Words By: Naseem Tarawnah
There’s a cyclical nature in which social protests unfold in Jordan that isn’t just vexing, it has a dizzying deja vu effect. An issue spurs public concern, a quick mobilization ensues, and the outcome is almost always predictably in favor of the entity being fought – typically the State. All along the way, there’s that profound feeling of an issue being continuously rinsed, recycled, and repeated.
From the moment of inception, there’s an expiration date on that dissent whereby that issue is destined to be forgotten. And that lack of sustainability seeps into the activism realm with such ease. The inability to keep fighting, keep informing, keep moving – it has meant that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the people are on the losing end of nearly every fight. It largely explains why we feel so tired from pushing on the ocean.
Exhibit A – the gas deal with Israel.
At this point in the timeline, we’ve pretty much heard all there is to say about it. Whether in media, online or on the streets, we’ve heard the arguments against (“because it’s Israel”), the arguments for alternatives (“why not solar or oil shale?”), the few arguments in favor (“I don’t want to pay more for gas” or “there’s no economic benefit”), and everything in between. We’ve delved into an expansive conversation about normalization with an apartheid/occupying State, and a more limited conversation about energy. We’ve chanted in the street, criticized online, and turned off our lights for 60 minutes.
But when you throw Israel into the mix of any unfolding national conversation, what you usually get is noise. It’s like throwing a blinding spotlight on to the madding crowd; the emotional sentiment and reaction is understandable, but also knee-jerk, automatic, and therefore predictable. Raising questions even runs the risk of being seen as digressing from the default setting of being anti-Israeli.
And therein lies our problem: Israel is the easiest and safest distraction for the masses. It quickly mobilizes people into a state of frenzy, and once that’s initiated, the countdown begins until its final demise; until it’s a distant memory. The clock is reset, and the process is repeated when necessary. The gas deal is simply a case that exemplifies the problem like nothing else has in Jordan since the Arab Spring began.
...this entire issue only begs the obvious reminder that Israel isn’t our biggest problem, and neither is the Jordanian government – it’s us, the people.
So I’d like to ask the most obvious question we prefer to ignore: why does that clock reset so easily? Why is there an inability to look beyond quick mobilization over emotionally fueled issues and organize persistently towards a constructive push back? It’s not a popular question when passions are running high, but this entire issue only begs the obvious reminder that Israel isn’t our biggest problem, and neither is the Jordanian government – it’s us, the people. We know this to be true simply from the way we swarm and disband soon after.
It’s our inability to effectively organize on the long run, especially at a community level. It’s our inability to effectively debate, articulate an alternative vision, a blueprint for how to accomplish it, and communicate that to the wider public beyond the framework of mere sentimentalism around the Palestinian cause. Political parties like the Islamists or the leftists fan the flames for their constituencies, media speaks largely to itself, while activists and civil society lack unification – existing mostly in what feels like a perpetual state of fractured geographies.
What we’re left with is a largely uninformed population, driven by blinding passion (especially when it comes Palestine), and easily distracted. And this is a beautiful and convenient trigger for the State that tugs away at it like it’s pulling down the “break in case of emergency” lever. When you’re caught off guard by an after-the-fact headline such as the gas deal announcement – that would be the sound of the glass breaking.
While significant, the gas deal is just one of many internal battles this country will continue to face, especially with a polarized population opposing much of State policies.
So let’s put it aside for just one moment. Let’s say, instead, that tomorrow the government declared it was banning the Internet completely in the name of national security. How would people react? Would we demonstrate? And if so, why? What propels us defiantly on to the street? Would we put forward economic arguments about how our entire business sector is reliant on the Web, or would we feel compelled to fight for something that has transcended economics and politics, becoming a tool that is the extension of our very selves? Would we feel the loss of that tool and its relevancy to our everyday lives? Would we value it once we’ve lost it? Would we acquiesce and allow protest and dissent to die down?
Our inability to fight for the tools, mechanisms, and values that empower us is worrying. We end up going on to these arbitrary battlefields the State sets up for us, completely weaponless. We get to pretend we’re lions instead of lambs. And the minute the protest dies down, we remember just how powerless and ineffective we truly are. We remember that our default position as a society is one of unrealized power.
For the State, watching this entire swelling scene, it simply waits for us to punch ourselves tired, and then presses the reset button. Rinse, recycle, and repeat.
It might be a few weeks, months, or years from now, but given its position of absolute power the State will always be destined to do something that is completely against the will of the people, and the people will always be completely powerless to effectively push back. And I emphasize the word effective. Because going out into the streets on a Friday afternoon, or turning off your lights on a Sunday evening, or signing an online petition that’s on a digital superhighway to nowhere – all that is nice, but it’s pretense. Let’s face it. We know it, and the State knows it. Yes, we like to pretend we’re being effective, and we like to pretend we’re empowered and pumping our fists in the air, with slogans scrawled on placards – but when the police start handing out water bottles, it’s not just soft-containment and crowd management, they’re also providing refreshments for the act.
The only way to be an effective force that can bend the ear of the State is to be armed with the tools, mechanisms and values where that power can be derived from indefinitely.
We don’t full realize this reality until just enough time passes by and the will of the State moves forward as planned. Even when faced with the utmost challenge posed by the people – the early days of the Arab Spring for instance – the State leverages its ultimate tool: the power of time.
This isn’t unusual; the State does exactly what it’s supposed to do given its authoritative position. It’s the other side of that equation – the people – that is worrying. It’s that willingness to participate in the pretense. It’s that unwillingness to fight for, and secure the tools necessary to effectively advocate and represent genuine opposition to the policies we don’t favor. That unwillingness to level the playing field.
Because the only way to really change this situation is for the people to be in some empowered position. The only way to be an effective force that can bend the ear of the State is to be armed with the tools, mechanisms and values where that power can be derived from indefinitely. Whether its genuine and protected freedom of expression, assembly, rule of law, political representation, civil society – all of these are values we have demonstrated very little interest in obtaining and preserving, yet they’re the prerequisites for effectively fighting anything.
Sure, we’ll shout every now and then, we’ll write and publish (which isn’t something to undervalue in an era where every word you write can and will be held against you in a court of law) – but our underlying unwillingness to consistently fight tooth and nail for them means not only are we always weaponless, we’re also typically on the wrong battlefield to begin with. We are easily shepherded on to the fertile grounds of distractions. Today it’s Israel; tomorrow it’s the decision not to shift to wintertime, the day after it’s the changes to the education curriculum. Rinse, recycle, and repeat.
When those tools are secured, they can be leveraged on the long run. They shift us from those knee-jerk reactions to events, towards being proactive citizens – or at the very least, having an enabled civil society that can genuinely advocate rather than skirt cautiously around issues.
The bigger battles are the ones we’re not really fighting, and have little regard for. Until we do, what persists is a situation where the State does what it wants in a vacuum of ineffective challenge from a disempowered society. We’ll continue to buy Israeli goods in the market. We’ll continue watching activists and journalists facing legal prosecution. We’ll continue to have a fractured civil society. We’ll continue to be reactive rather than proactive. We’ll continue to And we’ll continue to have little impact on whatever next comes our way.
This all may read as redundant, but so is this deja vu.