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22 November 2012

Spotlight on Gaza gives reprieve

By: Daoud Kuttab
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The Israeli onslaught on Gaza this week coincided with one of the worst periods in Jordan’s history. Protesters, angry with the price hike of energy products, were more violent and protests larger and more widespread than the Kingdom ever witnessed.
Faced with these unprecedented and extensive demonstrations, Jordan’s security personnel were spread very thin, leaving some sectors of the country vulnerable.
It is a well-known fact that populations voluntarily agree to be governed, but when this natural loyalty is shaken, it is very difficult to do so. In the absence of the rule of law a vacuum is created and at times, hooligans and criminals fill this vacuum.
Fortunately for Jordan, local groups of citizens came together to protect strategic and vulnerable locations. One photo that went viral on social media showed a group of young men in Madaba creating a human chain to protect the local Housing Bank. The bank, which has the largest number of branches in Jordan, was chosen by the government to disburse up to JD420 in cash to families making less than JD10,000 a year.
While some destruction and looting took place in some Jordanian cities, the protests and rioting passed without any major or continuous damage.
The police chief, Hussein Majali, held a press conference and tried to restore the stature of the state, insisting that the rules of engagement had not changed and that peaceful demonstrations will be respected.
While Majali insisted that the police treat all citizens equally, he delegitimised some protest leaders, saying that they had previous criminal records and blaming them for some of the thefts and acts of hooliganism that occurred in the first days of protests.
The protests died down over the weekend, despite a large, and peaceful, post-Friday noon prayers and after the nationwide teachers’ strike.
The combination of soft and harsh security responses, the prime minister’s blitz media campaign and the beginning of cash payments to the needy contributed to a gradual calming of the internal scene. Externally, however, Jordan and its reputation were facing some harsh evaluations.
A statement issued by the US State Department, calling on the government to widen political discussions, must have worried the government. If Amman could not count on Washington for support, who could it count on?
The Americans quickly remedied the situation with a phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the King, followed by public support from the spokeswoman of the US State Department.
The calm in Jordan and the exchange with Washington did not stop the world media from converging on Jordan. Journalists and pundits published and broadcast reports of doom about the Kingdom even before the two-day protests died down.
Fortunately for Jordan, however, the Israeli military campaign against Gaza stole the media lights and ended this short spike in unwanted media coverage of the Kingdom.
The media began following the daily shelling of Gaza and the rocket attacks against Tel Aviv, making the troubles in Jordan appear to be a sideshow.
The scaling down of the protests and the disappearance of the world media from the scene gave the government a badly needed reprieve to consider what has happened in these troublesome days. While there is consensus that the economic situation is dire, there is also a realisation that decisions affecting the pocket of the average citizen should not be taken with such harshness and all at once. Furthermore, the absence of the political elite defending the government decision also caused harm to the effectiveness of the government in carrying out its policies.
Having chosen to take difficult decisions few months before parliamentary elections — based on a controversial law — meant that no politician wishing to participate in elections is willing to publicly defend this unpopular decision.
Politics and economics intertwine, but this time, Jordan, which has a large population of Palestinian descent, has not carried out large anti-Israeli demonstrations for its onslaught on Gaza, as was usually the case. If anything, this proves that in this instant, economics trumped all other issues, putting even more pressure on the country’s leadership to find both an economic and a political solution to the dangerous situation it finds itself in.

* A Palestinian columnist based in Amman, Jordan. - dkuttab@ammannet.net

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