Jordanian Opposition

REPORTER: David O’Shea

These works by political cartoonist Emad Hajaj speak for people throughout the Arab world who are suspicious of America’s real intentions in Iraq.

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But in today’s Jordan, overt political statements are often too sensitive for his editors, and his cartoons are spiked.

EMAD HAJAJ, CARTOONIST: This also is not published. Talking about replacing a dictator with another, Saddam Hussein replaced by George W. Bush.

Emad fears the climate of censorship is getting worse.

EMAD HAJAJ: I think it somehow was encouraged by the Americans. The latest amendment put on the publication law was put after September 11. For the sake of fighting terrorism, they are putting more pressure on the press. It is an American plane trying to hit the twin palms of Baghdad instead of the twin towers of New York.

Despite American claims of bringing democracy to the region, many Jordanians believe American pressure on their government is having the opposite effect.

EMAD HAJAJ: In Jordan, we used to have a good democratic parliament. Unfortunately in the past few years this democratic experiment is going down, and down and down. We are two years until now without a parliament. The unions of Jordan are very much controlled by the government. The opposition figures have been put in jail many times.

The kingdom of Jordan is squeezed between Israel and Iraq and the politics of this country are now crucial to Western interests in the Middle East. In an attempt to get the population to support its Western-orientated policies, including tacit support for the war, the Jordanian Government has launched a PR campaign – Jordan First. The architects of the plan are the young technocrats that form King Abdullah’s Government, including influential planning minister Bassem Awadallah.

DR BASSEM AWADALLAH, MINISTER FOR PLANNING: As we are moving ahead to make sure that our national front is united, that we do have a civil society that is modern, that is vibrant and that is carrying forward the process of modernisation, it was necessary to make sure that the domestic agenda of social, economic and political reform take precedence over regional considerations.

But it’s not an easy sell. These Western-educated, young professionals should be natural supporters of the government and the Jordan First policy, but they’re not. The mural they’re here to unveil will serve as a lasting expression of their opposition.

SPEECH AT MURAL LAUNCH (Translation): We thank all those who contributed their humble efforts against this barbaric war machine, which is trying to wipe out our collective memories. Thank you and welcome.

The people gathered here are members of a professional association, a union of engineers, doctors and lawyers who campaign for civil society. But with American troops now entrenched in Baghdad, association members meeting inside are reassessing the shape their protest should take now.

HISHAM BUSTANI, DENTIST (Translation) AT ASSOCIATION MEETING: We are going to draft the invitations and the announcements, everything related to publicity. Tomorrow we will start the media campaign.

One of the association’s leading members is dentist Hisham Bustani. He has two clinics, one in the upmarket part of Amman where he makes his money, and the other here in Baqa’a – a very different environment. It’s the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the world.

HISHAM BUSTANI: People are living here, maybe families of regularly 6 to 10 people for each house.

Hisham has been jailed four times for his activism. Like people throughout this region, his opposition to the US-backed Israeli occupation of Palestine is central to his political stance. But he can only watch in despair as his government forges closer economic relations with both countries.

HISHAM BUSTANI: The interests of Jordan does not lie with the United States and it does not lie with Israel. We don’t see Israel as a normal entity. It’s an aggressor, it has been established over the destruction and devastation and expulsion of millions of people. We don’t see that it’s ethical to connect to this sort of entity.

REPORTER: What’s the black flag?

HISHAM BUSTANI: This is to show grief on the civilian people killed in Palestine and in Iraq.

But instead of showing grief, the Jordanian Government have set up free trade zones here, funded with Israeli capital.

HISHAM BUSTANI: They invest in free zones, OK. They get cheap Jordanian labour, unorganised, OK? And then they export to the United States quota free, they make lots of money, they don’t pay tax, OK? And then at any time, this is an item of the law, they can take their capital and move away. The only benefit is a “pseudo benefit”, it’s a fake benefit. It’s reduces unemployment but at what cost?

Palestine is a perennial problem for the Jordanian Government. It’s an issue so important to people here that it drives many to radicalism or at least opposition to America for its open support of Israel. An hour’s drive from Amman, the town of Jarash is mourning the loss of one of its sons. 23-year-old Bilal had only recently graduated from university as an accountant, when he boarded a jihadi bus headed through Syria and then on to Iraq to support the resistance. But after crossing the border, the buses were blown sky high as the first bombs dropped. This is the bedroom Bilal shared with his brother.

BROTHER OF BILAL (Translation): This is where he used to sleep, this is his bed, his table, he liked to write poetry. When he got back home at night he wrote in his diary. I feel sad. I can’t talk about it anymore.

Bilal’s death passed without public protest or fanfare. Fanatical anti-Americanism is not a sentiment the Government is ready to tolerate or encourage. The death of Tareq Ayyoub was different – the day before Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, the ‘Jordan Times’ and al-Jazeera Baghdad correspondent was hit by an American shell. The Government chose not to try and stop the public outpouring of grief. Tareq was respected and well liked, and like everyone here, dentist Hisham Bustani believes he was targeted by the Americans.

HISHAM BUSTANI: Al-Jazeera and all independent media is being targeted, is being killed to silence the independent information that has been leaking on the US atrocities. We are very angry about it.

This was the first demonstration in Amman allowed by the Government since huge anti-war marches at the beginning of the war were violently suppressed. This march was held after Friday prayers, traditionally a time for Muslims to vent their anger. Now with Iraq occupied and after strict warnings from the Government about a repeat performance, the demonstrations have ceased. Nowadays after prayers, the streets of the capital are quiet. If wealthy, Western-educated Jordanians oppose the government’s pro-US and pro-Israel policies, then it’s no surprise that Islamists like Jamil Abu Baker do too. He’s the deputy leader of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, the most influential party of opposition to the Government and to their support of America.

JAMIL ABU BAKER (Translation): Democracy cannot be bought on a tank and not be killing civilians and by occupation. It comes from the people’s will.

When he’s not at the mosque, he’s at party headquarters where a series of educational seminars are held. This group today are learning about Islamic architecture in Israel but with my presence, the lecture takes a more political turn.

IMAM (LECTURING STUDENTS – & REPORTER): …which is targeted by Sharon, the friend of the Australians. Australia is the newcomer now. I mean, Mr Howard only, not the people of Sydney, or Melbourne or Canberra. They are our friends. We are all the children of Adam and we appreciate the Australian people. But this is the problem of Howard, who is the hand of Mr Bush.

But members of the Islamic Action Front know that their own Government invited the American soldiers to enter Iraq from Jordan. It’s a move that’s totally out of step with popular sentiment, but there’s little people here can do to stop it.

JAMIL ABU BAKER (Translation): This is the Government’s position. We condemn it. The Jordanian people are against their presence, it does not represent the wishes of the Jordanian people. There is a difference between our stance and that of the government, but as you know, this is not a democratically elected government.

DR BASSEM AWADALLAH: We are making no excuses at all about the special kind of relations that we have with the United States. However they are relations built on mutual respect and on mutual understanding of the common interests that we and the United States have for this region.

Jamil Abu Baker says now that the first phase of the war in Iraq is over, dissenting voices in Jordan, particularly those of political Islam, are about to experience even less tolerance and more pressure to fall into line with the government’s position.

JAMIL ABU BAKER (Translation): The pressure has been present for a long time and we expect it will increase in the coming period, especially because this pressure will be welcomed by the Americans and its allies.

DR BASSEM AWADALLAH: There is no crackdown and there is no concern. If the Islamic Action Front represents a certain stratum in Jordanian civil society, so be it. We are democratic and the whole essence of democracy is to respect the other’s point of view, regardless of how different or how close it is to yours.

REPORTER: I haven’t heard many people saying that – claiming that Jordan is a true democracy.

DR BASSEM AWADALLAH: Well, we do not claim to be perfect. You know, far from it. This is why we have a process of political reform. We do know that there are restrictions on the press. We do know that there are restrictions on civil liberties. Now we are moving under the leadership of his majesty in order to ensure that we go forward with a process of political reform.

The Jordanian Government is caught in a bind. It wants to reach out to the West to avoid the economic damage caused by their not supporting the Americans in the first Gulf War. But the majority of its people do not support their stand. They oppose the invasion of Iraq, they oppose links with Israel, and they deeply resent the Arab world’s ever increasing loss of dignity and control over its own destiny.

EMAD HAJAJ (EXPLAINING DRAWING OF AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER): The runway is outlined the shape just like the map of the Arabic world. Our homeland is becoming just a military base for the Americans to do whatever they like to do. This is the future the Americans have for us, this white thing.

The kingdom of Jordan seems to have accepted this fate as their future. Emad Hajaj says the potential economic benefit of selling out to the West are no substitute for the loss of political freedom.

REPORTER: Why shouldn’t the focus be on improving the economy which will then improve the daily lot of the Jordanian people if it’s successful?

EMAD HAJAJ: But at the same time you have to give us space for people to think for themselves. I think to have the freedom to talk, it is equal to the need to eat sometimes. All of them are important. You cannot say that bringing…making a good economy in Jordan is more important than having a real democracy in Jordan.

Jamil Abu Baker goes even further. He believes that this lack of democratic freedom in Jordan and throughout the Arab world has helped the Americans succeed in their invasion and occupation of Iraq.

JAMIL ABU BAKER (Translation): We hope that all of the Arab governments including our own government, will accept the necessity to forge an understanding with the people and to reconcile with them, to widen democracy and to allow more participation so that the same catastrophe will never happen again.