A recent change of government and looming parliamentary elections brings Jordan, a vital U.S. ally, back into policy discussions. And, inevitably, pundits will ask a familiar question about this diminutive kingdom abutting some of the region’s most fragile states: Despite breaking its past pledges to democratize, will the autocratic regime of Jordan survive?
In the past, questions of Jordanian stability have merited polarizing responses. Some analysts warn that this oil-poor state stands on the brink of collapse, its struggling economy overrun with refugees and its angry population embracing religious extremism. Others, though, praise the kingdom as an oasis of stability, noting that the Hashemite monarchy commands popular legitimacy and that its citizens don’t really want democracy because of fears of Syrian-style conflict and chaos.
Neither of these schizophrenic assessments tells us what Jordanians are actually doing on the ground. Two-thirds of the population is under 30 — and facing 30 percent joblessness. The media in Jordan often focuses on negative stories about young Jordanians — highlighting their complaints or emphasizing how Jordanian youths may be susceptible to Islamic State messaging. In reality, though, the single-largest generation in Jordanian history continues to mobilize and push for democracy. Although the youths are no longer leading street protests as they did from 2011 to 2012, neither are they idly content with the aging autocratic system. Their response has been to reorganize in innovative ways, fighting back to force the government’s hand on political reforms.
Enter Shaghaf, a new grass-roots youth coalition unprecedented in size, strategy and ambition. Shaghaf formed in June, when 60 activists — all in their 20s, including some veterans of the 2011-2012 protest movements — met during Ramadan. They were not the usual opposition suspects: not Islamist, not leftist and not liberal elites running Western-funded nongovernmental organizations. Most were not even from Amman, the capital, but came from poorer cities such as Zarqa and Jarash, with both tribal and non-tribal backgrounds.
Activists said they founded Shaghaf to throw a disruptive spotlight onto the byzantine political arena and, thus, revitalize popular pressures for reform. The name itself was symbolic: Shaghaf means passion in Arabic, but is also an acronym for Shabab al-Ghad al-Fa’il (Youths for an Active Tomorrow). In just two weeks, 4,800 fellow activists had joined the coalition — 40 percent of them women.
Shaghaf contradicts the prevailing image that Jordanian activism has been cowed into obedience since the Arab Spring uprisings. It shows that — just like governments — social actors are continually learning and adapting to renewed authoritarian constraints. It is easy to observe what the regime does, since repression is quite visible. It is more startling to discover how activists are responding, which fills in a large gap in our knowledge of how the tenacious cat-and-mouse game between regime and opposition unfolds in an autocratic country. Above all, it demonstrates that the absence of large-scale protests does not mean the absence of resistance and dissent.
Shaghaf rejects protests and boycotts, long-standing tools favored by other opposition, for a practical reason. Neither has succeeded in real change, from halting political corruption to relaxing increasingly repressive laws. Today, such public displays of disobedience even bolster the regime’s own rhetoric that amid the Islamic State threat and the Syrian refugee crisis, opposition has become too radical and destabilizing to trust. Instead, Shaghaf leaders are aiming to exploit the state’s own language and programs to expose vital shortcomings in Jordanian “democratic” institutions.
Next week’s election is likely to result in a dysfunctional parliament that lacks constitutional authority and will, as in the past, attract ridicule for its gun-toting, bribe-seeking deputies. But Shaghaf activists rejected calls to boycott the election.
Instead, Shaghaf is holding events normally expected in a parliamentary democracy, such as candidate debates. Pointedly held even in poor rural areas, these debates have been both novelty and a filtering mechanism. The debates scare off less-substantive candidates while forcing the serious ones to transparently answer questions about poverty and other problems.
Shaghaf hopes to hold politicians accountable for their promises on the campaign trail — Jordan’s first such accountability initiative. The activists have created a database that catalogues each promise made across districts, from pledges for more anti-corruption initiatives to better public transportation. Shaghaf plans to release periodic reports for future parliaments comparing each deputy’s behavior with those campaign promises.
Shaghaf is organized to operate as a horizontal network rather than centralized hierarchy, with chapter groups across Jordan. Unlike other opposition groups, Shaghaf has only a small base in Amman; the real work, such as teaching events and public meetings, takes place in the far poorer 11 other governorates and three Bedouin districts. Including the capital, these 15 chapters operate autonomously and rely upon Facebook to share information, Twitter to broadcast news, and WhatsAapp for secure conversations. Each chapter, in turn, comprises independent committees tasked with tackling local problems and connecting residents to national politics.
This dispersed infrastructure is no accident. It shows how today’s activists are reacting to the failures of past youth groups, such as the 24 March Movement, whose exclusive anchorage in wealthy Amman neighborhoods alienated potential supporters, while also making them easy to repress.
Another deliberate strategy is refusing to function as many Jordanian think tanks and civil society organizations do — which is first through legal licensing and then raising grants from Western democracy promoters. Shaghaf activists say they have little desire to incorporate as an NGO or political party, which would permanently attach it to physical space. The activists have also rejected external funding. While Shaghaf must raise money through local contributions, the trade-off immunizes them to potential accusations of serving a Western agenda.
Despite its nascence, Shaghaf has already made headlines in various media outlets. This makes government authorities wary, from the government ministers to security officials, because Shaghaf is geared toward attracting the majority of Jordanians, not just the Amman-based cosmopolitans. And it has the potential to grow. Shaghaf hopes to eventually monitor all officials on major issues — like unemployment, corruption and infrastructure — and the group is beginning to focus on local elections. Some Shaghaf members even talk of running for parliament in 2020.
It is too early to say what long-term effect Shaghaf may have on Jordan. Right now, the country faces economic, political and transnational challenges — but the arrival of Shaghaf shows that thousands of Jordan’s most politically active youths are not interested in becoming radical revolutionaries, political quietists, or Islamists. Instead, they continue to mobilize for democratic change in ways that show real learning from past failures — a little older, and considerably wiser.
Sean Yom is an associate professor of political science at Temple University. He is the author of “From Resilience to Revolution: How Foreign Interventions Destabilize the Middle East” (Columbia University Press, 2015). Wael Al-Khatib is an independent anthropologist based in Amman.