Ma’an, Asharq Al-Awsat—Driving into Ma’an on the international highway, which has grown shabby due to lack of maintenance, a visitor might think they are about to arrive in a quiet city where security and peace prevail. There are no pedestrians on the streets, and little traffic. But this impression quickly changes after seeing the Jordanian gendarmerie forces’ armored vehicles sealing off the governorate buildings, the court and security headquarters.
There were also no police officers on the streets when Asharq Al-Awsat was visiting the city. Instead, visitors can see destruction, such as that of government buildings and the Madeenat Al-Hujjaj, where pilgrims pray and buy the things they need. The Housing Bank and the Arab Bank had been burned out, and on their building a banner was raised: “Ma’an, the Fallujah of Jordan, congratulates the Muslim nation on the Omari conquests which God has bestowed upon the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS].” (Omar, the second caliph and a companion of the Prophet, is known for the vast expansion of the Caliphate during his reign.)
Another banner read: “The Friday of supporting ISIS . . . Ma’an, the Fallujah of Jordan, embraces the State of Islam.” Despite all the destruction, the Arab Islamic Bank and the Jordan Islamic Bank were notably left unscathed.
Welcome to Ma’an
Once a bastion of support for the Hashemite ruling family, since the April uprisings of 1989 Ma’an has increasingly become known more for its security problems. Sometimes this instability takes the form of people protesting what they see as the “injustice” of the government; other protests have been inspired by events in the region, such as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Palestinian uprisings, or the Syrian war.
The city of Ma’an, home to 55,000 people, has again seen sporadic clashes between residents and security forces over the past 13 months. Many blame these confrontations on poverty and unemployment, but others point to the presence of hardline Islamist sentiments. Still others try to paint the city as pro-ISIS, hence the banners hung on the bank and the number of black flags seen during marches staged in the city. At least 10 people have died in the clashes so far.
But far from being ISIS supporters, the majority of the city’s inhabitants complain that their living conditions have steadily got worse as a result of this instability. A trader told Asharq Al-Awsat that the number of villagers and Bedouins traveling into the city on business had fallen sharply as a result of the chaos, insecurity and sudden gunfire.
Ahmad Abu Tawilah, a grocer in the Bedouin Market, complained that “sales are almost dead; they dropped to 50 dinars a day.” He said he used to make 700 dinars (about 1,000 US dollars) a day before the crisis took hold.
“A number of wholesalers have started to seriously think about moving to other places outside the city as a result of the heavy losses they sustain. Retailers have also begun to move to Aqaba or Tafilah city,” he said.
The governor of Ma’an province, Ghalib Al-Shumaili, also rejects this characterization of Ma’an as a pro-ISIS province.
“There are hardline political trends that try to throw accusations at the city and portray it as rebellious.” Speaking of a recent pro-ISIS march, he added: “The black flags and the banners of ISIS were raised by some deluded members of that hardline Salafist organization. That march included 46 people, including five members of the organization, and the rest were children.”
“The march was blown out of proportion by the Arab and international media and some news websites. The organizer of the rally was brought down here [the governorate’s headquarters] and offered me a personal apology.”
Majid Al-Sharari Al Khattab, the mayor of the City of Ma’an, even believes the situation in Ma’an was “contrived by the official authorities.”
He claimed that “some officials are trying to demonize the people of Ma’an and paint a lawless picture of the city at home and abroad .”
Touching on a sensitive note, he accused “the security apparatuses of paving the ground for members of the Salafist trend and other hardline organizations and parties to get to where they are now.”
Many in Ma’an say the security services are also responding too harshly to these displays of Salafist sentiment, noting that their city is the only one in Jordan in recent memory where security personnel have opened fire on suspects they were pursuing.
The governor, however, said the security forces’ efforts in the city were part of a “campaign to arrest wanted men who are dangerous to society, particularly as they are armed and now attack the gendarmerie and security patrols with firearms, and open fire every now and then, particularly after midnight, at the gendarmerie forces stationed outside government buildings.”
He said there were “well-known techniques through which the security forces can get to the wanted people and arrest them without losses.”
Most residents of Ma’an who join the security services join the Armed Forces or the Civil Defense service. Fewer join the gendarmerie or the police force, the two bodies responsible for handing the situation in this city. Qasim Al-Khatib, a media professional working at the Al-Hussein Bin Talal University radio station, told Asharq Al-Awsat this may be the reason for the heightened tension between security personnel and residents.
Both the governor and the mayor were quick to point out that, despite the security operations and reports in the regional and international media, there was very little support for ISIS or other hardline organizations, and such groups held no control over the city.
“We have not reached a stage where those [hardline organizations] have taken control of Ma’an’s streets, as the intelligence agency, some media websites and official media figures are trying to show. They exaggerate developments and do not broadcast them as they are,” said Khattab.
He called for opening a dialogue with the government, saying: “Logical ideas should be suggested, and the security agencies should not link the prestige of the state to the issue of Ma’an, because the prestige of the state will never be found in Ma’an.”
Shumaili, the governor , seemed to agree with Khattab, saying: “The talk about the presence of ISIS or Al-Nusra Front [Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria] in Ma’an involved injustice to the inhabitants of the city.
“There are those who sympathize with and support the two organizations, as is the case with those who sympathize with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But associating the city with ISIS or Al-Nusra Front is incorrect and detached from reality.
“The problem of Ma’an, like others, is that there are wanted men who take shelter among members of society, and we in Ma’an agree that those wanted men must turn themselves in, but not in this way.”
Speaking about the rally staged recently in support of ISIS, Shumaili said: “A number of the [Salafist] trend’s youths organized it without referring to us. They were joined by some people who were deluded. The trend issued a statement in which it expressed its rejection of this march, just like the residents of the city who rejected this action.
“The people of Ma’an want to live with dignity or die with dignity.”