The Struggle to Re-Politicize the Political: The Discourse on Economic Rights in the Jordanian Popular Movement 2011-2012

This is part of POMEPS Studies 36: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Sara Ababneh, University of Jordan

This paper examines how the discourse advanced by some youth activists in the Hirak on economic rights challenges hegemonic understandings of what constitutes ideal political reform in Jordan. Since 1989 oppositional work in Jordan has mainly focused on reforming electoral and political party laws. Many of the Hiraki youth activists, by contrast, insisted that real reform was not the reform of a Lower House which has little power. Instead they called for economic reform which they maintained was at the heart of political decision-making and sovereignty. 

Before examining the demands of the activists, let me first define the Jordanian Popular Movement (al Hirak al Sha‘bi al Urduni, Hirak in short). The Hirak is constituted of various actors and groups which emerged in Jordan alongside the Arab uprisings (2011-2012). Broadly speaking the Hirak was comprised of political parties, nascent groups which emerged during the Hirak, such as youth groups and governorate groups, and worker’s groups (also known as single issue groups) which protested alongside the Hirak.  Some of these worked together, others did not. They sometimes had overlapping agendas and often their agendas differed. What enables us to describe them all as part of the Hirak (as part of one broader phenomenon) is that they organized and protested during 2011-2012. In this paper, I draw on interviews conducted with youth activists from various nascent groups such as the governorate groups of al Tafileh, Hay al Tafaileh, and the youth groups al Hirak al Shababi, Amman, Jayeen, and the Change and Liberation Current.[1]

A Hierarchy of Demands

Since Jordan’s so-called democratization in 1989, oppositional work has focused on the underrepresentation of Palestinian-Jordanians in the Jordanian Lower House as a result of Jordan’s one person, one vote electoral law and on increasing freedom for political parties. The Islamic Action Front as well as leftist political parties’ key demand focused on changing electoral and political party laws to achieve more equal representation and allow more freedom of political organization.[2]  The prioritization of these demands continues in much of the literature on the Hirak.[3] Discussing the Jordanian Hirak, Hassan al Barari argues that changing the electoral law and the gerrymandered Jordanian parliament [4] are the most pressing issues facing Jordan.[5]   Sean Yom and Hisham al Bustani, too, maintain that the main demands the Hirak focused on were political change and calls for constitutional monarchy.[6]

When workers’ movements, or single issues movements as they were sometimes called, emerged in 2006, they were dubbed Hirak matlabi.[7] At the time many political analysts considered these movements politically naive. It was argued that by focusing on individual issues, participants of these movements had not reached the political awareness necessary to be true political actors and affect real political change.[8] Many of the youth activists who had previously been part of political parties such as the Communist Party, the National Unitary Party, or the Islamic Action Front agreed with this conception of the hierarchy of demands, regarding economic demands as unsophisticated and true political demands as those demands which addressed parliamentary, legislative, or constitutional reform.

However, after participating in the Hirak, some of the activists began to think differently. Kamel,[9] an activist who was in his early twenties when he was in al Hirak al Shababi Amman, reflects on how the words of a relative changed his notion of what the required political reforms should be:

[My relative] said to me ‘I used to fill up the car for JD 40 [$56]. Now I have to pay JD 100 [$140].’ To be honest we need to take responsibility for tatfish (pushing away) this group of people, when we started writing down political slogans which had no relation to people’s life, like demanding an elected government, to dissolve the Upper House, [or] to restrict the power of the king. Demonstrators did not take to the streets because of these matters! A placard that captured what they went to the streets for was one which had a picture of a loaf of bread with the caption “Where are you my dear?”[10]

(Photo taken from Ammannet, 2012)[11]

During this early period of the Hirak, which lasted from mid-January to 24 March 2011, Amman-based political parties dictated many of the slogans raised in protests. However, after the crackdown on 24 March in Amman, [12] the Hirak mostly moved to the governorates, and most political parties’ impact became marginal. During what I elsewhere refer to as the second and third phases of the Hirak, so-called political demands receded into the background. 

The distinctions among groups of the Hirak were not so clear cut, especially in the first phase, with debates happening among them. Looking at one example in Hay al Tafaileh, which Yazan Doughan examines in more depth in this collection, three groups were initially active. One group called for more services for the Hay exclusively, what is often referred to as matlabi (service-based) demands. The other two groups mostly worked on demanding structural changes. They had been formed almost simultaneously by different groups of acquaintances. Once these two groups found out about each other they merged since they mainly worked on the same issues – what they referred to as political reform. Upon closer inspection, however, what they called administrative and financial reform were mostly economic rights. Differentiating between these groups and the matlabi group, Walid, a youth activist from the Hay, told me that the matlabi group simply asked for certain privileges for the Hay (muhasasa)[13].  Later on, this group too joined the other two groups because its members came to the conclusion that the services they were asking for are economic rights to which all Jordanians are entitled.[14]

A Discourse of Economic Rights

Once the Hirak moved out of Amman, and nascent groups, especially governorate groups, which emerged during the Hirak took over, activists increasingly focused on economic demands. These demands can be categorized as spanning over three levels: the individual, the state and the international level. 

The individual level

On the individual level activists argued that as Jordanians they have rights which guarantee them a dignified life. Activists understood economic rights as encompassing the constitutional right to work, the right to health care, and the right to free primary and secondary education. Activists’ demands stemmed from their own experiences. For instance, Al Hirak al Shabibi Amman activist Ayyoub had been struggling to put himself through university:

Why can’t I get educated without my blood being sucked out of me? How can one [university] credit hour jump from JD 70-80 [$98 – $112] to JD 200 [$282] for a master’s program? The state should be able to guarantee its citizens dignified work, not necessarily directly in the public sector. It could be in the private sector by protecting its citizens [through laws].[15]

Zakariyya, a member of the Tafileh Hirak, explained what social justice means in terms of education. He laments:

When in 18 schools serving the Bedouins of the South and North only two students pass their [tawjihi] exams then this country has lost one of its main characteristics. …Now both education and health are no longer there in Jordan to be honest. If you have money you can get cured, if you don’t you don’t get cured. If you don’t send your child to a private school, there is no hope.[16]

Hiraki demonstrations usually called for social justice, with the slogan “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice” among the chants mostly used. Hirak activists referred to the constitution and various laws to make the case that they had a right to social justice as Jordanian citizens. The social justice they envisioned entitled them to excellent schooling, health care, and social security among other rights.

The state level

Activists connected the deterioration of their everyday living conditions to the macroeconomic policies pursued by the state. Furthermore, for them the inability of the state to guarantee its citizens these economic rights was linked to the state’s (continuing) privatization of national industries and resources.[17]

In Tafileh three companies were privatized: phosphate, cement, and potash. Many of the activists had worked in these companies.[18] The cement factory in Rishdiyya was sold to the French company La Farge in 2001. Yehiya worked in the cement factory. He recalls that once the company was sold he and his colleagues were put under a lot of pressure to resign. The company started transferring employees to positions that had nothing to do with their expertise. Workers saw these policies as a direct form of pressuring them to leave the company. Yehiya recalls that when he left the cement factory around 1,200 workers worked there. At the time I interviewed him he told me only about 60 workers were left.[19]

Activists critiqued privatization on multiple levels. Firstly, they argued that privatization deprived Jordan of its natural resources and sources of income. Secondly, they argued that privatization was implemented in a corrupt fashion. National industries were thus sold off for prices far below their market value.[20] Thirdly, activists maintained that privatization did not protect the interest of Jordanian workers.  Finally, many activists believed that since the people are the owners of Jordan’s natural resources it was not the right of the government or regime to sell these resources. They believed that these decisions should be part of democratic decision making. Only the people could make such a decision. Many therefore concluded that privatization was unconstitutional.

Activists had a strong sense that public money truly belongs to the Jordanian people and that the Jordanian people should have a say as to how this money is spent. Moreover, justice required that the stolen money is returned to the people. This extended to returning the national companies that had been privatized. As one activist concluded, “Our goal was to demand that the Phosphate Company be returned to its true owner: the people (al Sha’b) .”[21]

The international level

Fighting corruption was one of the main slogans raised during the Hirak. However, unlike liberal definitions which understand corruption to be the act of individuals, activists critiqued certain structures and policies as inherently corrupt. These were not just national structures and policies, but also international policies imposed from the outside. For many Hirakis privatization (khaskhasa) and investment (istithmar) were processes that are corrupt in their very essence, imposed by a corrupt international system.  Hirakis conceptualized corruption not only as a national malaise but as a problem directly related to the international system and pressures inflicted on Jordan. Walid, an activist from Hay al Tafaileh who was in his early twenties at the time of the Hirak, saw investment as it is practiced as a corrupt structure:

The corrupt who stole my country, and sold all its resources to foreign occupiers, under the guise of investment… As a result of this political decision making and national decisions became hostage to the IMF and the programs of the IMF.[22]

Walid criticizes the very nature of IMF programs as being corrupt, not just those individuals who implement these programs. Investment as practiced in Jordan, Walid maintained, does not benefit Jordanians.

What types of agreements are these when the foreign investor is not forced to employ [Jordanians]? And is not forced to train the workforce? How are [foreign investors] allowed to buy more shares than those of the government? How can these agreements be renewed without the additional approval of future governments?[23]

Walid argued that the state has no real sovereignty when it comes to these decisions. He calls it colonization and not investment (isti’mar mish istithmar). These agreements, he added, “are gifts for investors”[24] to the determent of most Jordanians. Walid’s notion of colonialism is strikingly similar to Nkruma’s understanding of neo-colonialism:

The essence of neo-colonialism is that the state which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.[…] For those who practice it, it means power without responsibility, and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress.[25]

Activists critiqued the way powerful states and non-state actors interfered in Jordanian decision making, whether it was politically in terms of Palestine, or economically in terms of pushing for privatization, foreign investment, and austerity programs. They concluded that the interest of international actors and not citizens dictated what policies were pursued. The problem, as Hirakis pointed out, is not that they cannot freely elect the Lower House, Upper House, government or even the ruler. The problem is that despite not being under direct colonial rule, Jordan does not truly possess sovereignty, especially economic sovereignty. International institutions such as the IMF, were seen as acting in the interest of their own member states at the determent of Jordanians. The policies recommended by these institutions were seen as corrupt.

When speaking about the regime, it is therefore important to take the influence of international forces into account. The regime is “not merely an ensemble of “national” class and state forces, but … also [as] the playing field of regional, international, and transnational actors.”[26] Or, in Adam Hanieh’s words, “The nation-state cannot be understood as self-contained political economy separate from the ways it intertwines with other spatial scales, namely the regional and global.” [27] By connecting the national to the international, activists highlight that no true solutions can be reached on the national level alone. Beyond that, more  powerful states’ interests have a more significant impact on what happens in Jordan. Powerful states such as the US and international organizations, in specific the IMF and World Bank, are main players whose interests not only directly contradict the interests of Jordanians but trump them when decisions are being made. Economic policies, such as promoting investment and privatization, play specific roles to ensure not the interests of Jordanians but that of the main member states of the IMF and big multi-national companies.[28] Without using the term, protestors pointed to the fact that small countries like Jordan do not possess economic sovereignty, meaning that economic decisions were not made on the national level and that the interests pursued by these policies were not those of Jordanians. To a certain degree, the struggle of Hirakis was a fight for economic sovereignty.

The Economic is Political

Whether it is international donors who work on democratization, Jordanian political parties (leftist, liberal or Islamist), or so called civil society organizations, there seems to be a consensus that political reform understood mainly as electoral and political party law reform is what Jordan requires on its road to democratization. Hirakis departed from the language of political reform. Instead they called for economic rights and social justice. They foregrounded the economic on every level, showing that in fact a notion of politics that does not include economics is depoliticized. Furthermore, they pointed out that addressing rights on the national level alone is insufficient to guaranteeing these rights.

Rather than being politically naïve and unsophisticated, Hirakis redefined the political, insisting on placing the economic at its heart. Like their revolutionary counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, Jordanian protestors  struggled  to maintain a dignified life in a global context in which most decisions are not taken on the national level. Activists protested that policies and recommendations of international agencies such as the IMF dictate Jordanian policy.  In order to address the grievances of Hirakis Jordan would need to have economic sovereignty. Political changes which cannot influence economic decision making would be futile in bringing about the required change. As a result efforts to democratize (politically), divorcing this from democratic mechanisms to reach economic decision making, the state cannot address the grievances against which protestors are fighting.[29] In addition to pointing to a crisis in democracy,[30] protestors’ discussion of economic rights and economic decision making can also be understood as fighting against ‘neo-colonialism’ as conceptualized by Nkrumah.

Demands for political reform which do not address the connections between national and international decision making can do very little to truly address the causes of the grievances most citizens face on the individual level. Jordanian Hirakis, like protest movements around the globe, started from their own predicaments to think about what true democracy might look like, democracy in which citizens do not just have the ability to affect politics but also economic decisions. More importantly, Hirakis were holding on to a version of rights in which citizens are guaranteed dignity and social justice regardless of the political process of decision making. The structure of a system which is able to produce such social justice is at the heart of their struggle, in 2011 as much as today.



[1] Most of the people I interviewed for this paper can be considered youth (between 18 and 35), though others were older. While most of the quotes I draw stem from youth, I did not notice any difference in attitude according to the age of the study’s participants overall.

[2] Myriam Ababsa, “Citizenship and Urban Issues in Jordan.” In Cities, Urban Practices and Nation Building in Jordan. Villes, pratiques urbaines et construction national en Jordanie, ed. Myriam Ababsa and Rami Daher (Presse de l’Institut Français du Proche-Orient, 2011), 40.

[3] Exceptions to this portrayal are the works of Fida Adely, Malika Bouziane and Katharina Lenner, and Curtis Ryan.

Fida Adely. “The Emergence of a New Labor Movement in Jordan.” Middle East Research and Information (2012), (accessed on 26 May 2014).

Malika Bouziane and Katharina Lenner, “Protests in Jordan: Rumblings in the Kingdom of Dialogue,” Working Paper, Protests, revolutions and transformations – the Arab World in a Period of Upheaval (Center for Middle Eastern and North African Politics, Freie Universität Berlin, 2011). (accessed 17 June 2014).

Curtis Ryan. 2018. Jordan and the Arab Uprisings: Regime Survival and Politics Beyond the State. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018)

[4] The 1993 electoral law institutionalized a single non-transferable vote. This undermined political parties, especially the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, rural areas (with exception of the Badia) inhabited mostly by Eastbank Jordanians have received more seats per votes than urban areas in which most Palestinian-Jordanians live. As a result Palestinian Jordanians have been underrepresented in the parliament.

[5] Hassan Barari, “The Limits of Political Reform in Jordan,” 2013. 3, 6.

[6] Hisham Bustani, “The Alternative Opposition in Jordan and the Failure to Understand Lessons of Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions,” accessed: January 15, 2015,  Jadaliyya (2011): 1, Karmel, “How Revolutionary was Jordan’s Hirak?” 2.

Sean L. Yom, “Tribal Politics in Contemporary Jordan: The Case of the Hirak Movement,” Middle East Journal 68.2 (2014): 229.

[7] Matlabi literally translates into demands-based (adjective). However, it is often translated into service Hirak because this type of Hirak is seen as making certain demands for a small group of people rather than asking for legal reform for all citizens.  I have shown elsewhere that this reading of Hirak Matlabi is inaccurate. The Day Wage Labor Movement for example, while making specific demands for the day wage workers as a group, in fact made legal demands (adherence to labor law) which would benefit all workers in Jordan. Thus by focusing on their own predicament, these workers sought to change law which effected all of Jordan. The difference between Hirak Matlabi and some political parties is not that one is apolitical and the other is political. Rather it is that rather than starting from abstract political principals, Matlabi groups start from a problem and focus on this problem. For further discussion see

Sara Ababneh, “Troubling the Political: Women in the Jordanian Day-Wage Labor Movement,” (2016), International Journal of Middle East Studies, (vol 48, issue 1),

[8] Former MP’s view Bassam Hadadin in the article below is only one example of this type of thinking

Muhammad Al-Najar,’Hal tantaqel al moa’arda lela’sha’er a’l ordunya?’ (does the opposition transfer to the Jordanian tribes) 2010, Aljazeera.هلتنتقلالمعارضةللعشائرالأردنية , Accessed 8 September 2019

Al Hourani, “ ‘awdat al-harakat al ejtimaeeya’ (The Return of the Social Movements), Alghad, 25 July 2011,عودةالحركاتالاجتماعية/ (accessed 8 September 2019)

[9] Most of the activists I interviewed insisted to be cited under their real names in my research. However, since the political climate has changed substantially since the protests I have decided to use pseudonyms in this paper. 

[10] Kamel, interview with the author. 16 August 2016, Kamel’s home.

[11] Ammannet. “After a Year of the Hirak, al Husseini Demonstration: The Will of the People “Where are you my Dear”? 4 January 2012,, accessed 29 May 2019.

[12] A group of youth activists from different ideological backgrounds organized the protest on Friday, 24 March 2011 as an attempt to establish a permanent protest ground in Jordan akin to Midan al Tahrir in Egypt. The protestors were forcefully dispersed by the riot police on the night/morning of 25 March 2011, however. Activists accused the state of using divide-and-rule tactics in the subsequent smear campaign against the protest and its organizers.

[13] Muhasasa translates into dividing shares. It refers to the notion that there are different identity groups which feel entitled to a number of shares. To give an example of this, in government people from city X or region X are entitled to a certain number of ministerial seats.

[14] Walid, interview with the author, 21 Dec 2015, Hay al Tafaileh.

[15] Ayyoub. Interview with the author and Omar al Omari. 18 May 2016, home of the author

[16] Zakariya. Interviewed by the author, Tafileh, 16 February 2016.

[17] The analysis on which activists drew closely resembled that of the economic paper of the Military Veterans. However, when I asked them about the paper, only very few had read it. Rather than being influenced by reading, the discourse of activists mostly emerged from their own experiences.

[18] Ma’abreah, Mohammad. Interview with the author, 15 February 2015.

[19] Yehiya, interview with the author, 15 February 2015.

[20] See Economic Paper of Military Veteran, 2010,شاعر-الأردن-مصطفى-وهبي-التل-عرار-/نص-بيان-المتقاعدين-العسكريين-الورقة-الاقتصادية-فضايح-الحرامية/184952521544274

[21] Yunes. Interviewed by the author, 14 February 2016, al Tafieleh.

[22] Walid. Interview with the author. 21 December 2015, Hay al Tafaileh.

[23] Walid. Interview with the author. 21 December 2015, Hay al Tafaileh.

[24] Walid. Interview with the author. 21 December 2015, Hay al Tafaileh.

[25] He is referring to Nkrumah, Kwame. Neo-colonialism: The last stage of imperialism. Vol. 140. London: Nelson, 1965.

[26] Brecht De Smet. “Review Article: Revolutionary Desire and the Limits of Democratic Transition in Egypt,” Workers of the World, Vol. 1, No. 7, November 2015, 74.

[27] Adam Hanieh, Lineages of Revolt. Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), p.10

[28] Adam Hanieh, Lineages of Revolt. Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013)

[29] Hanieh, Adam. Lineages of Revolt. Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2013), p. 5.

[30] Held, David. “The Overlapping Crises of Democracy, Globalization and Global Governance.” Social Europe (blog), 2018. Held, David. Models of Democracy, (Standford; Standford University Press, 2006) Held, David; Goldblatt, David; McGrew, Athony; Perraton, Jonathon. Global transformations: politics, economics and culture. (Standford; Standford University Press, 1999)