Under Cover of Pandemic, Jordan Cracks Down on Dissent

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 58-59

Waging Peace

For Jordan, 2020 has been a year of protests. In January, Jordanians took to the streets protesting their country’s contract with Israel to provide natural gas to the kingdom. Donald Trump’s proposed “deal of the century” Middle East peace plan for Palestinians and Israelis also drew protesters in Amman, as did Israel’s plans to annex much of the West Bank.

On Aug. 5, the day after demonstrators in Jordan’s southern city of Karak were dispersed by Jordanian security forces using tear gas for protesting the shutdown of the teachers union, Washington, DC’s Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted a webinar on the country’s crackdown on dissent amid its response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Since COVID-19 started there have been restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly,” said Sara Kayyali, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It exacerbates a trend that has existed in Jordan long before the pandemic. But the pandemic has given public health cover to Jordanian authorities to enable them to crack down in a much harsher manner on the opposition.”

Jordan has been under a state of emergency since March 17, which grants the prime minister sweeping powers to curtail basic rights. “What we have seen since then is that the Jordanian authorities have actually used the law to crack down on freedom of speech or any form of dissent, including insulting the queen or king, and on independent unions, which we have seen with the teachers union,” she added. 

Jordanian authorities closed the teachers union on July 25 and arrested 13 of its members. “The closure of such a union can only be done through a judicial order and we have not seen a judicial order,” Kayyali explained. “The teachers union is one of the only independent associations which Jordan has left....The way that the Jordanian authorities dealt with it—the arrests, the show of power, the use of the defense law to arrest protesters in the days that followed...is actually a very concerning show of how low the government’s tolerance has become for any kind of dissent.”

Laith al-Ajlouni, a Jordanian political economist and non-resident scholar at MEI, discussed the economic impact of the pandemic. “The Jordanian economy has been facing many challenges in the past ten years,” he stated. “Starting with the war in Iraq, the global financial crisis and the regional turbulence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring…all of these factors led to a complicated social and economic situation in Jordan and a financial problem for the government.”

By the end of 2019, the overall unemployment rate in Jordan reached 19 percent; youth unemployment was 40 percent.

Journalist, author and human rights activist Rana Husseini focused on the future of cyber protests.

The recent protest for women’s rights following the murder of a woman by her father “showed that people can organize themselves even if they do not know each other,” Husseini pointed out. “But we have noticed in the past three or four years that whenever there are protests there is a decline in the Internet service and delays in uploading videos. We noticed that Facebook became very slow.”

Drawing some 1,000 participants, the protest of the so-called honor killing “is a warning sign for the government that people can use social media and take to the streets,” Husseini said. “It is important to raise awareness about violence against women.”

Elaine Pasquini

 

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