AMMAN, Jordan — A powerful tribe has given the Jordanian government an ultimatum: Release the killer of three U.S. soldiers or face a wave of tribal unrest.
The crisis began July 17 when a Jordanian military tribunal sentenced Maarik al-Tawayha, a soldier, to life in prison for killing the three Americans at an air base in southern Jordan in November.
Just as the government was trying to alleviate tensions over that case, a second crisis shook the kingdom Sunday evening: An Israeli security officer shot and killed two Jordanians on the grounds of the Israeli Embassy after being attacked by one of them with a screwdriver. Many Jordanians were outraged that the officer was allowed to return home to Israel without being questioned.
Citizens, activists and other critics say the handling of the incidents by the government, which is appointed by the king, sent the same message: Jordanian life is cheap.
Caught between its closest Western ally, delicate diplomacy with Israel and an enraged public, the Jordanian government is facing a crisis of credibility.
Jordanians have long prized stability over greater freedoms, enduring austerity measures and a lack of political reforms for the sake of security. But many here say the government is no longer holding up its end of the deal and wonder how much longer they can hold up theirs.
“In the last week, we learned that Jordan is the same as the rest of Arab regimes,” said Mohammed Hussein, a taxi driver from the southern city of Maan.
The case has alienated the regime’s bedrock, the Howeitat — Tawayha’s tribe — which helped lead the Great Arab Revolt that paved the way for the establishment of the country. A century later, the Howeitat sided with the government against pro-democracy protesters.
Critics have pointed out that Tawayha’s case was pushed through in less than nine months, swift by Jordanian terms, and that life sentences do not exist in Jordanian law. Many have also said the presence of the U.S. soldiers’ parents at the trial was proof of outside pressure and influence on the proceedings.
The Arabic hashtag #We_are_all_Maarik is trending on Twitter and Facebook, while the soldier’s image is being shared on social media and has been etched onto the rear windows of trucks as a symbol of what Jordanians say is resistance to foreign “intervention.”
Faced with growing pressure from the Howeitat, and public sentiment siding with Tawayha, the Jordanian government released a video of the shooting on Monday that clearly shows Tawayha gunning down the Americans as they surrendered.
It did little to quell public anger and suspicion.
Images of the security officer involved in the Israeli Embassy shooting being met with a hero’s welcome in Israel and a hug from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only inflamed tensions further. The officer, who reportedly held diplomatic immunity, returned to Israel less than 24 hours after the shooting without an investigation.
On Friday, Jordan’s state news agency, Petra, reported that the attorney general filed murder charges against the officer. Petra reported that Jordan’s Foreign Ministry had forwarded its investigations and charges to the Israeli government late Friday, expecting the officer to face trial in Israel.
“Before we bury the bodies of our victims, Netanyahu is hugging the officer and asking if he has fixed a date with his girlfriend. This has left a feeling of worthlessness among Jordanians,” said Oraib al-Rantawi of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies. “What happened at the Israeli Embassy revived the entire debate about Maarik al-Tawayha and the Jordanian state’s respect of its own citizens.”
Those protesting the embassy shootings have also used Tawayha’s image on social media, while the Howeitat tribe has sent messages of support to the families of the slain Jordanians — a rare sign of political solidarity between southern Bedouin tribes and the mostly Palestinian urban residents of Amman.
The Howeitat have been careful in their language, blaming not the Americans but the Jordanian government for the incident, holding Amman accountable for the trial process.
The Howeitat initially gave Jordan until Saturday to release Tawayha but announced an indefinite postponement to continue talks with the government and the royal palace.
In a statement, the tribe said the delay came out of “national interest” and “the spirit of loyalty to Jordan and His Majesty King Abdullah” in order to reach a compromise.
Returning to Jordan from a trip abroad on Thursday, King Abdullah II paid condolences to the family of Mohamed Jawawdeh, one of the slain Jordanians. The king later called on Netanyahu “to honor his responsibilities and take the necessary legal measures to ensure that the killer is tried and justice is served.”
The Jordanian government announced Thursday that the Israeli ambassador and embassy staff would not be allowed back into the kingdom until “absolute assurances” were given that the shooter will face trial.
But for many Jordanians, it was too little, too late.
“Now the Jordanian government is in a crisis not just with the Howeitat, but with all the Jordanian people — this has become an issue of dignity,” said Saddah Habashneh, one of the few members of parliament to raise both issues.
“There is a complete lack of trust and resentment toward this government by the people,” Habashneh said. “We are afraid of where we go from this point.”
With Saturday’s deadline looming, Jordan’s Tourism Ministry issued a ban this week on tour groups traveling to Wadi Rum, the site whose majestic red sand dunes served as filming locations for “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Martian,” and from using the stretch of highway between Wadi Rum and the port city of Aqaba, another tourist hub, which runs straight through Howeitat territory.
The U.S. Embassy followed suit Wednesday, barring its staff from traveling to southern Jordan due to “potential unrest” and encouraging U.S. citizens to avoid the area.
“Our problem is not with the Americans; our problem is that the rule of law is applied to some and then scrapped for foreign powers and allies,” said one Howeitat tribal member, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized by tribal leaders to speak on their behalf.