Red Alert In Jordan: Recurrent Unrest In Maan
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In successive incidents over eight days in November 2002, the city of Maan in the south of Jordan was the scene of intense armed clashes between security forces and elements of the Maani population. What began as a routine police operation rapidly escalated into incidents in which thousands of police, soldiers, and special forces fought militants in and around the town before subduing them. The clashes left six dead, many more wounded, over 150 arrested for questioning or prosecution, and property destroyed. As of early February 2003, over 45 people remained in custody and several others were still being sought.
The November 2002 clashes were the fourth eruption of political violence in Maan since 1989, a period of less than fourteen years during which similar clashes also occurred in nearby Kerak and Tafileh. All these incidents were both spontaneous and indigenous, although external parties may have tried to exploit the tensions. Reports concerning the precise sequence of events in Maan in October-November 2002, and views on their causes and consequences, diverge widely. The Jordanian government insists it was a straightforward case of eliminating a lawless gang of armed thugs and smugglers that for months had terrorised the local population and challenged state authority. Some senior officials also asserted that the police operation was preventive, to round up troublemakers in anticipation of a possible war in Iraq.
Others, including many Maanis, believe that while the violence partly reflects local criminal elements, it is primarily a consequence of failed government socio-economic, regional planning, security and political policies. They also point to shortcomings in the private sector and in the work of NGOs. In other words, both sides viewed their resort to violence as a legitimate response to the other’s action.
ICG field-work suggests that the recurrent violence in Maan since 1989 is rooted in multiple factors that, together, have made the city highly volatile. In all cases, the scenario is roughly similar: it begins with a single, localised incident that spreads to other parts of the city and, beyond, to other parts of south Jordan. As this process unfolds, the incident takes on a broader significance, tapping underlying tensions, both local and national, and becoming in effect a surrogate for far more profound discontent.
Maan is, in many ways, a distinct entity within Jordan. In this sense the November 2002 incidents were specific to it, and on this occasion they did not spread. Characteristics that have contributed to its tradition of political violence include its unique political status in the country and recent transformation from a regional hub to a peripheral town; its deteriorating socio-economic conditions, insular social and cultural traditions; rising tensions between residents and the police force; and the new phenomenon of an armed, militant Islamism.
A convergence of unique trends, in other words, has generated a volatile environment that, when sparked by specific political or economic events such as a price increase, conflict in the occupied Palestinian territories or Iraq, or tensions between residents and police has repeatedly erupted into violence.
But it would be a mistake to interpret Maan events through a purely local lens and so conclude that they are isolated from broader national issues. Several phenomena that have contributed to the violence that exists, albeit in less pronounced fashion, elsewhere in south Jordan and, in some instances, in the country as a whole. Moreover, those underlying tensions that are unique to Maan are compounded by concerns shared more generally in the country. Problems of economic development, deficiencies in Jordan's local and national systems of political representation, law enforcement issues, anger about the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territories and the Iraq crisis are matters that affect all Jordanians.
The events of late 2002 provide an apt illustration. Initial clashes were triggered by attempts to question a local militant Islamist leader, Muhammad Shalabi (aka Abu Sayyaf), in the aftermath of the 28 October assassination in Amman of an American citizen, Laurence Foley of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). This incident, in turn, fanned existing local resentment against the police and quickly developed into street fighting that was exacerbated by small armed criminal groups. The clashes were further fuelled by political disaffection related to broader national and regional issues, principally the situation in Iraq and the occupied Palestinian territories and restrictions on peaceful dissent.
Unless corrective action is taken, Maan's history suggests that its problems are likely to resurface in the form of extra-institutional protest and violence. But because Maan also is a place where regional and national cleavages converge and are magnified, the recent events are a timely, and indeed urgent, warning of the potential for broader dissatisfaction and unrest in the country as a whole should economic, social and political difficulties remain unaddressed.
Although tribal, Islamic and other traditional conflict-resolution methods have an important role to play alongside the national civil and criminal legal codes, a consistent standard of law enforcement is needed throughout the country, particularly with regards to policies and methods that have generated hostility among Maanis and other Jordanians. Laws should be made internally consistent within the country and brought into line with international norms.
Amman/Brussels, 19 February 2003