formed in 2012, during the Arab Spring. It has 100,000 members and an elected leadership. Teachers earn a starting salary of 450JD ($630) a month. Their strike in the fall of 2019 lasted a month, until they won a partial raise, of about 50JD ($70) a month, from a clearly disgruntled government and king.

But this spring, citing the need for austerity, the government froze public sector raises, including the one for the teachers. The syndicate was incensed and began planning action. The possibility of teachers voicing economic demands that other groups might adopt seems to have alarmed the authorities. At the end of July, a judge issued an order closing the syndicate. Police raided its offices across the country, arrested its leaders, and sealed its doors. In one viral video, a police officer was asked for a warrant; “I am the warrant,” he replied.

The teachers who were protesting these developments were never able to gather in the roundabout near my house. Instead, that day, some of them made their way to a different circle, where they were blocked, beaten, and arrested. Since then, there have been protests and clashes in cities across the country, amid a near-total media blackout. At least five hundred teachers have been detained. Some went into hiding, posting videos and updates anonymously.

The syndicate has been charged with planning to take “inflammatory measures” (a reference to plans to strike again) and other unspecified financial crimes. The judge in the case also issued a gag order, forbidding any discussion of or comment on the case in the press or on social media. But government-connected social media have been free to disseminate videos accusing the syndicate of dividing the country and, with scant evidence, of being a Brotherhood front.

This heavy-handedness has accelerated the spread of rumors and mistrust. In late August new clusters of Covid-19 infections appeared in a city in the north and in a factory. Some blamed migrants and refugees for the new infections; others said the numbers were being inflated by the government as an excuse to crack down on the striking teachers. A border region with Syria was sealed off, but when police tried to arrest one curfew-breaker there, a riot broke out. People are tired of the pandemic and, like many elsewhere in the world, would rather believe the threat isn’t real. Social distancing and proper mask wearing have waned, despite the threat of fines and even jail time.

The numbers of new cases have continued to rise: on September 22 there were 634, the most yet recorded on a single day. The government has made it clear that Jordan can’t afford another total lockdown, and that the country will need to coexist with the virus. Whether it can live with all its unintended consequences is another question.

—Amman, September 24, 2020