Unrest in Jordan slowly simmered before the “Arab Spring.” However, tensions in the Hashemite Kingdom erupted in an unprecedented development since mid-January, when thousands of demonstrators staged rallies in Amman and other cities. Their grievances were mostly economic: food prices continue to rise, as do the country’s unemployment, inflation and deficit rates.
Aware of the fate of his fellow homologues in Egypt and Tunisia, Jordan’s King Abdullah II tried to defuse the protests immediately. First, he announced a $230 million package to create jobs and reduce the price of commodities. This measure was followed by the dismissal of his cabinet and the appointment of a new prime minister in February.
Nevertheless, the firing and promises of “better times to come” did little to dampen the protests. Thousands of people took to the streets demanding considerable constitutional reforms that would translate into different styles of governance that would undermine corruption as well as invigorate the economy, and, on the whole, restrain monarchical powers.
Despite these requests, most Jordanians do not look to overthrow their regent family. In stark contrast to the political destitution enforced in Tunisia and Egypt, most Jordanians simply ask for reforms. But why such “lukewarm” demands? Why are there no pro-democratic protests in Jordan?
The answer is simple: If Jordan loses its king, both the Hashemite Kingdom and the Palestinian question risk losing their pertinence.
Palestinians have been flooding into Jordan since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. There are no precise statistics, but at least half – if not more – of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin. If Jordan became a democratic republic led by Palestinians, it could gradually become a sort of “new” Palestinian homeland, thus giving Israel complete control over the historic land of Palestine – an option that is rehashed by some political factions whenever there is international pressure to stop Israel’s expansionism.
However, Jordan is not Palestine. On the one hand, the argument that the majority of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin and that Jordan is therefore already the de facto homeland of the Palestinians is both hypocritical and erroneous for many “West Bankers” – the popular term given to Palestinians who settled in Jordan after 1948. On the other hand, turning Jordan into a “new” Palestine is an inadmissible option for the Jordanians who inhabited the country before the creation of Israel. For these people – commonly known as “East Bankers” – this state-swap obliterates the fact that there was already a community with its own idiosyncrasy and dialect specific to the east of Jordan before the establishment of Israel.
It is thus not surprising to learn why Jordanians are careful to ask for reforms instead of letting go of their king. Nowadays, the Hashemite crown stands as a differentiating agent that helps keep the Palestinian issue alive while also consolidating Jordan’s fragmented ethnicity and tribal rivalries into a single national entity.
In view of this scenario, it becomes all the more important to understand how ground-level platforms of civil protest are enacted in Jordan. This is so, as Jordan’s choice not to implement an insurgent mode of protest a l’Egypte may be confused with a sheer stick-in-the-mud national attitude.
THE KING AND I: STAGING DEMANDS ON STREET-THEATER
Ahmad Srour is a young Jordanian actor. According to him, Jordan is anything but stagnant. Many things, he argues, have changed since the protests began in January. He says “Jordanians are much stronger now, especially the youth. People are knowledgeable of their rights. Young people are more involved in political issues. Through these past months of protests, the young people have confirmed that a different country is possible. We will not go back to our old ways.”
Being an actor, Ahmad believes that the best way in which he can protest is through artistic means. This is why he created a street-theater group along with three other young Jordanians – Suliman Zawahreh, Amjad Hajazeen and prominent Arab scriptwriter Mofleh al-Odwan.
Their message is simple: “Things need to change.” They say Jordanians desperately need more jobs with better salaries, the execution of assertive measures against state corruption and constitutional changes that grant people more political powers.
To make their requests count, these actors take to the streets of Amman every week. Upon arrival to a square, a terrace or the middle of a busy market street, they get into character to enact short satirical performances about what they term are the “issues of the street.”
“We talk in an ironic way about the problems that we face every day. We talk about the high taxes, the educated Jordanian youth that has no job possibilities; we also talk about the diatribes between Palestinians and Jordanians, Christians and Muslims. We make a satire about everything we feel must change in Jordan,” says Ahmad.
While street-theaters are not unusual in many cities around the world, things are different in the Jordanian capital. According to Suliman: “What we do is hard. We speak about issues that no one had mentioned so publicly before. People are not used to our way of expression.”
In fact, one of the group’s members was detained three times. In time, however, things have shifted for these actors. After the last detention, an aid of the king saw their performance and, once finished, approached them. This time, however, the request was not to take the actors for interrogation. Instead – and to their surprise – the artists were summoned to perform their sketch at a state conference, this time in front of the king, the prime minister and other members of Parliament.
After some thought, the four men accepted the invitation. However, they did so under one condition: They would only perform the same script they recurrently offered to passersby in the city. After permission was granted, their theater moved from the street to the opulent ball-room of a Dead Sea resort.
“That day, everyone laughed. People accepted us. The King was laughing. He congratulated us and encouraged us to continue. People got the message. They know – and the King knows – that Jordanian youth is not naive. We know what we want for our country and we will continue to express ourselves until we get it,” Suliman says.
As expected, the performance in front of the king did not go unnoticed. After their “royal act,” the street-theater group gained popularity in Amman. Their performances made it to YouTube, their videos quickly circulated Facebook profiles, while their pictures continued to appear on the pages of Jordanian newspapers. Consequently, their street performances attracted wider audiences.
In some contexts, this boom may be deemed as nothing more than 15 minutes of fame. However, for many young Jordanians, this street-theater has become a pioneering icon of public political criticism at a time when urban staged rallies are decreasing in numbers. These artists have re-strategized the Jordanian mode of protest using wit as a tool. In a creative way, they move around the “red lines” and say – face to face with their regents – what many people think but are afraid to denounce. It is in this regard that Ahmad, Suliman, Amjad and Mofleh help to provide a novel escape valve. This is why, what started as a small satirical initiative has become a new, bigger and widely recognizable strategy of protest in Jordan.
To the undiscerning eye, things in this country may appear so calm and stable that, at times, one may struggle to recognize that one is in the Middle East. However, opposition is not dead nor is it going away. The start of the summer anticipates a “hot” season in the Hashemite Kingdom. Despite not being a Gulf state, Jordan might enter the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC). While some economical advantages might result from this move, the inclusion of Jordan – and Morocco – may also play a key role in strengthening what has been deemed to be a “Rich Kings Club.” At the same time, the first signs of violence toward Abdullah II are surfacing. After a circumspect televised speech in June, it was reported that a group of youngsters threw stones and bottles at the royal motorcade in the southern town of Tafilah. Queen Rania – the ever-absent figure during these months of unrest – is slowly re-including public appearances in her agenda. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether she will make her comeback in a more politically quiet and less glamorous fashion, or conversely stick to what some deem as pompous ways. For some Jordanians, the queen is the epitome of everything that is wrong with Jordan. She is accused by some tribal leaders of being too vocal, too involved, too vain and a money squanderer. In this light, it will not be surprising if mobs welcome her at future luncheons as well.
With this context in mind, the streetactors remain firm and optimistic. When asked about their plans, Suliman decisively replies: “We will go back to the streets. We need to show the people in the street that we should not be afraid to talk. We need to talk and act! Change will take time. Corruption and poor governance have a bad smell and it takes time for them to go away. The reforms that we as Jordanians need are not something that you ask and get immediately. They require a change of mindset from everyone; not of king. Our real revolution is of the mind.”
Juan F. Caraballo-Resto is an anthropologist specializing in the study of Muslim communities in Western Europe, the Caribbean and Jordan.