MESA Banner
Mobilization, Demobilization, and Protest in Jordan

Session II-12, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
Our panel brings together five scholars who each examine a different aspect of political mobilization or demobilization in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – examining both citizen activism and changing state responses. Our collective interest is in the possibilities for activism and social change, as well as on changing state responses to political mobilization across Jordanian society. Each paper on this panel draws on extensive fieldwork in Jordan, some of which was completed just before travel was restricted by lockdowns due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. While each paper tackles a different theoretical as well as empirical and substantive topic, the papers are designed to go together, providing a comprehensive analytical look at the possibilities and realities of grassroots mobilization and state responses in the Hashemite Kingdom. The papers therefore examine a range of linked topics, including: - Explaining waves of protest and activism in post-Arab Spring Jordan, emphasizing both the changing tactics of activists as well as those of the state and its security forces, noting a disturbing trend toward ever more stringent red lines against public participation; - Examining how the Jordanian state uses bureaucratic red tape especially against women’s rights and gender equality movements in the kingdom, as well as how LGBTQ activism interacts with women’s and leftist activist movements within the context of authoritarian neoliberalism; - Linking literatures on protests, space, place, and geography to examine how state and society in Jordan (and elsewhere) are mutually constituted through acts of rebellion, repression, and accommodation; and - Drawing on both the social movements literature and political psychology to examine how participants and even generations have different experiences in demobilization within Jordanian politics. Each paper adds a new dimension to our understandings of state and society in contemporary Jordan, but they also each demonstrate important insights generalizable beyond Jordan itself and applicable toward a better understanding of politics in other parts of the Middle East.
Political Science
  • Drawing on extensive field research and interviews with both protesters and government officials, this paper provides a comparative analysis of four main streams of protest in Jordan in the years after the regional Arab Spring: (1) The revival of activism in opposition to Jordan’s gas deal with Israel, (2) The 2018 Ramadan protests and general strike, (3) Protests in 2019 against the U.S. ‘Deal of the Century’, and (4) The 2019 teachers strike and the protests that followed. In each case I examine why the protests occurred, how the state responded, and how the tactics of both protesters and the state (including security forces) changed to meet the new challenge. The paper shows how activists have attempted to evolve and adjust their ‘protest repertoires’ to more effectively mobilize, persuade, and potentially change state policy, but it also shows that government tolerance has steadily declined in the post-Arab Spring era – especially since the 2018 mass protests and what many saw as a regional ‘Arab Spring 2.0’ (including especially in Algerian, Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan). Jordan’s 2018 protests crossed ethnic, religious, class, gender, and geographic lines and led, I argue, to a series of “What if” questions at the highest levels of the Jordanian state. What if those protests had been about something more sensitive than taxes? What if this kind of nation-wide protest had coalesced into a movement against the regime itself? Influenced and worried by both regional and domestic waves of unrest, the Jordanian state has hardened already existing ‘red lines’ for activism, but also added new ones, creating an ever greater rift between state and society – a rift that dangerously resembles one from ten years ago: when protests exploded across the region, toppling multiple regimes.
  • The last two decades have seen a flourishing of scholarship in and beyond the field of geography that examines the spatiality of social movements. Social movement theorists are increasingly incorporating spatiality into their conceptualizations of social movements and have produced research on a wide variety of activisms - environmental justice, immigrant rights, neoliberalism and globalization -- from a spatial perspective (Leitner, Sheppard, Sziartot, 2008). Scholarship on the MENA similarly has undergone a ‘spatial turn’ with scholars emphasizing issues of scale, territory, topography, flows and connectivities, and environmental materialities in their analyses of political phenomenon (Salman, El-Kazaz, Harb, forthcoming; Schwedler, 2020, forthcoming). This paper builds on this growing body of literature on the MENA. It examines LGBTQ activism in Jordan from the perspective of multiple spatialities - place, scale, networks, mobility and socio-spatial positionality – in order to better shed light on the agency of LGBTQ MENA activists and the manifold processes that shape the possibilities for activism in the region. An important finding of the paper is that of the complexities of NGO-ization and a rejection of the international-local binary in favour of the concept of ‘activism from within’ (Misgav 2015): the potential to subvert and undermine hegemony ‘from within’ the arena of international NGOs. The research for this paper is based on interviews with over 100 activists from Jordan and the MENA between 2016-2020.
  • The global advancement of progressive women’s rights has generated intense backlash from conservative groups and regimes. Backlash can take many forms, ranging from physical attacks on and detainment of activists, to online smear campaigns against feminist organizations. In this paper, I explore how the Jordanian state uses bureaucratic red tape - like delaying or denying permits for certain groups or activities - to repress and undermine (some forms of) women’s activism. I conceptualize this response to activism around gender justice as a form of backlash - bureaucratic backlash. Drawing on interviews with NGO leaders and activists, I investigate how and why some women’s rights groups face greater opposition from the regime, while others are given the green-light to carry on their operations. While bureaucratic backlash may not seem as egregious as, for example, imprisoning an activist, I contend that this formal, institutionalized backlash has the power effectively undermine and silence activities that counter the state’s narrative that ‘Jordan is a regional leader in women’s rights.’ Moreover, this oversight is indicative of the shrinking space for civil society in Jordan more broadly, and of the state's banal and conservative approach to women's rights more specifically.
  • This paper examines how emotions contributed to the demobilization – and lack of remobilization – of young Jordanians who participated in the 2011-2012 protests in the Kingdom. Exploring the under-developed connection between emotions and social movement demobilization (and remobilization), the paper introduces the psychological construct of moral injury into the social movement literature. Drawing on extensive fieldwork and interviews conducted with Jordanians who participated in Jordan’s “Arab Spring”, the paper argues that the unforeseen failure of these protests to achieve their goals created morally injurious events that resulted in cognitive dissonance among a majority of novice participants. The cognitive dissonance that was experienced by these participants led to two distinct outcomes. Older participants were able to resolve the dissonance and consequently remained active in the movements or subsequently remobilized. Younger participants, however, were less able to resolve the cognitive dissonance, resulting in the development of moral injury, typically leading to declined participation, an exit from social movements, and a failure to remobilize in future waves of contention. The paper not only helps to explain the demobilization of Jordan’s “Arab Spring” protests, but also highlights the importance of engaging with emotions in analysis of movement demobilization. It further introduces a new psychological construct to the social movement literature, encouraging scholars to consider moral injury to support the analysis of a range of demobilization phenomena in different contexts.
  • In this paper, I provide a study of protest and rebellion in Jordan, turning the conventional narrative of Hashemite state-making on its head. Instead of the new nation being carved from former Ottoman territories by force at the whims of Great Britain, the Hashemite state was consolidated only by appeasing and cooping raucous dissent. While British forces used violence to put down rebellions, those who rebelled were still subsequently incorporated into the new nation through a combination of employment opportunities, land reform, and cash payments. Rebellion brought results and even affected the emerging state’s political geography: Rather than establishing a capital in one of the existing towns, Emir Abdullah opted to settle in Amman, a small town bereft of the kind of powerful tribal leadership behind rebellions elsewhere in Transjordanian area. After presenting a protest-oriented alternative to the Hashemite-centric narrative of Jordanian state-making, I examine the resurgence of protest in the years following the period of Arab uprisings. With increasing frequency, Jordanians are crossing redlines that they had previously honored. At some protests organized by prominent East Bank tribal leaders who are supposedly part of the regime’s loyal support base, chants and banners explicitly call for the end of the monarchy. I examine the spatialities of protests as they are situated in the built environment, leveraging the theoretical literature on networks, spatial imaginaries, space and place-making, and political geographies at local, national, regional, and global scales. I examine the evolving spaces and repertoires of resistance—including virtual spaces. I explore how proximity to Amman enabled deeper connections between new groups of activists compared with activists residing farther south. I also show how a new tactic for East Bank unemployment protesters—marching on foot to the capital to demand jobs outside the Royal Court—entailed a significant innovation in the spatial dynamics of protest repertoires as well as movement to a more contentious space symbolizing not the government but the regime itself. Original empirical material comes from field research in Jordan from 1995 to 2020. Methods include elite interviews, ethnographies of protests, and public ethnographies of material space. I attended some three-dozen protests; interviewed more than a hundred activists; attended meetings where activists planned protests; and interviewed security officials, government officials, journalists, and members of political parties and professional associations.