Earlier this month, dozens of students used guns, knives and Molotov cocktails during a brawl in Muta University in Karak. The incident highlighted how fragile security is in a country that prides itself in being a safe haven in a region bubbling with uncertainty.
Thousands of students from the Gulf and other areas are currently studying in Jordan, which has a long tradition of excellent universities. Officials fear that if the fighting continues, the Gulf countries will stop sending students, an important source of revenue for the financially-strapped kingdom.
At least 20 people were injured during the melee in the southern city of Karak when dozens of students from two East Bank tribes, the al-Bararsheh and the Hamaydeh, fought after one student accused another of stealing his cell phone.
A deputy dean was stabbed in the back and a number of buildings were reduced to ashes before security forces intervened to contain the situation, said eyewitnesses.
“An argument developed into a fist fight. Within minutes, several people from both tribes were at each others throats,” Ali Abdul Rahman Jabari, an engineering student, told The Media Line.
He said the situation spiraled out of control after one student began bleeding after being stabbed in the back. Students from both tribes called for reinforcements from relatives living in nearby villages.
The university this week suspended 17 students who took part in the fighting. University officials say they are concerned that the incident could have a negative impact on the country’s reputation as a regional hub for higher education.
The fight is the latest episode in a series of brawls on both private and public university campuses. Most of the fights begin over issues such as insulting a girl’s honor, or allegations of theft.
At the University of Jordan, the kingdom’s largest university, there have been several tribal related fights.
Abdul Rahman Shasheer, a member of the student council, said tensions over internal elections or insults to girls have sparked fighting.
“Most fights develop between students coming from small villages who are very conservative and others from the city with a more open minded approach,” he told The Media Line.
“They start as a confrontation between two people and develop into mass brawls.”
Officials, psychologists and social activists are struggling to come up with an explanation. They blame blind allegiance to tribes, deteriorating living standards, and political repression. There are also clashes between modern and conservative approaches to the relations between men and women.
Psychologist Hussein Khuzay believes the absence of the rule of law in Jordan and widespread nepotism and favoritism have created a crisis of confidence between the public and the government.
“People no longer believe that official channels can protect people’s rights,” he said. “Favoritism is now deeply rooted in universities and other public institutions, which leads to putting incompetent people in sensitive posts.”
Khuzay says the rising number of brawls clearly shows authorities are unable to control the students on campuses.
Students from the University of Jordan say there is no discipline within the university and no consequences for fighting.
They say most students who have been involved in clashes have not been punished, or have had their punishment suspended after interference from influential figures in the security apparatus, the royal court or the parliament.
“We have in our universities students who do not deserve to be in here, but were allowed in because they have ties with influential figures in the universities and are granted seats due to their links to influential figures,” Fakher Daas, the coordination of the national committee for students rights told The Media Line. “Most fights are initiated by these groups.”
Meanwhile, Mohammad Khatib, the spokesman of the public security department blamed the universities for not being able to stop students from carrying weapons.
“It is not the responsibility of the police to prevent students from carrying weapons inside universities,” he said. “The police can not enter these sacred sites.”
Khatib said the government is concerned that such fights could spill over to nearby towns and cities.
Students from the oil-rich Gulf often pay full tuition, and universities are called “the oil of Jordan.” In Muta, officials from the Saudi embassy said at least 700 Saudi students applied to be transferred following the surge in level of violence.
Officials from the Ministry of Higher Education expressed concern that a bad reputation will encourage new students to apply to universities in other countries and not to come to Jordan.
The kingdom generates hundreds of millions of dollars by providing education to foreign nationals, but the rising violence could push students to look elsewhere, says economic expert Hussam Ayesh.
"University violence will dent Jordan’s reputation as a safe heaven for students and this will translate into heavy financial losses to a major contributor in the national economy,” he said.
He also believes that the brawls among educated young Jordanians could discourage foreign investors from opening projects in Jordan, particularly in areas hit by violence. For more stories from The Media Line go to www.themedialine.org