Elizabeth K. Parker-Magyar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Jordan’s relatively early and expansive measures to combat the coronavirus appear to have limited the extent of its outbreak thus far, earning the government’s response praise from many quarters. Like those from across the region and the world, the images accompanying the nation’s response have been remarkable: families rushing to local supermarkets, soldiers distributing flowers to those completing quarantines at upscale Dead Sea resorts, individuals queueing for hundreds of yards behind the dukkan that have remerged as the center of neighborhood life. As elsewhere, the images underscore the ongoing mobilization to limit the virus’s lethality that could lead to impactful, long-term transformations in social cohesion, local governance, and state capacity.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the government’s determination to unify the messaging around the state response to the virus. These efforts, which have placed the ministers in Prime Minister Omar Razzaz’s cabinet at the center of public attention, could portend long-term transformations in Jordanian media habits and mark a turning point in the transparency Jordanians expect of their government leaders. At the same time, increased government powers to combat the spread of potentially false information online could also empower the government to impose harsher limitations on public criticism – a troubling development amid continued contestation over freedom of expression. The outcomes of these transformations are less clear than in some of the more repressive states of MENA: the pandemic could leave Jordan with governance that is either far more transparent or far more repressive.
Razzaz’s cabinet, thrust into the spotlight, to thrive or flail
A glance at the nation’s media renders obvious Razzaz’s informational strategy. A parade of ministers have held near-daily press conferences, pushing their messaging out across the government’s social media channels. They have appeared in interviews across the nation’s television channels while explaining the latest on the virus’s spread and the regulations to combat them. As Jordan’s popularly elected but denuded parliament remains virtually absent, Sa’ad Jaber, the nation’s Minister of Health, and Amjad Odailah, the State Minister for Media Affairs, have been particularly omnipresent. In many ways, these ministers have become the face of the government response – perhaps even more so than Razzaz or the monarch himself.
As the virus upends every element of daily life, individuals I have spoken with this week across diverse communities in Jordan underscored their rapt – and unprecedented – attention to government statements and policy. Several elements of the nation’s early response were at times counterproductive and signaled some elements of state weakness. These include early measures that provoked a rush on supermarkets in the hours before the country went on lockdown, and later measures that created crowding at buses delivering bread after five days of lockdown.
By effectively updating less successful policies while publishing a breadth of information, the more recent response suggests the government may have been able to overcome these early mishaps while retaining a high degree of citizen compliance with and support for stringent regulations. At least some of the circulating acclaim is highly nationalist – resurfacing inevitably favorable comparisons between Jordan and its weaker, less transparent, and more repressive neighbors – and highly dependent on continued success in combatting the virus nationally. But those I have spoken with also insisted the governments’ visible efforts to share credible information and to adapt when policies fail could help smooth inevitable moments of confusion moving forward. It can only help regime legitimacy and state efficacy if the public believes that the government can and will respond to popular criticism.
For Jordan’s leaders thus far, the cautious praise accruing to some members of the government is welcome relief after the direct criticism of the monarch and deepening skepticism of Razzaz’s government—particularly its unwillingness to tackle systemic corruption and economic inequalities in the months before the pandemic. The 2018 Arab Barometer surveys in Jordan and regular surveys from the International Republican Institute continue to report declining trust in government and increased beliefs that corruption pervades state institutions, and in particular the government’s ministries.
Nevertheless, concerns around corruption will inevitably hang over the response – and carry the potential to limit its effectiveness. Despite a recent statement from King Abdullah that there are “no places for exceptions due to wasta and favoritism” in the response, reports circulated at the time of writing that Jordan’s agricultural minister had resigned after involvement in the corrupt distribution of permits allowing individuals to circulate during curfew. To a certain extent, the ministers’ resignation also reprises a consistent pattern in Jordanian politics. In allowing ministers to take charge of the response, Jordan’s leaders retain the option of blaming any corruption on these individuals rather than acknowledging corruption as a more systemic issue.
At a moment of unprecedented public scrutiny and demands for transparency, the degree to which Jordan’s leadership directly addresses rather than represses these reports and other inevitable rumors circulating around favoritism – and punishes wrongdoers regardless of status – will be critical in the days ahead.
“Wartime” emergency powers amid limitations on freedom of expression
More worryingly, and as is the case elsewhere in the region, the fight against the pandemic may allow the government to further tighten limitations on freedom of expression under the pretense of controlling the spread of the virus. In announcing the government’s invocation of emergency powers on March 17, Prime Minister Razzaz emphasized the need to “differentiate between the right to express an opinion, which is guaranteed, from the publication of rumors, slanders, and false news that spread panic. We will deal with this [publication] firmly.” Just as it has used the constant publication of fines for at least 1,600 individuals who have broken curfew, those I spoke with this week underscored their beliefs the government would punish or was already punishing those sharing unsubstantiated information.
Even before seizing the new powers, the media publicized several arrests for spreading rumors about the virus. A more recent statement carried across national newspapers raised troubling implications for how favoritism and inter-group politics may impact the application of these laws; as one tribe obliquely threatened prosecution via cyber crime laws of those publishing any information regarding the family, a recent wedding, and the virus’s outbreak in Irbid.
A broad swathe of nations – some democratic and some less so – are working to combat rumors that can weaken the effectiveness of government response, and the Jordanian military’s statements on these measures include valid concerns around the protection of COVID-19 patients’ privacy. At the same time, these emergency powers can also be ripe for abuse in a context where freedom of speech is already highly politicized. Before the virus outbreak, political activism in Jordan had centered on corruption and freedom of expression, especially amid continued arrests of several prominent activists due to their social media posts and the government’s renewed push to strengthen a controversial 2015 Electronic Crimes Law. In Jordan, where opposition movements have in recent years been gaining steam, the government’s seizure of emergency powers could be more impactful than in regimes that already use harsher tools to repress dissent.
The tension between transparent ministerial action and the government’s expansive new emergency powers reveals the potential for a critical inflection point in national governance. Close public scrutiny over each and every step of the nation’s battle with its outbreak could force a turning point in the responsiveness of the government to its citizens. At the same time, the government may be able to use new emergency powers – and broad support to punish those endangering others – as a pretext for further repression of its opponents.
Even as Jordan’s overall rate of infection remains comparatively low, the pandemic’s disruptions are far from over. Individuals in refugee communities that I have spoken with raised fears of scapegoating if an outbreak spreads in their community, or if the national health care system is overwhelmed to the point of rationing. Even spared such worst-case scenarios, the economic costs of Jordan’s stringent crackdown disproportionately fall on the poor and will reinvigorate calls for political reform. But in also generating unprecedented scrutiny on the government’s ministers while empowering that government to impose harsher censorship, the pandemic may also meaningfully transform the participants and content of this debate.
 Taylor Luck, “Jordan announces sweeping new measures to combat coronavirus,” The National, March 17, 2020 https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/jordan-announces-sweeping-new-measures-to-combat-coronavirus-1.993768
 “Thousands of Jordanians leave hotel quarantine as kingdom tightens coronavirus measures,” The New Arab, March 30, 2020, https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2020/3/30/thousands-of-jordanians-leave-hotel-quarantine
 Ahmad Abu Khalil, “The return of the dakakin: How did ‘the victims of growth’ became an option for confronting [the virus]?,” 7iber, March 29, 2020, https://www.7iber.com/society/%d8%b9%d9%88%d8%af%d8%a9-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%af%d9%83%d8%a7%d9%83%d9%8a%d9%86-%d9%88%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%83%d9%88%d8%b1%d9%88%d9%86%d8%a7/
 “Twitter: Prime Ministry JO”, Twitter.com, March 31, 2020, https://twitter.com/PrimeMinistry/status/1245060986358206464?s=20
 “Arab Barometer V: Jordan Country Report,” Arab Barometer, 2019, https://www.arabbarometer.org/wp-content/uploads/ABV_Jordan_Report_Public-Opinion-2019.pdf
 “New Poll: Jordanians Remain Frustrated with the Economy and Government,” International Republican Institute, March 31, 2020, https://www.iri.org/resource/new-poll-jordanians-remain-frustrated-economy-and-government
 “Twitter: King Abdullah II,” Twitter.com, March 31, 2020, https://twitter.com/KingAbdullahII/status/1245059202508349440
 Mohammed Al-Arsan, “(AR) ‘Mobility permits’ are behind the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture,” Ammannet, April 2, 2020, https://ammannet.net/%D8%A3%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1/%D8%AA%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%AD-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%82%D9%84-%D9%88%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A9-%D9%88%D8%B2%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%A9
 “Twitter: Prime Ministry JO,” Twitter.com, March 17, 2020, https://twitter.com/PrimeMinistry/status/1239977492502523904?s=20
 Jane Arraf, “Jordan keeps coronavirus in check with one of the world’s strictest lockdowns,” NPR, March 25, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/03/25/821349297/jordan-keeps-coronavirus-in-check-with-one-of-world-s-strictest-lockdowns
 “Facebook: Alurdunyya.net,” Facebook, March 26, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/Alurdunyya.net/posts/803052016885090/
 “General security: Arrest of the woman who spread terror among Jordanians because of Corona,” Al Roya, March 11, 2020, https://royanews.tv/news/208156
 Ahmed Al Tamimi, “(AH) Statement from the Al-Talafheh clan connected to the ‘zafaf party’ in Irbid,” Al Ghad, March 20, 2020, https://alghad.com/%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%B9%D8%B4%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%AD%D8%A9-%D9%81%D9%8A%D9%85%D8%A7-%D9%8A%D8%AA%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%82-%D8%A8%D9%80%D8%AD%D9%81/
 “(AR) The armed forces warn against circulating personal information and violating the privacy of those infected with the novel coronavirus,” JO24.net, http://www.jo24.net/post.php?id=354880
 The government has recently released at least one of these activists, possibly as part of an effort to de-densify prisons after a riot over reduced visitation during the virus killed two. See: “Coronavirus: Jordan prison riot leaves two dead after visits banned,” Middle East Eye, March 16, 2020, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/coronavirus-two-left-dead-prison-riot-jordan-after-visits-banned
 “Jordan: New Arrests of Activists,” Human Rights Watch, November 28, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/11/28/jordan-new-arrests-activists#
 “Ministry of Health: Covid-19,” Ministry of Health, Accessed March 30, 2020, https://corona.moh.gov.jo/ar
 Laith Al-Ajlouni, “Could Covid-19 push Jordan to the edge?,” Middle East Institute, March 30, 2020, https://www.mei.edu/publications/could-covid-19-push-jordan-edge