The last two days have seen clashes in Sidon between the followers of a radical cleric, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and the Lebanese military, with the cleric taking shelter in his mosque with hundreds of followers, and 16 Lebanese soldiers killed in the clashes. The Lebanese military stormed his mosque but he was nowhere to be seen, although perhaps 30 of his followers were reported killed.
What does this incident mean for Jordan? On the surface, relatively little, because it was a local incident in Lebanon, with a cleric who gained popularity through a series of provocative stunts including repeated calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah, and culminating in attacks on the Lebanese army last week. However, when the incident is examined as a spillover from the conflict in Syria the situation becomes slightly more complicated. Certainly the specific grievances that were articulated are unique to Lebanon, as are the sectarian tensions due to that country’s demographic makeup.
However, there are two factors that show that similar types of violence may have the potential to erupt in Jordan. The first is the fact that Jordan has undoubtedly been the country most affected by the conflict in Syria except for Syria itself. The second is that Jordan itself has had recent outbreaks of violence. An article in Al-Monitor that was written following tribal violence in the city of Karak on a university campus shows that such violence is becoming more common, with 80 fights at universities in 2012 compared to just 31 two years earlier. Logic would dictate that if someone was willing to engage in armed violence related to tribal disputes the potential exists for violence to erupt over other issues such as the conflict in Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict is showing itself as intractable as ever as the Syrian Foreign Minister said that the regime was not going to Geneva to hand over power to the opposition but to agree to national unity government, which many in the opposition appear highly unlikely to accept.
In this context, it seems much less implausible that even if the conflict in Syria does not actually spill over across the border there might still be violence triggered by the issues relating to that conflict. Make no mistake – the conflicts relating to Syria can spill across international borders even if the actual fighting itself does not.
Over the last week there have been recurrent episodes of violence in Jordan, triggered by the tribal violence at Al Hussein Bin Talal University in Maan. On Friday there were rallies held across Jordan condemning this violence and the regime for failing to stop it. This violence at the university, which announced that classes would be cancelled for a third day is tragic, and the risk is that if it spreads it could harm Jordan’s educational system, which is one of the country’s strongest assests. Over the last two decades the literacy rate and the enrollment rates have both increased, despite continuing issues with the exam-based selection process for universities and other secondary education such as medical school. Preventing this type of violence is critical because if it continues for a long enough period it will do lasting damage to Jordan’s educational system even if it were eventually brought under control.
The educational system’s improvements are not merely statistics printed on a sheet of paper. They have produced real benefits for Jordan and is an asset that the country possesses. One of the assets that this has produced is a health care system that is one of the best in the region, where foreigners come to obtain medical treatment. For example, Jordan is currently in a major dispute with Libya over hospital bills that the Libyan government has refused to pay, leading Jordanian private hospitals to stop accepting the Libyan government’s promises of future payment. Why did Libya, an oil-rich state send its patients to Jordan? They were sent there because the medical care was among the best, if not the best, in the region, and the reason why Jordan is able to offer such care is the quality of its education system and medical schools. This is why this type of violence cannot continue.
What is significant about these protests is what the protesters are actually calling for is security and stability and this is what the regime has failed to provide by failing to stop these clashes. This violence is outside the traditional dynamic of regime/opposition clashes. It involves a tribal dispute of unclear origins involving students and their relatives that turned violent in a public place, where anyone could have been caught in the crossfire. Justice Minister Hussein Majali has said that there were 22 arrested for weapons possession but time will tell if this incident is adequately investigated.
At a time of intense political turmoil and a newly-reappointed government steps have to be taken to make sure that this type of incident will never happen again. Many opponents of reform may argue that security and reform are diametrically opposed, but this incident – in which violence occurred