Story by Anthony Savvides and Hanna Trudo // Photos by Nasser Jaber*
AMMAN, Jordan – Protests in the Middle East rarely erupt without violence, but in Jordan, reformers haven’t been as quick to pick up arms. Counter to the uprisings in neighboring countries, Jordan’s protests related to political reform have produced relatively low death counts and almost no hand-to-hand combat between agitators and police.
While things could still turn violent here, experts believe that the relative peace is due to the country’s collective support of King Abdullah II – the leader who continues to remain popular with the majority of 6 million Jordanians.
“[King Abdullah] has a manhood, and the people here love him. He has popularity,” said Shorouq AlShawabkeh, a 22-year-old native Ammani studying civil engineering at the University of Jordan. “Some leaders are just loved by the people. People are influenced by him.”
In Egypt, more than 846 people have died in protests since the revolution there began in January. Syria’s deaths have totaled roughly 453, followed by more than 300 in Libya and 219 in Tunisia. Jordan, a strategic location sharing a border with Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon, has reported deaths that only total in the low double digits.
In Jordan, protests generally fall into two categories: those that reflect Jordanians’ call for political reform and an end to corruption in the king’s court, and; those that call for the Palestinians to recover their homeland, what is now known as the West Bank.
“There is a difference between Palestinians and Jordanians here in Jordan. The Palestinians have a different mentality, because Jordanians feel like Palestinians are here as guests. When they want to change the government, they’re all together. When they protest for Palestine, they stand alone,” said Adnan Kavazouic, a 20-year-old Bosnian student who has lived in Amman for two years while studying Arabic and Shariah Law.
March 24 was the first protest in the Hashemite Kingdom to result in violence, after which local hospitals reported treating at least 50 injured demonstrators. About 2,000 people gathered in Dakhiliyah Circle – a heavily trafficked area near the Fourth Circle in downtown Amman – to speak out publicly against the government and to demand that changes be made. The demonstrators gathered at the overnight sit-in to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit and a new election law to provide the democratic process it promises. The collapsing economy and increasing unemployment were also catalysts for the unrest.
Though March 24 was a Thursday, on nearly every Friday since, hundreds of demonstrators have gathered in various cities throughout Jordan to push pro-reform sentiments. Friday is the holiest day of the week for Muslims and businesses are closed, so people have had the opportunity to stage protests. Supporters usually begin after they finish mid-day prayers, pouring into the streets together and organizing in key districts and squares across the country.
“We [Jordanians] are the happiest people in the Middle East region. There is no need for violence. We need to be one against corruption in our country. Protesters will protest against the prime minister and corruption within the government, but not the king. It is a crime to protest our king,” said Yazeed Abbadi, a 19-year-old from Salt, Jordan, who is studying English literature at the University of Jordan. “Corruption is like a bomb, it will destroy any system no matter how strong it is. [The people] want those responsible to do their jobs properly, without corruption – to live by the laws.”
Most acknowledge, however, that youth groups of independents and pro-democracy advocates, along with the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, known politically and openly as the Islamic Action Front (IAF), make up the masses that have poured out during Friday protests.
“There’s always a demand from the Jordanian people that they need a political reform,” said Raed Al-Tabini, academic director of the School for International Training (SIT), based in Amman. “Lots of Jordanians say [to the government], ‘Wait, you can’t do this, our country wants peace.’”
The regime shifts throughout the Middle East have set the tone for the kind of change that’s possible through protest. In Egypt, protesters resorted to looting, arson and rage on the streets of Cairo. These types of riots resulted in longstanding leaders stepping down, like Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years as president, the dissolution of his government and the implementation of martial law.
Jordanians have handled their dismay differently. Instead of resorting to unrest in the streets, they have had sit-ins and non-violent demonstrations. King Abdullah II has responded on behalf of the people by implementing changes, such as shifting governmental personnel, namely the prime minister.
“In Syria, Libya and Egypt, the rulers were waiting for something bigger and bigger to happen. The next day after protests began [in Jordan], the king called together his minsters to make changes, unlike that crazy guy, Gaddhafi,” said Kavazouic. “I went to an early protest at the end of February, [on campus] in Burge, and it was peaceful. We were in support of the Libyans against Gaddhafi.”
During last Friday’s protest, police officials handed out bottled water and escorted women and children to safety.
Ghifar Alem, a 23-year-old student studying animation at Princess Sumaya University for Technology, spoke to friends about the demonstration May 15 near the Kaloudi Mosque – a commemoration of the Nakbeh, or Palestinian catastrophe. One friend said though the demonstration was peaceful, the police’s reaction, this time, was not.
“They were singing an anthem and cheering for Jordan, and for their right to go back to Palestine,” he said. “They were in a peaceful march, but the police shot teargas at them to stop marching.” Police also instructed buses go back to Amman without taking any protesters, in effect punishing the people and leaving them abandoned in Karama, 40 miles from Amman.
“The protesters and police are saying two different things,” Alem said. “The police are saying that Jordanians are attacking policemen and throwing rocks at them. The people I know down there said they went into a peaceful march and didn’t throw anything, and [they] were united with the Palestinians.”
Despite mixed reports, Jordanians agree that more changes are necessary and reform is imminent.
“[The king] knows life here is difficult. There’s a shortage of resources,” said Abbadi. “He has to [make changes.] If not, he doesn’t deserve to be our king.”
*Nasser Jaber is a Palestinian Jordanian who currently lives in New York City. He was present for the Ramallah protests on May 15. He agreed to share his photos with Northeastern University journalists working for two weeks in Amman as foreign correspondents.