Jordanian thirst of revenge on terror might curb freedom of expression

(The German version was originally published in WOZ Die Wochenzeitung)

Amman (JORDAN), Februay 9, 2015- The media frenzy that followed the broadcasting of the brutal execution of the Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh at the hands of the Islamic State (IS) suggested a simplified equation between public outrage and widespread support for the kingdom’s involvement in the war in Syria and Iraq. At the moment, the Hashemite monarchy reaps the fruits of a clannish thirst of revenge over the soldier’s death; but once the smoke of ‘celebrations’ will fade away, the ruling elite will have to cope with the internal opposition to the NATO campaign. On the background of the war trumpets, dissidents and journalists warn against a military court whose extensive powers are derived from the Anti-Terror law.

Officially, the Jordanian government seems to have unified the masses behind its war cry.

“Unity has been reached between the official position on the ‘war on terror’ and the people’s views,” Ashraf al-Khasawna, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told WOZ in a phone interview. Khasawna spoke of “a state of national awareness”, while stressing the spontaneous nature of the recent anti-terror demonstrations.

Nevertheless, until the Kasasbeh affair, popular opposition to the Jordanian participation in the NATO coalition was noticeably widespread, as the US is perceived to lead the campaign for its own interests and there are concerns about a jihadist backlash in Jordan. The major opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, which holds no seats in the Parliament as a result of its boycott of the last elections, views the intervention as part of the US imperialist schemes. Before the execution of the pilot, hundreds took the streets of his hometown al-Karak, calling on the Government to quit the coalition.

“The Government has been in crisis since Kasasbeh got kidnapped and most people opposed the Jordanian involvement in the NATO strikes, but the video changed the equation,” said Tamer Khorma, the Palestinian-Jordanian deputy editor-in-chief of the news website Jo24, smoking a cigarette at the table of Jadl, an association named after dialectical anarchism. Jo24 is a recently-established independent voice among Jordanian opposition media.

“The State resorted to the tribal narrative of revenge…This is how it earned temporary support for its war [on IS],” continued Khorma.

On a military level, the Jordanian army escalated its offensive against IS: on February 8, it boasted about the destruction of 20% of the organization’s fighting capabilities since the beginning of the strikes. In the near future, the region might witness the formation of a Jordanian-trained Iraqi Sunni armed corps, that is the long-debated déjà vu of the Awakening Councils (Sahawat) set up by the Americans in Iraq to counter al-Qaeda

“There are talks about setting up a National Guard (al-Haras al-Watani) tied to the Iraqi army in order to fight IS and cause defections within its ranks,” Ibrahim Gharaibeh, a researcher at Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies, told WOZ in a phone interview, “it will be something similar to the Sahawat, though enjoying more recognition.”

According to Gharaibeh, the Jordanian army might participate in the National Guard’s training, while its elite troops might carry out special operations in Iraq

The Jordanian FM’s spokesperson Ashraf al-Khasawna declined to comment on “military issues” such as the creation of the National Guard.

On the inner front, in Khasawna’s words, Jordan vows to fight terrorism “regardless of its source”. However, the Hashemite kingdom and its allies might venture to capitalizing on the existing drifts between some jihadist organizations.

“It is absolutely likely that the Government will start differentiating between al-Qaeda and IS to the extent of facilitating the former against the latter: look at the space given on media to Qaeda figures like al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada,” researcher Gharaibeh told WOZ. Both Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada al-Filistini have been critical of the Islamic State.

“But the Government should beware of the ideological threat posed by al-Qaeda, since it might attract the Jordanian youth and turn them into radicals without resorting to violence,” warned Gharaibeh.

Political dissidents and journalists are predictably more worried about the war on terror’s repercussions on freedom of expression rather than on internal stability.

“The Kasasbeh affair has already affected freedom of expression: Hashim al-Khalidi and Sayfuddin al-Abidat, two journalists from the pro-government news website Saraya [N/A: one of the major news websites in Jordan], have been arrested 10 days ago, after they misquoted the lawyer Musa al-Abdellati saying that the Iraqi prisoner Sajida al-Rishawi [N/A: who was supposed to be swapped with Kasasbeh] had returned to Iraq following her release,” noted the deputy editor-in-chief Tamer Khorma. He also noted that the website has been blocked inside Jordan, following the decision of the State Security Court (SSC). The same military court has issued the arrest order against the two journalists.

According to the Anti-Terror Law, the SSC is charged with prosecuting terror suspects, including people accused of “disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state”, “sowing discord” and “disrupting public order”. On the grounds of the clause on foreign relations- which was part of art.118 of the penal code prior to the amendment of the Anti-Terror Law in 2014- politicians and journalists keep being arrested for their invectives against foreign rulers. This is the case of the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputy leader Zaki Bani Arshid, currently detained for having attacked the UAE’s foreign policies. It has also been the case of Nidhal al-Fara’neh and and Amjad Mu’ala, the publisher and the editor-in-chief of the Jafra News website, who were detained for mocking a Qatari prince in 2013. In legal terms, they are all considered terrorists.

The Jordanian opposition blames this legal text for restricting freedom of expression, while insisting on the right of civilians to be prosecuted by civil courts.

“The Anti-Terror Law took many of its texts from the penal code, while transferring the jurisdiction of ordinary courts to the SSC, which is a military tribunal not recognized by the international community,” Mohammad Harasis, a seasoned activist known for leading anti-Government demonstrations in Amman’s poor neighborhood of Tafayla, told WOZ. The UN Human Rights Committee has indeed called for the abolition of the State Security Court. Mr. Harasis also noted that the Anti-Terror Law violates freedom of expression, as enshrined in art.15 of the Constitution.

“In 2011, the jurisdiction of the SSC has been restricted to drug trafficking, high treason, [N/A: espionage] and terrorism, but since there is no world consensus on the definition of terrorism, the opposition forces constantly fear being targeted as terrorists,” Abla Abu Alba, the first secretary of the leftist Jordanian Democratic People’s Party, told WOZ. At the peak of the anti-government mobilization in Jordan (2011-12), protesters were regularly tried in front of the SSC.

On the other side, the institutions strike back defending the SSC as the fastest route to preserve internal stability.

“The SCC considers only specific cases related to State security,” affirmed Hussein al-Majali, the Jordanian Minister of Interior Affairs, “It is efficient and quick, (…) whereas the juridical system is wide and it deals with all possible cases.”

The Hashemite regime is waging its war on terror by empowering military courts and bolstering military efforts abroad, but this will not be enough to win an unconditional support for the equation between terrorists, journalists and dissidents, especially when the Kasasbeh affair will cease to ignite emotions.

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