Teachers’ Anger Reflects Jordan’s Economic and Political Strains

The crackdown on the Jordanian Teachers Syndicate this summer is in many ways emblematic of mounting political and economic problems facing the Hashemite Kingdom. Although Jordan tries to project a progressive image abroad and is generally more tolerant of dissent than many of its neighbors, it has shown that it can resort to draconian measures to try to keep a lid on its hard-pressed population, one that yearns for a decent standard of living, an end to corruption, and more open political space. The impact of the government’s COVID-19 countermeasures, uncertainty over the Israel/Palestine issue, and the perception that some Gulf Arabs are forsaking the Palestinian cause have also added fuel to the fire in this summer of discontent.

Successfully Dealing with COVID-19, but at a Price

To its credit, the Jordanian government was able to limit the spread of COVID-19 much better than its neighbors. It imposed a near total lockdown of the economy in March, which greatly reduced the potential spread of the virus. The government’s adroit handling of the pandemic allowed it to reopen the economy at the end of June. As of September 8, Jordan recorded almost 2,600 cases and 19 deaths from the virus.

However, the emergency measures that were enacted as part of the March lockdown have had a deleterious political effect. The ban on outside gatherings, which is still in effect, was interpreted by many oppositionists as a way to stifle dissent. One of them declared that the “orders issued by the government as a result of the coronavirus are not supposed to suspend the constitution, which gave Jordanians the right to express themselves as well as the right to peaceful assembly within clear legal standards.”

Perhaps more significantly, the emergency measures allowed employers to reduce the wages

of their employees. This has especially hurt Jordan’s large, salaried middle class, which has been under severe economic stress for some time. The most politically active of this group, Jordanian teachers, who on average make only $600 per month, were especially angry when the government announced it would postpone a promised wage increase that had been agreed to in the previous year.

Teacher Activism and Government Crackdown

The Jordanian Teachers Syndicate was formed in 2011 and represents the largest union in the country with about 140,000 members. In September 2019, the syndicate staged a four-week strike that effectively closed down the country’s schools over a longstanding pay issue. In October 2019, the government relented and agreed that teachers would receive an increase in their pay of between 35 to 74 percent, depending on their professional level. The additional monies were to be disbursed in early 2020 but the plan was reportedly delayed because of the COVID-19 lockdown, which also froze public sector salaries.

After the lockdown was lifted in June, the leadership of the Teachers Syndicate started to press the government to fulfill the 2019 pay agreement.

After the lockdown was lifted in June, the leadership of the Teachers Syndicate started to press the government to fulfill the 2019 pay agreement. The syndicate published a call for activism on its website for the wage increase to be honored. The government saw this call as a threat and responded with highly repressive measures.

On July 25, the country’s attorney general ordered the Teachers Syndicate dissolved and the arrest of its 13-member leadership board. The government also ordered a news blackout of the union and the arrests; in addition, it threatened journalists and bloggers with imprisonment if they defied the order.

The crackdown on the union leadership prompted large-scale teacher demonstrations throughout the country. The protesting teachers not only demanded the release of the leaders and the reinstatement of their union, but some even called for the resignation of the government led by Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz, viewing it as corrupt.

The government then surrounded these protests with riot police and arrested as many as 1,000 teachers in late July and early August. Interior Minister Salameh Hammad charged that some protesters threw rocks at security personnel, an act he condemned as “unacceptable.” He also said that the protests were in violation of the March 2020 emergency measures. Another government official simply criticized the teachers for being “stubborn” over the pay issue.

Internal and External Backlash

The media blackout did little to limit the news of what was going on, even when the government tried to block internet access of the events, as computer-savvy Jordanians were adept at circumventing such restrictions. Many Jordanians, especially middle-class elements, sympathized with the protesting teachers, who are their neighbors and friends and share similar circumstances. One bank employee who recently lost her job told a reporter: “If the government thinks it can silence me like they are trying to silence the teachers, they have another thing coming.” Unemployment in the country is more than 19 percent.

Meanwhile, international human rights groups sharply condemned the government’s actions. Michael Page, Middle East deputy director of Human Rights Watch, stated: “Shuttering one of Jordan’s few independent labor unions following a protracted dispute with the government and on dubious legal grounds raises serious concerns about the government’s respect for the rule of law.” Page added that the media ban imposed by the government “only reinforces the conclusion that the authorities are violating citizens’ rights.”

Even the United Nations, in which Jordan has long had a favorable standing, criticized the crackdown on the Teachers Syndicate. The UN human rights spokesman, Rupert Colville, characterized the actions against the union as “emblematic of a growing pattern of suppression of public freedoms and the restriction of civic and democratic space by the Jordanian government, including against labor rights activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and those who have peacefully criticized the government.”

Although this UN official acknowledged that Amman is under financial constraints because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he nonetheless went on to say that “we encourage the government to engage in good faith negotiations with the Teachers Syndicate about their concerns rather than imposing measures that unlawfully restrict the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, opinion and expression.”

It is probable that the Jordanian government did not anticipate this level of outside scrutiny and criticism, which has hurt its reputation abroad. In late August, in response to the criticism, the government released the arrested board members as well as most of the teachers under detention, but the Teachers Syndicate remains closed for at least two years.

The Muslim Brotherhood Angle and Regional Influences

Part of the government’s ire against the Teachers Syndicate is that some officials see it as an appendage of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s main opposition group. Although only 27 percent of the syndicate’s central committee members belong to the Brotherhood, according to a civil society activist, government officials see the Brotherhood as stirring up the population and inculcating students with radical ideas. One Jordanian official accused the students of becoming “hostage to a council that doesn’t see education as a calling and instead it is being used as part of partisan ideological agendas.”

Part of the government’s ire against the Teachers Syndicate is that some officials see it as an appendage of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s main opposition group.

To what extent is the Jordanian government under pressure from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to take more of a hardline stance against the Brotherhood? In the minds of many Jordanians the connection is real. Lamis Andoni, a respected Jordanian political analyst, noted: “There is talk that there is Emirati pressure on Jordan to end … the Muslim Brotherhood.  In addition, there is a stream in Jordan that is clearly interested in a clash with the Brotherhood.”

It is noteworthy that most members of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood are of Palestinian descent. In addition, this segment of the populace (which represents about 60 percent of Jordan’s total population) is especially angry about the UAE-Israel peace deal, which is being interpreted as selling out the Palestinian cause. However, these facts conflate several sensitive issues and have undoubtedly made the Jordanian government especially nervous.

Political Cartoon Calamities

Against this backdrop was Jordan’s decision to arrest a highly popular political cartoonist, Emad Hajjaj, on August 27 for purportedly seeking to “undermine Jordan’s relations with a friendly country,” namely the UAE.  Hajjaj published a cartoon the day before which depicted a dove with an Israeli flag on it spitting on the face of Mohammed bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and leader of the UAE, with the caption, “Israel asks America not to sell F-35 planes to the Emirates.” The latter was a reference to the fact that Israel believes any military deal involving the United States and an Arab country should not undermine its “qualitative military edge” in the region and that it would use its influence with Washington to block any such efforts, like a sale of advanced F-35 aircraft to the UAE. The cartoon essentially depicts an Arab leader being insulted and duped by the Israelis.

The Jordanian government was especially sensitive to this cartoon for a number of reasons. First, the UAE is not only a financial benefactor of Amman but a country with which Jordan has had a long security relationship and which hosts many Jordanian workers, including military personnel. Second, although the Jordanian government acknowledged the announcement of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel, it knows that this UAE decision is highly unpopular in the kingdom. But because Jordan has its own peace treaty with Israel, it could not very well denounce the impending treaty between the two parties as that would bring more attention to its own controversial diplomatic ties with Israel; therefore, the Jordanian government found itself in a bind and probably believed that the arrest of Hajjaj would be a low-cost way to mollify the UAE.

Although the Jordanian government acknowledged the announcement of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel, it knows that this UAE decision is highly unpopular in the kingdom.

However, there was such an outcry over the cartoonist’s arrest from Jordanian and other Arab intellectuals, who launched a region-wide twitter-storm, as well as from international human rights groups, that the government released Hajjaj after only a few days in detention. Like the arrest of teachers, the Hajjaj episode has illustrated the government’s nervousness over recent events, pursuing repression and then backtracking from it to some extent to limit the blowback.

Recommendations for US Policy

US policy-makers need to show Jordan some tough love. They should impress upon Jordan’s King Abdullah, with whom they have long had a close relationship, that draconian measures such as the arrest of teachers and the muzzling of the press are counterproductive not only to the country’s stability but to its reputation abroad. US policy-makers should also work with the international community to try to come up with more funds to aid Jordan’s ailing economy so it can pay its teachers a decent salary and aid other segments of the population that are suffering from the economic effects of the pandemic. Although Washington provides Jordan with substantial aid (much of it for military items and the care of Syrian refugees), only $8.6 million is allocated for COVID-19 relief. The latter is clearly inadequate given Jordan’s burgeoning population and the squeeze on its middle class, as this summer’s teacher protests have shown. Washington should also use its influence with the Gulf Arab states to ask them to be more generous with Jordan without political strings attached.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Gregory and read his publications click here