The Jordan-Israeli Gas Deal And Our Perpetual Deja Vu A Reminder Of The Bigger Battles We're Not Fighting

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.

jordan bds israel gas deal
Photo via: Jordan BDS

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.

2 thoughts on “The Jordan-Israeli Gas Deal And Our Perpetual Deja Vu A Reminder Of The Bigger Battles We're Not Fighting

  1. Naseem,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think you very well articulate the frustration that many people in Jordan sense: their dissatisfaction with state policies and their inability to do anything about it beyond short-term and largely ineffective protests. I somewhat disagree with you on how you characterize Israel as “the easiest and safest distraction for the masses”, but I think this argument, like all other genuinely made arguments, should be up for discussion. It is not enough to feel that signing an agreement to buy gas from Israel is wrong and to express that feeling on the street. I think Jordanians need to know and be able to articulate why they feel it is wrong and why that feeling is justified. Passion needs to be guided by reason, and reason grows out of public discussion and conversation that aims at genuinely figuring out what the “common good” is. Without it, I suspect, unguided passions will rule and their reign is often episodic as you eloquently describe.

    One of the most glaring aspects of the Arab Spring–not only in Jordan, but elsewhere as well–was the absence of intellectuals who could give shape to popular sentiments by explaining why these sentiments are justified using the correct political and moral concepts to which everyone–and I mean everyone–agrees. “ghaz al-3adow i7tilal!” speaks to popular passions formed through a long history of colonialism, anti-colonialism, Arab nationalism and Palestinian nationalism.. The problem is that concepts like “enemy” and “occupation” have lost much of their practical meaning today. What does it mean to call say these words when the idea that Israel can be defeated militarily by Arab armies has lost all practical sense since 1967 (notwithstanding the rhetoric of armed “resistance” that succeeded it)? What does it mean to say them when thousands of Jordanians, many of which are Palestinian refugees, live and work in Israel? The justification which these people put forward for their actions is ultimately economic, but they continue to call Israel “the occupation” and “the enemy” even as they work there. What Jordanians need to debate and figure out practically is not only whether it is fine to buy gas from Israel or not, but more importantly whether economic rationality should trump all other rationalities or not. Is the common good ultimately a situation in which everyone is doing well economically? or is it something else? And this is not merely an intellectual matter, but a practical one lived out every day. It makes little sense, I think, to make economic well-being the ultimate demand in one domain (e.g. protests against unemployment), but then fault the state when it uses that same argument to justify buying gas from Israel. I do not know if the well-being of the economy is a true reason (or the only reason) why the state has decided to buy gas from Israel, but the argument makes practical sense to people who are already making their economic well-being the ultimate goal. Statements about Israel being the enemy or an occupying force express popular sentiments, but it is unclear what they mean practically. As practical concepts they are confused and confusing for people who just want a better economy. If anything, genuine and passionate public debate may renew commitment to these concepts and give them some coherent practical meaning, or it may give way to other concepts which function to moderate passions.. whatever concepts end up being selected they need to apply to all aspects of Jordanian political life subjectivity.. Once there is some level of agreement over what the relevant concepts are, perhaps many things will start falling into place. Or perhaps the genuine commitment to figure them out would suffice.

    These are my two piasters at any rate!

  2. I hear you but you are describing a problem without finding a solution for it! I only hear you talking about Jordanians frustration and government’s ignorance of their voices but no direction as to what Jordanians should or can do more than that to be heard!

Your Two Piasters: