How Jordan's crackdown on the teachers' union risks backfiring

Teachers in Jordan are asking for fair pay. Instead, the government launched a violent crackdown
5 min read
14 August, 2020
Jordan has closed the teachers' union and arrested dozens of members to quell recent protests. But the crackdown on civic dissent could come at a cost.
The teachers' union has long been a thorn in the government's side. [Getty]
Jordan has been shaken by mass protests in recent weeks as teachers have taken to the streets to protest a government decision to shut down their syndicate and close its headquarters in Amman.

Demonstrations erupted a week after the attorney general's decision on 25 July to close the teachers' union and arrest its acting chairman Nasser Nawasreh and all 13 board members, who were questioned on "criminal and corruption charges," according to local media.

Syndicate members provided lists of dozens of names of other members of the union arrested by police to Human Rights Watch, in an indication of a mass crackdown

Unrest first emerged this year after the government failed to honour a 2019 agreement for a rise in wages. The government and the union had reached the deal after a month-long strike last year over salaries.

Public sector salaries have instead been frozen as Jordan grapples with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly 140,000 teachers are members of the syndicate, which was founded in 2011 and represents one of very few independent labour unions in the country. While the government initially moved to close the union, Jordan's education minister Tayseer al-Nuaimi later formed a temporary committee to lead the syndicate.

The closure of offices and arrests of labour union leaders have effectively put an end to one of the only independent institutions in the country

Many have suggested that such a move is designed to allow the state to gain full control over a rebellious labour union that had long been a thorn in the government's side since its foundation.

Silencing the opposition

As governments across the world struggle to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on jobs and industry, one could question the timing of the demands by the teachers' union. 

But according to Sara Kayyali, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Right Watch, the government's response has been draconian and a clear violation of the civic rights of Jordanian citizens.

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"Instead of continuing negotiations, and setting a plan together with the union, what the Jordanian authorities did – in clear government overreach – was raid their offices across the country, arrest their members and shutter one of the few remaining institutions in Jordan," she told The New Arab. 

Adam Coogle, deputy director with the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, says the closure of offices and mass arrests of labour union leaders have effectively put an end to one of the only democratic and independent institutions in the country.

Legal experts have also disputed the government's decision, citing a lack of legal basis for the shutdown. "The group's board can only be dissolved by a two-thirds vote of the members of its central committee or by judicial order," HRW said. But under Jordanian law, "the Attorney General is not empowered to make judicial orders."

The move, according to Kayyali, has clearly placed the union under the government's influence and makes it less likely that there will be any potential for the kind of collective mobilising seen in 2019.

The government has also issued a gag order on all media coverage of protests by the country's teachers, with the ensuing arrests of several journalists. Reporters Without Borders has strongly condemned the government's actions, saying that "these measures obstruct the right to news and information."  

People are in the streets for their livelihoods. So long as the government fails to directly engage citizens on their demands, the potential for unrest will always be there and may even amplify

Several journalists who attempted to report on the protests were reportedly arrested, while NetBlocks, an NGO that monitors the Internet, said that Internet speeds had been significantly reduced and Facebook Live video streaming features were restricted when protests were taking place. 

'Islamist agenda' as an excuse 

The government has partly justified its actions by accusing syndicate members of having an "Islamist" agenda and links with the Muslim Brotherhood. Earlier this summer, the Court of Cassation dissolved the country's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Jordan had tolerated the group's political arm for decades, but relations deteriorated after the brotherhood's involvement in Arab Spring protests in 2011. 

In Coogle's opinion, the alleged political affiliation of the members of the teachers' syndicate is not a justification for the authorities' arbitrary closure of the teachers' association and arrest of its members. Jordan appears to have brazenly flouted its own laws as well as its human rights obligations in carrying out these arbitrary actions.  

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"If individual members of the syndicate have committed criminal offenses they can be investigated and charged appropriately, but it must be a clear and fair legal process rather than political retaliation and repression," he told The New Arab

Large-scale unrest

With political and social unrest on the rise, the government's move to silence the independent union may lead to large-scale protests, especially following harsh measures to block any opposition or dissent, which included the arrest of activists over expressing their disagreement on social media.  

According to Murad Adailah, leader of Islamic Action Front, the largest opposition party in the country, the crackdown on the union would "only further aggravate political tensions by the government at a time people are choked under hard economic conditions."

Jordanian authorities mistakenly think that shows of power, gag orders and clamping down on protests will make people cease their demands, HRW's Kayyali says, but those are precisely the conditions that led them to the streets in the first place. 

"People are in the streets for their livelihoods. So long as the government fails to directly engage citizens on their demands, the potential for unrest will always be there and may even amplify," she added. 

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence