With more than 60 percent of Jordan’s population under the age of 30 and unemployment among this cohort around 50 percent, creating opportunity for youth should be one of the Jordanian government’s most urgent priorities. While the regime does have a national youth agenda and has promised to reform its political system, Jordanians have seen many commissions, committees, and national reform acts enacted with little to no improvement in their day-to-day lives. Instead of addressing youth demands, the government has mostly attempted to silence them, including through new restrictions on speech and assembly. Yet despite a clear disconnect between the regime and the country’s booming youth population, Jordan’s strategic relationships and regional importance continue to win it unmatched financial support from the international community. And as a result, the government has felt little urgency or pressure to undertake real reform or respond to the legitimate demands of its youth. With trust between the youth and the regime low and the perception of corruption high, however, remaining complacent carries grave risks for the country’s stability.
Unemployment is the most pressing crisis for youth in Jordan. Only one in two Jordanians under 30 has a job, and the cost of living continues to rise. While the COVID-19 pandemic took a significant toll on the Jordanian economy and population, the economy was already struggling before this health crisis hit: Pre-pandemic unemployment was estimated at nearly 30 percent and as high as 75 percent for female youth. In three public opinion surveys conducted by the Arab Barometer in Jordan between September 2020 and March 2021, a plurality of Jordanians described the economy as the biggest challenge facing their country. “Economic optimism is scant, particularly among the youth,” the Arab Barometer found, adding that the economic crisis was “leading many to consider migration despite global travel restrictions.”
The years since 2016 have also witnessed a significant increase in drug use, trafficking, and possession in Jordan’s socially conservative society. Apart from more commonplace drugs such as hashish and cocaine, a more dangerous drug called “joker” is taking hold of Jordanian youth, particularly those living in the many economically depressed areas around the country. Joker, a synthetic cannabinoid, is cheap, locally produced, and easy to make. According to a police official commenting on joker after a major drug raid in 2018, “What drug dealers do is mix tobacco products with deadly substances such as rat poison to make the illegal product.” Thanks to its increasingly widespread use, the drug has been associated with a nationwide uptick in deaths and crime.
Radicalization has also been on the rise in Jordan. There have been a handful of successful and thwarted terrorist attacks within the Jordanian borders and numerous terrorist cells broken up. Thousands of Jordanian youth have crossed into Syria and joined jihadist groups. Some were already radicalized, while others are desperate for a way to support their families.
Tragically, the rate of suicide in Jordan has also increased over the past few years amid the dire economic conditions. In 2020, the rate was the highest in 10 years and 45 percent higher than the year before, with one suicide on average every other day. After university graduates threatened earlier this year to commit mass suicide over widespread unemployment, Jordan’s parliament passed legislation criminalizing suicide and attempts to commit suicide in a public place, doubling the fine if it is a mass suicide attempt.
There are more than 6.5 million internet and social media users in Jordan, the majority of whom are youth, out of a population of roughly 11 million. Jordanians are avid social media users, and over the years have used Facebook, WhatsApp, and other platforms to share news not broadcast on state-controlled channels, jokes targeting the regime, and rumors about the myriad political and corruption scandals circulating across the country on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, authorities have worked to narrow this space for dissent. Cybercrimes Law No. 27/2015 is a popular regime tool used to control expression online. Article 11 regulates expression on online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. In April 2019, parliament introduced amendments to the law to criminalize the act of spreading “rumors” and “hate speech,” extending to the use of private messaging apps such as WhatsApp. The latest amendments define hate speech as “every writing and every speech or action intended to provoke sectarian or racial sedition, advocate for violence, or foster conflict between followers of different religions and various components of the nation.” And under the cybercrime law, Jordanians will face a criminal penalty if they are convicted of “sending or resending or disseminating information through the Internet or website or any information system that includes defamation, slander or libel against any person.” Between 2019 and 2020, the cases brought under the cybercrime law exceeded two thousand, more than double the number from the year before. In 2022, there have been more arrests under charges of “spreading false news,” including the detentions of several high-profile journalists.
The 2021 U.S. State Department report on human rights in Jordan found that “significant human rights issues persist, including serious restrictions on free expression and media, including the existence of criminal libel laws and censorship; serious restrictions on internet freedom; and substantial interference with the freedom of peaceable assembly and freedom of association.” Even the Jordanian National Center for Human Rights, a semi-governmental organization, wrote in its own recent annual report that “the detention of individuals for what they express is continuing.” Alarmingly, a recent Citizen Lab and Front Line Defenders joint report confirmed that two operators, “likely agencies of the Jordanian government,” used the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to hack the phones of at least four Jordanians, including a human rights defender, a lawyer, and a journalist.
Yet, despite all of these obstacles, there has also been an increase in youth political activism across Jordan. Loosely formed groups of youth activists, often described with the term hirak (“movement”), organize in various neighborhoods and towns across Jordan around shared issues. In 2019, a workshop looking at youth activism across the Middle East and North Africa found that youth activism does not adhere to formalized structures of organizing, such as political parties, professional associations, and civil society organizations. Noting the failure of past generations to achieve real reform, youth activists across the region reject these structures and instead depend on informal social networks and communication tools. Youth activism is expanding the political agenda and raising new issues. They rise up against unpopular state policies or existing injustices neglected by ruling elites and use innovative methods to try to influence popular opinion.
These findings ring true for Jordan, where we have seen youth movements in the past decade break the generations-old divisions of urban versus rural and West Bank versus East Bank. More and more Jordanians, especially the youth, are organizing around their shared frustrations over unchecked levels of corruption, perpetual over-education combined with underemployment, and restrictions on what they can write on social media or when they can gather. They are eager for change and not afraid to organize against the many restrictions they face. “Helplessness,” “injustice,” “anxiety,” and “indignation” are four words youth used when asked to describe their feelings toward social and political life in Jordan, recent fieldwork found. Meanwhile, the attitudes of ruling elites and public officials toward youth are dismissive. And the many initiatives launched over the years have not ever been driven by local youth demands, but rather have been top-down, buzzword-filled projects, centralized within the newly created Ministry of Youth, with little to no popular support or participation. As a result, youth have no faith in or allegiance to the elite ruling class, political parties, or government-led reform initiatives that fail to deliver. As we’ve witnessed across the region, limiting speech, association, and assembly does not silence regime critics, nor does it resolve perennial issues. High levels of unemployment and widespread disenfranchisement lead to desperation and poor choices. Cracking down on free expression and assembly creates more tension and polarization, and it results in less social and political stability. That’s why it is past time for the regime to get serious about listening to and addressing the demands of Jordan’s youth.
This piece has been adapted from the author’s presentation at the Arab Human Development, Status 2022 Challenges and Potentials conference held at the University of Southern Denmark, May 11–12, 2022.
Photo provided by the author