Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Jordanian interior minister Hussein Al-Majali discussed the political and security situation inside his country, in addition to the affect that the Syrian refugee crisis is having on Jordan.
Lt. Gen. Hussein Al-Majali was appointed Jordan’s interior minister in March 2013. He is the son of two-time Jordanian prime minister Hazza’ Al-Majali, and previously served as commander of the Royal Guards and ambassador to Bahrain. Majali was later appointed as commander of Jordan’s Public Security Forces, being promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General.
In exclusive comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, Majali discussed his promotion of a ‘soft security’ approach in Jordan, the political crisis between the Amman government and the country’s Islamists, and border security.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you regret the decision you made regarding ‘soft security’?
Hussein Al-Majali: I have no regrets. If you look at Jordan today, we are very thankful for the policy of ‘soft security.’ This was not a decision made individually, but a decision of the state, and circumstances required us to do so. This was the plan of the leadership: to draw a gun on a Jordanian only when necessary to enforce the law. ‘Soft security’ is a new term used post-Arab Spring, but in reality, we adhered to this policy before that.
Q: As the head of public security, how did it feel to see your soldiers and security officers harmed last year?
It made me sad, as it would any person who finds themselves in a situation where they have the power to oppress and get revenge but who does not want to do so. Of course, a soldier must not act on impulse, and his actions need to be based in the work and discipline of the military, and a sense of patriotism and belonging to the land. He must strike a balance between compassion and professionalism. As an administrator, I can give any command and be sure that it is implemented to the fullest extent possible.
The armed forces and the Gendarmerie picked up on the signals and acted appropriately. The thing that I would like to say is that, yes, the leaders of the security agencies were aware of these signs, but good training and institutional capacity allowed these security men to implement the commands in goodwill.
I’d like to cite the example of a small incident that occurred where a group of gendarmes was attacked by a group of five men. One was armed, and a gendarme managed to capture the person that was firing without killing or injuring him.
I asked him: ‘Why didn’t you fire?’ He replied: ‘The reason I did not fire was not out of cowardice or fear; the fact that I took his weapon demonstrates that.’ The alternative could have been much worse.
This is the answer to your question about how I felt when I saw my men exposed to harm. I want to say that the decision to take oppressive measures and seek revenge is both the easiest and most difficult decision to make when you can do whatever you want. But you set yourself straight, because the alternative is much worse.
Q: We’ve begun noticing the presence of Islamist groups in the Jordanian street. Tell us, how does the Ministry of the Interior explain this phenomenon, and how has the Egyptian experience influenced what’s happening in Jordan?
Of course, I cannot read their minds or attend their meetings, which are taking place behind closed doors, but much of what Islamists and those involved with the popular movement demanded has been implemented. They called for a Constitutional Court, constitutional amendments, fair elections, and an independent committee to regulate election laws and political parties. As for the parliamentary election law that the Islamist movement called for, we say: Come to Parliament and change it, rather than by taking to the streets.
Q: In your opinion, why did Islamists not participate in elections?
There are 27 political parties in Jordan. The Islamic Action Front [the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood] has every bit as much value as the other parties, and we deal with it in precisely the same manner that we do other political parties, in the sense that we do not have a hierarchy or ranking of parties. All of them have popularity bases of varying proportions, and the answer to your question is that a series of political reforms cannot come out of a party taking to the streets and demanding a Constitutional Court and fair elections. As interior minister, I say to all of my brothers in the political parties that the rules of the game are clear and the dialogue must take place via the meeting halls, not public squares. Dialogue in the squares is a waste of time, whereas dialogue in the meeting halls is productive. However, I will say that freedom of expression is protected by the constitution and it is the duty of the state to provide protection for those who express their political opinions.
Security forces are protecting protest marches denouncing a range of political topics, and an hour later another march praises this same issue. It is clear that there are different opinions about what is happening in the Arab world. And there is no doubt that the changes among our Arab neighbors have impacted the general political mood, and Left-wing parties especially.
Q: Does the Ministry of the Interior have any studies analyzing the effects of Syrian asylum-seekers on Jordanian society?
Nothing comes without a price. Throughout history, Jordan has been and remains be a safe haven for the Arab people, as we embrace an enormous number of refugees searching for security, stability and an escape from war and destruction. This is a humanitarian, religious and moral duty that comes without any honor or grant and has a significant impact on our society.
Before I begin talking about the effects of this phenomenon, I’d like to thank our brothers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, and Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz, for their help in bearing the heavy burden of assisting refugees. I’d also like to thank friendly countries like the United States and the European Union, which have played significant roles in the field of humanitarian aid.
The Syrian conflict can be divided into two parts: the domestic Syrian crisis and its consequences on Jordan, and the Syrian refugee crisis and its consequences on Jordan. The asylum crisis has many social, economic, and security impacts. We must keep in mind that there are many things that cannot be purchased, such as groundwater, infrastructure, and the availability of public services. Zaatari refugee camp is now home to about 130,000 Syrian refugees; however, the water treatment plants, along with education, health and energy services in the area, are only designed to serve 10,000 people.
Q: What are the daily costs incurred by Jordan for hosting this number of Syrian refugees?
The cost in terms of capital is approximately USD 870 million dollars, with operational costs running at around USD 660 million dollars out of a total of 1.53 USD billion incurred since the beginning of the crisis. There is currently no agreed-upon figure for the total costs, because each institution has its own way of calculating the numbers and there are many unforeseen expenses that often take the form of extra security and military forces being deployed on our borders or processing refugees entering Zaatari camp, along with the provision of assistance and food aid.
We have about 560,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan now. There are approximately 700,000 Syrians living in Jordanian cities who were previously accustomed to travelling between the two countries. When the conflict began they remained in Jordan, utilizing infrastructure, healthcare, public services, etc. This, combined with the extra security expenses, means that we have no definite figures regarding how much this is costing Jordan.
All of this puts a drain on Jordan’s resources, as the money earmarked for Jordan actually makes its way into aid organizations operating within the country and not the general budget of the state.
Q: How can Jordan bear this depletion of resources, especially as the country is now has debts of more than USD 22 billion?
Jordan is a safe haven; even if we have to share some of our livelihood we will not deprive anyone of the privilege to be here. This is the nature of Jordanians and their leadership, and I pray to God that we are never in a position where we would make a different decision. I want to emphasize Jordan’s moral, humanitarian and political commitment.
Q: What mechanisms do Jordanian military forces have to deal with Syrian rebels in the border region, including the Dera’a border crossing that was captured by the Syrian opposition only to be retaken by Assad forces?
If a car enters with complete paperwork, I have two choices: it enters or it returns. We deal with the reality on the ground, and every single case is unique. Since the Syrian issue is so complex, we must use clear policies to deal with it.
Q: Is there coordination between Jordan and Saudi Arabia along the border to prevent smuggling, especially drug smuggling?
Jordan and Saudi Arabia are coordinating in a big way. Over a year ago, we established a joint office based in Amman and run by Jordanian and Saudi military officers to serve as the nucleus of joint operations by Jordan and the GCC.
Q: Have Jordanian security forces seized any weapons along the border with Syria?
Each day we seize smuggled weapons, but it is strange that after investigating we find most of this is done for trade, not terrorist operations.
Q: Is there a fear in Jordan of the jihadist ideology? What about jihadist groups possibly attempting to cross the border into Jordan?
Jihadist ideology must be treated with great care. I do not want to see the creation of “fighters for rent” that move from one area to another; eventually, these people are going to return to their own countries. Jordanians, Saudi Arabians, Egyptians and Moroccans belong to these Salafist groups, so there must be plans in place for dealing with their return in order to contain them.
Q: Do you have any official figures or statistics on the number of Jordanians fighting in Syria as part of these Salafist-jihadist groups? Some say there are at least 3,000 Jordanians fighting in Syria.
These figures are exaggerated. It is impossible to determine their number, because there are Jordanians who may have traveled to Syria from elsewhere, while there are also Jordanians who belong to Tafkirist or jihadist organizations that may have moved abroad, but not to fight in Syria.