On March 24, 2011, the newly created umbrella organisation, “Youth of March 24”, arranged a sit-in at the square in the middle of Interior Circle, a roundabout in central Amman, Jordan’s capital. Both the Egyptian and Tunisian long-time presidents, Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had stepped down in the previous two months during what would later be seen as the height of the Arab Spring, and the demonstrators hoped that mass protests could bring about radical political change in Jordan as well. They would occupy the square until the regime accepted their demands, most of them calling for parliamentary democracy.
The sit-in was part of a surge in demonstrations and the emergence of long-lasting protest movements in Jordan—a monarchy with 6.2 million citizens—that happened in the wake of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. On most Fridays in 2011, Amman saw demonstrations with between a few hundred and a few thousand participants, most of whom said they belonged to the opposition. The demonstrators’ demands usually included variants on the themes that corruption be eradicated, the intelligence services stop interfering in political life, and prices on staple goods be kept down. They also had more abstract demands, using slogans such as “Bread, freedom, social justice” and “The people want the political system to change”. These abstract demands meant different things to different demonstrators, but they were united in their belief that only a change in the political system could uproot corruption.
The demonstrators were typically careful to make it clear that they were demanding a reform of the regime, not its fall. The Jordanian regime’s relatively moderate response to the 2011 protests stands in stark contrast to that of its neighbouring Arab regimes. In Syria, the initial demonstrations, which also did not demand removal of the regime, were met by a hail of bullets and mass arrests. In Jordan, the police seldom stopped the demonstrations and even protected the demonstrators from individuals and groups hostile to them.
The March 24 sit-in was the most ambitious attempt in Jordan in 2011 to bring about regime change through street protests. The overt tone of the sit-in was one of support for the monarchy and the nation’s king, Abdullah II. Photos of the king were common, and the crowd chanted their support for him. Nevertheless, a part of the sit-in wanted Jordan to become a constitutional monarchy where the parliament rather than the king appoints the government. In several public speeches, King Abdullah had stated that in the future, Jordan should become a constitutional monarchy ruled by political parties, and the sit-in participants explicitly aligned themselves with this vision, saying they demanded only what the king already wanted. March 24, however, was the first time during the incumbent monarch’s regency that participants in a large demonstration raised demands regarding the king’s role in the country’s political system. The demonstrators understood this as a radical step.
March 24 never became the beginning of mass protests in Jordan. In a rough estimate, 500 people participated in the sit-in on Thursday and less than 3,000 people on Friday. On the second day, a large group of stone-throwers attacked the sit-in, and riot police eventually dissolved it.
This experience of defeat changed political activism in Jordan. Before the sit-in, most Jordanian political activists saw themselves as part of a struggle between an authoritarian regime and a majority wanting political reforms. After more people turned up among the stone-throwers than in the sit-in, this self-image became hard to maintain. The article explores two different ways in which political activism changed with the realisation that most Jordanians did not want political reforms.
One was to keep the faith in a great uprising while abandoning the belief in political reforms and democratic methods such as negotiations and agreements. Some political activists concluded that most Jordanians were uninterested in political reforms and that the opposition was fragmented regarding what reforms they wanted. These activists were inspired by the uprisings in other Arab countries and hoped for a similar uprising in Jordan. They thought that for such an uprising to get the necessary public support, political activists needed to sacrifice a clear political agenda and instead focus on issues that Jordanians actually cared about, like jobs and bread prices.
Other activists responded to defeat in a very different way. They lost faith in mass demonstrations while still believing in agreements, negotiations, and formulations of a political alternative as the way forward. But they no longer thought that these political practices could be based on inclusion and publicness.
History is written by the victors. Are democratic ideals and analyses then formulated from the vantage point of successful democratic revolutions? One influential tradition of scholarship has assumed that—in the Arab world in general, and the Arab Spring in particular—the main democratising force laid in resistance to authoritarian regimes. This understanding—according to which authoritarian rule is, like in the successful European democratic uprisings since 1989, changed through a power struggle between the regime and “the people” or “the opposition” where the breaking of the “barrier of fear” is of great political significance—defined much of the early literature on the Arab Spring (e.g. Aday et al., 2012; Goldstone, 2011; Ryan, 2011; Sa’adah, 2015; Tripp, 2013). The political sentiment this literature is connected to can be illustrated through Thanassis Cambanis’ claim that the Egyptian uprising was “a primal story of human beings shattering the chains that bind them, and striking against a power that oppresses them” (2016, p. 3). In Jordan, this sentiment was challenged by the experience that most people were uninterested in taking part in—or violently hostile to—popular movements demanding political reforms.
Furthermore, in the type of successful democratic uprisings that took place in 1989—based on non-violence, mass protest and peaceful regime change—the democratic movements had ideals of open debate and inclusion. In these uprisings, “the appeals are typically to a whole society, the nation, the people… The strategic key to mass mobilization…often lies precisely in building the broadest possible coalitions between classes, sections of society, and interest groups that do not normally cooperate, and among which nondemocratic powerholders had previously been able to ‘divide and rule’” (Garton Ash, 2009, 1993). Among certain Jordanian democracy activists, defeat challenged these ideals of open debate and inclusion and stressed the importance of secrecy and exclusion.
Reinhart Koselleck has characterised the historiography of victors as short-term. The defeated, on the other hand, are “forced to draw new and difficult lessons from history”, which, Koselleck argues, seems to “yield insights of longer validity” (quoted in Schivelbusch, 2004, p. 4). Studying how political activism is affected by defeat offers a mirror from which to challenge the victorious notions in our democratic ideals and scholarship.
Youth of March 24
The Jordanian opposition parties have historically focused on foreign rather than national issues (i.e. pan-Arabism, the liberation of Palestine), while the largest demonstrations the country had experienced during the two decades before the Arab Spring were responses to price rises. By focusing on political reforms and corruption rather than foreign issues and prices, the Youth of March 24 represented new priorities for the Jordanian opposition and street demonstrations.
This umbrella organisation planned the sit-in through meetings with 40–80 representatives of various political parties (e.g. the Communist Party, the Baʿath Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party) and political movements (which had a fluid number of participants rather than formal membership) such as the Teachers’ Union (which was not an institutionalised union) and the Military Veterans. Unlike most of those who merely participated, those who planned the sit-in had previous experience of organising demonstrations, and many of them had been active in a political party.
These leaders were, with a few exceptions, men with university degrees. Women were a minority among the participants of the sit-in and more so among its leadership. This reflected society at large; the sit-in’s ratio of female to male leaders was not different from that of Jordan’s cabinet or the executive bureaus of its political parties. Furthermore, the Youth of March 24 did not have the gerontocracy that prevails in Jordan’s political institutions. As its name indicates, young people (shabāb; the concept includes people in their thirties) were more eager to join or support the umbrella organisation than older people, who were more often afraid of the possible consequences, both for them personally and for the country at large.
Most of the Youth of March 24’s leadership had East Bank rather than Palestinian origin. Jordanians of Palestinian origin constitute more than half of the Jordanian population, and they dominate the country’s private sector, while Jordanians of East Bank origin dominate the state apparatus, including the political leadership. East Jordanians have also dominated the top leadership of the important political parties (e.g. the Islamic Action Front), which has made them more acceptable to the state. Furthermore, the Jordanian protest movements that emerged in 2011 were strong in the provinces outside the large cities (al-muḥāfaẓāt), among the East Jordanian tribesmen, the traditional backbone of the Jordanian regime (see Tell, 2015).
The experiences of defeat this article describes are those of the liberals, Leftists and nationalists (waṭaniyyīn), not the Islamists. During the initial period of the Arab Spring, Jordanian Islamists saw their fellows rise to power in Egypt, and they thought the same would happen in Jordan (cf. Larzillière, 2016, p. 8–9). Their experience of defeat came later, with the Assads winning the civil war in Syria, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi coming to power in Egypt, and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood splitting and losing its assets (see Abu Rumman and Bondokji, 2018).
This article is based on fieldwork between March 2011 and January 2012 and between May and July 2014. I attended demonstrations and political meetings, spent time with youth activists in Amman and the organisers of the well-known protest movement in Dhiban, a town south of Amman, and interviewed 15 people who participated in meetings to plan the sit-in on March 24.
There are two activists in particular whose responses to defeat I will delineate here. One is a well-known political blogger in Jordan, whose experiences I describe through his online writing. The other is an activist who played a significant role in different attempts to coordinate the Jordanian protest moments, whom I met regularly during the latter half of 2011 and with whom I attended political activities. These cases are chosen to illustrate more general points and because these are activists who managed to clearly articulate their experience of failure and their response to it.
Uprising without Politics
As mentioned, some leaders of the Youth of March 24 responded to the lack of mass demonstrations in Jordan by starting to believe in an uprising unmediated by political demands and democratic methods.
After March 2011, they concluded that they should have prioritised social instead of political issues. In Jordan, siyāsa (politics) usually refers to issues such as constitutional reforms, political parties, the Parliament and the Senate. Issues relating to subsidies, minimum wages, labour rights, social services and poverty are not siyāsī but ijtimāʿī (social). To demonstrate for a change of the electoral or political party law is to make a siyāsī demand, to demonstrate against rising prices or for free education is to make ijtimāʿī demands.
At least since 1989, the lifting of subsidies on staple goods and fuel (an ijtimāʿī issue) has been the main cause of large-scale demonstrations and riots in Jordan. These demonstrations have usually ended when the prime minister seen as responsible for the lifting of the subsidies resigned (the Jordanian political system is designed so that the prime minister, not the king, is seen as the one responsible). Many of the most senior officials in the Jordanian government, in contrast, have been convinced that the era of subsidies needs to be replaced by productive investments and targeted support for the poorer sections of society. Especially after 2003, fuel subsidies have been one of the largest expenditures in Jordan’s government budget (see Atamanov et al., 2015). The significant aid Jordan has received from Saudi Arabia ($300 million in cash in just 2006) has been, at least before the Arab Spring, conditioned on a Jordanian commitment to end its fuel subsidies. The Group of Eight (G8) countries had also conditioned debt relief on an improvement of Jordan’s fiscal position. Unluckily for Jordan, the attempts to remove the subsidies have coincided with high oil prices, which have caused high budget deficits (12 percent of the gross domestic product, or GDP, in 2005) and inflation through much of the 2000s. These price increases have been very unpopular among the Jordanians, and since the government has been the primary defender of fiscal discipline, its legitimacy has suffered.
After March 24, political leaders such as Rami (a Leftist software engineer who later became a government minister in Jordan), Samir (a political journalist who, in 2011, managed an online newspaper that was an important outlet for political dissidents) and Khaled (a nationalist-Leftist labour activist) concluded that the opposition had brought the wrong demands to the streets. They thought that they had emphasised too much the importance of siyāsa (politics). “We talked about election laws and the constitution”, one of them told me. “But people never cared about siyāsī issues. People cared about ijtimāʿī (social) issues: prices, health insurance, free education. That is what we should have brought to the street”.
These political leaders did not just want demonstrations that faded away when a prime minister resigned. The way forward was to turn the anger of these demonstrations into an uprising, not only against the sitting prime minister (something the Jordanian security forces accept), but against the regime. What this meant in practice was diffuse, and naturally so since there had been no effort to make the siyāsī demands more precise. A commonly held belief was that there was something “bad” at the top of the Jordanian regime that mass demonstrations could remove, whether this badness was understood as the head of the regime, Palestinian influence (a common understanding among nationalists) or corrupt senior officials.
The faith in what mass demonstrations could achieve was stronger early on in the Arab Spring, when the Syrian civil war was not yet a warning example, when the Muslim Brotherhood had not yet come to power in Egypt, and when Leftists and nationalists therefore could imagine—with less friction—a bright future for Jordan. There would maybe be a moment of chaos when Jordan’s corrupt and undemocratic political system would fall apart, but only temporarily. The great uprising would be a messianic earthquake.
A great uprising did not require democratic methods such as agreements and negotiations in this line of thought. Timothy Garton Ash (2009) characterises the Central European revolutions of 1989 through the symbol of a “Round table”, indicating the role of political agreements in these revolutions. Similarly, Samuel Huntington writes that one common characteristic of the transitions to democracy between 1974 and 1990 was that they “were made by the methods of democracy; there was no other way. They were made through negotiations, compromises, and agreements” (1991, p. 164). Such agreements would have been necessary to build a larger coalition among the Jordanian protest movements. As mentioned, the leaders of the Youth of March 24 held no unified view on which direction Jordan’s political system should take. The new feeling of unity that activists like Rami had felt when Jordan’s normally fragmentary opposition united to occupy the square at the Interior Circle did not last long. “I was so proud that all different Jordanians gathered at the same place. This thing was something strange; usually we [the opposition] fight”, Rami recalled half a year later, when the Youth of March 24 no longer held any meetings because of internal disagreements. The Leftist and secular current he belonged to strongly disagreed with the Islamists and the nationalists about what future they wanted to see for Jordan. He did not see these disagreements as a problem, and he made almost no effort to resolve them through an agreement on what to demand. The leadership of the opposition movement, he emphasised, could not plan the uprising, but it would happen. When great demonstrations took place in Jordan a year later, Rami and the political movement he led went to the streets in poor areas in Amman and began shouting for the regime’s downfall, trying to mobilise the people. He believed in a democratic revolution made not by the methods of democracy, but by an uprising of people united in little more than the will to remove the bad at the top of the regime.
Democracy without the Demos
Another group of political activists concluded that the idea that the Jordanian opposition, if it had been more successful in a power struggle against the regime, could have transformed the political system to be more democratic or less corrupt was a chimera. For them, defeat pointed toward an entirely different activism. Their solution was not to abandon siyāsa and democratic methods, but to abandon the belief in “the people”. Democracy activism, they concluded, must be based on concealments and exclusions.
I will first show this through a detailed discussion of the experience of the defeat of Naseem Tarawneh, a political blogger who worked in a politically-oriented non-governmental organisation (NGO). He was one of the founders of the independent media outlet, 7iber, a website that featured sections on arts, culture and politics, and a “Have Your Say” section on topics such as Jordan’s constitutional amendments. Naseem wrote his blog in English, partly due to an English-dominated education. He did not take part in the organising of the sit-in but came as a spectator to see the event that was already a topic in news reporting.
Naseem was watching the events at the Interior Circle on Friday evening, and when the sit-in dissolved violently, he entered an ideological crisis. He lost faith in the prospect of democracy. Not because the sit-in did not achieve its aims, but because when watching and talking with the people throwing stones at the sit-in, he discovered, to a degree which shocked him, a lack of democratic spirit in the sense of openness to dialogue and to perspectives different from one’s own.
Unlike most participants at the sit-in, Naseem did not think that the stone-throwers were “manipulated” by power-holders wanting to maintain the status quo—a thought that would let the dichotomy of regime versus people remain intact. He realised instead that the stone-throwers were convinced that the Youth of March 24 were disloyal Palestinians wanting to establish an Islamic government, strip the king of power, and force reforms that would lead to Jordan becoming a Palestinian homeland (“I saw this conviction in their eyes”). Some even seemed to buy into the conspiracy theory that Iran and Hezbollah were pulling the strings, shouting “Shia! Shia! Shia!” to the crowds at the circle. “Indeed, speaking to them often felt like being in Plato’s cave, and having the entire allegory play out right before your eyes” (Tarawneh, 2011a).
What surprised him most was not their ideas, but how aggressively uninterested they were in experiences or views that ran contrary to those ideas. The website Naseem had co-founded, 7iber, moderates discussions if people accuse or attack rather than argue with another person. He found absolutely nothing of this ideal of calm debate among the people opposing the sit-in and was shocked by how far they went. They disrupted the Friday prayer with patriotic songs from loudspeakers, chanted curses, constantly threw stones, and wanted to hurt the people at the circle. “There was no dialogue or compromise or trust”, no way to convince them of anything else. He would never have learnt this had he participated in the sit-in and therefore been unable to interact with the people opposing it. He wrote that he could never have anticipated what he saw, despite having a job that, unlike a desk job, allowed him to operate at the grass-roots level. I heard similar stories from demonstrators working at NGOs, who said that some people they had taught about human rights came and threw stones at them. It was as if they had mistaken their students’ listening to them as teachers for a much more general listening or openness. A single day taught them something they had not learnt during several years of work.
This lesson changed Naseem’s view on democratic change. “I believed”, he wrote after the March 24 sit-in, “that we were ‘ready for democracy’ and those who said we were not simply did not want to see it happen, because it was the people versus their government. This is something I can no longer believe today”. He expressed the same thoughts in his Twitter account the night after the demonstration. His tweets, stripped of the more analytic language of his blog post, allowed the ideological crisis to shine through even clearer. The for-and-against democracy debate was enacted in a few of them:
Naseem: We are seriously NOT ready for democracy. On a social level, we are absolutely NOT ready to accept each other. No way
Person A: Wasn’t what they want you to believe…didnt the thugs attack the Egyptians in Tahrir?
Naseem: bro, these werent paid thugs. These were ordinary ppl. Straight up. They ABSOLUTELY believe what they believe. Same as #mar24
Naseem: ya samih. This wasn’t 100 people. This was thousands who believe with all their heart that #Mar24 are there to overthrow king.
Naseem: @mab3oos no group was acting spontaneously. But i dont buy that strings were pulled. Absolutely not. And THAT is the worse part….
Person B: you are making a very fundamental U turn, was what happened there that bad today?
Naseem: yes, it destroyd perceptions in my book. It is a large constituency that doesnt want reform OR democracy & they have police support
Person C: its not like that, the majority stayed home today, the numbers of the two sides reflects that, the majority didn’t take any side
Naseem: i disagree. This was a representative majority. Families with kids getting into taxis & buses; this wasn’t a fringe element. #JO
Naseem discovered that he had projected his political vision and way of acting politically onto the Jordanian citizenry. He would not have discovered this if the Arab Spring had not swept through Jordan, enabling an event like the March 24 sit-in to occur and to fail. Seeing how unusual his ideals of citizen rule and dialogue actually were, he lost faith in “the people” as a democratising force.
Although Naseem’s experiences during the great demonstration of Jordan’s Arab Spring brought a form of politics based on an ideal of dialogue and openness into sharper relief, its failure made him reflect on the exclusions required by this form of politics. He first did so in the new doctrine of civic activism he formulated after the sit-in’s defeat.
Naseem’s blog post ended in confusion. “I really just don’t know where we are anymore, or where we’re going”. He found that his democratic ideology could no longer be based on the dichotomy of government versus people; it would take him two months to formulate an alternative, which he did in a blog post (2011b) that tells the story of his activism. The blog post portrays how, while he studied at a university in Canada, he chastised those who said they would not return to the Middle East, arguing that they were privileged in their opportunity to study abroad and that it would be selfish not to return.
“And as time passed, I discovered [that] the people [who live in West Amman, i.e., middle or upper class] who hadn’t left the country to study or work, existed in Jordan within a bubble—and so I chastised them. How can you live here and exist within the shelter of a bubble? It was a waste of a life. To surround yourself with family and friends and shun everything else is to exclude your role as a citizen. It was a neglect of duty”.
But the imperative never to shield yourself from society turned out to be unsustainable. The blog post is an enumeration of dashed hopes. No one, he wrote, neither the government nor the people, was interested in what you could contribute to the country. He realised that the state’s public vow about democracy was nothing more than window-dressing and that—among the populace—citizenship had become equal to a display of nationalism rather than civic virtue. In order to be an activist in Jordan, you had to shield yourself from all this, he concluded, you could not let it affect you. Naseem’s openness had reached its limit. 7iber, the small agora, no longer had the pretence of absolute inclusiveness. After March 24, he became aware that he had lived in a bubble. But it was as if he had realised that he could live a political life only within a bubble.
“Above all, I’ve learned that if you want to do something for the country, contribute to it, you need to live in a bubble. Not a superficial I-don’t-care-about-anything-but-myself kind of bubble …a ‘civic bubble’ if you will”.
During the violent break-up of the Youth of March 24, Naseem felt, as mentioned, “like being in Plato’s cave”. The mention of the cave is not casual. While the notion of the liberal public sphere is rooted in an idea of a coincidence of reasoning and society, the allegory of the cave stems from an experience of tensions between philosophy and the city, from the belief that philosophy will never be wholly accepted by any political society, most radically exemplified by the execution of Socrates. The idea of “civic bubbles” expresses this tension: the form of discussion that ideally takes place in the public sphere can only take place in small groups protected from the outside.
This point should be distinguished from the observation that liberal publics, despite the explicit ideal of openness and universality, are structured by unconscious mechanisms of exclusion (e.g. Bourdieu, 2000). Nancy Fraser, commenting on the rise of liberal public spheres in Western Europe, claims that “[a] discourse of publicity touting accessibility, rationality, and the suspension of status hierarchies is itself deployed as a strategy of distinction” (1992, p. 115). Unlike these exclusions, the one endorsed in the doctrine of civic bubbles arose precisely when Naseem became more conscious of the exclusions on which 7iber had always been based. Furthermore, while the scholars mentioned above understand mechanisms of exclusions as grounded in a search for distinction, Naseem’s texts after the sit-in reveal another motive for closing one’s mind to arguments and others’ world-views and experiences: a desire to protect a political way of life and its values. This becomes clear when we examine the problem to which the doctrine of civic bubbles is responding.
When his experience shattered Naseem’s trust in the people, he was plunged into a situation that is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s characterisation of a genuine philosophical problem: “[It] has the form: I don’t know my way about” (1968, p. 49)—an experience of confusion and loss of orientation. What was Naseem’s problem? Some comments on the blog post best capture it: “I remember going through a dark night of the soul”, Samia wrote in the comment section, “and grasping the reality you depict and deciding in a final way that I could not live in Jordan or Palestine…. I would have been utterly overwhelmed and my life [would have been] rendered meaningless”. The central question and doubt, never explicitly posed, is: Why should I do my duty as a citizen when no one wants me to be one? The stone-throwing, accusations of betrayal and apathy all actualised this doubt, and he needed to shield himself from it somehow.
One solution was to stop caring for the country, for something greater, and instead opt for isolation in the small bubbles Naseem had earlier condemned, or opt for withdrawal like Samia. Naseem’s solution was civic bubbles.
What was at stake was no longer his faith in the possibility of democracy, which the stones, curses and hate at Interior Circle had destroyed, but his political activism, what he had lived for and the life choices he had made. To whatever extent the idea of civic bubbles weakened the experience of not knowing his way about, the problem resurfaced in several blog posts over the next year and a half, such as the one after the Jordanian parliament voted for a salary increase and a termination wage for its members: “My cynicism has quickly shifted to a more dangerous state—apathy” (2012).
The ideal of being open to other perspectives structured Naseem’s political activism, but when the ideal’s vulnerabilities came to the surface, so did the exclusions set to protect it. He had encountered perspectives he wished to protect his mind from rather than listen to. An ideal of openness also has existential walls.
Other activists within the Youth of March 24’s leadership responded to defeat in a similar way as Naseem. They lost faith in mass demonstrations and the opposition as a democratising force and instead turned to activism based more on exclusions and concealment.
They lost this faith through their failure to unite the opposition. During 2011, these activists sought to set up meetings and conferences in which Jordan’s protest groups could develop specific oppositional demands. For example, after the demonstration on March 24, they set up gatherings to coordinate the Youth of March 24’s goals and demonstration strategy. The organisation collapsed after the outbreak of violence in Syria during the summer of 2011. Subsequently, the meetings degenerated into polemical discussions about the Syrian situation. Most Islamists supported the Syrian uprising, while most Leftists, Arab nationalists and Jordanian nationalists supported Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian regime. The handful of activists who had been most instrumental in developing specific political demands tried to steer the discussions to issues such as how to reform the electoral law, but they soon found this to be futile and stopped attending the meetings.
These activists, who were always a minority within the opposition, did not believe in a great uprising. They found that the Jordanian opposition had no unified views about electoral and constitutional reform but was deeply divided. The fall of the regime would therefore lead not to democracy but significant instability. They thought that the leaders hoping for a great uprising did not see the necessity of having a political alternative because they imagined themselves too much in terms of antagonism and opposition to the regime.
This difference in political ideas was also reflected in political hopes and expectations. Like those believing in a messianic earthquake, these activists’ visions took on a more forward-looking temporality during Jordan’s Arab Spring. Democracy, they came to think, was not attainable except in a faraway future. But it would come to be not through an uprising but through slower changes.
These organisers thus continued being engaged in siyāsī issues, such as constitutional reforms, democracy and political parties, but they believed less in public debate, inclusiveness and the will of the people. There was a sense that their activism could only take place in a more protected environment, in a “civic bubble”, to borrow the phrase of Naseem, the political journalist.
I will illustrate this in more ethnographic detail through the democracy courses conducted by Basel, a 25-year-old law student from an influential Jordanian tribe, who was engaged in the leadership of the Jordanian protest moments. When he arrived at the sit-in at the Interior Circle, he thought that it was apparent that there had not been any discussions within the Youth of March 24 about what they wanted. The contrast was stark to Egypt, where he had been during the demonstrations against Mubarak. “In Egypt they had one demand: that Mubarak should go”. At the Jordanian sit-in, “people were sitting in groups by themselves, having their own banners. Nothing was agreed upon”. He authored a report about the sit-in for a politically-oriented NGO, giving a list of suggestions for political movements, one of them being that the leadership should seek an agreement on what to demand.
During 2011, his attempts to set up meetings where the leaders of the protest movements could hold discussions with each other all failed. “The political parties usually come”, but the protest movements that emerged during Jordan’s Arab Spring “seldom attend; it is very unusual!” Most political leaders did not see the value in coordinating or reaching agreements on demands, instead believing that they could transform Jordan’s political system through demonstrations against the regime. Throughout 2011, Basel became increasingly pessimistic about the protest movements. “I had expected that people would not know much about politics, but I thought there would be more acceptance. That people would listen to thoughts and learn”.
He withdrew from attempts to work with the opposition in its entirety and began working exclusively with young people since they were “more open to new thoughts”. In the democracy courses he arranged in several Jordanian towns—through which he managed to build a political network of young people, one of whom would become mayor of a sizeable Jordanian town a decade later—he selected the participants carefully also on other grounds. He wanted some people who were members of political parties with different ideologies and understood that a political party was not necessarily bad. But he did not want them to be among those who sat in the party’s leading organs or were otherwise heavily involved in the party and schooled in its ideology. These democracy courses were not open to just anyone.
Furthermore, they were based on an idea of concealment rather than publicness. In the courses Basel gave on democracy or political parties, the title of the course announced to the participants was “Time Management and Communication Skills”. Basel conducted the course together with a friend who spoke on those topics. “If I give a course about democracy, nobody will come. They will think that it does not concern them”. Communication skills and time management, however, might do well on a CV. The course’s title was chosen also to conceal its real content from the security services and political parties (i.e. the Baʿath Party, the Communist party and the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party). If a participant had seen in advance that the course was about democracy and told that to a more influential party member, they would have probably stopped them from going, sending instead someone else who was schooled in the party’s version of democracy. “It will be a bit true but also a bit false, and it is difficult to teach someone who has fixed ideas”. This form of democratic engagement was not going to take place in public.
The Defeat of Democracy
The Youth of March 24 never accomplished what its participants had hoped for. Judging from its political effects, it was a waste of time. This was certainly the conviction of many of its initiators when they had the wisdom of hindsight. But the more general value of these attempts lies perhaps precisely in their failures. “Man’s real treasure”, José Ortega y Gasset writes, “is the treasure of his mistakes, piled up stone by stone through thousands of years” (1941, p. 81). If failure and being wrong are experiences that we should remember and learn from, can a failed democratic transition teach us more about democracy than a successful one?
As mentioned earlier, one branch of scholarship on the Arab Spring assumes that a critical step for changing authoritarian rule is the breaking of the “barrier of fear” and that democratisation is brought about by an opposition confronting the authoritarian regime or by some other form of resistance to such power. Activists such as Rami, Samir and Khaled also had faith in a great uprising confronting the authoritarian regime. But they had given up on the idea that this uprising would have siyāsī demands. When two of them at one point called for the “fall of the regime”, there was thereby absolutely no agreement on what would replace the regime—one wanted parliamentary democracy, while the other wanted a system in which Jordanians of Palestinian origin would lose their political rights.
For democracy activists such as Naseem and Basel, the experience of defeat taught them that democratic change does not come about through a power struggle between an opposition—or “the people”—and an authoritarian regime. Democratisation, these activists concluded, instead depended on gradual changes. They differed on exactly what changes they viewed as most fundamental, but both reached similar conclusions on what democracy activism entailed when the majority of the people did not want democratic reforms: deliberation and dialogue are important, but there need to be selections of whom to engage with, and a democratic environment must be shielded from what is outside.
This conclusion differs from other notions that evoke a relationship between democracy and speech, like the “liberal public sphere” (see Habermas, 1989), or “maidan” in Ukraine, or the Greek word “agora” now used in English, which refers to a place where people meet “in order to deliberate, to speak, and to create a political society” (Snyder, 2014). In all these instances, deliberation is framed as inclusive, public and politically victorious. The deliberation and openness of the democracy activists whose voices I have gathered in this article were rather understood as selective and based on concealment. They had learnt that public and truthful speech is perilous and that ideals need existential walls. These were ideals of democracy and openness marked not by victory, but by defeat.
The research for this article was supported by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and the Engaging Vulnerability research programme, Uppsala University.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License – CC BY 4.0