Journal Essay

Jordan's Arab Spring: The Middle Class and Anti-Revolution

Sarah A. Tobin

Spring 2012, Volume XIX, Number 1

Dr. Tobin is a Mellon Post Doctoral Fellow in Islamic Studies at Wheaton College. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Boston University.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was watched closely during the early events of the Arab Spring in 2011. Many Western analysts expressed concerns that it would be the next country in which large protests and social and political mobilization would shift the scales of power away from the ruling regime to the protestors on the street.1 Despite this anticipation in the popular media, along with widespread desire for political and economic reform on the part of Jordan's populace, the country neither mobilized en masse nor saw their interests culminate in calls for an ousting of the monarchy. The Arab Spring in Jordan was manifest mainly in media-based activity such as blogs and in relatively frequent, but small, contained and nonviolent protests in Amman. In fact, the deposing of King Abdullah never made the list of demands for political and economic reform. In comparison to most other countries swept by the Arab Spring, the lack of large anti-regime protests and revolution are unusual.

Why is Jordan an exception? Why did the people's desire for reform not materialize in large-scale protests and revolution? Why has King Abdullah not faced the same pressures as other rulers throughout the region? Based on ethnographic fieldwork and recent interviews, this paper examines the role of the emergent middle class in Amman in shaping national politics, especially anti-revolutionary positions during the Arab Spring. I argue that a heightened notion of middle-class status and "aspiring cosmopolitanism" provides a newly significant form of social organization in Amman. This reorients the populace away from failed political reforms and serves as a means to reinforce the status-quo, particularly in the context of deepening internal divisions and a region in turmoil.


In Jordan, there are serious internal political and economic issues that could become sources for amplified agitation and protest. From perpetual ethnic tensions to economic woes, from religious tensions to the lack of a genuine democratic voice, the Jordanian populace shares many of the same demographics and concerns as neighboring countries that are now embroiled in protest, revolution, rioting and their consequences.

The ethnic demography of Jordan is largely the result of warfare and refugee creation in neighboring countries. Though the government conducted an official census in 2010,2 it does not document the population in terms of ethnicity or religion. Nonetheless, it is believed that the majority are not ethnic Jordanians.3 Rather, the demographic majority are Palestinians (50 percent), followed by ethnic Jordanians (30-35 percent) and Iraqis (15-20 percent), with smaller numbers of Assyrians, Armenians, Chechens, Circassians, Mandeans, Syrians and migrant workers from Egypt, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.4

In terms of religious identification, 8 percent of Jordanians are Christian, while 92 percent are Muslim.5 Muslims in Jordan, however, are not a homogenous group. They are overwhelmingly Sunni, and the Salafis among them are growing in number. This is largely attributable to the influence of migrant workers returning from the Gulf countries with funds they have earned and religious ideologies they have learned. There are few Shiites and Druze, but a larger number of non-practicing, secular Muslims. There is also a small but notable Sufi sect comprising mainly Western adherents of an American convert to Islam who is a long-time resident of Amman.

Such internal diversity raises the question: "Who is a Jordanian?" In particular, does one need to be an ethnic Jordanian and a Muslim to be "Jordanian"? Through popular media and in public discussions, these questions of inclusion in the state are regularly raised. In terms of religious inclusion and the state, ethnic Jordanian Christians are not a largely contested group,6 which is attributable to the longstanding cooperative relationship between the royal family and the native Christian population.7 The same cannot be said of Palestinian Christians,8 or minority Christian sects such as the Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses. Religious diversity, however, is just one contested form of state inclusion.

Even among the political leadership in Parliament, the question of Jordanianness and state inclusion came to the fore when a legal move was passed that required all members of parliament to hold only one passport — a Jordanian one.9 Categorically disallowing parliamentary members, government ministers and senior-level Royal Palace employees from holding dual citizenship or attaining free access to another country provides significant challenges for political inclusion for some of the most educated and well-trained Jordanians. It creates a symbolic standard against which political aspirants — who may also be holders of Syrian or American passports, for example — must measure themselves and each other. This move opened a space to challenge those who may make political claims, reminding them that "real" Jordanians would not hold multiple passports, thereby raising the bar for admission to positions of political power.

Most saliently, the question of Palestine arises in these discussions of ethnic divisions and state inclusion. Visions and fears of al-Watan al-Badeel (The Alternative Nation) have arisen again during this time of uncertainty, and have been featured in international discussions of the future of Israel and Palestine.10 The concern is that the instability and political delegitimization of the Hashemite regime might lead to the creation of a new governmental structure, one that would establish Jordan as a Palestinian state. The Alternative Nation is a scenario that the ethnic minority Jordanians would prefer not to see play out, given their politically privileged status; at least some Palestinians would also hesitate to support it. This is because the Alternative Nation provides justification for the expulsion of Palestinians from Israel and negates the ideological claims for the Right of Return. In this scenario, it is not that Jordan wins or that the Palestinians win per se, but that Israel wins and the Right of Return is diminished in its symbolic and political power. Though it would provide for some kind of resolution to the refugee status of the ethnic-majority Palestinians in Jordan, it would also represent a major shift in political realities and future options for a large majority of the citizens.

There were additional reasons that many Palestinians were hesitant to protest, which also fell along ethnic and economic lines. There was the sentiment that Palestinians would not protest unless the ethnic Jordanians were already protesting. Without ethnic Jordanian participation, the political read would be that this is "just more Palestinian complaints." The concern about a weariness with Palestinian dissent on the part of the Jordanian government emerged in the Arab Spring as well: any calls for political reform by Palestinians would be dismissed as mere complaints rather than a legitimate demand for political revisions.

Along economic lines, many Palestinians in Amman indicated in interviews that the Arab Spring in Jordan was "not my fight," and that the "real" Arab Spring was being fought by the abjectly poor and the politically disenfranchised, not by those who have some marginal ability to participate economically and politically. This is notable because, in the last few years, Amman has experienced an economic downturn. Inflation rose from a low of 1.6 percent in 2003 to a whopping 13.9 percent in 2008;11 poverty rates hover around 13-14.2 percent,12 and unemployment is officially at 12 percent, but unofficially at 30 percent.13 Furthermore, regressive tax codes put the burden on the backs of the poor. Finally, the war in Iraq has eliminated the gas and oil subsidies that provided most Jordanians with affordable transportation and winter heating fuel. Despite these alarming economic difficulties, Palestinians in Amman were still hesitant to protest, preferring to identify with the overwhelming majority of Jordanians in Amman who chose not to protest as well.

These were all reasons that many cited for not protesting, despite the existence of significant internal divisions. Although the context for religious and political inclusion was not ideal, the majority of terms were tolerable, negotiable and provided a more secure and stable position than the alternative. But "better safe than sorry" only explains part of the reticence to protest and foment revolution in Jordan. A closer examination reveals that "middle-classness" and aspiring cosmopolitanism serve as new ways of elevating like-mindedness and are an emergent means of constructing internal homogeneity.


As Schwedler has described,14 the neoliberal economic reforms implemented by the Jordanian regime have created new space for the "aspiring cosmopolitans" of Amman. Despite the real divides between the economically globalized and culturally emergent West Amman and the members of the poor and working class who occupy the vibrant but relatively unchanging East Amman, increasing numbers from the east are crossing into West Amman for work and leisure. New patterns of work and leisure have combined with easier access to private commercial spaces and employment in the service sector. In such spaces, both East and West Ammanis prioritize cosmopolitan constructs of economic, political and cultural forms of sociality that closely resemble those of the elites. They emphasize inclusiveness and democracy rather than "internecine conflict, resurgent nationalism, and all sorts of bloody 'othering,'"15 particularly through the practices of elite and exclusive consumerism learned through service-sector employment and leisure-time patterns in commercial spaces such as malls and coffee shops. Working-class Jordanians are now able to emulate the consumption habits and patterns of the elites as "aspiring cosmopolitans."

This aspiring cosmopolitanism carries important implications for social organization. One of my East Ammani informants, in her mid-thirties, is a low- to mid-income (250 Jordanian dinars per month, or $350) Jordanian mother of a three-year-old girl. Her husband works for the Hashemite Civil Defense, and they live in government-subsidized housing. She told me:

Do you know why we're friends? Because you know what Starbucks is. I can talk to you about my life, who I am, and what I really believe. You know, I can't talk to my husband's family about my life like this. They don't even know what Starbucks is. Can you imagine?!?! And you and I, we've been there. We've been to the Starbucks in Abdoun and Sweifiya, and Mecca Mall too. So, you understand me; you understand this.

Starbucks in Amman has become an index for a host of symbolic and social affiliations. The coffee shop is a point of entrée into shared time, shared space, and a shared frame for meaningful relationships. These points overlap. Time is spent in a number of different Starbucks, from the wealthiest residential neighborhood of Abdoun to the commercial center and outdoor shopping-mall area of Sweifiya to Mecca Mall, Amman's largest indoor shopping center. In those places and times, the ability to divulge one's sense of self to another and develop a close friendship is engendered. Furthermore, that these neighborhood Starbucks are ubiquitous in West Amman is notable, as it places the friendship, quite literally, on the map. Mapping one's friendship according to the neighborhood Starbucks in which you have shared coffee and time represents an immense restructuring of time and space for purposes of meaningful interpersonal connections. Social and cultural capital are now being built in terms that refer to commercialized venues, elevated consumption, and leisure time with friends over and above the more traditionally valued family arrangements.

Elevating consumption with peers over and above family relationships is a significant shift for social organization in Amman. Historically, the city has been understood as family-centered and organized around one's tribe, in the case of ethnic Jordanians, or geographic areas of origin for "West Bankers" and Palestinian refugees.16 One reason for this difference is that Transjordanians were largely organized around tribal affiliations that cut across class. Palestinians, on the other hand, came from a society that highly emphasized class: "Arab townsfolk and the peasants lived, socially, in two different worlds."17 By the 1980s, middle-class Muslims were a sizable demographic in Amman,18 and now many political scientists and Western analysts point to a post-Islamist orientation19 that opens up lines of social organization around non-political and non-religious interests.

Contemporary Amman is incredibly diverse, and the wide swath of the populace who imagine and orient themselves as middle class and aspiring cosmopolitans are typically professionals. They include students who may make as much as 25 JD ($35) per month, government employees who make 200 JD ($282) per month, and service-sector employees, who make slightly more: 250 JD ($352). The highest-income earners are often the landowners and business proprietors, who make in excess of 1,000 JD ($1,411). One resident of Jordan's wealthiest neighborhood told me, as he moved his laundry from washer to dryer, "Oh, I'm middle class. I'm definitely not elite." Given the wide range of economic markers, the salient point for orientation as middle class is less about monthly income, and more about a set of social and cultural practices that bring together this diverse society into a new kind of imagined community.

Most self-described middle-class Jordanians articulate a kind of suburban consciousness. They have some level of post-high-school education; they are conversant in Western — particularly American — cultural references of leisure, including coffeeshops, malls and TV shows. Many Jordanians hone their English by watching "Friends" episodes with Arabic subtitles. They are a population who "want peace" and are relieved not to discuss the Civil War of the 1970s and to retreat to their apartments and villas in sympathetic disdain for Israeli raids of the homes of Palestinian family members and friends just 60 miles away. They are consumers of political information put forth on blogs, news and Internet sites, but are not otherwise politically engaged. Instead, they organize around certain places and times for consumption and around economic points for solidarity.

Most saliently, this middle-class orientation has emerged as a kind of imagined community displacing overtly political nationalism and replacing ethnic, religious and other forms of elitism, factioning and sectarianism with a class-based cohesion that still carries important political implications. This reprioritization of modes for social cohesion and political and economic solidarity emerged quite strongly during Jordan's Arab Spring of 2011.


When I was conducting fieldwork in Jordan during the Israeli bombing of Gaza in January 2009, protests were a nearly daily event in Amman. Many of my friends and colleagues who worked for the U.S. government expressed to me their concerns that the numbers of protesters would grow to disconcerting levels, rendering the public spheres dangerous, particularly for Americans, or that Amman might come under extreme political repression in order to end the protests. While U.S. government employees anticipated a flashpoint, many Jordanians I interviewed expressed deep ambivalence. Protests were, in their experience, nothing more than "yelling against the wind." Though my Jordanians friends appreciated the ability to speak their minds and agitate for certain changes, at least to some degree, they found protesting was not a particularly effective means for reform. Both prior to and after 2009, Jordanian ambivalence towards protesting has been in place, yet many Western governments and academics have not understood this disconnect between the ability to protest and the lack of overwhelming interests or desire for change.

As Schwedler discussed, protests in Jordan can be understood historically in terms of law, space and spectacle.20 Jordan has a long history of all kinds of protests that range from anti-Israeli/pro-Palestinian public displays to labor strikes and sit-ins. As Schwedler outlines, these public agitations have been going on with regularity since the 1950s. Since 1989, however, the Jordanian government has required protestors to request a permit outlining where the protest will be held, the expected turnout, and the topic and forms of protest. Often the government would balk at certain requests, noting that planned protests were too large or were scheduled to occur in an unsuitable space. Protest organizers would then alter plans and work with government officials to reach an agreement. These informal negotiations, as a form of discourse, both contained protests by rendering them "safe" in the eyes of the government and provided an outlet for the populace to express dissent and disapproval. Given this context, the events of 2011 are significant both for the discursive negotiations between the government and the people and for the absence of violent clashes.

The first protests of the Arab Spring occurred on January 28, 2011, and again in early February. Each one attracted 3,500 people, believed to be from the Muslim Brotherhood, trade unions and non-Islamist opposition parties. The primary demands were for the prime minister — first, Samir Rifai, then newly appointed Marouf Bakhit — to step down. In addition to calls for governmental reform, protesters raised their banners, signs and voices in protest over rising food and fuel prices, inflation and unemployment. Beyond sacking and reappointing new prime ministers, King Abdullah responded by meeting with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and by putting $500 million into salary increases for government employees and subsidies for food staples and fuel. The largest protests of 7,000-10,000 people occurred in late February, organized by the Islamic Action Front in coalition with 19 other political parties. Following these much larger protests, King Abdullah pledged additional governmental reforms within a three-month deadline.

At first glance, these events of early 2011 appear to fit into a pattern of protest and agitation, followed by governmental reforms, by more protests and agitations, and finally additional governmental reforms. The back-and-forth in this pattern signals that there is a very public flow of information happening here, albeit contained and "safe." In these protests the government appeared to be allowing some measure of free and public speech, and providing a more responsive and potentially democratic approach to resolving internal dissatisfaction, further heightening the Jordanian government's apparent acquiescence and public response. It reads like a series of discursive exchanges.

However, given the events that followed, reading the early Arab Spring in Jordan as a narrative of protest and agitation followed by a resolution by way of governmental response proves insufficient, as it does not account for the rising level of protests and their culmination in the Dakhiliya protests. On March 24 and 25, 2011, the largest and potentially most threatening protests occurred21 in the Dakhiliya, or Interior, Circle (named after the Interior Ministry nearby). The protestors defied the permit requirement and modeled their indefinite sit-in after protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Dakhliya Circle carries political and economic significance: it is the site of several major government offices including the Ministry of the Interior, major international hotels such as Le Meridien and the Marriot, the Jordanian Stock Market, Royal Jordanian Airlines, the Housing Bank, and a primary traffic circle for those traveling between the north and northwest parts of Amman and the central and southern parts of West Amman and its circles and throughways. For the protesters to flagrantly violate the law and disrupt the "safe" space with claims of indeterminate occupation rendered the protest "threatening" and "dangerous." With these calls for an occupation and sit-in, anti-reformists also showed up, surrounding and countering the protesters. After Friday prayers on March 25, the two opposing sides began throwing rocks at one another. The circle closed, and the anti-riot police came to quell the disputes between the two sides. It is unclear what exactly transpired, but many pro-reformists expressed fears that the government's anti-riot police would engage the populace much like Egypt's baltagiya (thugs), who were paid by the government to quell rioters. Considering that 58 policemen and 62 civilians were injured and one man died "of natural causes" according to the Jordanian medical examiner, many Jordanians came to believe that the violence wracking neighboring countries might also come to theirs.

Maintaining the discursive tenor of the protest and government response, particularly in the interest of safety and nonviolence, prompted activists to return to the permit-seeking, pre-approved space-honoring sort of protest. The remainder of the protests — approximately one or two per month for the rest of 2011 — and the government responses became what Schwedler refers to as "spectacle," or "protesting for a specific audience and gaining visibility."22 Utilizing the highly visible aspects of protest — particularly by launching multimedia campaigns and using blogs, Facebook and Twitter — calls for reform and their responses can maintain the discursive qualities of protest and amplify them into the international sphere.

As a case in point, King Abdullah visited the city of Tafileh on June 13, 2011, greeted either by a riotous crowd that threw bottles and stones or a celebratory one that cheered enthusiastically, depending on whose reports you believe.23 Tafileh is a small city of primarily ethnic Jordanians in the south, known for its intense loyalty to the ruling regime, but also the subject of jokes. Tafileh is a town one passes through on the way to Petra from the King's Highway. When I would pass through, many of my Jordanian friends in Amman would raise an eyebrow about stopping in Tafileh: "You know, they aren't the smartest Jordanians."24 Adding to the spectacle quality of the protests, the official government stories called King Abdullah's reception enthusiastic, warm and welcoming, seemingly tapping into the trope of Jordanians in Tafileh as ignorant subjects warmly receiving their king. Meanwhile, sources tied to the international media, Internet and radio depicted the Tafilehis as engaged, frustrated and willing to throw bottles in protest.

These conflicting stories of King Abdullah's stop in Tafileh were particularly important. On the one hand, the story concerned the loyalists rising up in protest against their king. On the other hand, the government was denying any conflict with the "ignorant loyalists." This revealed a certain tenuousness: if the government could not even keep the "idiot loyalists" from rising up, the more educated, anti-regime portions of the populace likely carried some political weight and capital. As the Dakhliya Protests showed, however, the populace lacked military might. The Internet-based, spectacle quality of the protests in Tafileh raised the degree to which the international media would render verdicts on the "successes" of the protests and failures of the government. Though the populace may have garnered international attention from the spectacle of the Tafileh protests, the military and police power of the regime continued to be recognized.

In another example of the spectacle of protest, the rise in the number of Salafis has not gone unnoticed by the larger populace in Jordan. For the most part, the Salafis are interested in amplifying public ethics that support conservative values such as restricting the sale of alcohol, pressuring women to don the hijab and implementing certain rulings from Sharia. They have been far less interested in political organization. Most Islamic political organizations in Jordan such as the Muslim Brotherhood have distanced themselves from many Salafists. In mid-April 2011, the police and Salafi mujahedeen returning from Afghanistan clashed in Zarqa, a large city to the north of Amman well-known for fomenting religious conservativism.

The mastermind of the November 9, 2005, attacks in Amman was born in Zarqa as Ahmad Fadeel al-Nazal al-Khalayleh, but changed his name to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi when he became a part of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The mujahedeen are now a noticeable presence in Zarqa, particularly due to their showal qamees, the traditional dress found in Afghanistan, and their weapons of daggers and swords, which are reminiscent of weaponry from Central Asia in the nineteenth century or before. The April 2011 clash between the mujahedeen in Zarqa and the riot police was documented on YouTube and then brought into the regional news, including Al-Arabiya.25 Many of my Jordanian friends laughed at the irony behind the returned mujahedeen using "primitive" daggers and swords publicized on YouTube and broadcast on a major satellite regional news source. The spectacle of the protest and riot underscored that the least technically advanced — in this case the Salafis relying upon Afghan methods of dress and weapons — often lose in the battle for technology-based spectacle.

While the overall history of protest in Jordan has been one of engaging in dialogue with the government, the underlying threat of strong, even violent, government response to those who fall outside the purview of acceptable and "safe" demonstrations such as those found in neighboring countries has not gone unnoticed. Rather than allowing protest to continue to be co-opted by the regime, the heightened spectacle of notable, multi-media reports and presentations tap into a wider vocabulary of middle-class cultural reference points. This has amplified the notion that, more and more, discursive protests and their counterpoints will be decided in the public sphere and through the advances of international media and technology.


It is analytically useful to examine the Jordanian government's responses to the events of the Arab Spring as a series of consumerist political moves designed to distract middle-class Jordanians and aspiring cosmopolitans from issues that substantively threaten to undermine the stability of the country.

Parliamentary elections occurred on November 9, 2010, prompting one of the main complaints during the first sets of protests in January and February 2011. The early calls for political reforms often revolved around the notion that the electoral processes, particularly parliamentary elections, are highly undemocratic. Though Jordan is technically a constitutional monarchy, this is a rather liberal interpretation. Full executive power is vested in King Abdullah himself. When elections are held, gerrymandering prevents women, Christians and ethnic minorities from gaining political power except by quotas. Palestinians are underrepresented based on their demographic majority. Finally, votes are often purchased, rendering null any hope for one-person, one-vote.

In response to complaints about the November 2010 elections, King Abdullah sacked the parliament and the prime minister in February 2011, replacing Samir Rifai with Marouf Bakhit and a newly appointed government later in the month. Furthermore, the government set aside $500 million for salary increases for government employees and subsidies for food staples and fuel. Later, in March 2011, King Abdullah established a three-month deadline for the newly appointed government to craft reforms. Such announcements continued later in the year. On June 12, 2011, the king agreed to relinquish the right to appoint prime ministers and cabinets, with new election and political-party laws to come. On October 17, 2011, he sacked the prime minister again, appointing Awn Shawkat Al-Khasawneh in his place.

At first glance, one might be tempted to see the governmental responses as a continuation of the discursive pattern of response to protests. However, the primary reason that the governmental offers of reform have helped to stem a tide of increased protest is tied less to any substantive change and more to the political, consumerist distractions of the middle class and aspiring cosmopolitans in Amman.

Holding elections, sacking and reappointing government representatives, and increasing economic purchasing power all heighten consumerism and provide political distractions. Elections, for example, are known to "reorient political discourse."26 All of these actions by the government serve to prioritize cohesion and inclusiveness and offer something reflective of what the consuming populace is ultimately hoping to achieve. Furthermore, the speed with which these actions were undertaken is much more representative of a market-modeled or economic response. The populace wants a new prime minister? A new parliament? With a brushstroke, King Abdullah is able to change the holders of these powerful and representative positions. In fact, the speed of King Abdullah's responses is more reflective of consumerist behavior than democratic ideals: no elections, quorums or external inputs are deemed necessary. The quest to ameliorate the people's frustrations or even to make them happy is conducted without instituting substantive reforms. It is more an endeavor to rebrand the monarchy than to make it more democratic. In fact, the ethics of enhanced purchasing power as part of Amman's middle-class cosmopolitanism permeates political life here. Replacing the prime minister is enacted with the same penstroke as increasing salaries and food subsidies. Enhanced purchasing power by the middle class brings forth both new governments and new goods.

Furthermore, King Abdullah has recognized that such consumerist actions and political distractions tap into the shared middle-class cosmopolitanism of Ammanis. Just after the Dakhilya protests on March 27, 2011, King Abdullah called for the populace to avoid "any behavior or attitude that would affect our unity."27 In perhaps the clearest understanding of this phenomenon, the king said on America's National Public Radio:

What bothers me in a lot of countries is [that] society is being led by the street, as opposed to the light at the end of the tunnel. But we have got to remember that the Arab Spring began — and there's challenges all over the world, including your country — because of economic difficulties: unemployment, poverty. We have the largest youth cohort in history coming into the workforce in the Middle East. And that is how the Arab Spring started. I mean, Tunis started because of the economy, not because of politics…. What keeps me up at night is poverty and unemployment. We have, in the past 10 years, managed to establish a credible middle class. But any shifts in oil prices, economic challenges, that middle class becomes very fragile. 28

The idea that "unity" is the preservation of the middle class has now become the overt aim of the Hashemite regime. This is primarily because previous attempts to build a cohesive society based on political affiliations have not worked. Recent political campaigns and distractions that focused on overcoming ethnic and religious differences with promises of political reform have been largely seen as inauthentic and propagandist.29 Between 2003 and 2006, the three national campaigns of "Jordan First," "National Agenda" and "We Are All Jordan" each attempted an internal political unification that largely failed; the internal divisions run deep.

It appears that the next-best hope for internal unity is the construction and maintenance of a broadly construed middle class that participates in political activism as an extension of their ethics of consumption, thereby diverting attention from internal divisions. The Jordanian regime has engaged in a series of political consumerist practices — impromptu elections, sacking prime minister after prime minister and passing temporary laws — in an attempt to distract the populace from the deepening internal divisions that threaten to undermine this largely unitary outlook and form of social organization. Such top-down measures have been met with ambivalence. To solidify this otherwise tenuous political and economic unity, the regime has also encouraged comparisons to neighboring countries. In doing so, the government has recognized that consumerist distractions from deepening internal divisions are not enough, and that supplementing them with points of comparison helps to distract from internal divisions.


This unitary construction of social life in Amman as middle class and anti-revolution is further reinforced by an outward-looking disposition. At the height of Western analysts' and media's anticipation of Jordan's movement into the Arab Spring, most Ammanis were first looking to their neighboring countries. The "wait and see" attitude of most Ammanis stemmed from Palestinian reluctance to protest without Jordanians, and Jordanians were not keen to trade the current regime for the situations in Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Comparisons with each country further confirmed that Amman's middle-class unity was not based solely on ignoring or overlooking internal divisions, nor was the middle class and aspiring cosmopolitanism alone able to attain the heightened prioritization of economic, political and cultural forms that prevented revolution. Seeing the experiences in neighboring countries solidified such unity and loyalty to the status quo. Jordan as the Nation of Security and Stability (Belad al-Amn wa al-Istighrar) was an oft-repeated niche characterization in a region otherwise wracked with violence, occupation and civil war, and in need of significant political and economic development. On the Daily Show, King Abdullah characterized Jordan as "stuck between Iraq and a hard place."30 Whatever the difficulties in Jordan, the alternative was worse.

Certainly comparisons with Iraq were made before the Arab Spring began. However, such comparisons were much more frequent and significant after the potential for instability came to other neighboring countries. There was little concern or hope that the West would get involved in deposing King Abdullah. The political, economic and symbolic linkages between the king and the West are well known in Jordan. Particularly after Mubarak fell, most Jordanians held to the belief that any threat to Jordan was a threat to the last bastion of pro-Western, Arab regimes in the region. Rather than reminding the populace of harsh rulers, comparisons with Iraq served to remind the populace that, should calls for deposing King Abdullah be raised, the full support of the West could be invoked on his behalf. Should the situation in Jordan come to that, the costs of such instability could be as great as Western involvement and a civil war. In fact, such symbolic linkages served to remind people that Jordan recently had had a civil war; Black September is still present in local memories. Such linkages also prompted people to ask if their situations were really so dire that a U.S.-led invasion and another civil war were really worth it. Most agreed that they were not.

Given the close proximity of Damascus to Amman, comparisons with Syria were considered most salient. Such comparisons reiterated the questions about civil war, as they did with Iraq. However, they also prompted questions about the role and power of the government's secret police (mukhabarat). Most Ammanis agreed that Jordan's security apparatus was much less intrusive and alarming than Syria's. Jordan's mukhabarat are not as secretive, scary or as likely to be your neighbor as they are in Syria. The consensus was that the Jordanian police will kick you but will not kill you. And, as the events of the Dakhiliya Protests indicated, the anti-riot police and intelligentsia are not likely to round up Jordanians en masse for interrogations, torture or execution, as they have in Syria. Amman's middle class and aspiring cosmopolitans compare Jordan to Syria and consider the principles of inclusiveness and peaceful coexistence, even in limited political form, far preferable to Syria's ruthless internal-security apparatus. Ammanis preferred their consumerist distractions over wrestling with difference and diversity in ways that could potentially throw the country into the violence witnessed in Syria.

In comparison with Egypt, Amman's cosmopolitan middle class expressed political, economic and cultural distance from the working poor of Cairo. Comparisons emphasized that Jordan is less internally homogenous than Egypt, and that such diversity makes revolution less likely. As one Ammani friend told me, "They can have a revolution. They're all poor and Egyptian." The guiding notion was that the diversity internal to Jordan would result in a less straightforward experience of protest-revolution-political-reform. The sentiment was that Egyptians can and should have a revolution, given their perceived internal ethnic and economic homogeneity and the overwhelmingly unified dislike of Mubarak. Should diverse Jordan destabilize, the result would be closer to that of sectarian Syria than of homogenous Egypt.

Economic comparisons with Egypt further emphasize the role that external comparisons play among the emergent middle class and aspiring cosmopolitans in Amman. Ammanis found themselves with space and political-economic opportunity to engage in a reorganization and reprioritization of forms for social life, such that their economic frustrations with the government were not nearly as strongly held as those of the Egyptians. As one informant said, "If Egypt suddenly became a place where everyone is happy and prosperous, there'd be a revolution in Jordan." The notion that Amman is a wealthier space, in which one's opportunities might grow into a kind of middle-class, cosmopolitan life and livelihood, was common enough that the economic imperative for reform was far diminished and best understood as existing "out there," particularly in Egypt.

Many residents often repeated the mantra that Jordan is the Nation of Security and Stability, asking, "Is it worth identifying and confronting the internal divisions that threaten this?" For many, the desire was strong to overlook internal differences and compare their situations to the instability in neighboring countries for the sake of preventing the violence and harm undoing many neighboring countries. This sentiment continues to be strong. For many middle-class and aspiring cosmopolitans in Amman, it is not worth risking their status in the region. Life in Jordan, despite all its difficulties, is secure and stable, and most believe it is best to keep it that way.


By deflecting from the more immediate internal divisions, jettisoning real debates, and marginalizing those in Jordanian society with legitimate economic and political claims, the middle-class and aspiring cosmopolitans have secured a new form of internal unity. This unity is further solidified when one looks to the repercussions felt in neighboring countries, including violence, death and civil war.

Negative associations with neighboring countries have prompted links between otherwise disparate and even tense sections of society. The sentiment that "we are not Egypt," "we are not Syria," and "we are not Iraq" provides a tenuous undergirding for political and economic cohesion between Salafis and secular Jordanians, Palestinians and Jordanians, and others. The feeling that most people in Amman are not abjectly poor provides economic motivation as well. Rather than the potentially stronger bonds of positive political and economic associations, these negative associations will only continue as long as the political situations in neighboring countries are worse than in Jordan. As long as the negative political associations continue between middle-class Ammanis and Syrians, Egyptians and Iraqis, Jordan can continue to hold together as a coherent, cohesive society. The mantra that Jordan is the Nation of Security and Stability is true only relative to neighboring countries. The implication is that the future of Jordan is inextricably linked to those of neighboring countries, even more so than its own internal political and economic situation would otherwise indicate.


1 Oded Eran, "Is Jordan Next?" Haaretz, February 7, 2011, accessed December 15, 2011,; Joel Rosenberg, "Revolution in Egypt? And Could Jordan Be Next?" National Review, January, 28, 2011, accessed December 15, 2011, 258304/revolution-egypt-and-could-jordan-be-next-joel-c-rosenberg.; Ivan Watson and Amy Hybels, "Jordan Protestors Inspired by Tunisian Ripple," CNN, January 24, 2011, accessed December 15, 2011,

2 Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan Department of Statistics, "Population of Kingdom at End-year [sic] 2010," Department of Statistics, January 18, 2012, accessed January 18, 2012,

3 This is a well-known and common understanding. Many Western analysts have also debated the possible implications of this. Cf. Robert Fisk, "Why Jordan Is Occupied by Palestinians," Independent, July 22, 2010, accessed December 15, 2011,

4 Wikipedia, "Demographics of Jordan: Ethnic and Religious Groups," Wikipedia, accessed December 15, 2011,

5 "Maps: Modern Socio-Political," PBS Global Connections: The Middle East, last modified 2002, accessed December 15, 2011,

6 "Prince El-Hassan bin Talal: 'Jordanian Christians Are Fully Integrated,'" Middle East Quarterly (Winter 2001): 82-87, accessed December 15, 2011,

7 Kamal S. Salibi, The Modern History of Jordan (IB Tauris & Co Ltd., 1998), 100.

8 Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, "Jordan: Information on Christians in Jordan, Whether Fundamentalist Seek to Convert Them to Islam and on the Assistance Available to Them," UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, last modified 2002, accessed December 15, 2011,,IRBC,,JOR,3ae6ac3c20,0.html.

9 Naseem Tarawnah, "Dual Citizenship in Jordan: Not Acceptable," The Voices of the Middle East:, October 9, 2011, last accessed December 27, 2011,

10 Lamis Andoni, "Jordan Is Not Palestine," Al-Jazeera, July 4, 2010, last accessed December 15, 2011, /news/2010/07/2010748131864654.html.

11 Index Mundi, "Jordan Inflation Rate (consumer prices)," Index Mundi, last modified January 9, 2012, accessed January 18, 2012,

12 "Field Listing: Population Below Poverty Line," CIA World Factbook, last modified 2011, accessed December 15, 2011,

13 Index Mundi, "Jordan Unemployment Rate," Index Mundi, last modified January 9, 2012, accessed January 18, 2012,

14 Jillian Schwedler, "Amman Cosmopolitan: Spaces and Practices of Aspiration and Consumption," Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, 30 (2010): 547-62.

15 Ibid., 555.

16 Philip Robins, A History of Jordan (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 2-3; Eugene L. Rogan, Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire: Transjordan, 1850-1921 (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 18, 72-76; Kamal S. Salibi, The Modern History of Jordan (IB Tauris & Co Ltd., 1998), 130.

17 Kamal S. Salibi, The Modern History of Jordan (IB Tauris & Co Ltd., 1998), 130.

18 Janine A. Clark, Islam, Charity, and Activism: Middle-Class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen (Indiana University Press, 2004) 17, 63, 82.

19 Asef Bayat, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford University Press, 2007), 236-8.

20 Jillian Schwedler, "The Geography of Political Protests," in Revolution in the Arab World: The Long View, Mimi Kirk, ed. (Center for Contemporary Studies, 2011), 9-14.

21 These protests were well documented by bloggers and in social commentaries by those in Jordan as well as in international media outlets. Dalia Zatara, "The Day after March 25.", March 27, 2011, accessed December 15, 2011,; Ranya Kadri and Isabel Kershner, "Violence Erupts at Jordan Protest," New York Times, February 18, 2011, accessed December 15, 2011, middleeast/19jordan.html.

22 Ibid., 13.

23 For a report critical of the government, see Ranya Kadri, "Jordan: Protestors Clash with Police during King's Visit to Tribal Town," New York Times, June 13, 2011, accessed December 15, 2011, 2011/06/14/world/middleeast/14briefs-Jordan.html. For a report of the government's narrative of events, see "Jordan: Officials Deny Protestors Attacked King," BBC News, June 13, 2011, accessed December 15, 2011,

24 Tafileh jokes often resemble "blonde jokes" in America. One example includes, "A man from Tafileh had been asking God for 15 years to be blessed with a child. One night he received a message from God that said: 'Get married first, you idiot!'"

25 "Isaba 83 min al-amn Al-Urduny fi tithahira lil Salafiyeen," Al-Arabiya News, uploaded to April 15, 2011, accessed December 15, 2011, The first minute of the video translates as, "Hussein Haza` Al-Mijali, leader of the Police Dept. announced today that 83 members of the police force were injured in the events of Zarqa that involved the Salafi jihadin and their opposition, who had called for police intervention. The police fired tear gas to separate the two parties. Mijali said that 17 Salafis arrested were involved in attacking policeman using batons and sharp objects. It is worth mentioning that the Salafi faction have been calling for protests over the last month in various cities, asking for the implementation of Shari`a and the release of the 200 detainees from Jordanian jails."

26 Jillian Schwedler, "Jordan's Risky Business as Usual," Middle East Research and Information Project, June 30 (2010), accessed December 15, 2011,

27 "Jordan's King Calls for National Unity," Al-Jazeera, last modified March 27, 2011, accessed December 15, 2011,

28 "King Abdullah: Jordan Needs a 'Stable Middle Class'," National Public Radio, Sept. 22, 2011, accessed December 15, 2011,

29 Batir Wardam, "We Are All Jordan: The Issue of Ownership," Jordan Watch, July 29, 2006, accessed December 15, 2011,

30 King Abdullah II of Jordan Extended Interview, The Daily Show with John Stewart, September 23, 2010, accessed December 15, 2011,