Parallels
3:54 pm
Mon July 1, 2013

In A Rough Neighborhood, Jordan Clings To Its Stability

Originally published on Tue July 2, 2013 2:19 am

Across the turbulent Middle East, Arab revolts have toppled dictators and strongmen. Jordan remains stable for now but the pressure is mounting.

The Syrian war rages right next door, sending a flood of refugees across the border that has strained every resource in the kingdom.

Jordan shares the region's troubles: a faltering economy; rampant unemployment, especially among the young; and a popular demand for a say in how the country is governed.

"Jordan is stable, but you feel what is so unstable," says Labib Kamhawi, describing the contradictions. He is the head of the National Front for Reform, a coalition of political groups and civil society organizations. "The decision-making process is without any input from the people."

Protests Fade, Grievances Persist

Jordan didn't escape Arab Spring protests. When it started in January 2011, demonstrators had some of the same demands as Syria's protest movement next door. But Jordan was different. Protesters stopped short of calling for the downfall of King Abdullah, the boyish-looking monarch educated in the U.S. and Britain.

And Jordan's security service was relatively restrained, handing out cold water and juice to protesters in a region where riot police regularly use clubs and guns to crush dissent.

"Violence and blood spilling in the region led to catastrophes," observes Ali Shukri, a retired general and former adviser at the royal palace.

The protest movement is smaller now, but the grievances have not gone away.

High-level corruption is the biggest complaint, says Kamhawi. In the latest scandal, a relative of the king fled to London after a parliamentary investigation into corruption charges. He is just one more official skimming millions, complains Kamhawi, as Jordan survives on foreign aid.

"People feel that this country is taken for a ride by a small group of people," Kamhawi says, and the economic ride for Jordanians is increasingly bumpy.

Jordanians want a bigger say in how the country is run, says Kamhawi. There are elections, but the king can dissolve Parliament and can hire and fire the prime minister.

The king has fired five prime ministers in the past three years. The government recently announced a dramatic rise in electricity prices, which could spark large protests again. But Jordan's political opposition remains fragmented, says Kamhawi.

"There is no alternative to the king and the monarchy," he says.

Flow Of Refugees Pressures System

Stability trumps concerns over the economy these days. The tensions are clear in Mafraq, a dusty town 40 miles from the Syrian border.

"We can hear daily, from midnight to 3 a.m., the constant barrage of bombings," says Amer al-Dughmi, who heads the tax office in Mafraq. "We even see the lights and the flashes from those explosions."

Mafraq lives with Syria's war every day, swamped by rebels and refugees.

The population there has more than doubled. As the town filled with Syrians, some Jordanians rented out their chicken coops and rooftops to refugees. International aid agencies picked up the inflated tab, complains the tax collector, driving prices out of reach for the locals.

"You basically now have a total breakdown of the economic model that we had before," he says.

Local marriages have been delayed because newlyweds can't find affordable housing. Refugees work longer hours for lower wages than the local residents.

Merchants complain that refugees hurt local business by selling food and tents they get for free from international aid workers. Jordanians are convinced Syrians have crowded them out of the local hospital as the caseload has more than tripled in two years.

At the local hospital, the administrator, Dr. Samir al-Mashakbey, points out that Jordan is one of the most "water poor" countries in the world. Jordanians are now complaining loudly, he says, because of the pressure on the system.

Syria 'A Gift In Disguise' For Abdullah

Still, Jordanians are grateful that they have not suffered from the violence they see in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Many Jordanians are now more hesitant to knock the Jordanian monarchy, says Ramzy Mardini, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.

"I think Syria has been a gift in disguise for King Abdullah," he says.

Mardini, based in Jordan, says regional violence and chaos have taken the steam out of Jordan's protest movement.

"Do they want stability or democracy? It's made that choice very clear," he says. "I think it's actually made Abdullah more secure in his position rather than less secure."

On billboards across Jordan, Abdullah's face beams down on his subjects. He is often pictured with his father, King Hussein, and his teenage son, a message of continuity in a chaotic time.

At a dinner party in an upscale neighborhood in the hills outside Amman, the guests say that at least Jordan is safe.

Naser Tahboub is the host for the meal. A professor, he is a member of the faculty at Jordan University's School of International Studies. The guests include some of his students, and his niece, May Tahboub, an architectural engineer.

The discussion is all politics: Should Jordan intervene in Syria? The overwhelming consensus is to stay out. Then the discussion turns to Jordan's protest movement and demands for wider democracy.

"It is definitely the case that the mood in Jordan has changed," declares Tahboub, the political science professor. His voice rises as he argues that Jordanians have lost confidence in a movement, he believes, that wants too much too soon.

"Are those who are on the extreme, demonstrating, some of them at least, can they deliver, can they do a better job?" he asks his students. "There is a great deal of skepticism."

Niece May speaks for a younger generation. She asks if Jordan can be stable, really safe, as long as Jordanians have no say in how the country is governed. But the threat from Syria and across other borders has changed even her calculations.

"We backed up, not because we are against striking or talking out loud," she says. "We don't know what to do."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the turbulent Middle East, the kingdom of Jordan remains stable for now, but pressure is mounting. Arab revolts have toppled dictators. The Syrian war rages right next door, a wave of refugees has strained every resource in Jordan. The U.S has stepped up support, including recent loan guarantees of more than a billion dollars. Also, a patriot missile battery and U.S. squadron of fighter jets are now based in the kingdom. NPR's Deborah Amos sent this story on the questions of how stable Jordan is and how stable it can remain.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Jordan didn't escape Arab Spring protests. When it started here in the capital Amman, demonstrators had some of the same demands as Syria's protest movement next door. But Jordan was different. Protesters stopped short of calling for the downfall of King Abdullah, the boyish-looking monarch here educated in the U.S. and Britain.

ALI SHUKRI: Violence and blood spilling in the region led to catastrophes.

AMOS: But not in Jordan. Retired General Ali Shukri, a former adviser at the royal palace, says for the most part, the security police didn't break up protests with clubs or guns.

SHUKRI: It was hot weather and they gave them water, they gave them some juices, whatever. And that was a very loud message to the protesters from the security forces in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

AMOS: The protesters, smaller now, the grievances haven't gone away. High-level corruption is the biggest complaint, says Labib Kamhawi, the head of the National Front for Reform, a coalition of political groups. The latest scandal: A relative of the king fled to London following corruption charges. He is just one more official skimming millions, complains Kamhawi, while Jordan survives on foreign aid.

LABIB KAMHAWI: And people feel that this country is taken for a ride by a small group of people who basically fill the rank and file of the royal court and some of the government employees.

AMOS: The economic ride for Jordanians is increasingly bumpy, he says, and they want a bigger say in how the country is run. There are elections here, but the king can dissolve parliament. He can hire and fire the prime minister, and he's done it five times in three years. The kingdom is quiet for now. But the government recently announced a dramatic rise in electricity prices. And Kamhawi says that could spark large protests again.

KAMHAWI: Yes, there will be because people are not able to make ends meet.

AMOS: But concerns over the economy are trumped by fears over security. The Syrian war is right next door. You can feel the tension here in Mafraq, a dusty northern town near the border. Spill of over violence and radical Islamists are high on the danger list. The collapse of Syria could pose a bigger a threat.

AMER AL-DUGHMI: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: This is the tax collector in Mafraq, Amer al-Dughmi. When we stopped by his office, he explained his town lives with Syria's war every day swamped by rebels and refugees.

AL-DUGHMI: (Through Translator) Look, we are approximately 40 miles away from the border. So we here, daily, from 12 midnight until 3 a.m., constant barrage of bombings. And we even see the lights and the flashes from these explosions.

AMOS: Syrian's fleeing the explosions have more than doubled the population. As the town filled up, some Jordanians rented their chicken coops and rooftops to refugees. International aid agencies picked up the inflated tab, says the tax collector. The high rents for every available space has driven prices out of reach for the locals.

AL-DUGHMI: (Through Translator) You basically now have a total breakdown of the economic model that we had before. And this, alongside the increasing unemployment and the increasing prices, is leading to some major problems.

AMOS: Merchants at this market complained produce prices have dropped as refugees sell free food they get from aid agencies. Jordanians are convinced Syrians have crowded them out of the local hospital. At the emergency room, Dr. Mohammed says rebels cross the border for emergency care.

DR. MOHAMMED: At the night, maybe eight patients, gunshots.

AMOS: The hospital administrator, Dr. Samir al-Mashakbey, says with all the refugees, the case load has tripled in two years.

Do you hear Jordanians now complaining about Syrians two years in?

DR. SAMIR AL-MASHAKBEY: (Through Translator) Certainly. You're talking about lots of pressure on the system. In the city, we are talking about an influx of 110,000 Syrians.

AMOS: Still, Jordanians are grateful about one thing: So far the war hasn't spilled over the border. As they look around the region, they see violence in Syria. Across the border with Iraq, a growing death count. In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, chaotic experiments in political Islam. Many Jordanians are now more hesitant to knock the Jordanian monarchy.

RAMZY MARDINI: I think Syria has been a gift in disguise for King Abdullah.

AMOS: That's Ramzy Mardini, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation. He's based in Jordan. He's watched as regional troubles have taken the steam out of the protest movement here.

MARDINI: What do they want out of the protests? Do they want stability or democracy? It's made that choice very, very clear. I think it's actually made King Abdullah more secure in his position rather than less secure.

AMOS: Ask the guests at this dinner party outside the capital, Amman, and they'll tell you: In Jordan, at least we are safe.

NASER TAHBOUB: My name is Naser Tahboub. I am a member of the faculty of the School of International Studies at Jordan University.

AMOS: Tahboub invited some of his students and his niece, May. She's an engineer. The discussion is all politics. Should Jordan intervene in Syria? The overwhelming consensus is to stay out. Then the talk turns to Jordan's protest movement and the demands for wider democracy.

TAHBOUB: It is definitely the case that the mood in Jordan has changed.

AMOS: The professor says Jordanians have lost confidence in a movement that wants too much too soon.

TAHBOUB: Are those who are on the extreme, demonstrating, some of them at least, can they deliver? Can they do a better job? And I can tell you, there is a great deal of skepticism.

AMOS: But his niece, May Tahboub, defends a movement that represent the aspirations of a younger generation. Is Jordan really safe? Are we stable, she asks, when we have no say in how we are governed? But the threats from Syria and across other borders has changed even her calculations.

MAY TAHBOUB: We backed up not because we are against striking or talking out loud. We don't know what to do.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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