Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011, the Jordanian government has rarely been in the spotlight. This past week’s events have been a game-changer for Jordan, which suddenly finds itself the center of international attention, though the closely controlled government messaging has provided very few answers. Many of us were shocked on Saturday to hear the news of arrests linked to an alleged coup in Jordan and Prince Hamzah bin Hussein’s rumored house arrest. It did not make much sense until the Prince released a video message in response, stating in very clear terms that he had received a surprise visit to his home by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Jordanian Armed Forces telling him to stop participating in meetings with fellow Jordanians in which criticisms of the government or King were voiced. This threat, an audio of which has since been released, had prompted Prince Hamzah’s leaked video statement, as the government worked to take him offline and silence him:
I am not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, the corruption and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years and has been getting worse… And I am not responsible for the lack of faith people have in their institutions… It has reached a point where no one is able to speak or express opinion on anything without being bullied, arrested, harassed, and threatened.
The subsequent disappearance of Prince Hamzah from the public eye and the gag order on media coverage of his audio and video recordings have only fueled more confusion and rumors. But while many details of recent events remain opaque, the root causes are clear: the government’s refusal to address longstanding popular demands for reform.
Mass demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 called for an end to corruption and for reforms to improve economic and political freedom. Protests have continued steadily over the past decade, taking place even last month amidst the deadly pandemic. The original demands of 2011 and 2012—a curb on rampant corruption, the creation of jobs, an end to regressive taxes and subsidy cuts, and more representative government—have continued to echo through the streets with no real reform initiated in response. In recent years, protestors and activists have faced harsh crackdowns and prison sentences for exercising free speech and for the crime of naming the government’s own failures. This is the sad reality that is, and has been for some time, under gag order in Jordan.
Since its founding, Jordan has always played an important regional role, absorbing refugee waves from neighboring Palestinian Territories, Iraq, and more recently Syria; and forging early and strategic partnerships with Israel and the United States. As a result, and to the detriment of the Jordanian people, the ruling elite have felt protected and insulated from any real pressure for meaningful reform. Instead, the majority of the Jordanian citizenry—the have-nots—have paid a heavy price for their nation’s strategic importance: an uncertain future and the inability to provide even the most basic essentials for their own families.
Over the past decade, however, we have also seen the resilience of the Jordanian people. The traditional divisions of urban versus rural and West Bank versus East Bank that long plagued Jordanian political movements have given way to newer generations with diverse opinions and voices. Calls for change are less constrained by old divisions and more unified in their frustration with the country’s sharp economic decline, unchecked levels of corruption, and increasingly draconian rule. The exploding national debt, dangerous GDP-to-debt ratio, and spiking levels of unemployment, coupled with an unchecked increase in cost of living, affect all Jordanians.
The three most recent parliamentary elections, in 2013, 2016, and 2020, saw a progressive decrease in turnout, all with the same state-controlled results that preserve the status quo. In 2020, remote and early voting were not allowed, driving participation even lower due to the dangers of in-person voting during a pandemic. Jordanian parliamentary elections rarely provide much excitement or enthusiasm. This is a result of years of extreme gerrymandering and electoral law manipulation, perfected to ensure an amicable parliament whose main role is to dole out patronage to loyal constituents and to engage in only limited law-making.
In 2016, a revised association law was proposed that would allow the government extensive rights and powers to regulate the flow of foreign funding to registered civil society organizations, dissolve organizations on vague grounds, and implement other restrictive measures in breach of international law to limit civil society activism. While these amendments have not yet been passed into law, the trend toward increased government control and less civic engagement and activism is undeniable.
In 2019, the Jordanian government arrested more than 30 activists for a variety of charges related to criticizing the government. In the same year, the teachers’ syndicate organized major strikes and protests, demanding an increase in wages previously promised by the government but never delivered. The government shut the protests down with force, arresting the syndicate’s leadership and disbanding the union and its activities. Although a deal was supposedly reached in late 2019, it was not honored, and in 2020 new protests erupted with teachers again calling for the government to keep its word.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the Jordanian economy and population and continues to do so. While the government has used the extent of its powers to limit citizen movement and activity, the level of illness and death remains widespread and underreported thanks to government mismanagement and strict media censorship. The most recent tragedy, caused by insufficient oxygen supplies in a hospital in the city of Salt last month, resulted in the death of more than seven people, with unofficial reporting putting the number as high as twenty. The incident sparked a national outcry and resulted in Prince Hamzah personally visiting the families of victims, showing sympathy and support for accountability for the unnecessary loss of life.
Indeed, since 2011, there have been seven prime ministers, while economic statistics, human rights assessments, and international rankings of Jordan have remained negative or have even declined. In a 2019 Arab Barometer report, 89 percent of all Jordanians polled said that “corruption is found within state institutions to a large or medium extent.” Freedom House’s 2021 “Freedom in the World” report changed Jordan’s ranking from “Partly Free” to “Not Free.” The 2020 U.S. Department of State Human Rights Report, recently released, summarizes its Jordan findings as follows:
Significant human rights issues included: cases of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of activists and journalists; infringements on citizens’ privacy rights; serious restrictions on free expression and the press, including criminalization of libel, censorship, and internet site blocking; substantial restrictions on freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly; serious incidents of official corruption…. Impunity remained widespread, although the government took some limited steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses. Information on the outcomes of these actions was not publicly available for all cases.
It is clear that Prince Hamzah’s recent public statements highlighting these very issues plaguing Jordanian society have struck a deep and sensitive nerve among the ruling elite. Not only has the government worked to silence its own citizenry from expressing its discontent, but now a prominent member of the ruling family and former crown prince is echoing the people’s sentiment. As the eldest son of Queen Noor and the late and beloved King Hussein, Prince Hamzah is a powerful messenger with an unmatched platform. But while international allies of Jordan respond to recent events by expressing solidarity and complete support for King Abdullah II, it is important to not lose sight of the very real issues raised by Prince Hamzah and by the many Jordanians he echoes. We have seen this story play out before, and citizens’ grievances do not disappear overnight with a gag order.
The United States, in particular, has a responsibility to press its longstanding close partner to address the demands of its citizens. Jordan has great support in Congress: as the second-largest recipient of bilateral economic and military aid, the government receives more than $1 billion in foreign aid annually. The United States has provided economic aid to Jordan since 1951 and is unlikely to stop its support. With such a deep financial investment, the events of this past week and the protests of the past decade should at least spur Jordan’s supporters in Washington to consider how the United States can incentivize reforms to address the root of Jordan’s perennial problems. So far, the Biden administration’s messaging to Jordan following last weekend’s events indicates that the longstanding and unfortunate U.S. reluctance to publicly press the King on reform continues. The readout of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call to the King yesterday included only staunch praise for the monarch and not even the slightest hint of concern about Jordanians’ legitimate demands and the growing dissent under his rule. Pressing the Jordanian state to undertake real reforms to address the needs of its people will not put the United States in disfavor with Jordanians, but rather the opposite. The Biden administration has declared in strong terms that democracy and human rights will be a top priority in its foreign policy—Jordan is now a perfect opportunity to back up that rhetoric with action.
Photo Credit: Yusef Al-Alan / Archives of the Royal Hashemite Court