Jordan: the unspeakable is spoken
Jordan’s popular movement has erupted in simultaneous demonstrations across the major – and indeed, the minor – towns of the country. The immediate demand of these is the reversal of the Royal decision to remove price subsidies on essential goods such as fuel. However, the demonstrations have broken through a discursive boundary that had hitherto protected the Hashemite monarchy. While it is untrue that the ‘Arab Spring’ (a term that has gone from merely patronizing to pernicious) has passed Jordan by, the protests shied away from the slogan ‘The people demand the fall of the regime’. Until now, that is.
The protest above not only raises a previously unspeakable slogan: it is a return to the site of the previous defeat of the movement. In March 2011, after nine weeks of protests at the high-point of the initial phase of the Arab revolutions, the youth movement gathered at Duwwar Dakhiliyya were driven off by the combined force of the riot police and self-identified pro-regime ‘thugs': what Tariq Tell perceptively characterises as ‘an East Bank Phalange, ever ready to rally in defense of monarchical rule’. So far, at least, the would-be baltajiyya have not returned.There have been protests in Amman, Irbid, Mafraq, Ma”an, Tafilah, Na”ur: including clashes with the police in Irbid and the use of tear gas and road closures in Tafilah. The lawyers syndicate held a symbolic strike, while the Teachers’ Union has declared a full strike demanding the reversal of the price decision. The increasing sharpness of confrontation was heralded by the attack on the King’s motorcade by youths in Tafilah in the spring, and the harsh sentences dished out to youths who defaced a picture of King Abdullah in Madaba. Although the demand of the fall of the regime has now been raised, the hirak would have to do a lot more to make it real: but the first condition of the achievement of the demand is its articulation.
The return of the Hirak to Amman and to media consciousness may seem something of a surprise: one of the things that ‘nobody saw coming’. Abdullah is, in the templates used to understand the world by mainstream journalists, political scientists and policy types, one of the good guys. He represents the forces of liberal modernity – “secular”, accommodating to Zionism, not very good at Arabic – against the dark masses who may at any point drive Israel into the sea or get angry about a film. Who could object to him and his glamorous wife, who is always encouraging us to find the better angels of our nature, be the change we want to be, get empowered or some such guff.
The particular misunderstanding of Jordan mingles with a broader misunderstanding about of the Arab revolutions to produce the ignorance about the hirak. The now dominant view is that the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions at least were the work of middle-class, English-speaking youth -little Abdullahs and Ranias if you will – desiring only the consumer goods and liberal freedoms of Western society. Yet, being naive about the nature of the societies they inhabited, they were bound to let power fall into the hands of the spittle-flecked, wrathful and bearded. Since Jordan was most secure on its path to liberal modernity, why would the NGO activists and “tech-savvy” (this sub-Friedmanism is now standard fare in all writing on the Arab revolutions) want to overthrow the regime?
In Jordan, as in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen, the question is less one of saviness with “tech” than of consciousness of class. If you are a Western journalist looking for people who speak English in Tahrir Square, and with whom you feel comfortable speaking, you will find people who meet those preconceptions. That does not mean that even of the well-turned out English speaking youth, aspire only to liberal modernity. Some of the most fluent such people actually favour a global socialist revolution that would defeat Israel and drive out imperialism. In Jordan, even from before the Tunisian revolution, the movement was founded on economic demands – on identifiably class demands, in fact – and clashed with the state. A longer video of the Amman protest features slogans (from 8:30) calling for ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice’ and ‘Popular Revolution’.
These confrontations may be found as far back as the Aqaba port workers’ strike of 2009, which clashed with the darak riot police who have become the shock troops of neoliberalism. In the past year however, the class struggle has reached remarkable heights in the country: there were more strikes in 2011-12 than ever before. This wave of class struggle can be traced back to the day-labourer’s movement, whose most prominent figure Muhammad Al-Sunayd has also organised protests against the price rises in his native Dhiban. Both Al-Sunayd and the movement of which he is part deserve the close and empathetic attention of comradely social scientists. One friend of mine says of Al-Sunayd : ‘when I hear him talk it’s like Marx’s words are coming out’. The day labourers’ movement also relies strongly on the mobilisation of its female members: often also committed to Islamic practice and to ties of tribal kinship, which can prove useful to their struggle (I am indebted to Sara Ababneh of the Jordan Center for Strategic Studies for these insights).
The price protests also disrupt another cliche about Jordanian politics: that everything revolves around Palestinians versus ‘tribal’ East Bank Jordanians. The division is significant and long fostered by the regime: it has also been functional to the sections of the Palestinian bourgeoisie drawn close to the Hashemites. The integration of (Trans) Jordan into global capitalism involved the replacement of pastoral and agricultural tribute with external subsidy, building up a base of support for the regime in an ‘uneven and combined’ social formation. I’ve written book about that but it’s not published yet. Tariq Tell’s pieces in Jadaliyya and the debate between him and Lama Abu Odeh are good places to start for the argument. The search for external subsidy in the neo-liberal era has embedded Abdullah, as it did his father in his later years, in an apparently irresoluble contradiction. To maintain his support base he must seek external subsidy: but to gain that subsidy he must enact ‘reforms’ that impoverish that base. This is the long-term reason for the hirak‘s presence in East Bank towns once considered pro-regime bastions. It is surely a source of furrows on the Hashemite brow that the current protests are concerned with price increases, with a background of increased strike activities. The Palestinian-Jordanian division has long disabled opponents of the regime: but East Bankers and Palestinians alike have to buy food and heat their houses, and both need wages to do it with.