Hostage crisis undermines support for war and king

Hostage crisis undermines support for war and king
Comment: The fate of a Jordanian pilot held by IS has intensified pressure on King Abdullah over Jordan's role in the US-led war against IS, with Jordanians expressing broad discontent with the regime.
5 min read
01 Feb, 2015
The fate of the pilot has become a bellwether for other discontent [AFP]
The execution of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto has put the Jordanian leadership in a tight spot, prompting officials to allay fears that negotiations to release pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, captured by the Islamic State group on 24 December, have reached deadlock.

While the Jordanian government has vowed to continue its efforts to secure the return of, the main official concern is how to contain a backlash against Jordan's participation in the US-led coalition war against the extremist group.

     The crisis of trust between the public and the government is not new. Few had faith that Jordan would do its best to free Kassassbeh.
Listening to pro-government politicians, one can't but feel that there are two worlds with two different narratives and two perceptions of both the hostage crisis and the war itself.

The public, or a good majority at least, appear passionately preoccupied with the fate of Moaz. Many Jordanians have adopted him as their own son. According to a report in al-Ghad newspaper, at least 32 families have named their newborns after him. This should not be interpreted as a sign that they are somehow backing the war. Rather it is a personal statement of sympathy for his plight and hope for his freedom.

But in conversation with writers, politicians and members of the business community who support the government, the main subject is how to recover from "a serious setback" and build support for the war.

In fact, the discourse inside official circles is not so much about the safety of Kassasbeh, more the shock that Jordanians were not prepared for either the war or the losses. This shows there is a wide gap between the regime and part of the elites, and the rest of the public.

As one former minister, close to the government deliberations, told me: "Moaz is a soldier, and soldiers fall in the line of duty. This is our war and our army is defending Jordan from the expansion of a criminals who are at Jordan's gate."

#Not_our_ war: Jordan versus the Islamic State group.

I have heard the same argument repeated again and again by pro-government politicians who really seem to have believed that Jordanians were united in their belief that this is a Jordanian war. In these circles, there is also obvious resentment towards the public's support for the release of Sajida al-Rishawi, the would-be suicide bomber, in return for Kassassbeh, or, up until Goto's death, for both captives.

"She is a murderer who was responsible for killing 60 Jordanians in cold blood. Why should we exchange her for one soldier who was doing his duty? This is a really high price to pay," a prominent pro-government parliamentarian told me.

But these are not arguments that the government and its supporters can dare say publicly, as they awaken to the realisation that people are neither engaged nor passionate about this war.

If anything, the prevailing argument you hear from many people is "send Sajida to them if that is where she belongs. Moaz is more important". It is partly an indication that there is a feeling, sometimes expressed, that Kassassbeh is a victim of a war that Jordan has no control over – in terms of goals or course.

This gap should not have been a surprise: the crisis of trust between the public and the government is not new. Few had faith that Jordan would do its best to free Kassassbeh, whose fate has become the primary concern of a majority of Jordanians.

One of the failures from the outset was that the regime underestimated public attitudes towards a US-led war: The official view, shared by Jordan's social elites, was that fear of the terrorist group has eclipsed opposition to and distrust of US policies.

But as soon as Kassassbeh was captured, and the video distributed, it became clear that most Jordanians, or least the louder voices, had no enthusiasm or even support for the war.

#Not_Our_War became the hashtag of the moment, along with #We_Are_All_Moaz. These were important signs. The palace could also have asked how reactions would have differed if pilots fighting Israel, for example, were captured. What the palace missed or chose to ignore is that there is pride in fighting Israel but not much in being a junior partner in an American-led war.

The IS group's threat to execute two Japanese hostages, and Jordan's sudden readiness, along with the Japanese negotiating unit, to support a swap, also angered Jordanians.

Many were alarmed that a swap deal would not include Kassassbeh, and that Jordan was appeasing Japan as an important US ally and a major donor to Jordan's economy.

It all reinforced a view that the palace cares more about appeasing foreign powers than looking out for its own people. 

With Goto's tragic death, Jordan has no choice but to be ready to release Sajida in return for Kassassbeh - that is if he is still alive or the IS group is even interested in such a swap.

Jordanians - as always - suspect that it is not exactly a Jordanian decision, but more to do with whether the US will allow such a swap. Thus this has become a test of whether Jordanians can conclude they have a government that cares enough - and a leadership that is independent enough - to save the life of one of their own.