"We Are All Jordan"...But Who Is We?

by Curtis Ryan | published July 13, 2010

Like most countries around the world, Jordan has been gripped with World Cup fever. Since their national team was not in the tournament, Jordanians rallied around perennial favorites Brazil, Italy, Argentina and Germany. They advertised their loyalties with flags draped over windows, balconies, cars and shoulders, and traded half-joking taunts with partisans of other teams. But, as the Cup progressed, and the favored squads fell, another more serious battle over loyalty and identity was being waged barely below the surface of Jordanian politics: the struggle between “East Bank” Jordanians, whose roots lie east of the Jordan river, and Palestinian Jordanians, whose origins are west of the Jordan in historic Palestine. These tensions over belonging in the country and ownership of the state are not new, but they have a newly sharp edge.

The May announcement of a new electoral law for the November parliamentary contests seemed to play into the tensions. [1] The new law is, for the most part, similar to the old one, but it did add seats for under-represented cities such as Amman, Irbid and Zarqa, which are home to large Palestinian populations. Most pro-democracy activists are disappointed, feeling the new law failed to go far enough in responding to opposition demands for reform. They had called for more equal electoral districts, some level of proportional representation (to strengthen political parties) and drawing the prime minister from Parliament. At present, the head of government is appointed by royal decree. None of these measures were included. Yet many East Bank Jordanian nationalists feel the law has gone too far, by increasing Palestinian representation while not addressing most other concerns.

In some ways, the battle lines were defined on April 1, when a group of retired army officers calling themselves the “National Committee of Military Veterans” issued a manifesto exhorting the state to “constitutionalize” the 1988 renunciation of Jordan’s claim to the West Bank. [2] In tandem, the officers demanded that all Palestinians in the kingdom be divested of full Jordanian citizenship. Those “unable to return” to Palestine “are Jordanians until the implementation of UN Resolution 194 providing for their return to their homes.” Those “able to return” are to be given “Palestinian citizenship” or Palestinian Authority travel papers. [3] The intensity of these statements led to a counter-manifesto of sorts, written by former Prime Minister (and intelligence chief) Ahmad ‘Ubaydat, and signed by thousands of Palestinians and Transjordanians, calling for a harder line against Israeli policies, but a softer approach to Jordanian identity politics.

At stake is not just the identity of Jordanian society, but also the identity, power and capability of the state itself. Unlike past rifts between Palestinians and East Bankers, or Transjordanians, this time some East Bank hardliners feel that the state has abandoned them and, worse, tilted in the direction of Palestinian control. The Hashemite regime shows limited patience, to put it mildly, with suggestions of significant divisions in Jordanian society, and repeatedly trumpets the virtue of national unity. The regime has issued a long line of slogans and mounted several public relations campaigns along these lines, from “Jordan First” in the early 2000s to today’s “We Are All Jordan.”
 
In a June 8 speech commemorating the 1916 Arab revolt and “Army Day” in Jordan, King ‘Abdallah II addressed these concerns head on. He acknowledged the tough economic times and widespread complaints of corruption, though he dubbed the latter “slightly exaggerated and overblown.” But his main focus was a call for national unity in the face of rumors of division. Some who circulate “this kind of talk,” he suggested, were in fact present in the audience of notables. The king twice invoked the term fitna, which conveys civil discord but also carries heavy religious overtones, referring as it does to splits in the umma of Islam’s classical age. He declared that any perceived attempt at undermining national unity is “a red line that we will not allow anyone to cross.”   A Transjordanian nationalist dismissed the king’s speech as the issuing of orders, rather than engagement in dialogue, and remarked that the king was “too comfortable at home and too weak abroad.” In contrast, a high-ranking Palestinian official in the Jordanian government argued that the king was indeed aware of the rising tensions, but seemed to regard them as backward thinking on the part of nationalists living in an imagined past. “The king knows,” he said, “but he doesn’t realize the danger.” [4]

Who’s Who

The parameters of the identity and loyalty debates are well established. East Bank Jordanians have a deeply “tribal” culture, not in the sense of living a nomadic Bedouin lifestyle, but rather in the sense of relying heavily upon family, clan and tribal ties in navigating the economic, social and political domains. While many Westerners use the term “tribe” pejoratively, to signify such ills as insularity, nepotism and frontier justice, many Jordanians see the enduring tribal structure as the most purely Jordanian aspect of Jordanian society. They argue that tribes boast significant levels of internal democracy and a kind of social safety net for their members. Indeed, the king himself has emphasized that the tribe is “a basic pillar of this society” that “complements and supports public and security institutions in preserving security and stability.”

In contrast, Palestinian Jordanians have no safety net besides the immediate family and, nominally at least, the state. The Palestinian Jordanians include those who arrived in the masses of refugees following Arab defeats in the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel. Others migrated east toward the cities, particularly Amman, Irbid and Zarqa, in times of peace following the 1950 Jordanian annexation of the West Bank (since renounced), when Jordan offered West Bank Palestinians full citizenship. These Palestinians therefore migrated as Jordanians. Population figures are imprecise at best: The government and many Transjordanian nationalists have long insisted that Palestinians are a minority -- albeit a very large one -- while most other sources (such as international institutions) suggest that Palestinians are the majority in the kingdom.

Over the years, Palestinians became dominant in the Jordanian private sector, while East Bankers came to staff the bulk of positions in the public sector, armed forces, bureaucracy, police and intelligence services. Jordan shifted from compulsory military service to an all-volunteer army beginning in 1992. Transjordanians were always more likely to see the armed forces as a career path. The end of conscription, however, has reified a kind of “ethnic” division of labor while keeping the military and the security services (the regime’s Praetorian guard) mainly in Transjordanian hands. This concentration of Transjordanian clout in the state explains why many Palestinians were so alarmed by the retired army officers’ manifesto. At the same time, many East Bank nationalists welcomed the declaration, especially coming from such powerful and influential people, as a statement of what they have been feeling all along.

Every protagonist in these debates, from the grassroots activist to the monarch, invokes the term “national unity” to defend his or her position. Clearly, this term now means very different things to different groups of people. For the monarchy, to speak of national unity is to underscore Jordan’s security concerns in a perennially tense region, to urge a collective pulling-together and, frankly, to enjoin all sides to indulge in less complaining. For Transjordanian nationalists, unity means preserving the state as is, and staunching the perceived hemorrhaging of the “Jordanian” parts of Jordan’s identity. For many Palestinians, unity translates into much less emphasis on sub-national forms of identity and cessation of the practice of blaming the country’s assorted problems on the Palestinian part of the population. Finally, for the country’s many pro-democracy activists, who hail from all of Jordan’s component communities, national unity is a call for deepening democratization and popular participation in politics, which they feel will enable a more inclusive and hence less explosive debate, whether over identity or other issues.  

Palestinians and Transjordanians, naturally, are very diverse groupings in terms of socioeconomic status, level of education and political leanings. Both communities have their rich and poor, their leftists, liberals, moderates and right-wingers, and their secularists and Islamists (and, for that matter, both include significant numbers of Christians).

And, to be sure, there have been far tenser periods in the Palestinian-Transjordanian struggle, the low point undoubtedly being the 1970-1971 civil war that pitted King Hussein’s army against the guerrilla forces of the PLO. Most Jordanians, irrespective of origin, were not alive when this war was fought. So what exactly is triggering the resurgence of identity conflict, the questioning of loyalties and the revival of inter-communal resentment in 2010?  

Why Now?

Several structural changes seem to have provided the collective catalyst for the resurgence of Palestinian-Transjordanian tensions in Jordan. First, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees. A kingdom that had absorbed wave after wave of Palestinian refugees across its western border was now dealing with a rapid population transfer from the east. East Bank nationalists mobilized quickly, fearing for the security and identity of the state. Many wanted to ensure that the Iraqis would be temporary residents only -- the state designated them “guests” -- and would not become the “new Palestinians” in Jordanian society.  

Second was the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the 2000s and the later rise of the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. The fear is ever present in Jordan that Israel will try to “solve” its Palestinian problem at Jordan’s expense, by making Jordan the “alternative” Palestinian state. This trepidation has now mounted. The retired officers’ manifesto asserts that “this new-old Zionist project” has moved into the phase of execution. Not only is Israeli pressure pushing West Bankers to emigration across the river, but the Jordanian government is also cooperating by legislating “a system of muhasasa.” Muhasasa, or “allotment,” is a dread specter in the Arab world, conjuring the confessional politics of Lebanon and now the horrendous civil strife of post-Saddam Iraq. The old generals invoke the term to say that jobs and opportunities are being “allotted” according to “ethnic” criteria.

 Third, the regional crises followed on the heels of the slower transformation of economic liberalization. Since 1989, Jordan has pursued a policy of opening up to foreign investment and privatizing the public sector, a process that accelerated rapidly under King ‘Abdallah after the royal succession in 1999. The last decade, in particular, has seen a dramatic shift of Jordan’s state-run industries to private ownership, with profound social and political implications. Already dominant in the private sector, Palestinian business elites have benefited further from the privatization process, while Transjordanian workers find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being under- or unemployed. The East Bankers, workers and even investors, often feel that they cannot make it in the private sector, which they see as Palestinian.  

Many Palestinians, in turn, contend that the problem is the tribal rather than entrepreneurial nature of East Bank Jordanian society, and that Jordan’s economic development owes much to Palestinian labor and capital. One Palestinian Jordanian government official, for example, cited the effects of the oil boom and the inter-Arab politics of the 1970s, both of which channeled economic benefits to Jordan precisely because of the large Palestinian population in the kingdom:

Many Palestinians migrated to the Gulf for jobs and they were well qualified. They were educated and enlightened, and they worked not as laborers, but as managers and engineers, while Transjordanians were working in the public sector in Jordan, the military and government. Palestinians sent money home and helped to develop Jordan and make it flourish. And Arab leaders poured millions into Jordan because of the Palestinians. And this country became as you see it now. But the tribal parts of society are not used to private enterprise and even to labor. Many see it as beneath them. Unlike tribal culture, which limits what people are willing to do, Palestinians invested capital, developed banks, businesses and companies. The Jordanians remained running the state.

In any case, the gaps between rich and poor have become more obvious as Amman and other cities mushroom. A high-ranking government official put it this way:

Today, the East Bank Jordanian is also well educated, much like Palestinians. But he thinks that, 100 years ago, this was his country. Waves of foreigners came and Jordan opened its doors to them -- not just Palestinians, but Circassians and Iraqis and others. So they are sensitive to changes in the state, especially now. That is all they have left.

All of these changes are actively discussed and debated because of the proliferation of new electronic media. Jordan’s public sphere is not just the coffeehouses and the opinion pages of newspapers, but also the virtual space of countless blogs and websites, including such web-only news sources as Amoun, which bills itself as the “Voice of the Silent Majority,” but which is known for editorial stances that represent strongly nationalist Transjordanian positions.

Nationalism, Identities and the Question of Reform

While pro-democracy activists (both Palestinian and Transjordanian) have long argued that political reform has stalled or regressed over the last ten years, there is some dispute as to the reasons why. Many Transjordanian nationalists argue that the problem centers on what “reform” is. Jordan’s political system is rife with anti-democratic features, but the nationalists say “reform” refers only to the question of Palestinian representation.

Palestinians feel, for example, that they face discrimination at the hands of the largely Transjordanian government bureaucracy, which they believe regards them as second-class citizens. This complaint is consistent across class divides, from the poorest refugee camps to the luxurious villas of western Amman districts. Transjordanian nationalists, by contrast, see the cries of discrimination as the perpetuation of a myth. “The Palestinians play the victimization card, and it pays,” noted one liberal East Bank nationalist. His conservative counterpart added, “The Palestinians are empowered now, to the point that they are getting everything. We should ask first: Who or what is Jordan? Or Jordanian? Then move on to political reform.”

One plank of reform platforms has been to counter discrimination by increasing the representation of Palestinians in the halls of government. In response, one self-described liberal Transjordanian nationalist characterized reform as a fixation upon numbers and percentages -- so that the question of representation is reduced to quotas. “Too often,” he said, “reform is about identity politics, but from outside of Jordan. It is mainly the views of NGOs and civil society organizations about giving the Palestinians more rights.” Many East Bank nationalists, in short, see this kind of reform as serving a foreign agenda.

In general, conservatives in the Transjordanian nationalist camp prefer the status quo, and some favor rolling back political and economic change. For the most reactionary elements, the irresolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict means that security is job one, with everything else such a distant second that it can be delayed indefinitely.

In contrast, liberal nationalists strongly favor reform and democratization, but they insist it must be about quality and not quantity, about substance and not allocation of jobs, goods and services alone. Above all, they argue, political reform must cease to be seen as a question of Palestinian empowerment in the kingdom, and must focus instead on anti-corruption efforts, good governance and social (as opposed to narrowly economic) development. The cabinet, they maintain, should be drawn from the elected parliament, whose powers should be strengthened so that they may check those of the king and prime minister. And yet even many of these liberals are decidedly conservative on one key issue: the preservation of Jordanian national identity and specifically Transjordanian control of the state. “This is our state,” said one such figure. “Theirs is Palestine.”

Transjordanian nationalists of both the conservative and liberal persuasions see the rise of technocrats in government as a major threat. It has become common for former overseers of Jordan’s free trade and qualified investment zones to move into powerful cabinet positions, for example. The fact that many of these officials are of Palestinian background adds to the resentment. In addition to feeling that neoliberal privatization has come largely at their expense, the East Bankers also argue that technocracy has led to the ascent of American-style neo-conservatives to key ministerial posts. None was more unpopular than former Finance Minister and Royal Court Chief Basim ‘Awadallah, whose increasing clout triggered such widespread opposition that he was eventually sacked.

For conservative and security-oriented Transjordanian nationalists, there is a darker fear lurking beneath. Specifically, they fear that Jordan’s own political liberalization process will give neighboring Israel the opportunity it needs to replace the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a “Jordan option,” whereby the Palestinian state is located not on the West Bank but on the East Bank. Talk of the “Jordan option” is not just paranoia, given the lengthy pedigree of precisely this idea on the Israeli right. But some East Bank nationalists worry that including more and more Palestinians in Parliament and the cabinet will gradually turn Jordan into the Palestinian state, enabling Israel to claim a fact on the ground. “We can’t let this get past or even to 50 percent representation,” asserted one person with this fear. “We lose Jordanian identity at that very moment.” The same nationalist hastened to add that his argument was not anti-Palestinian:

We are not opposed to Palestinians. We live with them. They are our friends and neighbors. We are married to them. We grew up with them. But we don’t want to be a minority here. The big fear is of course that Israel tries to make Jordan the Palestinian state. But in some ways it already happened, not by Israelis but by Jordan. This is another version of the alternative Palestinian state. Palestinians dominate the economy. Now they dominate the government, too. There are foreign pressures to increase their representation, from the US and from international NGOs. But we built everything. It’s not fair. We are marginalized in our own country.

Transjordanian nationalists see themselves as the backbone of the country, but not necessarily (anymore) of the regime. They often proclaim that the regime has neglected or abandoned them. The current debate is more than the archetypal feud of conservative Transjordanians (sometimes derided as the “Jordanian Likud”) with liberal or reformist Palestinian activists. Indeed, many anti-reform conservatives are Palestinian, and they have much in common with right-wing Transjordanian nationalists, while many pro-democracy activists are Transjordanians who reject the nationalists’ views. And some major minority groups, such as the Circassians, who have historically been key supporters of the Hashemite regime, are left out of the debates entirely.

For that very reason -- that the identity struggles do not engage all Jordanians -- it is possible that their heat reflects increasing polarization among the elite rather than a rift in society as a whole. Nationalists are deeply invested in these struggles by definition; they see the questions as existential. But even if their concerns are relatively parochial, it is fair to say that neither liberal nor conservative East Bank nationalists are accustomed to the position in which they now find themselves, feeling left behind as the country moves in a new direction. “It’s confusing,” one nationalist noted. “We aren’t used to being in the opposition. But everything has changed overnight. Overnight it’s all different.”

Even the efforts of NGOs and international institutions have drawn the ire of East Bank nationalists. Most development organizations work with those who have been historically disenfranchised, and in Jordan’s case, that means the Palestinians, as well as women. Transjordanian nationalists, especially those who think the state is no longer with them, resent that Palestinians seem to enjoy the favor of the UN and Jordan’s foreign donors. “In the Middle East, everything is about patron-client relations,” said one nationalist. “Most other groups have a foreign ally. But we have no foreign ally; we are a client without a patron.”

What Is to Be Done?

The inter-communal animosity accompanying Jordan’s economic liberalization and supposed political reform amounts to a new politics of disenfranchisement in the country -- one that is the inverse of the norm in Jordanian history. The Palestinians, long the base of the social pyramid, are perceived to be climbing to the top, while the Transjordanians feel the ground collapsing beneath their feet.

Jordan’s top officials are well advised to take these fears seriously. The people voicing them are not mere troublemakers or antediluvians whose time has passed. The anxieties of Transjordanians, even when they exaggerate the degree of Palestinian empowerment in government or the extent to which Transjordanians “built” Jordan, are genuine and widespread enough to be a major concern.

A conservative Transjordanian who has served in several cabinet positions suggested that what is needed is a personal touch. The real problem, he said, is not between Jordanians and Palestinians, but between Transjordanian communities and the state. The king should pull a page from his father’s playbook and spend more time visiting in person with East Bank constituencies, addressing and allaying fears. The conservative’s hunch is that such reassurances -- to wit, that the regime’s bedrock constituents are not forgotten -- would spread with lightning speed by word of mouth.

A Palestinian business leader offered that the time has come to stop glossing over divisions and differences, as the “We Are All Jordan” campaigns do, and instead address inequities directly. East Bankers could be encouraged to enter the private sector, while more Palestinians could be integrated into the government and bureaucracy, in an attempt to end the “ethnic” bifurcation between the public and private sectors. It is likely, however, that East Bank nationalists would resist even more strongly further Palestinian inroads into the state, the public sector and, especially, the security services, which are seen as the last bastions of Transjordanian power.

One Transjordanian nationalist who sees himself as hardline on the issue of state identity captured the stark view of his peers:

In our community, we all do national service. We serve in the army, the police and the intelligence services. We have always been willing to sacrifice our lives -- and we have -- for the state and for the regime. And now? Fight for whom? Are they fighting for us? We can’t even trust the big East Bank government men to fight for us. They will lose. The Palestinians are now getting peacefully what they tried to get in the civil war in 1970. They failed then, but they are winning now.

He paused and thought for a moment, and then continued, “But we are still here. We won’t be silent forever. Especially as more and more of us become poor and marginalized. Not forever.”

The Transjordanian nationalist voice sounds aggrieved and abandoned. Its tone is activist, perhaps increasingly so, but it is not revolutionary. The nationalists may feel profoundly wronged, but most remain fiercely patriotic as Jordanians and loyal to the Hashemite state. Their sense that the state is not repaying their fealty, however, seems to have trickled over into social relations, sharpening the tensions with Palestinians, contributing to the rising inter-clan and inter-tribal violence, and spotlighting fractures in “national unity” that could become chasms down the road.

Endnotes

[1] See Curtis Ryan, “Jordan’s New Electoral Law: Reform, Reaction or Status Quo?” Foreign Policy, May 24, 2010, available at: http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/05/24/jordan_s_new_electoral....
[2] See Assaf David, “The Revolt of Jordan’s Military Veterans,” Foreign Policy, June 16, 2010, available at: http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/06/15/the_revolt_of_jorda....
[3] See the full text of the manifesto at: http://allofjo.net/web/?c=153&a=20972.
[4] All anonymous quotes are from interviews I conducted in Jordan in June 2010. I have kept the comments unattributed at the request of the interviewees and because of the political sensitivity of the topic.

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