Protests in Maan raise tensions in Jordan

Protests in Maan raise tensions in Jordan

While Jordan has managed to avoid the upheaval and violence experienced by other Middles Eastern nations in the wake of the Arab Spring, recent events in Maan are a red flag that not all is well in the Hashemite Kingdom.

In the course of the ‘Arab Spring,’ many states from Tunisia to Syria experienced upheavals in their political, social and economical dynamics. Jordan was one of the luckier countries in this respect; although some minor protests and other events occurred, they were not substantial either in essence or in multitude when compared to the developments in Egypt, Iraq or Syria.

However, the events witnessed in late April in Maan, a small city in southern Jordan, might be considered a red flag.

Previous demonstrations in Jordan often focused on poverty, demanded political reforms and reacted to government’s decisions like abolishing fuel subsidies. Although some of these protests attracted much larger crowds and were staged in multiple cities simultaneously (including Amman), they were relatively easier to contain, by promising political or economic reforms. They had less potential of turning into an armed conflict.

Until recently, demonstrations in Jordan developed as a reaction to economic or political deprivation, and although they sometimes included slogans to overthrow the King, they were mainly peaceful. Even when protests were the result of an organized action, these organizations were a product of domestic houses of power like The Islamic Action Front, the Jordan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

What is different this time?

Recent events in Maan signal something quite different which has the potential to be a real headache for Jordanian authorities and society in the long run: Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) showing a presence in the field.

Maan, with its impoverished and conservative population, has always been a potential cradle for Salafist movements. It is even largely argued that the small city is one of the jihadist recruitment centers for the civil war in Syria.

During the events, the black Tawheed flags of Dawla (short version for “Ed Dawlat El Islami fi El Iraq wa Ash Sham”- the original name of ISIS) appeared several times in Maan. An armed Salafist group called “Shuhada Maan (Martyrs of Maan)” was formed and paid allegiance to ISIS, a number of messages under an Arabic hashtag created on Twitter by ISIS sympathizers meaning “Maan, Fallujah of Jordan” reached thousands in a matter of hours.

The U.S. Embassy in Amman published an emergency message for American citizens to stay away from Maan and its surroundings due to violence, and even the Interior Minister of Jordan described the situation as “never [having] happened before.”

The potential danger in last month’s seemingly minor events can be seen in ISIS’ previous actions in Iraq and Syria. The organization functions in a “global-minded” manner: Its recruits come from all over the world and pay no loyalty to the land in which they operate. They only heed their emirs and the idea of the creation of an Islamic state.

Tactics include doing harm to surroundings using improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers. ISIS has been disowned by Al Qaeda, which once it was associated with, and its brutality goes well beyond Al Qaeda’s.

What to Expect

Having pointed out the peculiarity of the events in Maan, it would be essential to discuss what can be expected from the “formal debut” of ISIS in Jordan.

First, the ill fame and brutality of ISIS may make it easier for Jordanian authorities to quell its possible future actions inside Jordan. Neither the international actors (including, ironically, Al Qaeda), nor the majority of the local population would probably raise any objection to harsh measures taken against ISIS elements, thus giving the Jordanian government a larger space to maneuver.

The incidents in Maan show that, while trying to bar the entrance of jihadists from abroad, the state of Jordan has to be equally alert about not letting extremist hotbeds flourish within the country.

Second, in a regional context, the generally overlooked embedded meaning of the word “Sham” in ISIS is now becoming more visible; it stands not only for Syria but “Greater Syria” (Bilad ash Sham), encompassing Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Sinai Peninsula. This shows the true target of ISIS, and the organization will probably try to be active in those territories if it finds an opportunity.

Although ISIS may not be an imminent threat to the security of Jordan, it has the potential to be destructive in areas other than Iraq and Syria when it finds fertile ground and catches just a glimpse of a possible power vacuum. All the governments in the region, and especially the ones that happen to be on the territory of “Bilad ash Sham,” will have to take this threat seriously and act accordingly.

About Author

Orkun Selcuk

Orkun is a Middle East expert and a consultant on political risk. He served as a strategic analyst for the Turkish Prime Ministry for eight years. Prior to that, he worked for nine years as a corporate banker for Garanti and Akbank, two of Turkey’s most prominent banks.