Naseem Tarawnah

The Day My World Was Turned Upside Down

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Disclaimer: the following post is long. I don’t apologize for its length. However, those wishing to comment on it should at least show me and others the respect of actually reading it all before doing so. The first part is my personal eye-witness account of the events that transpired on March 25th at the Interior Ministry circle in Amman. The second part is my personal commentary on what I believe the outcome of these events will be on the Jordanian landscape

When a group of young Jordanians from various backgrounds decided to hold a sit-in at the Interior Circle on March 24, the first thought that occurred to me was that this was a recipe for disaster.

Given the security apparatus’s history with crowd control, there was no way a sit-in would be allowed outside the governorate office and so close to the Ministry of Interior. I was also filled to the brim with drawn out cliche conclusions about who these guys were and what their demands would be.

I am generally weary of most protests, demonstrations and rallies in a country like Jordan as I feel they yield little results beyond getting some minor international media coverage. But I do understand the need for them in a country like Jordan where all other effective mechanisms of accountability are closed off to the public. In other words, unless people take to the streets there is little they can do by way of holding the political apparatus of this country accountable. In other words, these demonstrations do play their role in acting as organized pressure groups, in the total absence of actual organized pressure groups.

With stereotyped conclusions on one shoulder, and a low bar of expectations on the other, I decided to pay the sit-in a visit at 1am on a Thursday night after reading several “reports” that trucks filled with rocks were being mysteriously transported to the Interior circle to arm other groups aiming to attach the March 24 shabab. Not one to buy in to conspiracies, I went. And what I saw was quite baffling.

Underneath the bridge was a fairly well-organized group of young 20-something year olds. They had their posters in Arabic and English. They had a truck with a sound system. They had low-level organizers with bullhorns who would walk around making sure their group kept to the sidewalk. They had brooms and garbage bags, and people designated the task of keeping the area clean. They had tents, food, laptops, Internet connections, digital cameras, camcorders, a live feed going, as well as a fire roaring in near-freezing weather. At the tip of the sidewalk, their members were lined up facing the circle, where across from them was another group, and in between them both were about two dozen policemen.

And so I spent the next few hours, in the middle of a cold night, listening. Listening to what each group was saying and trying to figure out where each stood, what each was there to do, and what the make up of each group was. At first, it was near impossible. Both groups were singing and playing patriotic or nationalistic songs, as a display of loyalty to the King and country, and both groups were chanting slogans that were pro-monarchy. This went on for quite a bit that to a large extent, it became a competition between two forces over whom was more patriotic and loyal to the King.

But then came the differences.

As the hours progressed the March 24 shabab began to make a few declarations of what they sought to achieve. I do not recall a single thing that they said, which the King himself has not either said in the past few weeks, let alone the past few years. At the top of their list was having an elected government under a constitutional monarchy where the King is the sovereign ruler.

At the top of their list was cutting off the interference of the security apparatus (the mukhabarat) in the lives of the average Jordanian, or more specifically, the lives of Jordanian youth, especially on campuses. This last point likely emerged due to the King having had expressed the exact same sentiment not one week ago. And so on and so forth.

Their main slogan was calling for “islah il-nitham” or, reforming the system. Why were they there? Why did they decide to have a sit-in? The general consensus seemed to be that by launching this sit-in they could put pressure on a system to carry out the reforms the King has been calling for. Perhaps having a King who admits publicly that there have been societal and political elements who acted as obstructions to reform, can have some influence over this kind of approach.

I don’t know how alive this kind of thinking was at an organizational level for the March 24 “movement”, but many of those that I spoke to that had come to the sit-in thought along those lines. The feeling that if they presented themselves publicly, that this would some how offer political capital for the King to carry out reforms amidst an apparatus that has difficulty accepting change.

This is largely what I understood from the youth that were there. I also gleaned from the gathering that a significant portion of them, and perhaps nearly the majority, were neutral. They were not associated with political parties. There were some leftists, communists, socialists, and yes, even some Islamists – but for the most part this seemed to be a group of people who represented “the other”. Many of those I spoke to came only because they did not feel represented by other mainstream political parties, and saw March 24 as an alternative they could get on board with. The fact that the movement had “banned” any other flag other than the Jordanian flag to be raised, seemed to appeal to some of them, and the fact that there were also tribes and families involved, was another appeal factor (a large banner featuring the King could be seen hung from the bridge above them, donated by an Abbadi, a known Jordanian tribe).

Again, this is what I gleaned from the people that were there. Most of the organizers were unknown individuals and some were from university youth groups and/or students councils, et cetera, so there’s really no history to go on. This may have been what helped create an “Islamist” propaganda around them, but in my book, they were anything but Islamists.

The other group is a bit easier to define. What to call them was problematic. In many circles they have been commonly referred to (by myself included) as “loyalists” – people who strictly backed the King and were interested in very little beyond that. I discovered that it was problematic to call them “loyalists” as it was a label that actually helped them achieve their goal of categorizing everyone else as being disloyal.

They later on began to call themselves, specifically in their chants and to each other, as “Baltajeyeh”. For those who are unaware of the term, it is quite a foreign word for Jordan, and was used widely to describe the paid-by-mubarak crowd that sought to disrupt the activities in Tahrir square last month. In Jordan, its equivalent is “zu’ran” or, just plainly, trouble-makers. The word itself carries great negative connotations. However, when this crowd began to refer to itself as such, well, who are we to argue?

While reporting on these events via Twitter, I used the word to describe them as such quite often, and in retrospect, despite it being the easiest word and/or label to use when typing on a phone in 140 characters, cold weather and relative chaos, it was a mistake on my part. I generally despise labels, but discovered the need for them when reporting, otherwise people consuming the information don’t know which group you are talking about. And this was an even more difficult task when describing two groups that have a great deal in common. It was not black and white.

That said, I really didn’t like the word, despite their usage of it, specifically because of its negative connotations. Thus the best term perhaps to describe them was not related to their actions but rather their thinking, which was quite clearly anti-reform. Others who were not there might differ on this, but to anyone who was there, to anyone who interacted with them, to anyone who listened to what they were saying, it was quite clear, they were against any type of reform in the country, and specifically any reform being called out by the March 24 crowd. I should also state that during the Friday events, the March 24 organizers on the speakers consistently used the word baltajeyeh, which I think was a mistake on their part, especially for a group that was calling for national unity in the same breath. These words matter.

Unfortunate labels aside, this group was there for one reason and one reason only: to disrupt. Every action they took and every chant they chanted was intended to antagonize and disrupt. No more, and no less. They called the March 24 crowd “Shia! Shia! Shia!” and chanted curses in unison (you can see video of that here). During the Fajir (morning) prayers, they brought large speakers from a minivan, put them on the street, and blared patriotic songs to disrupt the call to prayers, and any of the youth that were starting to pray. That was quite shocking for me, as anyone who has grown up here knows that it is considered a cultural and societal taboo to play music during the athan.

During this night, every now and then, one of the anti-reformists would make an attempt to charge the crowd with a stick in hand, but was moved back by the police, and this would elicit a positive response from the March 24 people who were holding the line, and usually applauded or cheered the police.

On Friday, the crowds grew larger. The police had set up barricades along the triangular part of the duwar, where the March 24 crowd was based, and so they were naturally allowed to branch out, but none of them crossed on to the path between the sidewalk and the roundabout, i.e. the asphalt where typically a car would drive around the circle. The March 24 organizers had their people hold the sidewalk line with a human chain, which was complemented this time with another human chain of police that were there to protect them. On the other side, on the roundabout itself, the anti-reformists grew in numbers and were cut off by the police.

Things began to turn ugly largely after the Friday prayers. Numbers on both sides grew (the March 24 crowd more), and as did the police, who I personally think did their best in protecting the March 24 demonstrators as per their orders. At first, the rock throwing was minimal. It was usually a young guy from behind the crowd casting the casual stone. This would cause a bit of panic amongst the March 24 crowd, that would try and move back, expecting more to come.

The anti-reformists did not bring rocks with them in trucks as had been reported. They were getting them from the ground they occupied, as the duwar itself is full of rocks and dirt where trees are usually planted. On the other side of the street, where the March 24 people resided, there was nothing but sidewalk and concrete, i.e. no access to rocks other than what had been thrown at them. This was quite obvious to anyone familiar with the area.

With time, the amount of rocks being thrown increased, and the March 24 crowd propped up their tents and raised prayer mats tied to two sticks, as shields from the rocks. When the crowd was showered with rocks, both the demonstrators and police would quickly stumble behind the tents before reforming the line. This went on for quite a while until the rock throwing got out of hand and even some police were getting hurt.

This seemed to encourage the police force in the middle to push back the anti-reformists and even scatter some of them to some extent. No one was being arrested, which seemed to confuse and baffle some of the people watching this all from the sidelines. They would chase a rock-thrower from one side, and he would simply run to the other side of the circle. And for a while you could see sudden running and movement of the crowd from one side, and then the other. Some of the rock-throwers went atop the bridge and cast large stones, which I assume they broke off from the concrete, and cast them down to the crowd, hitting mostly the police, who quickly closed off the bridge.

For the most part, the March 24 tried to maintain and contain their own crowd, chanting “silmeyeh” or “peaceful (protest)” in response to the rock throwing. At other times, things got bad, and on some occasions an anti-reformist would manage to break through and approach the barricade, which inspired some in the March 24 crowd to venture beyond the line and enter a scuffle. This was rare, and I only saw it happen on two occasions, and elicited a very quick response from the police.

At this point the March 24 crowd was quite large and diverse. There were even women there with their children, some who occupied the back and some who mingled normally with the crowd. At this point, there was a sense of full faith in the police that they were there to protect them, and the crowd constantly cheered them on. On the other side, the anti-reformists seemed to be having a tough time with the police, and while they did not turn against them (despite the rock throwing which I don’t think was aimed at them to begin with), they gave regular warnings or threats that if the police did not remove the March 24 crowd, they would.

I am not sure how things spiraled out of control, but from my point of view, having retreated to the neutral area outside the governorate office, I saw two things that contributed to what was about to happen. The first were a series of cars that seemed to be carrying anti-reformists. During the early morning period, these cars were permitted to enter the circle and circle around honking horns and unloading anti-reformists. I use he word “permitted” because all access to the duwar had been cut off by police and the only way these cars (and buses) could get in was either by ramming through the police barricade or being allowed in by the police.

This is a very binary conclusion because I really see no other explanation. During that dreadful Friday afternoon, these actions allowed the anti-reformists to grow in numbers. Little did most of the people there know, but there were dozens of cars and buses filled with these people approaching the duwar from the Sports City circle a few kilometers aware.

The second contributing element was the introduction of the darak forces, or the riot police as some are known to call them. While most Jordanian protesters trust the police’s ability to keep them safe to some extent, there is zero trust when it comes to the riot police. When they show up on the scene, everyone generally knows that things are about to turn ugly. And that’s exactly what happened when they came in to the duwar from behind the March 24 protesters. On the other side, the police had either scattered, or regrouped, and joined the darak in beating the protesters. The anti-reformists were naturally glad to have the opportunity to join the chaos and like a lit match, the March 24 group found themselves sandwiched between two armed forces, and had few access points to escape to.

Al Jazeera and others reported the use of tear gas against protesters, but from what I saw there was no tear gas. There was indeed a water cannon that basically was used to wash out the March 24 site. Now after this critical point was over, the darak moved in to the circle, not allowing anyone in, but not chasing anyone out either. At this point, most of the March 24 people had either escaped or were hurt and being carried out, while the anti-reformists cheered in the street. As darkness approached, the streetlights around the circle were kept off, immersing everyone in near pitch black, except for the lights of ambulance car sirens. I don’t know why they chose to do that, especially with people being hurt, but they eventually they turned them on.

In the hours following that chaotic scene, it seems the darak were in complete control, with their people and vehicles moving in, while the police had largely withdrawn to the yard of the governor’s office. At this point, what seemed to be happening was quite shocking. I saw someone who was wearing a standard police uniform climbing on top of the shoulders of anti-reformists and leading the crowd in pro-monarchy chants. I saw a police van driven by police, where anti-reformists chanted using the van’s sound system. At this point it was obvious that this whole thing was over.

This was the event, as I saw it. No more or less.


So what does this mean for us?

I would be lying if I said that this event was not enlightening and perspective-changing.

It really flipped my beliefs upside down, threw them on the ground and stomped on them. From a bird’s eye view I saw one group that was attempting to do something peacefully and another group that was there to hurt them. This was how it was on a very macro level and no matter what one’s political beliefs are, from an objective perspective it is tough to differ on that.

The March 24 group seemed to be the beginning of a different kind of movement that was party-less, and while I didn’t quite agree with their decision to have a sit-in, I understood why they saw it necessary to have one. I also recognized their ambition of establishing a movement that was diverse. I’ll even go so far as to say I respected their approach in trying to replicate the good they saw in Tahrir square, but with different objectives in mind.

These guys were young and still figuring out how to do things, making noticeable mistakes along the way (particularly with their messaging) but they seemed to at least try and apply the lessons learned from Egypt when it comes to having a sit-in: the need for technology, the need to act with restrains and responsibly, the need to be unassociated with political parties, etc. Unfortunately, none of this worked out for them.

They were instantly labelled as Islamists by the anti-reformists as well as the government. And they were instantly labelled as attempting to overthrow the monarchy by both groups, although some government officials were a little more subtle in calling out their intentions, including the Prime Minister. In any case, whatever one thinks of them and their goals, it is very difficult to say that they a) these were Jordanian citizens and b) they were there peacefully.

As soon as these guys were labelled as Islamists intending to overthrow the monarchy, the game was over.

The stigma managed to mobilize and even encourage others to come to the circle to beat them down. And I do not use that word lightly. Those who stood in opposition to the March 24 crowd were there to hurt them. They saw them as being disloyal Palestinians who wanted to establish a Palestinian Islamic government and kick out the King. This was the general consensus by that side. They were absolutely convinced of it.

To make things worse (for the long run) they also believed that any reform that sought to take power from the King and give it to the people would lead to a Palestinian homeland being established on Jordanian soil. Speaking to several of them on a personal level, I saw this conviction in their eyes. They completely believe this to be the truth. Some even seemed to buy in to the conspiracy that Hizballah and Iran were pulling all the strings, which explained to me why they constantly chanted “Shia, Shia, Shia!” at the March 24 crowd.

They insisted that anyone on the other side of the duwar who claimed to be in support of the King was a liar. And there was just no convincing them of anything else. There was no dialog or compromise or trust. Some of them even seemed to believe that these were 1970 Palestinian fedayeen, who were actually armed (this was the response I got when I asked one of them why he was carrying a baton).

Indeed, speaking to them often felt like being in Plato’s cave, and having the entire allegory play out right before your eyes.

What I saw made me realize that many of my preconceptions regarding Jordanian society were wrong. Despite having worked and operated on the grassroots level to a large degree, and having a job that somewhat allows me to interact with the average Jordanian on a regular basis, as opposed to having a desk job, many of my beliefs garnered over the years were destroyed.

It was not merely the event itself, but also the numbers and the approach that convinced me that a great portion of our population remains uneducated, addicted to the state’s beneficiary system and loaded with violent inclinations. They have no interest in reform or democracy and think and act out of what they believe to be loyalty to the King and the country. They are absolutely convinced that those of Palestinian origin are, to put it frankly, the scum of the Earth and do not believe them to be equal citizens. It is the same mentality that inspired comments congratulating Jordanians on the death of the two March 24 protesters.

What this made me realize was the mere fact that we are a population that is simply not at peace with itself. Our social fabric is torn. And this is the biggest reason why Jordan is different from the rest of the Arab world that is undergoing dramatic changes.

It is not a population that is facing off with a corrupt ruler or a corrupt government, seeking to overthrow them – it is a population that is still facing off with each other. A population made up of groups that do not trust each other, and, what I genuinely believe, if it were not for the King’s role, they would likely be at each other’s throats. And this is not merely Jordanians of Jordanian origin and those of Palestinian origin; I am also talking about groups within the east bank constituency that do not get along with each other, to say nothing of the rich and the poor.

At this point I would like to emphasize one thing. These are generalizations and perceptions. I do not mean to say that this is applicable to every single Jordanian citizen. However, what I am saying is that this environment is dominant enough, and this segment of society is strong enough to really play an active role. They may not be the majority, but they are a group that is representative enough, even in numbers. At the very least, they are an accurate enough barometer for what much of the country thinks and believes, and when push comes to shove and they feel the need to come out to protect the status quo, they will, and they did.

What we saw yesterday was not 100 people bought-and-paid for by the security apparatus as some media might want to paint it. This was a large constituency of people. They were in the thousands. Their caravan of cars stretched for kilometers on end, and they were coming in from all across the country, even on the day after.

I believed that the majority of Jordanians wanted reform and were merely silent. This is something I can no longer say today. I believed that we were “ready for democracy” and those who said we were not simply did not want to see it happen; because it was the people versus their government. This is something I can no longer believe today. For how a can a society this small and yet this divided be able to function in a democratic state?

I understand the argument that it is usually a well-organized and driven minority that tends to bring about change that the majority is too busy or too scared or with too much to risk and lose, is unable to achieve – but this is different. This is not a silent majority. It might not even be a majority. But again, it is a big enough force to bring the whole train to a screeching halt; violently if need be. It is also a segment that has the backing of the security apparatus, whether on a macro level or micro (individual level). That much was obvious during the outcome of yesterday’s events.

And I know that some might want to point to Egypt’s Muslim and Christian divisions prior to January 25, but I need only point out that what makes Jordan different is the lack of symbols. Revolutions tend to have symbols, and those symbols tend to be an embodiment of something to fight for or against. The symbol manages to bring people together and it also has the power to tear them apart. In Egypt, even if Muslims and Christians were at each other’s throats, they can quickly get behind a movement that seeks to dethrone Mubarak; a symbol they can unify against.

This is something being played out in most Arab countries. In Jordan, there is no real symbol. The overwhelming majority like the King and even those pushing for change see him as a symbol for that change. They have no symbol to fight against; no symbol that will bring a divided society together to achieve a goal. We saw the power of symbols in January where nearly everyone was calling for the resignation of the Samir Rifai government. Whether the origin, whatever the background, the people united around this one goal. But now what?

Overthrowing a government is easy, especially in Jordan where they come and go like the seasons. But treading the path to reform is much more difficult, and along that road a nation needs to walk together in order for things to work. The problem is, we are a nation that cannot even talk to each other without calling each other names, or even wanting to hurt each other – let alone walk together on that road; let alone run.

If they are offered alternatives; if they feel that whatever system emerges it will be one that safeguards their interests, then there is a chance. If they come to a point where they feel that those of different origins and different beliefs all have the country’s (and therefore “their”) interests at heart, then there is a chance. But right now, I just don’t see it. Yesterday I saw a government that lost an incredible opportunity to change minds, but instead it turned against a crowd. It called them Islamists and seemingly opened the doors for the maddening crowd. It’s the political equivalent of pouring blood on bait, and casting it into shark-infested waters. The result is inevitable. This is to say nothing of the fact that simply insisting they are Islamists results in two by-products: emboldening the Muslim Brotherhood’s voice and position by making it out more than it is, and squashing any attempts at creating an independent movement.

Trust was lost. Credibility was lost. And mindsets were pushed to the extremes. Those on either side of the coin are swinging farther away from the middle ground on the ideological line. Those considering themselves “loyalists” will only become hardened and emboldened after yesterday, believing any propaganda they are fed; and those considering themselves “reformists” will likely begin to think that a state that has abandoned them may not be worth fighting for after all.

And the silent majority caught in the middle will lock its doors, and immerse itself in the silence.

This is what I’ve come to believe. None of this should be taken as a call to end the fight for a democratic system in Jordan (although an enraged part of me feels an absolute monarchy might be the way to go right about now), but it is something that I do not see happening without dramatic social changes. This will depend heavily on the state, which controls the educational system, which instills a sense of social justice and equality through the enforcement of laws, which restrains its security apparatus from driving the fear of God in to hearts and minds of people already frightened of each other. And in drawing that conclusion I realized how difficult, if not close to impossible this all is.

I can barely depend on the government to go out on television and not insult my intelligence with propaganda that is easily discredited in the information age – let alone rely on it to bring a broken society together.

And then again, who am I to judge?

Maybe keeping this society broken and divided is the real objective all along.

I just don’t know anymore. We are stuck in a vicious cycle of a history that is repeating itself over and over. A state that refuses to learn and evolve. A security apparatus that continues to play the game of divide and conquer, and then turn around and call for national unity with a straight face. I really just don’t know where we are anymore, or where we’re going.

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