Story by Melissa Tabeek // Photos by Matt Kauffman
AMMAN, Jordan – Just after noon on the street in front of one of Amman’s most important mosques, more than 70 people mobbed together with raised fists and chanted their pleas for a government free of corruption.
“You thieves, where is our money?” they half-screamed, half-sang as about 150 riot control police lined up, some hand in hand, on either side of King Talal bin Abudullah Street.
It was a repeat of so many Fridays before it in the last year, a day chosen by revolutionaries to make their point because most Muslims in the Middle East stay home from work on Friday to worship and rest. And while the protest – borne from the hearts of men willing to risk their safety for a voice – was relatively peaceful, it was not the only one in this country of 6.5 million that day.
In Hay al Tafaylah, a conservative neighborhood on the eastern edge of Amman, people gathered in front of Ja’far Al-Tayyar mosque to call for election law reform. In Tafileh, a city about two hours south of Amman, people were at Tafileh Al-Kaber mosque downtown to call for the same thing. And in Karak, a province also in the south, protesters gathered in the village of Al-Mazar.
Across the country, these pockets of dissent represent a movement that has become known as the Arab Spring. Though Jordan’s protests can’t compare to what’s happened in other Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria – they continue to persist.
“[Jordanians] want to send a message that they have not forgotten about reform,” said Jawad Anani, former deputy prime minister of Jordan from 1997 to 1998 and now a private business and economic consultant. “The silent majority is not silent anymore, even if they don’t actively participate in the elections,” added Anani, who was also a minister of foreign affairs and head of the country’s peace talks with Israel from 1991 to 1993. “In this part of the world, it takes only a small minority to act as a proxy for the rest of the society,” he said.
The so-called Arab Spring began in December 2010 in Tunisia, when a street vendor set himself on fire, sparking a revolution in that country that ended with the ouster of its leader of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Since, similar movements have spread across the Arab world. Though some revolutionaries, such as those in Egypt and Libya, have been successful in toppling dictatorships, others such as the Syrians, remain embroiled in violent conflict with their government.
Here in Jordan, the protests have also resulted in arrests and outbursts of violence, though to a lesser degree. The state-influenced media does not provide a realistic view of what has been happening, but anecdotal reports suggest that the number of protesters has ranged from a few dozen to the high hundreds. The numbers are generally higher when the Islamic Action Front, or IAF, the political arm of opposition party the Muslim Brotherhood, is behind the event.
FIGHTING FOR A BETTER LIFE
Osama Al-rbeahat, 26, a border control agent for the Jordanian government, has participated in many protests over the last year and was in Hay al Tafaylah on Friday with more than 300 others to fight for electoral reform. “We ask for democracy, we want to change the government. We want the king to remove everybody in government.”
Broad-shouldered and tall, Al-rbeahat spoke with great intensity about why he was there. To him, joining in protest is akin to fighting alongside his brothers. It’s not that he wants more for himself, he said. He doesn’t want to be wealthy. He doesn’t want a larger house. He just wants to change the system so that all the people of Jordan can have a better life.
“We support the king. But the people in the government need to be gone. It’s not just about the economic situation, but the political situation,” Al-rbeahat said in an interview three hours after his protest took place.
Ibraheem Jemzawe, 25, is also a frequent demonstrator and is part of an activist organization called Youth In Amman that participates regularly in protests. He and a few others from his group were at the downtown mosque on Friday to pass out incendiary fliers to the crowd.
“I’m fighting for the 88 percent of Jordan who are poor because they can’t handle the rising prices of electricity, food and gas,” said Jemzawe, who is part of a collective of 13 different activist groups that coordinate with each other to organize throughout Jordan. “I believe in the county, and in the citizens and we should do something for all of us.”
Bader Al Madi, a professor at the University of Jordan and an instructor at the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy in Amman, said he believes that Friday’s relatively small protest is indicative of a pattern. “I don’t think they have a bright future and I don’t think they will continue in the same powerful track,” he said.
Al Madi attributed the dwindling number of protesters to a lack of organization on the part of locals. “It began with huge protests against many politicians here in Jordan. Then the people weren’t ready to continue,” he said.
AT AL-HUSSEINI MOSQUE
Before the rally started on King Talal bin Abudullah Street, hundreds of men moved in and out of the shops across from the mosque while others were beginning their ablutions, a ritual in which they wash their hands, feet, neck and face before entering their place of worship.
At 12:16 p.m., the call to prayer rang out from the minaret and hundreds if not a thousand streamed into the mosque to stand shoulder to shoulder and pray. Outside, filling the streets, men knelt in clusters on small rugs and pieces of cardboard to do the same.
Soon, a green pick-up truck with four men in back would drive toward the mosque, signaling the start. Music blared from three loudspeakers roped together where they stood as nearby, on the street, Jemzawe’s friends threw his photocopied demands into the air: “Bring our money back from the corrupt people. Raise the taxes on big companies. Bring our natural resources back.”
A crowd of about 75 quickly emerged on the street and started to chant, while shopkeepers and bystanders stopped to watch. The police, unarmed and dressed in black or navy blue uniforms, formed a ring around the men to separate them from everyone else.
Two were pulled into a police car for pushing each other. Another called for his companions to charge a government building in another part of town, but was silenced when a companion put a hand over his mouth. Another protester in a blue shirt, amid a flurry of people scuffling, was taken into a white police van while two others, apprehended earlier, were released by police back into the crowd.
The scene was noisy and chaotic, but then, as quickly as it developed, the mob, which had moved only 350 feet, began to dissolve. Police started to retreat, and shopkeepers, interest lost, went back to serving their customers.
A half hour from when the call first rose up from Al-Husseini mosque, only the white pamphlets littering the street marked what had just taken place.
Jemzawe, like the others, evacuated the scene. But he did not abandon the cause. “I am tired of the government,” said the insurance agent. “I will still protest until Jordanians have their rights back.”