No space for criticism: Jordan's authoritarian shift

Jordan's authoritarian shift: The erosion of civic space since the Arab Spring
7 min read
24 March, 2021
In-depth: Ten years after the Arab Spring there is no sign of reform, just growing economic and social distress and a reduced space for citizens to express their grievances.
Public anger over prolonged political and economic crises runs deep. [Getty]
This article is part of The New Arab's special coverage of the Arab Spring decade of upheaval. Visit our Arab Spring portal here.

The 24th of March marks the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring protests in Jordan, when thousands of people gathered at the Gamal Abdel Nasser circle to demand economic and political reforms.

Ten years on, hopes for such reforms have been dashed as civic space has become more and more restricted. 

Recent protests, sparked by the deaths of nine patients at a public hospital due to a lack of oxygen supplies, reflect not only the Jordanian public's anger over mismanagement of the pandemic, but also deeper social unrest which Jordanian authorities can only silence through force. 

Public anger runs deep 

Despite being depicted as anti-lockdown protests, recent demonstrations point to a deeper political, economic and social crisis reflecting public disappointment with the failure to implement reforms promised back in 2011. 

Not only has the situation not improved, it has further deteriorated over the past decade, with growing unemployment and corruption, a lack of accountability, and a general deterioration of living standards.  

The measures taken to combat the spread of Covid-19 have impacted Jordan heavily, with the economy plunging three percent during 2020 and unemployment skyrocketing to 24 percent, causing many citizens to lose their livelihoods in a country lacking any kind of social safety nets.

Protests over the government's mismanagement of the pandemic point to a deeper political, economic and social crisis in Jordan, reflecting public anger at the failure to implement reforms promised in 2011

Yet, Jordanian authorities have militarised their response to the crisis and paid more attention to silencing any kind of criticism about its management, rather than working to find solutions. 

The pandemic as an excuse 

Jordanian authorities have been accused of using the pandemic as an excuse to curtail even more political and civil rights, by applying Covid-19 regulations on social gatherings. 

Read more: Jordan's parliamentary elections: New
challenges, old expectations

Human rights laws allow countries to restrict certain rights in a public emergency, but according to the UN Human Rights Committee, protests can only be banned on a case-by-case basis. 

"We tried to make it clear that Jordan's blanket ban is discriminatory and not proportional to the threat posed, but, unfortunately, this is how they are operating," Adam Coogle, Deputy Director of MENA Division at Human Rights Watch, told The New Arab

Throughout 2020 several politicians, journalists, activists, and cartoonists were detained. Furthermore, authorities closed the teacher's union and arrested its leadership in response to protests staged against the failure to implement agreed pay rises by the government in 2019.  

"They went way too far. Arresting the entire leadership, putting them on trial under trumped up charges, and finding them guilty is just ridiculous," says Coogle. These measures have become commonplace in Jordan in recent years, with the announcement of a defence law in March 2020 facilitating their application.  

"The defence law is a unique thing to Jordan and basically gives the government broad powers to issue defence orders, some of them targeting internet rights," Raya Sharbain, Program Coordinator at the Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA) told The New Arab

We have seen Jordan becoming more and more comfortable with draconian measures. The situation follows on from what we saw in 2018 and 2019: increasing arrests and crackdowns on political speech

According to the Jordanian internet watchdog, the orders are written in very ambiguous terms, allowing the authorities to arrest citizens sharing information that "might spread panic", a charge punishable with fines of up to 3,000 dinars ($4,231) and imprisonment in some cases. 

The authoritarian shift 

"I do not think that it is so much that the government used new tools that they did not already have. All of that was done using the normal Jordanian legislation that exists outside the pandemic," says Coogle.  

This authoritarian shift has been acknowledged by Freedom House, which in its Freedom in the World 2021 report downgraded Jordan to a 'not free' status.

"We have seen Jordan becoming more and more comfortable with draconian measures. The situation follows on from what we saw in 2018 and 2019: increasing arrests and crackdowns on political speech and a whole set of prohibitions on political actions like protests," explains Coogle. 

Recent protests were only covered by few independent media outlets and citizens on the ground, while mainstream outlets applied an information blackout.

"Freedom of the press is at the lowest point it has been in many years, both in terms of self-censorship and of subjects that the local press does not cover anymore. There is a lack of space for any kind of critical journalism in the country right now," criticises Coogle. 

NGOs and CSOs have also been affected in terms of receiving funds from abroad or organising public meetings, having to go through never-ending bureaucratic processes that might end up in rejection. 

Read more: Teachers in Jordan are asking for fair pay. Instead, the government launched a violent crackdown

Degradation of the cybersphere 

The internet used to be an open space during the golden age of the early 2000s, but things started to change when Jordanian authorities noticed its potential for political participation, particularly after the 2011 protests.  

The amendment of the Press and Publications Law equated news websites to traditional media, requiring from them a license and fees to be paid, turning the internet into a more restricted space, and curtailing a nascent online media ecosystem by blocking over 300 websites.

Another legal instrument widely applied is the Cybercrime Law, which through Articles 11 and 15 is being used to detain journalists and activists, and the amended 2014 anti-terrorism law, which punishes crimes such as jeopardising Jordan's relations with foreign countries. 

"In the last seven to eight years there has been growing opposition from the government to the internet and efforts to limit it and regulate it," Issa Mahasneh, Executive Director of JOSA, told The New Arab.  

The disruption of social media applications and internet connectivity has become a recurring manoeuvre to handle large demonstrations since 2018 anti-austerity protests, despite the lack of any legal basis to block services such as Facebook Live or, more recently, Clubhouse. 

Political participation has always been very restricted, but the space for open political dialogue has tightened and closed to the point of disappearing

"We think there should be some sort of clarification from the authorities about why some specific apps and services are not accessible during the protests," says Mahasneh.

There is a need for greater transparency when it comes to internet management in Jordan, including information about who is controlling internet infrastructure in the country, an open question for which there is no answer. 

"The government tends to insist over and over that this is a country governed by the rule of law. We tell them 'Ok, if we are, show us the legal basis behind this blocking'," says Sharbain. 

Read more: Jordan arrests 200 in protests over hospital

What is left of Jordan's civic space? 

Political participation has always been very restricted, but the space for open political dialogue has tightened and closed to the point of disappearing.

"Any sort of person or institution that is facilitating any kind of dialogue is going to have problems. Period. You can't do it," says Coogle. 

Although there is no prohibition on organising public activities, Jordanian authorities make the process so difficult, intimidating, and dependent upon the decision of intelligence agencies that people simply give up. 

Any remaining public discussion is held online, mostly on Twitter, but it is also being curtailed by growing surveillance and a takeover by the government, which gives little hope for any kind of political reform to happen.  

Ten years after the Arab Spring in Jordan, there is no sign of reforms, just growing economic and social distress and a reduced space for citizens to express their grievances.  

Victoria Silva is a freelance journalist based in Jordan, covering Middle East affairs for Spanish media.

Follow her on Twitter: @VickyShishaz