The causes of the Arab revolts are well known and generally shared by many countries throughout the region. A combination of international economic policies, denial of political participation, and limited prospects for many young people, educated or otherwise, all helped contribute to the so-called “Arab Spring.”
It has become almost commonplace to claim that the revolts that animated the Arab world since December 2010 have mainly been triggered by an unprecedented proportion of disaffected youth and especially young graduates from universities or other institutions of higher learning.
Indeed, in recent years, failures to include young people in the region’s social, economic and political spheres have been rather evident. As a result, in many Arab countries, this segment of the population has been marginalized and neglected. Tunisia and Egypt, the two countries where the impact of the uprisings has been most apparent, are particularly good examples of this phenomenon.
Post hoc explanations about the revolutions tend to be overly simplistic, especially when trying to make quick generalizations. Yet it is difficult to overestimate the role educated youth have played, especially considering the high impact they had, and still have, in national and international public discourses.
Although there are clear limits to comparing events in Jordan with other countries in the region, when the revolutions first began, many believed the Kingdom would be a likely candidate for political change.
To say the least, the situation in neighboring countries has not encouraged stability in Jordan. This has, of course, added to the general feeling that future events would alter the country’s political landscape.
So far, however, Jordan has been an exemplary case of regime resilience. In large part, this has been due to the ambiguous character of the opposition. Though Jordan has seen massive protests similar to those in other countries, including a recent reprisal in November 2012, the political situation has not changed significantly.
There have, however, been some new developments in the country. These include the emergence of a new labor movement, and major steps that have been taken by the government to deal with growing demands for public participation and free speech. Thanks to these measures, the regime has been successful in preserving its legitimacy so far.
But Jordan’s universities suggest that this stability still rests on precarious grounds.
The country’s university system has long played an important role in the political socialization of Jordanians. Universities are places where knowledge is produced and transmitted and where society reproduces itself in complex and tension-ridden ways. As such, social ruptures often play themselves out in university life in Jordan.
For these reasons, it is important to understand the situation that exists on the country’s university campuses and what these circumstances might mean for Jordan’s future.
Jordan and the Stability Paradigm
Its lack of natural resources, structural dependency on foreign aid, novel social composition (including countless displaced Palestinians), and the heavy impact on the country of large numbers Iraqi and Syrian refugees are all important factors that explain Jordan’s precarious position.
Ongoing regional tensions, from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq to the Second Palestinian Intifada, have long been an integral part of Jordan’s status as a pivotal state in the Middle East. Its ability to remain stable in the midst of these crises, as well as to somehow manage these conflicts is one of its main raisons d´être, and the source of substantial capital inflows from abroad.
Protests and widespread dissatisfaction were, nevertheless, common realities in Jordan even before the region’s revolutions began. Still, the impact of revolts in Tunisia and especially in Egypt was widely felt in the country. While fears about replicating the Syrian scenario have undoubtedly played a role in preventing a revolution in Jordan from taking off, the country’s universities have also helped deflate tensions, while also demonstrating deep youth disaffection that may eventually lead to instability.
For several decades, Jordan education system has been described as a successful one. Primary education is virtually universal, and a high proportion of the population receives some sort of higher education.
At the same time, however, Jordan has rampant unemployment, especially among university graduates, and a political system that does not encourage or facilitate real participation.
Nevertheless, the number of universities continues to increase, international programs are being established, and, despite a few major problems, education remains a rather vibrant sector of the country.
The country’s ruler, King Abdallah II, regards education as Jordan’s most important national resource, a view that is also reflected in state media. Moreover, there is an explicitly developmentalist rhetoric that emphasizes scientific education above all else.
In Jordan, citizens are expected to study hard, get a degree, and find work that enhances Jordan’s position in the region. This is also the goal of the country’s education system, which explicitly posit the need of being an active member in society as one of its goals. Educated Jordanians are the country’s main export, a fact that has helped ensure Jordan’s heavy dependence on remittances from émigrés.
One of the most important pillars of social stability in Jordan is the prospect of upward mobility. People are willing to forfeit their desires for economic justice if they feel that their children will be afforded an opportunity for a better life.
This is why many people in Jordan are willing to sacrifices for the sake of sending their kids to university, and this is why the success of the educational sector is so crucial for the regime’s survival as well. In what follows I focus on the rise of on-campus violence, and will offer some explanations to link these episodes to broader issues of citizenship construction and societal tensions.
Tensions on Campus
Jordan’s university campuses are rather secluded from the cities in which they are located. They are surrounded by walls, and their gates are guarded by security staff who check the IDs of those who enter and exit the grounds.
As a result, what happens within a campus tends to have a limited effect on the surrounding city – a student-organized pro-Palestinian demonstration, for example, would usually be forbidden from leaving the campus and joining other protesters outside.
Because of these circumstances, this meant that, at least until some years ago, violent confrontations within university campuses were rare and disputes were settled more easily.
Students´ elections were and still are a major exception to this rule. While political demonstrations are not encouraged and are often immediately suppressed, clashes following student elections often continue for hours, if not days.
By discouraging participation in social and political issues, this system undercuts the university’s traditional role in creating responsible citizens able to fulfill their proper role in society. How, for example, can a student learn to be an active citizen, if interest groups are actively discouraged?
This phenomenon is, however, an apt example of how the university system mirrors Jordanian society at large, with its strong limits on freedom of association and speech within a system that allows a certain degree of critique.
Since the start of the region’s revolutions, there has been an unprecedented wave of violence on Jordan’s university campuses. To be sure, conflicts between groups on campus have not been uncommon, and, by 2009 and 2010 these episodes of violence were becoming more frequent.
Yet it was only in 2011 and especially in 2012 that the phenomenon fully manifested itself, with 58 clashes noted by dhabahtoona, the national campaign for students´ rights.
It is usually quite hard to get clear information about any single incident. This limited information has led to a lack of in-depth of analysis, which has made it so that old and new stereotypes have been deployed by the media to provide quick and reassuring explanations for the violence, in ways that do not challenge official discourses and representations.
A typical clash begins with a small incident, for example a boy who stares at or offends a girl. This is followed by quick escalation, in which groups of boys overtly affiliated with a particular clan or tribe clash, usually without the immediate intervention of university guards.
The usual explanation given for these clashes usually involves questioning the mentality of those involved. Tribe members are described as backward or unreasonable, while university and state authorities are portrayed to be trying their best to prevent the clashes from happening again in the future.
Conclusion: Education, Citizenship, and Stability
Violence on Jordan’s university campuses does not happen in a vacuum. An explanation of this phenomenon should go beyond specific events and focus on the broader relationship between education, citizenship, and stability in Jordan.
Episodes of on-campus violence are intricately related to a lack of freedom on campus, especially when it comes to student elections and the freedom to organize groups and activities. Underlying this evident dissatisfaction is the state’s broader lack of respect for human rights. In this sense, the university system mirrors Jordanian society at large, with strong limits to free association and discussion but within a system that is enabling a certain degree of free speech.
Other explanations include the perceived failures of the educational system, controversial educational reforms enacted in recent years, and ineffective responses to campus violence from university administration.
Yet another explanation points to the regime’s traditional strategy of using the tribal effect, as a way of allowing limited forms of controlled dissent. In this context, clashes are understood as mainly rooted in tribal events, and/or as possible means of expressing societal tensions.
These clashes must also be understood within their regional context. So far, the possibility for revolution in Jordan has been ruled out by a divided opposition, successful containment measures enacted by the Jordanian state, and worrying news coming from neighboring countries, especially Syria. Still, fundamental problems plaguing Jordanian society have not been adequately addressed.
Violence in Jordanian universities is in large part an effect of these unresolved tensions, at the university level as well as the political level. Moreover, it points out to an ongoing citizenship crisis, namely to the struggle for being a legitimate Jordanian, other than being a worrying sign that violence is being seen as more and more legitimate form of dissent in the country.