It’s been the largest social movement in Jordan since the Arab Spring, with thousands of Jordanians taking to the streets and campaigning against the contentious Israel-Jordan gas deal. Since the beginning of October, central Amman, Jordan, has been flooded with demonstrators following Friday prayer at the Grand Husseini mosque, as chants of “no to gas imports from the Zionist enemy” and “the enemy’s gas is occupation,” echo through the streets.
The $10bn gas deal, signed by the Jordanian government and Israel on 26th September 2016 will see US-based Noble Energy, and other investors in Israel’s largest gas field supply Jordan’s national electric company with 8.5 million cubic meters of gas over 15 years. However, it has provoked a fierce backlash, with resistance to the deal originally having been sparked in 2014 when The Jordanian National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) signed a letter of intent with Noble Energy.
While protests against the deal have been staged across Jordan over the last couple of years, they have reached a peak this month after the deal was formally signed, gaining an unusually high level of momentum for Jordan, where protests and collective action are generally uncommon and lacking in sustainability.
The campaign against the gas deal has been wide-ranging and tenacious. Since the 2014 signing of the deal a group of grassroots movements have joined forces, uniting to form the National Campaign to Overturn the Gas Deal With the Zionist Entity. This group of activists, political parties, trade unions, social groups and MPs have been utilising their various resources to educate the Jordanian public and encourage a shift away from normalised relations with Israel as an occupying state.
“The opposition to the deal is that we reject financing Israeli terrorism from the daily taxpayer money. We also think Jordan has a lot of energy potential and ten billion dollars can be invested in Jordan to create jobs for Jordanians,” explained campaign coordinator Hisham Bustani.
Rallies have been held, the campaign promoted across social media and hour-long blackouts have been organised, where Jordanians were encouraged to turn off all lights and electrical appliances at set times to protest the deal. The campaign has also been pivotal in conducting research and disseminating information to the public, to illustrate that the deal is not economically feasible and that a wide array of alternatives exists.
While the government says the deal is a matter of national interest, and NEPCO officials argue the deal with Noble Energy would “save Jordan up to $600 million each year”, the campaign drew on various facts and studies to counter the government’s narrative [i].
Research has suggested that, firstly, Jordan is not in need of Israeli gas, and secondly, that there are several viable alternatives. Jordan is a promising site for solar energy and has also initiated energy projects involving wind power, shale oil, and local gas fields. The country has also signed an agreement with Algeria to supply liquid gas and launched a project to build oil and gas pipelines from Iraq, to Aqaba [ii]. “It’s pretty fishy and nihilistic on the part of the government, to opt for this option. Our cut is that they are putting Israel first,” commented Bustani.
A unified public
Over the past couple of years the movement has received overwhelming support. In Amman and other cities in Jordan, a society usually fragmented along various political, religious or tribal lines has united in the fight against the gas deal.
This is in direct contrast to various other economic and social challenges at the forefront of Jordan’s public consciousness, most of which have polarised rather than united society. Unemployment is at peak (rising to 14.6 per cent during the first quarter of this year)[iii] and the Syrian crisis has seen Jordan divided between supporters of the Assad regime and those in favor of the rebels. Alongside this, religious debates surrounding the school curriculum and the assassination of prominent Jordanian writer, Nahed Hattar, has sparked fierce debate, with a tug-of-war style battle taking place between proponents of a civil, democratic, and secular state and Jordan’s conservative forces, particularly the religious hardliners.
Within this polarised environment, where Islamist and leftist ideologies fiercely clash and activists and NGO’s lack cohesion, the movement against the gas deal has provided a central tenet for these groups to unite. “I think it was surprising for them [the government] to find an initiative that is completely popular… It proves again that there is social solidarity between different social groups, different sectors in Jordan,” commented Bustani.
Unlike other socio-political or economic issues, the topic of Israel strikes at the heart of Jordanian society as a whole. According to UNRWA, there are 2 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, many of whom originally fled during the 1948 Nakba (translated from Arabic into ‘catastrophe’), where up to an estimated 700,000 Palestinians living in what is now Israel were dispossessed. Alongside Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the country’s tense history with its Arab neighbours, an anti-Israeli stance is one that almost all Jordanians are able to rally behind.
Thus, despite a string of controversial issues sparking social discontent among Jordanian society, none have garnered such a high level of collective action as the campaign against the gas deal. In Jordan’s big cities, alongside more rural areas, there is a shared consensus against Israel and the gas deal, with social movements taking off across the country. Herein lays the strength of the movement, and the reason why Jordan is now seeing the largest level of public mobilisation since Arab Spring.
The Palestine card
Yet, despite this display of unity, the campaign has faced criticism, with some arguing that the movement against the gas deal is a superficial battle, merely acting as a distraction to quell unrest over larger social and economic issues.
One Palestinian-Jordanian NGO worker and activist, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed cynicism regarding the movement and the role of collective action in Jordan in general. “One of the types of propaganda that all the Arab regimes have been using for the last sixty years is Palestine,” he explained. “Basically it’s a card they use to make people quiet. It’s a distraction… Instead of trying to bring justice and equality and democracy to their own countries, no, we want to look at Palestine.”
He went on to say that, while some social or economic issues in Jordan are quick to arouse public concern, Jordan’s social movements lack the organisation and sustainability to implement authentic levels of change. “These movements are reactionary. They [the protestors] release their anger and feel good about themselves. But to work on a long term plan and strategy to change something? No. This is just a response to their anger.”
This sense of skepticism is not uncommon and, when discussing the gas deal and the role of popular mobilisation in Jordan with people on the street, there appears to be a general sense of disillusionment among many. With the Jordanian government having consistently paid lip service to genuine reform, and civil society reluctant to challenge this perpetuation of the status quo, the lack of hope over society’s ability to stimulate fundamental change comes as no surprise [iv]. “The bigger battles are the ones we’re not really fighting, and have little regard for,” observed Naseem Tarawnah, for Jordanian blogazine, The Black Iris [v]. “Until we do, what persists is a situation where the State does what it wants in a vacuum of ineffective challenge from a disempowered society.”
Hisham Bustani himself has little hope for a favorable government response to the movement and public calls to scrap the deal. “I have no illusions about the position of this government or the Jordanian regime in general. The Jordanian regime in general is not a democratic regime,” he said.
However, this has done little to dampen the determination and energy of the campaign. By rallying and unifying Jordanian society against the deal and disseminating information to the public, there’s a sense that progress is being made, albeit on a small level. “There is an evolution about how the citizen is perceiving him or herself within the context of the state,” Bustani observed. “These are deep changes in the consciousness and understanding of the relationship between people and state, people and authority, which the campaign has managed to restructure in a fundamental way.”
With Jordan often regarded as a “safe-haven” in a region plagued by war and instability, some would argue these more subtle challenges to the status-quo are preferable when it comes to ensuring the maintenance of stability and security in the country. While collective action in Jordan may be lacking the momentum some wish to see, the revolutionary will among Jordanians remains tangible, as activists, journalists and ordinary citizens- backed by the power of social media – work to pose some kind of challenge to the government narrative and the country’s power structure. “Politics is a power struggle, so if you leave the pull on the rope, the other side will pull it to his side,” said Bustani. “We will not leave our side of the rope to the government.”