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12 May 2011

All is not well in the quiet kingdom of Jordan

If people do decide to revolt, the government could be caught unawares.

By Michael Reeve

At the University of Jordan, students sit in a campus café waiting for falafels. The waiter calls out ticket numbers.

Wahid, itnain” (“One, two” ), he shouts.

A student jumps on to a bench, raises a fist and responds in a mocking voice: “Al shab al-arabi wein?!” (“Where are the Arab peoples?”)

The room erupts in laughter and applause.

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“One, two – Where are the Arab peoples?”

This chant was used by demonstrators in Egypt to call for solidarity from their fellow Arabs. Everyone in this room knows these slogans; they have been living in the centre of the Arab spring. Al-Jazeera is the most watched channel in Jordan, and no wonder – the country is bordered by Syria, Iraq and Palestine. But could a similar revolution happen here?

Amman seems worlds away from its neighbours and an uprising could appear impossible. In downtown Cairo, the thousands of tiny, nerve-like alleyways are filled with screaming hawkers, beggars and donkeys dragging carts across the muddy ground. By contrast, in downtown Amman, shopkeepers smile as you stroll unhassled through the clean, paved streets.

Jordan is known for being safe and a little boring. People come from all around to use its excellent health-care system and enroll in its good universities, but not to party as they might in Beirut. “We have no resources to speak of and we are a small country, but we have stability. This is the reason we have been able to grow and survive,” a university professor explains.

Corruption? What corruption?

It has not always been this way. The bullet holes in the buildings downtown serve as a reminder of Jordan’s past.

The armed struggle in 1970 between the monarchy and the Palestinian militia, the so-called state within a state, led to the deaths of thousands. Since then, the king has brought “unity” to the country. This has led many to tolerate his absolute rule and to overlook corruption. Unity is precious in a country where where an estimated 50 per cent of the people are Palestinian, powerful rival tribes have violent clashes and the borders are so new that there is a “finger of Jordan” created purely to be a British flight path. However, this acquiesence is waning.

Anti-government demonstrations in March, which involved thousands of people and strikes throughout the country, expressed the growing impatience of Jordanians. “The internet has afforded young people unprecendented freedoms and there is criticism of the king, which was unheard of before. Events in other countries mean people are prepared to put up with less,” a journalist tells me.

A widening poverty gap since the economic crisis is also alienating supporters of the government. “Public-sector workers didn’t mind corruption before because everyone would still get his little piece of the pie,” says one government adviser darkly. “But now there is hardly any trickle-down – there is less to go around and people keep it for themselves.”

The king has formed a national dialogue comission to deal with unrest, but many complain it is still out of touch with the population. “The government has policies that were formed in the cold war, and they haven’t changed them since,” an executive says.

Reaction time

“In the times of state TV, the government lied to people and they were none the wiser. Now, with the internet, people have other sources and feel they are treated like fools,” says a media executive.

In March, Amnesty reported that a demonstrator had been beaten to death. The police explanation for his death was that he had spontaneously thrown himself off a building and then suffered kidney failure. Almost all newspapers faithfully printed the police account word for word.

“The more people know about what’s going in government, the angrier they get,” the media executive says.

Government officials seem slow to react to demands for change. In a large plush office, a government official ponders the recent strikes. He is surrounded by thick, swirling carpets, ornate coffee tables and leather sofas. Behind him is a glass cabinet full of awards from the king, given to his department for its good work. He shrugs. “They understand we don’t have the money.” He pauses. “It will all be fine.”

Not so for internet bloggers, who are full of anger. “Young people haven’t been included in the national dialogue committee. This is a grave mistake,” a commentator warns. In a country where 60 per cent of the population is under 25, he could be right.

So, what now? Perhaps, before the Arab spring, such greivances would have gone unresolved. The fury and frustration are there and are growing – but so, too, are the fears of instability. If people do decide to revolt, the government could be caught unawares.

The name of the author has been changed.