Not Running on Empty: Democratic Activism Against Israeli Gas in Jordan

by Curtis Ryan | published April 16, 2015 - 9:24am

A grassroots movement has been growing in Jordan, aimed at putting a stop to a major gas deal between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom. In the wake of the Israeli elections, which returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power, this movement can be expected to get larger still.

On March 6, at least a thousand protesters marched in Jordan against a proposed transaction by which the kingdom would purchase most of its natural gas from Israel. Jordan remains an energy-dependent country, so Jordan’s government hoped that the deal would shore up the kingdom’s energy supply, and reduce the previous reliance on Egypt and its frequently sabotaged pipeline running across the Sinai Peninsula. The bargain now faces multiple obstacles, including Israel’s own anti-trust authorities, which are concerned to prevent energy monopolies. But within Jordan, there seem to be two key stories: one, the depth of resistance to the deal itself, and two, the reemergence of a broad, democratic opposition coalition for the first time since the early days of the Arab uprisings in 2011. Jordan has seen other issue-specific grassroots activism recently, especially with regard to other energy-related controversies such as plans to build nuclear power plants. But the coalition against the gas deal appears to be both broader and deeper, ranging from ordinary citizens to members of Parliament.

Supporters of the gas deal include many officials in the Jordanian, Israeli and US governments, who see it as part of a strategy linking Israel, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan together via energy interdependence. This economic vision is meant to bring political stability to the region as well, but what wealthy and powerful states view as interdependence others often see simply as dependence. Still, Jordanian proponents of the compact argue that Jordan has few real alternatives. They are correct that Jordan is in desperate need of stable and reliable sources of energy to meet the needs of the population. But it is the identity of the proposed supplier that is most troublesome to opponents of the project.

Jordan’s grassroots opposition activism against the deal is rooted in part in the national, regional and global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, but it is also more than that. BDS only emerged in Jordan in 2014, and its backers compose just one of about 30 groups in the coalition. Some of these groups have been part of the “anti-normalization” campaign for decades. “Israel is determined to use the need for natural resources as a gateway to a region that does not desire normalized relations,” noted Mary Nazzal-Batayneh, a spokesperson for the Jordan BDS movement. Especially in the aftermath of the 2014 Gaza war, and the terrible death toll among Palestinians in Gaza, many in Jordan argue that gas purchases from Israel are tantamount to support for bombardment and occupation. Certainly, these latter points have been the main themes of slogans and signs at the various protests against the gas deal over the last several months.

The pressure was great enough that Parliament held sessions on the gas issue, with activists in attendance. On December 10, 2014, Jordan’s lower house of Parliament voted 107 to 13 (in a non-binding resolution) to urge the government to scrap the gas deal entirely. For the activists, it was an enormous victory. “I really think this kind of call for accountability from a grassroots secular campaign is unprecedented in recent years,” said Nazzal-Batayneh. “If it weren’t for us, Parliament wouldn’t have deliberated the issue to the same extent.”

Yet Parliament remains weak relative to executive authority in Jordan, so the bigger decisions will ultimately be made within the cabinet and inside the royal palace. With that in mind, activists have kept the campaign going, urging policymakers not only to abandon the prospective bargain with Israel, but also to pursue alternative gas supplies (such as from Cyprus) and alternative energy sources, including shale within Jordan itself.

Jordanian activism on this issue may represent an even bigger story than the gas deal itself, however, because the coalition is so broad. As uprisings toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Jordanian protesters, too, took their political dissent to the streets. Popular movements collectively known as the hirak appeared in virtually every city, town and village in the country, urging change. Jordanian protests focused mainly on reform, not revolution, but they began to dissipate in 2012. The regime, in the meantime, pursued a set of top-down reform initiatives in an effort to respond to the popular political energies.

Regime supporters point to a long list of reforms to explain why street protest disappeared, but the disillusionment of opposition forces was also a factor. The tumult of regional politics dampened enthusiasm considerably. The civil war in Syria served as a wedge dividing the Jordanian opposition, with some secular and leftist elements supporting the regime of Bashar al-Asad, and the Muslim Brothers supporting Islamist rebels, but most liberals and progressives supporting neither. The rise and fall of the Muslim Brothers’ regime in Egypt only deepened the distrust within and among Jordan’s diverse opposition forces.

That is why the current coalition against the gas deal is so compelling. To some extent, this coalition has revived a focused kind of street activism. Since the signing of the 1994 Wadi ‘Araba peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, an “anti-normalization” movement has ensured that the peace remains a cold one between regimes, but not really between societies. That movement now seems to be rejuvenated. “Normalization has been between political elites and has not taken on a wider economic dimension, but this deal aims to change all that,” said activist Thoraya al-Rayyes. “Perhaps the Jordanian and Israeli regimes thought that the current weakness of the opposition presented a window of opportunity to pursue the kind of far-reaching normalization initiative they have not been able to pursue before. But the backlash has been strong and the campaign has united groups from across the political spectrum.”

The anti-gas deal coalition has also revived cooperation across ideological lines. The demonstrations include Islamists, but also leftist and pan-Arab nationalist political parties, trade unions, professional associations, women’s rights organizations, hirak groups and youth organizations, and even the influential association for retired military officers. Most of the organizers and leaders are not remotely sympathetic to the Islamist movement. The coalition is diverse, drawing on people of different ages, classes, religions (Muslims and Christians), and ethnic backgrounds (East Jordanian, tribal, Palestinian or Circassian origins). “This is the first unified campaign since the Arab spring broke up the ranks of unified work on major issues like normalization,” said Hisham Bustani, the coordinator of the national coalition. Similarly, Abdullah Shami, another activist, saw in the movement a broader significance for democratic participation and reform activism: “Things are picking up.… I think there is a small opening within the public sphere, for the traditional opposition among leftist parties and professional unions, and their traditional causes to create some sort of dynamic, in partnership with various hiraks around the country.”

The nascent movement may succeed in its immediate goal of shifting Jordan’s energy policies away from Israel and toward alternative sources of supply and development, but it may also create more space for citizen activism and effective democratic participation in Jordanian political life.

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