By Matthew BellFor the last seven weeks, demonstrators in the capital of Jordan have taken to the streets after Friday prayers. The protests have been peaceful, with none of the kind of scenes of mayhem and police action that have taken place elsewhere in the Arab world. But today, things got violent.
As usual, the protests got under way outside the Grand Husseini Mosque in downtown Amman. Hundreds of people joined the demonstration. They carried signs. They called for lower food prices and democratic reforms. Some demonstrators also denounced Jordan’s new prime minister and its cabinet.
But large crowds of pro-government demonstrators also showed up. They had their own signs – including a huge portrait of Jordan’s King – and they chanted different slogans.
“Jordan is for us,” they called, and “Abu Hussein is our leader.” That’s a reference to Jordan’s all-powerful King Abdullah.
These demonstrators also chanted, “with our spirit, with our blood, we sacrifice our life for you,” the king.
At one point, about two dozen pro-government men — armed with sticks and clubs — charged into a crowd of anti-government demonstrators.
The street fight didn’t last long. Most of the anti-government protestors ran away quickly. But it could have been very ugly. The armed men were not playing games.
Meanwhile, unarmed police officers in uniform strolled through the area talking on mobile phones.
A total of eight people were reportedly injured in today’s protests in Amman.
Protestors calling for reforms in Jordan are a diverse group and they haven’t often worked together. They’re a mix of students, leftists, workers, Bedouin tribes and Islamists. And they have a variety of demands.
There are calls for a new election law, for more freedom to assemble, and the right to establish a teachers’ union. Some want government pay raises and more land rights. There have been calls to end Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel and to launch a serious anti-corruption campaign.
Jordan’s new minister of information is Taher Al-Odwan. In an interview with The World yesterday, he said the government is taking calls for reform seriously.
“This new government is with the people,” Odwan said. “We are trying to implement many of the reforms they are calling for.”
Odwan said he himself is a sign of change. “I was a newspaper editor for 14 years before I took this job a week ago,” he said. “I opposed many government policies in print. Now, I’m working for reform.”
But political analyst Oraib al-Rantawi said Jordanians have heard lots of promises from their government before. Now, it’s time “to go ahead with the main topic in this process, not to keep hanging around, talking about administrative reform, economic reform, educational reform.”
“At the end of the day, we have no reforms,” he said. “But they keep waiting and keep searching for justification to delay and to postpone the whole process. Enough.”
Rantawi said the wave of unrest that began in Tunisia and Egypt and continues to roll through the Arab world will not be stopped without real reform.
But there is a big difference between Egypt and Tunisia, when compared to the Kingdom of Jordan. It has to do with divisions in Jordanian society.
Jordan is a nation of many sub-identities, said Adnan Abu Odeh, a former political advisor to King Abdullah and his late father, King Hussein. Odeh said there are Palestinians and Bedouins, Muslims and Christians, Circassians and Chechens.
“The country lacks cohesiveness in that sense and the king in this case is looked upon as an umbrella that can cover all these sub-identities and become a rallying or unifying force.”
That’s why, Odeh said, Jordanians are not calling for regime change – as protestors in Egypt were. What they want is reform.
But that does not mean things won’t get dangerous here in Jordan. People tend to want reforms to come much sooner than autocratic governments are willing to tolerate.