Youth, Activism, and Protest: Jordan’s Movement Against Israeli Gas

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

Curtis R. Ryan, Appalachian State University

When the ‘Arab Spring’ emerged in Tunisia in December 2010 and later in Egypt in January 2011, Jordanians were already protesting and demonstrating for changes in government and policy.[1] The Jordanian version of the ‘Arab Spring’ was unique. It didn’t take a turn toward revolution, a coup d’état, or civil war. But Jordanians were not by any means quiet or quiescent, and found many novel ways to press new political demands.[2]

Protest politics in the Hashemite Kingdom has ranged from labor activism[3], to activism by largely youth-led ‘Hirak’ movements,[4] military veterans’ organizations,[5]  as well as both traditional (e.g. parties and professional associations) and newer forms of activism.[6] (On activism in Jordan, see also the essays by Ababneh and Doughan in this volume). Jordan has over the years seen frequent surges of activism and protest.[7] Recently, unemployed individuals marched to the capital in a protest over unemployment and economic hardship, with more and more joining as the march went on. This walking protest followed massive demonstrations from the preceding summer when, in June 2018, thousands protested night after night during Ramadan against tax laws, economic austerity, corruption, and more.[8] Even more recently, protests were organized against the visit to the kingdom of Trump presidential advisor Jared Kushner and his attempt to sell an alleged ‘Deal of the Century’ to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[9] Protests, in short, are not in any way new in Jordan, but topics, themes, strategies, and tactics have changed over time.

This paper examines the role of youth in a particular Jordanian activist campaign: the protest movement against Jordan purchasing Israeli gas. I previously wrote about the emergence of this movement and its specific tactics and strategies.[10] This paper examines more specifically the youth role and contribution to the emergence, development, and ultimate outcomes of the movement against Israeli gas. The movement has been (so far) unsuccessful at changing state policy. But it was very successful in terms of mobilization and creating a broad, diverse, and inclusive coalition that truly looked like Jordan. The movement was also innovative in its strategies for activism and what some activists referred to as their ‘protest repertoires’. Many activists in the movement, in fact, credit youth participation for these innovations.[11]

Protesting the Jordanian Gas Deal with Israel

In 2014, Jordan’s National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) signed a Letter of Intent to begin importing most of Jordan’s natural gas from the Leviathan oil field – an oil field controlled by Israel, but considered by many Jordanians to be rightfully Palestinian. The deal agreement led to the birth of a new protest movement, reinvigorating street activism across the kingdom. Protests during the Arab Spring era (roughly 2011 to 2013) had been waning for years, but this deal seemed to rejuvenate a host of grassroots organizations, united in their opposition to the gas deal with Israel. The movement’s slogan – “the gas of the enemy is occupation” – summarized the main objections. Jordan, many argued, would almost be subsidizing Israeli occupation by paying Israel for what many considered to be Palestinian gas. The slogan is meant to have a dual meaning, however, and also suggests that the deal “signifies an extension of Israeli occupation into Jordan by giving Israel the upper hand in Jordan’s energy needs and electricity production.”[12]

The movement was particularly striking for three reasons: the diversity of its membership, its commitment to inclusive organization, and the innovative nature of its methods. In terms of composition, the movement turned into one of the broadest and most eclectic movements in Jordanian history. It included activists from many of the largely youth-based Hirak movements, but also comprised a host of other movements, associations, and parties. These included leftist and Pan-Arab nationalist parties, Islamist activists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front, members of Jordan’s labor and trade unions, the retired military officer’s organization, women’s rights organizations, and Jordan’s local BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement. The one weak link, perhaps, may have been between the movement and Jordan’s very politically active professional associations. Some activists, at least, complained that their efforts to lobby the professional associations to join the cause were limited in success because, as one activist put it, the associations “were more interested in ‘acquiring’ the campaign rather than supporting it or supporting its cause.”[13]

The protest movement was also very well organized, including committees and subcommittees for various tasks, from research and analysis to campaign strategies and tactics. The many groups, parties, and organizations that made up the movement sent representatives to committee meetings that emphasized inclusion and democratic voting processes. So the movement overall was broad and diverse, but not unwieldy. To the contrary, its sheer level of organization was a prominent feature of the protest movement.

There is a long history of Palestinian and pro-Palestine activism in Jordan, in part because this coincides with Jordanian public opinion, but also because it has often been read by the government as a (sometimes) kind of permissible activism that usually does not directly challenge the regime itself. Even the anti-normalization campaign that started in the 1990s opposed the 1994 peace treaty with Israel and tried to prevent normalization of relations across the two societies (by opposing professional and academic exchanges, for example), but it didn’t challenge the Hashemite state. This newer movement, however, was unique in other ways. It was a kind of pro-Palestine and pro-Palestinian activism, to be sure, but it was also focused mainly on Jordan — on its policies, its economy, its sovereignty, and its future.

Strategies, Tactics, and Protests

In terms of methods, the movement did indeed hold traditional demonstrations, with signs, marches, and chants, attempting to sway the government away from the deal with Israel. These took place in Amman but also in Irbid, Zarqa, and other cities, since the movement was determined not to be unique to Amman alone. In this regard, activists were quite cognizant of the common complaint in Jordan that many protest movements born in the capital stay there, rather than becoming truly national. Some activists in other parts of the country, and perhaps especially in the south of Jordan, complain of liberal activism as specifically a West Amman phenomenon. This is in contrast to movements that self-consciously started in areas that might be regarded as economically peripheral, like the many innovations created by Jordan’s day wage labor movement, as shown in the work by Sara Ababneh.[14]

In addition to its commitment to social and geographic diversity and representation, the movement against Israeli gas was also quite innovative in its approaches to tactics and strategies. These included staging a public mock trial over the controversial policy, wearing and distributing T-shirts (with the campaign’s slogans) at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup (held in Jordan in 2016), and collective actions that mobilized people far beyond the movement itself, like periodic and coordinated “blackouts” when citizens would simultaneously turn out their lights for one hour each week.

The movement also succeeded in bringing the gas deal issue to the floor of parliament. In December 2014, after a lengthy discussion, Jordanian MPs voted overwhelmingly (107-13) to reject the agreement and urged the government to cancel it. But Jordan’s parliament is not particularly strong and this remained a non-binding resolution. Still, activists saw it as a major victory, and certainly something to build on. Some of the MPs most active in this process, however,  such as Hind al-Fayez and Rula Hroub, lost their parliamentary seats in the elections that followed (in 2016), in circumstances still regarded as suspect by some activists.[15] That same year, the government signed an official deal to purchase gas from Israel after all.

The issue continually returns to Jordan’s parliament, however, as many MPs are still opposed to the deal and want the government to change course. In March 2019, the movement scored another major victory in parliament, when Jordan’s House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly against the deal. Jordan’s speaker of the house, Atef Tarawneh, stated flatly to the government’s representative that “the deal is completely rejected and we demand it gets cancelled at any cost.”[16] Youth played a key role here as well, in orchestrating a “phone call storm” to every MP just before the parliamentary session, lobbying them to reject the deal.[17]

Most recently, in July 2019, the protest movement added another tactic to its repertoire: having hundreds of individual citizens file lawsuits against the government, attempting to nullify the gas deal. Lawyers supportive of the movement filed these citizen lawsuits for free, in courts ranging from Amman to Irbid, Karak, Madaba, and Zarqa.[18] Since 2014, activists have argued that the agreement is bad for Jordan’s economy and sovereignty and that it is politically immoral. But they also frequently emphasize their view that Jordan was and is being pressured by the United States to pursue the deal against Jordan’s own interests.[19] “The Americans pushed for the gas deal and other strategic projects to prevent war and to make Israel a de facto partner (of Jordan),” noted one former member of parliament, “It is part of the plan to normalize Israel through economic ties.”[20] Many activists see the recent Trump/Kushner economic initiatives toward the region as still more of this process.

Many people in the movement specifically credit youth participants as the sources of many of the movement’s more innovative protests. Some also cite youth activists as the driving force behind the emphasis on research in this movement. Activists were determined to research the details and policy alternatives so that they would not only make clear what they were against, but also that the government actually had alternative policies that it could pursue. Some referred to this as “evidence-based advocacy” and saw it as a departure from “the usual” forms of protest.[21]  

Others in the movement used the term “scientific” to explain their approach to research and to disseminating their findings. They would arm not just themselves, but also fellow citizens, with the facts they needed to eventually effect a policy change. Activists emphasized the importance of linking the gas deal to other concerns already prominent in Jordanian public discourse – concerns like unemployment, economic development, inequality, state sovereignty, and public sector corruption. The ambition here was larger than the gas policy itself and aimed at nothing less than recrafting the relationship between citizens and the state, emphasizing the roles of tax payers and authorities.[22]

The movement was large and diverse, and it was also very well organized. Groups, organizations, associations, and parties delegated representatives to meet as a broader coalition to map out goals, tactics, and strategies. The movement’s members were also highly educated and interested in bringing a new style of protest to Jordanian public life. In this regard in particular, youth played key roles in devising new protest methods, which were embraced by the many other elements of the coalition. These older and more established elements of the opposition – like parties and associations – brought experience to the table and often also extensive connections to Jordanian media outlets. They were also instrumental in turning out their members to events like protests and demonstrations. Youth activists, in turn, played the key roles in connecting the campaign to the Hirak movements and to universities, especially the University of Jordan and the Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST), each of which had an active student-led and campus-based component to the campaign.[23]

Youth activists often led the way in terms of brainstorming new methods of protests and then using newer media to garner attention and social influence. Perhaps not surprisingly, in this movement as in many other settings, youth were often expected to take the lead on social media, whether creating and disseminating videos on Facebook or organizing Tweetstorm campaigns on Twitter or other social media platforms. It is worth noting here that many activists emphasized the lack of a generational gap in their organization, deliberations, and in the overall campaign. Instead, the gap was more often tactical and strategic – between activists that wanted to take more radical or more moderate approaches or between those who wanted to take a more or less confrontational approach.[24] But this was a difference in approach and temperament that could be found across every age group, not between generations.

Conclusions

For all their efforts, the Jordanian state has thus far persisted in its plans to purchase Israeli gas, and it remained under considerable pressure from both the United States and Israel to do so, as part of a broader plan for ‘normalization’ of relations across the region, even as the region seemed to be ablaze in civil wars, insurgencies, and struggles against occupation. The emergence of the Trump administration in the U.S. has in many ways made this structural and regional set of factors still more constraining on the kingdom’s policy options.

But international pressures and power politics aside, Jordan’s domestic politics continues to see no shortage of protests, demonstrations, and activism, not only by youth but across Jordan’s generations. Within the context of Jordanian protest politics, the movement against Israeli gas was – and is — one of the broadest and most inclusive coalitions in the history of Jordanian activism. It is broad in terms of organizational membership, to be sure, but also diverse in terms of age, class, ethnicity, religion, sex, and gender. It is, in a sense, a pluralist and intersectional movement that was dedicated to democratic participation and grassroots activism.

That approach and commitment is perhaps especially important today, as the kingdom comes under pressure from within and without – over a Trump peace deal, internationally, but also internally in terms of economic austerity, social inequality, and widespread concerns with corruption. Meanwhile activism in Jordan features particularly large roles for young Jordanians looking for a very different future, and therefore applying political pressure for greater inclusion as well as meaningful reform and change.  Between this movement and other single-issue campaigns — as well as the continued efforts of local Hirak movements and nation-wide protests over austerity and other issues — protest and activism in Jordan will continue, with millennial Jordanians playing key roles on every front.[25]

 

 

[1] Lamis Andoni, “Jordanians Demand Change.” Al-Jazeera, February 21. 2010. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/02/2011220105658153939.html

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

[3] Fida Adely, “The Emergence of a new labor movement in Jordan,” Middle East Report, Fall 2012 https://merip.org/2012/08/the-emergence-of-a-new-labor-movement-in-jordan/

[4] Sean L. Yom, “Tribal Politics in Contemporary Jordan: The Case of the Hirak Movement.” The Middle East Journal 68, no. 2, (2014): 229-47.

[5] Tariq Tell, “Early Spring in Jordan: Revolt of the Military Veterans.” Carnegie Middle East Center. November 4, 2015.

[6] See Hisham Bustani, “The Alternative Opposition in Jordan and the Failure to Understand the Lessons of the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions,” Jadaliyya, March 20, 2011 https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/23816 and Bustani, “Jordan’s New Opposition and the Traps of Identity and Ambiguity,” Jadaliyya, April 20, 2011 https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/23912

[7] On protests in Jordan, see especially the work of Jillian Schwedler, including: “The Political Geography of Protest in Neoliberal Jordan,” Middle East Critique 21, no. 3 (2012): 259-70 and “Spatial Dynamics of the Arab Uprisings,” PS: Political Science & Politics 46, no. 2, (2013): 230-34.

[8] Curtis R. Ryan, “Why Jordanians are protesting,” Washington Post, Monkey Cage Blog, june 4, 2018 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/06/04/why-jordanians-are-protesting/?utm_term=.5d02aa15df0d

[9] Curtis R. Ryan, “Jordanians worry that the ‘deal of the century’ will come at their expense,” Washington Post, Monkey Cage Blog, June 1, 2019 https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/06/01/jordanians-worry-that-deal-century-will-come-their-expense/?utm_term=.a22166d3f9dc

[10] Curtis R. Ryan, “Not Running on Empty: Democratic Activism Against Israeli Gas in Jordan,” Middle East Report Online, April 16, 2015: http://www.merip.org/not-running-empty-democratic-activism-against-israeli-gas-jordan ; Curtis R. Ryan, “Reviving Activism in Jordan,” Middle East Report vol. 46 (2016), 6-9.

[11] All comments regarding activists and their views are based on interviews by the author, conducted in Jordan in June 2015, June 2016, November 2018, and June 2019.

[12] Author interviews with activists, June 2015, June 2016, and July 2019.

[13] Author interview, June 2019.

[14] Sarah Ababneh. “Troubling the Political: Women and the Jordanian Day-Waged Labor Movement.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 48 (2016): 87-11.

[15] Author interviews, November 2018.

[16] Raed Omari, “Deputies recommend scrapping gas deal ‘at any cost’,” Jordan Times, March 27, 2019 http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/mps-demand-scrapping-israeli-gas-deal-%E2%80%98-any-cost%E2%80%99

[17] Author correspondence with one of the leaders of the movement, July 2019.

[18] Mohammad Ersan, “Jordanian government rocked by legal challenges over gas deal with Israel,” Middle East Eye, July 17, 2019 https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/jordan-government-rocked-legal-challenges-over-secret-gas-deal-israel

[19] Hisham Bustani, “Importing Israeli gas: Jordan’s self-harming energy choice,” Middle East Eye, September 30, 2016 https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/importing-israeli-gas-jordans-self-harming-energy-choice

[20] Author interview, June 2019.

[21] Author interviews, June 2016, November 2018, and June 2019.

[22] Author interviews, June 2019.

[23] Author interviews, June 2019.

[24] Author interviews, June 2019.

[25] Marty Harris, “Jordan’s Youth After the Arab Spring,” Report 957, Lowy Institute for International Policy. February 2015; Pénélope Larzillière. Activism in Jordan (London: Zed Books, 2016).