A road to nowhere: Jordan's uprising

A road to nowhere: Jordan's uprising
Feature: In April 1989, the people of the town of Maan in Jordan demanded change. Although their call echoed throughout the country, 26 years later, little has changed.
6 min read
19 April, 2015
Unemployment is still high in Jordan and brings people to the streets in protest [Getty]

The 216km journey from the Jordanian capital Amman to the southern city of Maan raises many questions on the uprising that began in the impoverished desert city on 18 April 1989. The protests against a government decision to raise prices and restructure the economy quickly spread to other parts of the country.

The first question was what has changed over the past 26 years with prices and taxes on the rise and poverty levels increasing? And why have people not risen up once again in protest?


A Maan resident in his early 20s, Ahmad al-Khattab, told me about the frustrations of young people in the city. Khattab did not finish his university education but he does not think his lack of a degree is the reason for his unemployment, he said. "Many university graduates can't find work. They even held a demonstration in the city centre demanding jobs but nothing happened. The problem isn't degrees, there's just no work in Maan."

Since the uprising until today nothing has changed. There's still poverty, unemployment, margination and no political engagement. 
-Akram Kreishan

Khattab thinks he will leave Maan someday to find work in Amman but he does not have anyone to help him out but staying in his city would be a slow death for him. He said, "How can I stay and work here? There's no work, there's nothing." When the April uprising broke out he was only a year and half old so all he knows about it is what he has heard from older generation but he said "Every so many years there's an uprising in Maan."

This is true as Maan has not been quiet over the years that followed the April uprising as the city has witnessed similar events in 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2014. Locals said the problem has been that the causes of the 1989 uprising have still not been dealt with.

Activist and lawyer Akram Kreishan said "Since the uprising until today nothing has changed. There's still poverty, unemployment, margination and no political engagement." Kreishan explained that the uprising, which led to him being held in al-Jafr prison for 17 days, was a popular uprising against the Zaid al-Rifai government's decision to raise the prices of fuel and many other goods on April 15 1989, although the decision was announced the next day. Popular discontent grew over the next two days until it reached the level of public insults against the government and calls for it to change its mind. Kreishan said, "What happened was a surprise, especially as the country was under martial law, which banned protesting."

Kreishan said the taxi drivers led the protest because the hike in fuel prices did not include adjustments to their fares. They went to the city's mayor but he did listen to their demands and told them "Go do want ever you want. There'll be no strikes or protests."

So on the morning of the 18 April, the taxi drivers went on strike and many students and locals affected by the prices increases joined them in huge march towards the local administrative offices, chanting down with the government and calling for it to reverse its decision. The police confronted the protest with tear gas and live gun fire, Kreishan said "The mayor couldn't handle the crisis and tried to quell the situation with a security solution, which only flared up the situation and made it a revolution that spread to most of Jordan, revealing the extent of the popular unrest among Jordanians not just Maan residents."

Kreishan said that two days after the attack on the protest the police lost control of the city as all its residents had revolted. "They responded to bullets with bullets, burned tyres in the streets and wrote down with Rifai on the city's walls." He went on, when the police proved unable to get to grips with the situation the army was called in and surrounded the city on 21 April. The military put in place a curfew and arrested around 600, dispersing them in prisons outside of the city.

Kreishan was 27 at the time and one of the local activists detained in the crackdown, he said, "They treated us very badly. The torture didn't stop while I was detained, they looked at us as if we were criminals and outlaws."

Maan under seige

Sixty year old Adil al-Mahamid remembers the difficult times during the uprising, he said, "The city was cut off from the outside world. Water was cut off and they shot our water tanks, electricity and the phone lines were also cut. During the clashes all you could hear was gunfire, smoke grenades and tear gas." He described the city during the period until the curfew was lifted at the end of April as a disaster zone. "There were food shortages and no medical treatment. We later learned that some locals living outside the city were not allowed to enter when they tried to bring in bread and medicine," he said.

There were a number of social, economic and political factors behind the uprising, the price hikes were just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

At the time Mahamid was a member of the popular committees that helped locals get hold of their basic needs and communicated with the families of prisoners and government officials to resolve the crisis.

He is now a prominent figure in the city. He said there were a number of social, economic and political factors behind the uprising and the price hikes were just the straw that broke the camel's back. He said "People felt the economic crisis the country was going through. The city locals felt marginalised and far removed from the state's governance. There was no development in the city and unemployment was high." He thinks these are the main reasons for the uprising in Maan and that many other cities that later rose up in response to the events in Maan were also facing the same issues.

He said "In the beginning we were accused of being controlled by hidden forces, most people said Mossad but other people said Iran or Saudi Arabia. But when things really kicked off officials realised there was a serious problem in the whole country."

The uprising and calls for freedom was an astounding success, as ten days after the unrest erupted the government gave in and went back on its decision. The martial laws were lifted which had been in place since the 1967 war and political life was reintroduced to the country with parliamentary elections held on 8 November that year.

Today, 26 years after these events, Mahamid sadly says "It was a dream and it went away," because nothing has really changed in the city that once rose up against poverty, hunger and marginalisation and it has in fact paid the price for the uprising though its harsh treatment by the security services.

He added "The issues that sparked the uprising are still rampant in the city. The democracy it brought about has become a formality that rejects opposition voices and encroaches on freedoms."

Kreishan thinks the lack of development in the city of around 50,000 people with some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the Hashemite Kingdom will be the drive behind "a new uprising," calling on the government to quickly rectify the situation.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.