Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat—Over the past few decades, the town of Ma’an in southern Jordan has gained a reputation in the rest of the country as a hotbed of violent disorder.
A city steeped in history, it was the launchpad for the Arab Revolt at the beginning of the 20th century and has witnessed a number of dramatic events over the past few years, the result of various political, economic and social problems that have frequently pushed the town, almost 150 miles (around 220 kilometers) south of the capital Amman to boiling point.
Perhaps the most prominent factor in all of the unrest within the city is its economic problems, especially over the past two years. Ma’an has the highest rate of unemployment in Jordan, 20.6 percent compared to the current 11.8 nationwide average.
Along with the poverty, unemployment and lack of services, the city is also the scene of conflicts between the various tribes who live there, in addition to a growing hardline Salafist presence among its population, and—due to Jordan’s status as a “refugee hub”—it has over the years buckled under the extra strain caused by events such as the Iran–Iraq War, the Gulf War, the Palestinian Intifada and most recently, the Syrian crisis.
The most recent problem were the protests and riots that broke out late April following the alleged killing of 20-year-old Qusai Al-Emami by members of the Jordanian gendarmerie. In addition to clashing with security forces, tires were burned on roads, angry protesters threw petrol bombs at bank buildings, and armed gunmen attacked police buildings. The unrest only died down after mediation by a number of community members and prominent Jordanian public figures.
Following the violence, the city’s mayor, Majid Al-Sharari, promptly declared three days of mourning. He accused the security forces of taking what he called “random measures” against the population of the city—and accused the interior minister and heads of the security apparatus of being involved in a “conspiracy” against the people of Ma’an. He said the city had been marginalized and excluded by successive governments and suffered from a marked lack of development. Any projects the government had started there, he said, had failed.
The authorities maintain that security service personnel based in the city do not target law-abiding citizens, only those wanted by the authorities. Speaking of the recent violent events in Ma’an, Jordanian Interior Minister Hussein Al-Majali said: “The security services are not targeting anyone due to their political or religious beliefs or because of any civil gatherings; those who are wanted are outlaws.”
Jordanian members of parliament have long warned of the potential for unrest in the city, pointing out that residents’ grievances have been ignored for years, and with some Jordanians portraying Ma’an as endemically anarchic and lawless. Politicians and observers have expressed their regret regarding what has happened in Ma’an and have highlighted the importance of improving security and strengthening the rule of law. They have maintained, however, that the security solution alone will not be enough in dealing with these problems, the result of longstanding political, social and economic issues.
Dr. Saad Abudayeh, a professor of political science at the University of Jordan, told Asharq Al-Awsat that economic and security mismanagement was the common factor linking the outbreaks of unrest in Ma’an. “Successful management can save what is left to save with initiatives and follow-ups, and this is something that has almost been lost in the way the Ma’an crisis has been handled over the years,” he said.
Abudayeh, a native of the city, said its problems go back to 1983, during the Iran–Iraq War, and a serious slump in Ma’an’s trucking industry, a major local employer. At the time, the government further aggravated the crisis when it decided to import better-quality trucks, rendering those in Ma’an—whose fleet was depleted and badly maintained—surplus to requirements. Despite the Arab press in Europe highlighting the problem at the time, little was done, Abudayeh says, and the city was marginalized yet again.
More violence and rioting erupted on April 17, 1989, after a hike in food and fuel prices—the incident came to be known as Habbat Naysan (The Squalls of April). These events shook the entire country, requiring an intervention from the late King Hussein, who famously said at the time: “This is one of the characteristics of living nations.”
Problems continued in the 1990s. A marked increase in bread prices in 1996 led to further violence and unrest in the city, while in 1998 a visit by a controversial MP, Leith Shubeilat, also sparked off riots.
The first decade of the new century followed the same trend. “In 2002 there were more serious crises and during these . . . the administration acted harshly,” said Abudayeh. “During the government of Ali Abu Al-Ragheb there was an unjustified use of force when Ma’an was stormed by the military, which led to an anger that has remained in the memory of the people of the city. The reasons this time were related to the arrest of wanted persons suspected of smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Territories.”
He added: “During the past year and the current year, the same mistakes have been repeated by the local authorities . . . Complaints have continuously been made by the people of Ma’an about the police since June 2013, when people were killed even though they were only wanted for theft or smuggling from Aqaba.”
“Why does the government implement preventative measures in south Amman that rely on intelligence while, at the same time carrying out killings in Ma’an…and does not rely on intelligence in order to avoid bloodshed?” he asked.
“In June 2013, people were killed . . . they were young people, they did not have jobs,” he said. “In early 2014, another person was killed during a security operation and the story given by the security authorities was unfair as it spoke about an exchange of gunfire. I interviewed the person who was with the victim and he told me he was standing in front of a shawarma stand at the time.”
Last March, a 19-year-old man was also killed in Ma’an during an operation carried out by security forces. Official accounts stated he had 79 previous convictions. But Abudayeh is skeptical: “How could someone so young accumulate so many convictions?” he asks. “Perhaps it could be in the Guinness Book of Records.”
The people of Ma’an complain that these killings are unwarranted and that they are specifically being targeted by the security forces. People are not killed in other parts of Jordan merely due to committing acts of theft, they say. (Residents often joke that the value of everything stolen in Ma’an does not equal that of one car stolen in the south of Amman.)
Abudayeh believes these suspicions regarding official attitudes toward the city and its marginalization are justified, pointing to a “lack of participation of Ma’an citizens in leading and significant posts in Amman, such as in the Royal Court, the presidential body, and the foreign office” as proof.
However, a solution remains in the authorities’ reach, he concludes. “In short, if there is political will and the administration wants the solution, the solution will not be difficult,” he said.
Mohammed Abu Saleh, head of the committee appointed by the government to examine Ma’ans problems, believes that to deal with the crisis in Ma’an all parties must recognize the mistakes they have committed and take responsibility for their actions.
Nonetheless, he was scathing in his criticism of the authorities. “The threatening discourse used by the minister of interior will not work with the people of Ma’an. He is accusing the citizens of Ma’an of defending outlaws. This is in complete contrast to our demand that the law be applied to everybody without discrimination,” he said.
Abu Saleh also warned that any punitive measures were likely to backfire. “Ma’an does not and will not care about these threats,” he said. “On the contrary, they will make its people stronger and more determined to demand their rights and to hold accountable those who violate their rights.”
“We are on the same side as the law of those who apply the law respect the law . . . We call for an investigation to be carried out by credible and impartial bodies to inform the Jordanian public of the violations carried out against citizens in Ma’an and the lack of credibility in dealing with the city’s issues demonstrated by the agencies involved,” he concluded.