The recent violence at two universities in Southern Jordan, Mu’tah University and Al Hussein bin Talal, along with clashes taking place off campus, may in fact be a sign that much worse is about to happen in Jordan. But the American news media are not doing much reporting on the story as they focus on the “Arab Spring” and relentlessly cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On March 28, riots broke out at Mu’tah University after the student union elections. A few days later, more violence broke out wherein a 21-year-old student died, eight others were injured, property was damaged, and the university’s classes were shut down until April 6.
Another confrontation erupted there a week later but was curtailed by the university administration before it spread to more students.
On Monday, April 30, the anniversary of the founding of the Al Hussein University, campus violence broke out between students of different clans. During an open house gathering, a young student (who came from another city) sought protection with members of the al-Houaytet Clan against Ma’an Clan members who claimed he had hurt one of them.
The al-Houaytet anger was targeted at both the rival clan members and the security forces trying to stop the riots. The testimony of one university student made it clear that the violence began with stone-throwing, but, with weapons supplied by tribe members, it ended in the killing of four: a university student, a professor, a visiting high school student, and a police officer. Two of the victims were members of the al-Houaytet clan.
However, it did not stop there. Members of the clan brought their fury to the streets with the burning of tires and obstructions on the main road as they stopped vehicles, demanding to see passengers’ ID cards.
Additional confrontations have occurred in several Ma’an towns as young locals continue to block roads searching for opponents from rival tribes. Hundreds of young men, mostly from the al-Houaytet clan, tried to raid a security precinct in Al Hussainiyah, a Ma’an town, and a police officer was shot and rushed to Prince Zaid bin-al-Hussein military hospital.
On Friday, May 3, hundreds of angry Shi’a residents of Karak stormed a building owned by the Shi’ite Bohra sect, a sub-sect of Shi’a Isma’ili Muslims. Some of the rioters set it ablaze, while others prevented firefighters from saving it. These residents are also refusing to allow Bohra visitors into the region and are demanding that another Bohra building under construction be stopped.
The Karak riots seem to be a reaction to the expansion of the Bohra and may appear to be unrelated to the campus violence. However, there is a similarity. The conflicts are between clans, and the number of clan confrontations seem to be growing as King Abdullah II’s inability to control the clan leaderships grows.
In light of the volatility on campuses and in the streets of southern Jordan, it was the various local clan leaders, not the monarchy, that have gotten together to sign an agreement, an “Atwah,” in an attempt to ward off further acts of violent retaliation as they seek out the guilty parties.
The next few weeks may prove who has more influence in Jordan: the clans or the king.
A number of Arab journalists have offered comments on what they see as the reason for the recent uprisings, how to deal with them, and how they may affect the future of Jordan and the monarchy. Most of them seem to be missing the mark.
Columnists from Al Rai and Al Arab Al Yawm see the unrest on the campuses as problems the universities have created themselves. Al Rai journalist Mohammad Shahwan sees university admission criteria as the “major cause” of campus confrontations, pointing to the lower academic standards set by the schools, which admit students who are “delinquents” not interested in studying and getting good grades.
Al Rai‘s journalist Mohammad Akoush blames the violence on the free time students have, which they are spending foolishly in cafés when they should be reading books and being in the library. Adnan Zu’bi, an Al Arab Al Yawm columnist, concurs, putting the blame squarely on the universities’ administrators, who he says “bear responsibility for all types of violence happening on their campuses.”
But there are other journalists who have opinions of the underlying issues that seem closer to reality.
Fahred Khitan wrote in the Al Ghad Arabic daily that “[t]he state has given up the rule of law and surrendered to social forces and some powerful individuals,” where some violations of the law have gone unpunished and in some cases, were even condoned. “In other words, power has surpassed the law and the state.” Khitan sees the conflict as the “dominance” of tribal customs over law and order.
In a similar vein, Batir Wardam wrote in the Ad Dustour newspaper that campus violence is due to a “wider division” in Jordanian society which comes from a growing distrust in the government, widespread feelings of class warfare, and the slow progress of development projects. He concludes that these social perceptions have led to a diminishing loyalty to country and king.
Mudar Zahran, a Palestinian writer and academic from Jordan now residing in the U.K. as a political refugee, added substance on Facebook yesterday.
“East Banker-Bedouin militias took control of the southern part of Jordan,” claims Zahran as he posts photos displaying this very fact — “gun battles raging, tribal checkpoints revisiting Lebanese civil war, and open challenges for the regime ‘to dare to step in[.]'” [T]his will escalate further in the months to come. Ma’an is burning”
There are many Middle East experts, as well as Jordanians and Palestinians, who are watching the growing instability in southern Jordan, the Syrian civil war, and the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee spilling into Jordan’s northern region and questioning whether the Hashemite leader has the ability to hold Jordan’s factions and sects together while the clout of the long-established tribal system is strengthening.
In fact, given the increase in the Bedouins’ discontent with King Abdullah’s decisions in the last year, many who had been the king’s loyal supporters, and decades of Palestinian discontent from being marginalized by the Hashemites, the monarchy may be at a critical point in its rule over Jordan.
As we are witnessing today in Arab countries engaged in a failing “Arab Spring,” without a strong leader skilled in handling the clans and able to unite them as a nation under his leadership, these Muslim countries seem to be falling backwards in history to the tribal structure that they have been familiar with for centuries.
And, as we have seen in all these politically evolving Islamic nations, the most important issue is who seizes the opportunity to fill the void.
In the case of Jordan, should King Abdullah lose his power, one has to hope that the non-sectarian forces, with their vested interest in bringing stability to the region and finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian, will replace him.