Last Friday was a perilous day for most of us in Jordan. We waited for it with much apprehension and anxiety. On that day, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) declared that it was preparing for a huge demonstration in downtown Amman, with no less than 50,000 participants, to challenge the government’s insistence on preparing for premature general elections on the basis of the recently passed controversial Elections Law.
Coming after the IAF’s earlier decision to boycott the elections, the planned Friday move threw the authorities in disarray and as a result, the government reacted with unnecessary, but clearly visible, confusion and panic.
The law in Jordan permits peaceful demonstrations. We have had hundreds of various forms of protests demanding political reform, calling for combatting corruption, protesting some government decisions, and/or seeking better living conditions, which in most cases went well. Jordanian security apparatuses were there all the time, as they should be, to ensure orderly and lawful procedure.
This time it was not the same. The IAF was accused of irresponsibly seeking to undermine the state, to thwart reform, to sabotage the upcoming elections and to divide the Jordanian society.
The Islamic group was subjected to an intensive media campaign, aimed mainly at discouraging the Friday move by challenging its ability to rally that many for the promised demonstration and by spreading the threatening news that there will be another demonstration of no less than 200,000 loyalists, at the same time and venue, to confront the Islamists in the absence of any police protection — a blatant prescription for serious public disorder.
Thank God a disaster was averted at the very last minute when loyalists cancelled the rally. The government sent the police downtown in full force to maintain law and order. The day, as a result, passed peacefully with no unpleasant incidents.
That, however, is not the end of the story. There is no reason to believe that there will be no more demonstrations in the coming weeks. As a matter of fact, some news reports already speak of preparations for another demonstration next Friday.
Should the authorities consider last Friday’s mistakes and react differently this time?
Based on last week’s official confusion, I will list a number of observations that may help.
One lesson is that the government should let people express their political frustrations as well as their various demands publicly as long as that is within the limits of the law.
It is a primary duty of the police to be present wherever needed to enforce the law, and that should not be seen as a favour to the demonstrators, any demonstrators, that can be withdrawn and used as a deterring weapon.
The director of the Public Security Department was right to decide, just one day ahead, to move in force to the scene and to keep events of the day under full control.
Another observation is that we do not seem ready yet to heed the hard experience of the last two years by acknowledging that dividing the Jordanian citizens into loyalists and non-loyalists is not only wrong but also a great threat to national unity.
This works against the most basic interests of the state. It is dangerous, divisive, immature and strictly counterproductive.
The insinuation of this ill-advised approach is that any Jordanian exercising his or her constitutional right by calling for reform, calling for combating corruption or for opposing the Elections Law should be automatically condemned as disloyal to his country and to the country’s leadership. Is that how loyalty should be judged?
The stark reality, which seems to be naturally ignored, is that those who demand their country to be politically modernised with sound, up-to-date democratic institutions, clean of corruption, with fair governance, are the true loyal citizens whose efforts and sincere national commitment should be appreciated and recognised. They, therefore, should be rewarded rather than punished.
The threat of the 200,000-strong counter-demonstration of loyalists, on the other hand, was viewed as an official counter-measure emulating unlawful and indeed ugly precedents in Egypt and Syria. What we should expect from our citizens is a genuine and convinced loyalty, based on the citizens’ love for their land and unshakeable confidence in its governing institutions.
Our education system should bring up the youth on such values.
My third observation is that the argument about “figures” has really been pointless. First, the IAF claim to push 50,000 protesters in the street was officially challenged as unrealistic, and eventually it proved to be so; only about 8,000 showed up at the Friday demonstration, according to official estimates, although some media estimates put the figure at two or three times as many.
Normally, the large size of any demonstration can be seen as an indicator of unanimity and popular weight. But the opinion of any number should not be disregarded as insignificantly small in a democracy, as other factors, such as the validity of the demonstrators’ demands, should be considered and should count as well. This was clearly missed last Friday.
Additionally, not all those who oppose the Elections Law opted to voice their objections publicly by joining street rallies. Certain activists normally lead demonstrations, while others opt to keep quiet, but they are there, and should be accounted for when dealing with a public outcry of this magnitude.
Commenting on last Friday’s outcome, one of our Cabinet ministers contrasted, on the BBC, 8,000 demonstrators and two million voters registered for the upcoming elections. The inference was that only those who went to demonstrate on Friday are not going to vote, while all those who registered will.
This is a simplistic arithmetical solution to a much more complex problem.
The demonstrators’ opposition to the elections is not the only bone of contention; they listed other equally important demands.
Moreover, having a sizeable, and important, component of the Jordanian society boycott the elections should not be dismissed lightly. More than just the declared boycotters are opposed to the Elections Law.
My last point is that serious political reform remains a pressing public demand. What has been offered so far has not been convincing. That is the issue that requires much more serious consideration.
The real problems do not seem to be going away as a result of procrastination and half solutions. On the contrary, they are growing bigger and getting tougher. Therefore, the sooner they are tackled the better.
The writer is a columnist at the Jordan Times, where this article was published on Oct. 10, 2012