Why the Kingdom of Jordan will NOT be the next Egypt

Headlines about the Middle East have been full of news and speculation on the protests and potential regime change in Egypt.  What is happening there is a moment that will be remembered in history for years to come.  It is a popular uprising against a regime that has too long looked the other way and allowed corruption to flourish, the economy to languish and the lives of everyday citizens to fade into nothingness.  The protests seem to be a massive grass-roots effort (not needing western politics as a catalyst) to force a change that is long overdue.

Over the weekend some new sidebars accompanied the main articles about the situation in Egypt.  Many of these speculated about the potential for the Kingdom of Jordan to be the next Middle Eastern nation to be engulfed in widespread popular protest after Tunis, Yemen, and Egypt.  Friday’s post-prayer anti-government street rally and a protest near the Prime Minister’s residence fed fuel to the fire of this speculation.  And today headlines announced that His Majesty King Abdullah II had disbanded the cabinet and appointed a new Prime Minister.  Some articles characterized this move as “caving to public pressure” and painted a picture of huge street protests in Jordan forcing the King to the action.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  There have not been huge, widespread protests here in Jordan.  To my knowledge there were two significant rallies as I mentioned before.  I live in Amman currently and many people I have asked about the Friday rally near the mosque downtown weren’t even aware that it had happened.  If you were not in the neighborhood or on the street where these were occurring, you wouldn’t have been aware they were even taking place.

I saw some video posted of the anti-government rally.  There were a lot of flags being waved and there was a truck with big loudspeakers and some chanting.  But the crowd was peaceful and orderly.  There was a much bigger stir here in Amman during the month-long protests against the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in January 2009.  I attended one of those demonstrations and that ended up in stone throwing and tear-gas being shot.  The recent protests here in Amman didn’t come anywhere close to that.

Were these small protests enough to force HM King Abdullah II to do something about his government?  I find it hard to believe.   The King has demonstrated his low tolerance for government corruption and ineffectiveness before when he disbanded the entire lower house of parliament a few years ago.   There has been a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the the economy and politics here in Jordan over the last several months (since Parliamentary elections) and years.  Consumer prices have been on the rise and some people view politicians as affluent and out of touch with the people.  (Of course that could be just about any country in the world right?)  So is today’s government house-cleaning in response to a couple of weekend protests?  Is it because of what happened in North Africa?  Or is this a wise move that has been in the planning for a while?

Who knows.

But in the end I don’t believe Jordan will be the next Egypt, and here’s why:

  1. The economy is bad – but not that bad.  Inflation in Jordan was around 0% in 2009 and just over 5% in 2010 compared to 18% and 10% in Egypt in those same years.  Consumers have certainly felt the 5% pinch this past year especially in key areas such as fuel and staples like flour and sugar.  These increases have hit the poor hard, but life in Jordan is still much better than life in Egypt as attested to by the vast number of Egyptian guest workers who come here for little pay rather than sit unemployed in Egypt.
  2. The population of Jordan is only 6.4 million.  The entire population of the Kingdom is around 1/3 the size of the greater Cairo metropolitan area.  The population density of Cairo is over 44,000 people per square mile compared to Amman’s relaxed 4,300 people per square mile.  (For reference NYC is only 27,000 people per square mile).  When it comes to the development of and controlling of civil unrest what is Cairo going to do?   When you have that many dissatisfied people in that small of an area the potential for unrest is huge.  Amman is just not the same.
  3. Related to #2 above.  Everybody is related to everybody or knows everybody else in Jordan.  Everyone is interconnected.  Tribal affiliations still mean something.  Less than 100 years ago most of the population was made up of bedouin tribes for whom family and honor meant something.  These values still exist today and fuel the protection of the common good of the kingdom.
  4. The King is well-loved.  And so is his father.   There is an Arabic saying, “If you know the son, you know the father.”  Despite grumblings about the economy and the job-performance of elected or appointed officials people still love and respect HM King Abdullah II and HM the late King Hussein.  This ruling family has held the Kingdom of Jordan together for well over half a century – not by force and oppression nor by turning a blind eye.  They have ruled with wisdom and concern for their people.  Although not elected, from what I have seen, they have the respect and allegiance of their people.  Hosni Mubarak on the other hand has been re-elected by sham elections for 30 years.  He might well have been called king rather than president.  A “king” who ended up a petty tyrant perhaps in the eyes of his people.  Much different than the wise and respected Kings who have ruled Jordan.
  5. Despite #4, of course there  has been opposition to the government over the years.  In recent years certain Islamic groups have been particularly outspoken.  In fact these groups have been instrumental in the recent protests.  They are not satisfied with HM King Abdullah’s new Prime Minister, either, citing him as the reason they lost many parliamentary seats in the 2007 elections.  They forget however that those were the first elections after the 2005 hotel bombings.  In any event, the current opposition leaders have made it clear in a public statement that they are not seeking regime change in Jordan, but rather political reform.  Which leads me to my last point . . .
  6. Jordan is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  This means that HM King Abdullah II traces his lineage to the prophet Muhammad himself.   Islamic groups here have stated that they recognize the Hashemite’s right to rule.  I have to imagine that it would take quite a lot for Muslims to seek to overthrow a King who is descended from Muhammad.  They may take exception to his appointees, but I think it will be quite some time before we see widespread violent protesting in the streets of Amman.

Of course this is just my layman’s outsider point-of-view.  I could be totally off base, but I doubt it.   Throw a few hundred flags and a PA system in the street these days and you’ll have the western media hearing “regime change” in every slogan.

Pope Benedict visiting Jordan

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Amman, Jordan yesterday to start his first papal visit to the Middle East.  His tour includes 4-days here in Jordan and 4-days in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Their Majesties King Abdullah II and Queen Rania greet HH Pope Benedict XVI at the airport (BBC news photo)

Their Majesties King Abdullah II and Queen Rania greet HH Pope Benedict XVI at the airport (BBC news photo)

There has been a bit of  buzz around here the past week or so.  The attitude is very positive.  Christians of all denominations seem to welcome the pope’s visit warmly and see it as a boon for Christianity in this Muslim nation (Christians only make up 3% of the 5.8 million people).  Muslim friends have also been positive (other than a few speculations about traffic problems), and remembered fondly the visit of John Paul II 9 years ago.

King Abdullah, Queen Rania, and Pope Benedict served coffee at airport reception on Friday.  (BBC News Photo)

King Abdullah, Queen Rania, and Pope Benedict served coffee at airport reception on Friday. (BBC News Photo)

I’m not sure who initiated this trip but papers here indicate that HM King Abdullah invited the Pope.  Jordan has long been a stronghold of peace and (comparative) religious tolerance in the region and it is not surprising that this is one of the first Middle Eastern countries for the Pope to visit.  I can think of three strategic purposes for the invitation from HM the king.

  1. A reflection of HM King Abdullah’s stance on Islam in the contemporary world and esp. it’s relationship to Christianity and Judaism.  In 2004 HM King Abdullah comissioned a number of Islamic Scholars to draft what would later become known as the “Amman Message.”  This appears to be a well thought out explanation of what some inthe West would decribe as “moderate” Islam.  A year later came the “Amman Interfaith Message” aimed at “establishing full acceptance and good will between [the three monotheistic religions].”
  2. To encourage the country’s (rumored to be) shrinking Christian population.  Although they only represent 3% of the population Christians are guaranteed 9% of parliamentary seats.  This rubs some the wrong way, but there is no doubt that Christians have (and continue) to play an important role in Jordanian society.  As in other parts of the Muslim world wealthier and more educated Christians are leaving for the West.  Perhaps this visit fromthe Pope will be beneficial in encouraging positive Muslim-Christian relations in the kingdom and remind those that are here of HM King Abdullah’s benevlonce towards them.
  3. Encouraging Christian pilgramage/tourism to Jordan.  There are many important Biblical sites in Jordan – the most significant of which is the Bethany Beyond the Jordan – speculated baptism site of Jesus.  There is excellent archaeological evidence for this being the place where John the Baptist was baptizing long ago.  25% of the countries tourists apparently pass through here, but Jordan would like to see more awareness of the rich Biblical history reflected in this and other sites (Mount Nebo, Pella, Madaba, Herod’s fortress at Machaerus, etc.) and increased tourist traffic at the Baptism site and throughout the Kingdom.
Pope Benedict greets muslim leaders in Amman (BBC photo)

Pope Benedict greets muslim leaders in Amman (BBC photo)

Of course, there have been a few detractors, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood.  They called for another public apology from the Pope re. his infamous 2006 speech which included a quote from a Medieval scholar that did not reflect favorably on Islam or their prophet, Muhammad.  The Vatican’s official stance was that the pope has already publicly stated long ago that he was sorry for the use of the quote an that it did not reflect his personal views on Islam.  While divisive at the time the speech and it’s aftermath led directly to the formation of the “Common Word between Us and You” initiative, which was an attempt by Christian leaders to reach out to Muslim leaders and bridge the gap of differences by focusing on some of the commonalities between the religions (namely loving God and loving neighbor).  Despite disappointment on the part of some about the lack of a new apology,BBC reports that:

…the top religious adviser to Jordan’s king thanked the Pope on Saturday for expressing regret for the speech.”I would like to thank you for expressing regret over the lecture in 2006, which hurt the feelings of Muslims,” Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed told the Pope.”We realise that the visit [to Jordan] comes as a goodwill gesture and a sign of mutual respect between Muslims and Christians.

Happy onlookers greet Pope Benedict in Amman (BBC news photo)

Happy onlookers greet Pope Benedict in Amman (BBC news photo)

I am intrigued about the ongoing reaction to the Pope’s visit.  He has already made the rounds of some important sites – Mt. Nebo (where Moses died), Madaba (a largely Christian (Catholic/Orthodox) town near Amman,  and Jordan’s largest mosque where he made a speech encouraging peace, cooperation, and dialogue between Islam and Christianity and eschewed religiously motivated violence on both sides.  As I noted reception here has been largely positive among Muslims and local Christians.

Pope Benedict greets onlookers near community center in Amman

Pope Benedict greets onlookers near community center in Amman

In the negative reaction category, there are of course a few Muslim who have spoke out as I mentioned before.  But suprising to me was the ambivalence about the Pope’s visit on the part of Wetern  (ex-pat) Christians.  Most of the ex-pats I know who are Christians are some flavor of Protestant.  Many of their reactions could be summed up by saying, “Oh?  The Pope?  Ok, that’s nice.”  I’m not sure what fuels this.  I mean, ok, I’m not Catholic but I think the Pope is a pretty important and influential world/religious leader.  His presence here in this predominately Muslim country is significant for the Christians here and perhaps has some implications for future Muslim-Christian dialogue and relationship.  Not to mention the Mid-East peace process as he visits both Israel and Palestine after his Jordan stop.  Ok, so he’s not the leader of my particular Christian tradition and he’s just a man like anyone else – but let’s have a little gravitas and sense of history people!

HM Queen Rania Greets Pope Benedict XVI at a royal Palace in Amman (ABC News Photo)

HM Queen Rania Greets Pope Benedict XVI at a royal Palace in Amman (ABC News Photo)

One last cool result of the Pope’s visit.  HM Queen Rania started a Tweet (Twitter feed for the uninitiated – or a kind of a one-line at a time electronic diary for the super-uninitiated) to give a running update on the pope’s visit. It’s a rare personal insight into the (semi)random thoughts of a world leader, “Special day here in Amman; not everyday pope drop s by 4 a visit ” or “Just listened to Pope’s speech. Our region so needs a message of Peace.”  She also mentions the movie she and the King were watching the night before the Pope arrived (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – apparently His Majesty muttered “chickflick” under his breath at the suggestion), her failed attempt to get her 4-year old to don a suit, and posts a pic of HM King Abdullah and one of their son’s rolling out for an afternoon motorcycle ride.  I hope she continues to Tweet after the Pope leaves.   HM Queen Rania is already famous for her YouTube videos and seems to be a royal figure very much in tune with how to communicate in this electronic era.

Twitter pic form HM Queen Rania of HM King Abdullah II(and son) on motorcylces

Twitter pic form HM Queen Rania of HM King Abdullah II(and son) on motorcylces

This and other of HM Queen Rania’s pics can be found here.

Well, I need to wrap this up soon.  Sorry for the typos and if there are any bad links.  Had to type this quickly as I need to go to bed soon.  Pope Benedict is giving an open mass at the largest sports stadium tomorrow.  I’m gonna go check it out.  The gates open at 4 AM and close at 8 AM.  Mass starts at 10 AM.  Should be a very, very intriguing morning.  Oh, btw for security reasons you can’t bring sharp objects, food, or a cell phone.  I’m joining a couple of friends and we’re going to try and get there by 6 AM.   It’s 11 PM – better go.  I’ll hopefully get another update posted late tomorrow.

Jordan Weekend Headlines #6

I’ve been on a bit of hiatus from headlines over the last couple of weeks due to studies and an out-of-town trip to Wadi Rum (will post more on that later this week).  But, here is a quick look at this weekend’s headlines as published in the Jordan Times (the only English paper I know of here).

Top Headline: Jordan signs 11 deals with Brazil”the king seems to be traveling a lot since I got here.  I don’t know if this is normal or just because I’m here.  Anyways, HM King Abdullah and some of his advisors spent some time firming up Jordan’s relationship with Brazil and a broader alliance of South American countries.  Three things I found interesting:

  • Brazil will be helping Jordan with processing oil shale as a means of alternative energy.  Jordan has no natural petroleum reserves, except in the form of oil shale, which apparently it has good quantities of.
  • HM King Abdullah highlighted Brazil’s support of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.
  • There are 12 million Arabs in Brazil, which accounts for about 6% of the population

I wonder what a king-for-life thinks when he’s flying around the world talking to elected leaders who are only going to be on the political scene for a relatively short amount of time.

Another Headline: “Gov’t to guarantee bank deposits till 2009 end” This is with no JD limit.  All deposits in all amounts will be guaranteed till next year.  An official is quoted as saying that no Jordanian depositer has ever lost any money.  Of course I am not sure what time period we are talking about.  And I am pretty sure that most people have very small deposits in the bank.  This is one of many articles recently stressing Jordan’s overall financial health.  The subtext is that there is no lending/banking/morgage crisis as in the states.  Perhaps coorporate greed has not infected this corner of the globe yet.

Most Interesting Sidebar: “Jordan to play Palestine in Ram” This probably means nothing to most people, but has huge significance hear.  Ram is a town outside of Jerusalem and home to the Palestinian national soccer stadium (Faisal Hussein Stadium). No international football match has been played on Palestinian soil since Palestine joined FIFA way back in 1998.  Until this past weekend!  The Palestinian national team has had many hurdles to overcome including the difficulty of everyday life under military occupation, civil war, and travel restrictions imposed by Israel.  For example, 18 officials and players who live in Gaza were denied travel by Israel to the World Cup qualifiers in Singapore earlier this year.  The Israeli overnment also delayed the Jordanian national teams border crossing into Palestine this past weekend.

Here is a YouTube Video highlighting a bit about the Palestinian Team:

Despite travel difficulties the match did go on this weekend, with FIFA president Jospeh Blatter on hand for the historic event.   Our Palestinian taxi driver was excited to tell us about the game this morning.  I asked him who he had wanted to win.  He paused – a difficult question.  Ethnically he is Palestinian – but he was born and lived his entire life in Jordan.  He admitted that he didn’t really care which team won – and it didn’t matter in the end as it was a tied game: 1-to-1.  For Palestinians this match was an importan symbol of peace and normalcy.

Below is a clip of the Palestinian goal – take a moment to listen to the cheers and watch the excitement of the players and fans.  You would think this was a winning goal in a World Cup.  But, no, it was simply a goal by the 180th ranked team in the world (out of 207?).  Their first goal ever on native soil.  It seems to me that they are celebrating not just a goal in a soccer match, but in some small way celebrating this taste of freedom and self-determination (as fleeting as it may be).

Jordan Weekend Headlines

250 fils.
That may sound like a lot for the Sunday Paper – but it’s really not.   It only comes to about 35 cents.  And it’s not really the Sunday paper – it’s the Friday Paper!  The Friday/Saturday Weekend with Sunday being the first day of the work week is taking some time to get used to. But purchasing a local English-language Friday paper is something I look forward to each week.  I’m currently reading The Jordan Times (website here) because it’s the only one I know of that I see widely available.  (There may be other English language papers here – if so, someone let me know).

I’ve been pretty fascinated not just by the stories but to see what actually makes the front page here in our new home away from home.  Believe it or not – the Middle East does get a lot of press coverage here, just like home. However, the stories have a bit of a different flavor.  So I have decided to share 3 or 4 front-page headlines and would welcome any interaction on them.   So here goes:

Headlines in Jordan, Weekend of August 22-23, 2008 (from Jordan Times)

King Starts Russia Visit – This is the top headline with an accompanying picture of King Abdullah being greeted by Russian officials in Moscow. His Majesty will also visit Turkmenistan and France.  With Russia’s international rumblings of late it will be interesting to see how various countries will relate to them.  The purpose of King Abdullah’s visit was stated as discussing “regional developments.”  I wonder what that means.  The most interesting thing to me was the very last line of the article, “HRH Prince Hashem was sworn in as Regent.”  I’m not exactly sure what this means.  As far as I know there are two Prince Hashem’s – King Abdullah’s 3 year old son and King Abdullah’s 27 year old half-brother.  I’m not sure which one they are referring to but I was glad that there is a plan for when the King is out of the country.  Here’s a pic of the King in case you haven’t seen him before:

HM King Abdullah of Jordan c. 2008

HM King Abdullah of Jordan c. 2008

Coping With the Two-Shift System: It has been a rough start this fall in Jordan’s public schools. The system of 3,300 schools has absorbed an extra 31,000 students that were unable to attend private schools this year due to worsening economic conditions.  So over 250 schools have adopted a two shift system with the first shift starting at 6:45 AM and going till midday.  The second shift goes to 5:00 AM.  (note: that should read 5 PM!  Thanks to Melissa for catching my error!) Children in the same family have found themselves on different shifts causing problems with childcare for many families.  Education is a guaranteed right in the constitution and the government has built additional schools and is trying to hire additional teachers to handle the increased student population.

Israel Declares Navy Drills to Deny Activists Passage to Gaza: I could write about this one for awhile.  But I won’t.  The long and the short of it – waaaaaaay back in 1993 (in the Billy Clinton era) this little secretly negotiated, supposedly earth-moving Peace Accord was signed between Israel and Palestine.  Remember the famous handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat?  Well part of the Oslo agreement guaranteed the Palestinians the right to open a port in Gaza.   In reality the Israeli government never allowed it to happen and has run a long-standing naval blockade preventing any entrance or exit from Gaza by sea.  All (“legal”) international trade in and out is directly controlled by Israel.  Anyway – this is getting longer than shorter – this past week two boats from Europe decided to run the blockade to deliver some humanitarian supplies, but more importantly to make a point.  This article reported that the Israeli navy intended to stop the ships. The report online today indicated that they didn’t and the ships made landfall in Gaza.   A small and pragmatically meaningless victory – but a symbolic one nonetheless.

SS Free Gaza and Liberty

SS Free Gaza and Liberty

As you can see these are a couple of very dangerous looking ships!   The Jordan Times reported that the Liberty was named for a the USS Liberty that was attacked by Israeli aircraft in 1967, killing 34 and injuring 172 US seamen.  Boy – there’s a peice of history you don’t here much about.  Anyways Jordan is very much involved in Palestinian politics and I’mnot surprised that this story made front page news.

Ok – there you have it – a few headlines from Jordan.  Hope all is well for you wherever your journey is currently taking you!