The Jordanian Elections: the Search for Zion

الأحد 14 تشرين الثاني 2010

Words and Photography by: Minister of Photography

Identity is a central element of elections, this is ever so present in Jordan, and with over 50% of our population coming from Palestinian backgrounds, the Palestinian issue is a dominant one in Jordanian politics. The fact that a lot of candidates chose to run on Palestinian issues is a reflection of how many Jordanians feel about their role in society. These candidates and their supporters are second and third generation Jordanians, they were born here, they went to school and work and marry and breed here. So what does it mean when this segment of society speaks of itself as “the homeless” in election banners? The aspiration to return to a homeland different to the one where the voters and candidates live and practice their political rights, is not problematic, but for it to be the focal point on the platform of candidates is.

Poster on the right : There is no alternative to Palestine but Paradise. Poster on the left: People who leave jihad will be disgraced . Both posters have a picture of the candidate burning the Israeli flag, he received the largest number of votes in the country.

The banner reads : All the support and aid for the proponent of the homeless.

“The people of Jordan and Palestine sing; Khalil Hussein (The Candidates Name) the creator of glory and morale lifter, Yafa, Haifa, AL-Lid , Al Ramla and AL Khalil ( All Palestinian town and cities) are calling on us, there is no replacement for us . No matter how long the days get and how prolonged our absence from relatives is, victory is coming despite our shortcomings and failures , the blood on the martyr lives in our veins”

For these types of feelings and sentiments to prevail so powerfully, is worrying and troubling. These candidates seem to seriously imply that such issues are at the heart of the Jordanian Parliament. Which would more or less mean that the candidate believes he has a chance to become a member of the most powerful political entity in the world. Also alarming is the fact that most of the supporters come from lower income part of the capital where issues of poverty, sanitation, health, unemployment, and public services are very serious issues, yet the electoral platform is built on the promise of a better tomorrow, in a different country. This, I think , speaks volumes about the levels of uncertainty and despair significant segments of society feel about their future in the country.

“All three pictures were taken in Downtown Amman”

“Those who curse the mothers of the believers are not believers, a fitting campaign slogan in response to the conditions illustrated above.”

This candidate gathered more votes than any other in the kingdom.

The appeal of the Palestinian cause and the increasing shift towards religion by certain segments of society have also been utilized heavily by the Islamists. Officially, the Muslim Brotherhood announced their boycott of the elections, however this led to an internal conflict within their ranks and subsequently a lot of members resigned and ran either under other Islamic parties or as independents.

While some nationalists tried to utilize the appeal of a better tomorrow in a different homeland, the Islamists focused instead on the appeal of time travel, as was illustrated by the political support rally with an apocalyptic theme and name: the big crawl.

“Shot at an election event for an Islamic candidate. Real nice people.”

The Big Crawl, al zahf al kabeer in Arabic, was held in support of a candidate of the Islamic Middle Party. It attracted a considerable crowd of 5000 people, less than 100 of which were women. In adherence to what the organizers view to be Islamic customs that go back 1500 years, these women were quarantined in a separate section at the venue. Beards were long and untidy also in accordance with what these supporters believe early Muslims practiced.

A sheikh assumed the role of giving the welcoming speech and introducing the speakers. He had mentioned that the speeches were going to be short because there were 30 speakers, none of whom were women. The speakers ranged from retired schoolteachers who were aided by the candidate to obtain a lower income electric bill plan, to engineers and local leaders of spoke of the high integrity of the candidate.

Since a considerable number of Islamists and clerics had declared the participation in elections as a forbidden act in Islam, the candidate needed to justify his participation in religious terms and as such, the host soon declared that a prominent religious speaker was going to take the podium next. A few moments after that declaration, the host informed the guests that the religious scholar had fallen ill and had instead sent an audio tape in which he explains how it was permissible for the candidate to run. The rationale it seemed was that scholars view elections and participation in them as haram because the system on which they are based and the laws and regulations that oversee the election were not Islamic and thus were Haram. He then proceeded to explain that such corrupt laws need to be changed into Islamic ones and thus he had lent his support to the candidate in the hope that once in power he will be able to alter election laws to adhere to Islamic laws.

With the watchful eye of the police close by, the rally speakers and the host walked a very tight rope of political correctness, as required by the laws and regulations; the rally started with the national anthem followed by a short speech by the host, welcoming guests, pledging allegiances to the king and the Hashemite regime and to the Palestinian resistance i.e. Hamas who has been accused by the Jordanian government of meddling in internal affairs and smuggling weapons in recent years . Whether these accusations are true or not is irrelevant, the Islamists, at least in their political speech, can and do pledge allegiances to conflicting forces.

The more interesting element of the Islamists and their supporters is the fact that they don’t seem to advocate specific changes; the only visible banner was on that read “Islam is the solution”. What sort of Islam and what exactly they are advocating is visibly and deliberately missing, and for a very good reason.

“The Lawyer, the Haj (a man who has gone through Islamic pilgrimage) Yahya Mohammad Al Saoud , the Islamic Direction party Candidate.”

The reason I decided to venture to this event, was because of a troubling banner I saw earlier in the day.

Strategically placed banner out side a church in the East side of the city by the same candidate reads: “Stop them, for they are responsible, Islam is the Solution.”

It is not a surprise that these Islamists don’t venture much into explaining their aims and ideology, for its real aim is to install a vision of separation, us vs. them. Muslims vs. Christians. Liberal, secular and moderate Muslims vs. militant Muslims. One has to ponder, if these are Muslims who broke rank with the Muslim Brotherhood because they viewed the MB as too extreme, what are the visions of those Islamists?

The fact that both featured candidates won is troubling in many aspects, having a significant number of citizens believing and aspiring to have a better future in some other homeland and running on a religiously militant Islamic platform that promotes exclusion and “us vs. the world”  mindset is not good news for this country.

However there are some serious problems in society that led to this sort of thinking and application. Newspapers, TV stations, magazines and websites have failed miserably in scrutinizing candidates and their platforms. At the Islamists’ event, I did not see a single photographer or a journalist, and if there were any, I seriously doubt they covered the event with the sort of critical eye needed to fully relate to the voter what their candidates are all about. The incitement of hate and segregation in Jordan is forbidden by the constitution and the media has a huge role to put pressure on the government to adhere to its own laws. I am sure the churchgoers and the priests and nuns of this particular church had seen the banner, and the fact that it was not removed, is mind-boggling.

The fact that these sort of candidates generated considerable support is also indicative of the failure of tribal Jordanians, left parties and East Bankers in general to put forward any sort of inclusive, progressive political platforms that 1) attracts significant following that cuts through social status, religion and background 2) Confronts such agendas with adequate, alternative ones that seek to solve this country’s problems instead of exporting them to dreamland elsewhere. The Government in Jordan has a huge role to play in this process. With very strict controls and restrictions on the activities of political and social activists ,the government has in effect emptied the political scene from any sort of political opposition, and while Palestine first and Islamists do have a considerable following, the fact is most Jordanians of different backgrounds have not fallen under that spell ( as illustrated by the low voter turn out of 35 % and the fact that even the candidate that received the most votes only got 14000 votes ), however the political scene remains there to be captured by both forces as long as the government policies stand in the way of the formation and development of alternative political, social and economic parties, groups and activists.

Tribal Jordanians ran on platforms that almost entirely rely on the appeal of tribal loyalty, with no clear political, social or economic agendas expect the promise of serving the tribe, this approach is most certainly not an inclusive one nor one that puts the interest of society before ones tribe, that is not to say that some tribal candidates who won are actually not good candidates, but because they chose to run on tribal lines, they gather very little appeal and support from outside the tribe.

“The candidate , with the white head dress , is a tribal leader, he had over 70 banners hanging in his HQ, all announcing loyalty to him, none had any political or social messages.”

“Supporters of a tribal candidate in Madaba, dancing away to national songs about the army and king, with no obvious indicators of the candidates political view, the dancing crowd were waving posters of the candidates name, only.”

“Though a highly qualified candidate , the reliance on tribal votes , forced tribal candidates to run on " lame" slogans such as this one: Yes, the nation is for everyone.”

“Yes its true, all the respect ! only in Jordan would a bunch of words thrown together form a political slogan, he might as well write : Fish, blue, Bart Simpson.”

Candidates who ran on some real-life agendas have managed to get considerable support that transcends tribal and religious boundaries . As illustrated by the picture taken by friend of mine .

“A christian mother , celebrates her son's election with a muslim friend.”

Candidates and platforms like this, ones that are inclusive and focus on real problems faced by all Jordanians are the only way we, as a society, can achieve any sort of reform. The responsibility lies on civil society and the government to nurture and promote such agendas, otherwise the mass appeal of Islamists, tribal leaders and ultra nationalists will continue to grow and capture the minds and imagination of the masses.

For three Fridays before the election, I spent my afternoons with a young group of guys that hail from the lower income areas of the capital. They launched a facebook initiative that entailed them cleaning up a different part of the city each Friday. Most of them are also of Palestinian background. Their group on facebook has more than 75,000 members, (a telling number when many candidates won by gather 3000 and 4000 votes only). These guys are socially active, and have a decent command of English and social media tools, and a decent level of education. The median age in Jordan is 23 and most of these guys were in that age group. Not a single one of them voted in this last election, mainly because they don’t feel that there are any candidates that address their problems, concerns and aspirations. When I asked one of them what he thought of the Palestine First and Islamists agenda he replied  “This is all B.S, before we even think of Palestine we need to fix this place up”.

Most Jordanians share this view I think and the attitude of the youth towards elections, candidates and reform in the country is best summarized by the posture and look of this man.

“At a rally for a tribal candidate with hundreds of participants dancing to nationalistic songs , the man to me symbolizes the political apathy Jordanians feel.”