Police staves violence as Jordanian protests continue

Rally radically different than elsewhere in the Arab world, emphasizing reform and unity under the ruling monarch.

Jordan protest 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jordan protest 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AMMAN – Cooler heads and a massive police presence on Friday kept an antigovernment protest in Amman from descending into the sort of violence that left one man dead and over 150 injured in clashes with police and pro-government supporters in the Jordanian capital a week earlier.
Hundreds of riot police and soldiers formed cordons around a group of several hundred anti-government protesters holding a sit-in outside the municipality building in downtown Amman, keeping them separated from a crowd of around 50 pro-government counter-demonstrators rallying a few hundred meters away.
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Palpable tension was felt Friday morning, as police were out in force throughout the area, and traffic was blocked off at several intersections in order to keep motorcades of pro-government supporters from arriving at the sit-in.
Pro-government protesters in cars covered with Jordanian flags were seen and heard honking their horns throughout the city, but especially around Gamal Abdel Nasser Square, the site of last week’s clashes.
A larger than usual crowd spilled out into the street outside the downtown al- Husseini Mosque in the morning, and many of the worshipers began making their way to the anti-government protest.
The demonstration was organized by the “March 24th Movement,” which, like many of the other recent popular movements in the Middle East, was started mainly by young people. It has taken on a heavily Islamic membership and is widely believed to have been co-opted by the Islamic parties, especially now that a number of left-wing and nationalist parties have left the movement over ideological differences.
The crowd at Friday’s rally included a high number of men with long beards and “prayer bumps” on their foreheads, and virtually all the women present were in full Islamic garb. The proportion of religious to secular participants appeared to be higher in Amman than it was in the mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir square that brought down former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February.
Also unlike the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya, both sides profess their support for the country’s supreme leader.
Portraits of King Abdullah II were held up at both the pro-government and antigovernment rallies Friday, making terms like “loyalists“ and “Abdullah supporters” seem like misnomers for a population that appears, at least on the surface, to be united in its support for the monarch.
Without exception, those in the March 24th Movement who spoke to The Jerusalem Post Friday expressed their support and admiration for the king, and said the problems lie below the monarch, in the entrenched system of corruption that sinks to the core of Jordanian political life.
“We got our asses kicked last week,” Yahan Bataineh, 35, said Friday, displaying a cut above his right eye which he said he sustained after he was punched by a police officer at the end of last week’s protests.
Bataineh dismissed contentions that the protests were driven by ethnic tensions between Jordan’s Palestinian majority and the ruling Beduin or tribal class, saying, “People spread this rumor that the movement is all Palestinians, but I’m 100-percent Jordanian. The government is brainwashing people that it’s all Palestinians and they’re against the king, just to get them worked up.
“We’re all with the king; we all know that Jordan would be destroyed without the Hashemite kingdom. We just want the corrupt people in the government out.”
Bataineh also said that the protest had nothing to do with Israel or a desire to scale back relations between the Jewish state and Jordan, saying, “We’ve had way too many wars in the region.”
His words ran in stark contrast to those of Abdul Salam at the nearby counterprotest, who said he came from the north of Jordan to Amman to rally against the March 24th Movement.
“These people, this March 24th Movement, we don’t know who they are. They are all Islamist people – they get support from Iran, Hezbollah, people who want to see Jordan fall. All Jordanian people are together with the king, and these people want to see him fall.”
He also accused the March 24th Movement of lacking patience, saying, “The king fired the government, he promises reform. This takes time. They are not patient.”
Nidal Absour, 42, from north Amman, said the protest movement is not Islamic in nature, rather a mix of young people, Islamists, Palestinians, and other Jordanians.
“It is a mix and includes tribes from across Jordan, from north to south and east and west. We only want to change the system under King Abdullah.”
Absour, whose parents originally hail from Jenin in the West Bank, said that “many in the government are thieves,” and that the protesters “want a better government and better democracy, but still with the king. He keeps Jordan together.”
Like in Egypt and elsewhere during the recent string of Arab revolts, economic issues aggravated by graft and corruption also seem to be playing a role in Jordan, where the population of 5.9 million has a per-capita income of US $3730, according to World Bank figures from 2009. The same report states that Jordan’s fertility rate (3.5 percent) is above average for the Middle East and North Africa and 35% of the population is under the age of 14.
The wealth gap is easily seen in Jordan, especially in Amman, where poorer areas in downtown and the east run in marked contrast to the sprawling villas, exorbitantly priced nightclubs and exclusive restaurants on the SUV-clogged streets of western Amman districts like Abdoun.
Ma’ath Al-Duweik, 24, admitted that while he makes an above-average living of around 1,000 Jordanian dinars ($1,410) per month in the export business, “the people are very poor, and Jordan is an expensive country to live in.”
He added that he and many others believe that corruption within the Jordanian political elite is harming the country’s economic growth and exaggerating the country’s growing wealth gap.
At around 5:30 p.m., the crowd gathered around a guitar player and a man with a tambourine leading the crowd in a sing-song session until shortly before sunset.
By an hour later, the crowds had thinned out and began making their way home, the violence of the week before seeming worlds away.