Jordan's South Rises, Again

Talk of War in Iraq Lights a Regional Fire

By the time the Chalabis reached Ma'an that day in late October, Mohammed had taken a police bullet in the shoulder. He called several supporters from his cell phone; a group of them took over the government hospital so his wounds could be treated. One of the men Chalabi called was Sheikh Adel Al-Muhameed, who is now the guardian of the Chalabi family while the cleric hides from the law, allegedly somewhere in the southern mountains near the ancient city of Petra.

"Abu Sayyaf is a simple man, and is not responsible for the things he is accused of," says Al-Muhameed, sitting in his salon underneath a picture of his rather severe-looking father. According to the sheikh, who was among the town elders called upon to mediate the crisis in Ma'an before the government brought the big guns, the incursion was about war in Iraq, and the military will leave once that war is either called off or finished. The reason police let Chalabi escape was that "they wanted to wait and kill him here, in Ma'an," to set an example, says the sheikh.

Hamed Kreishan and his son survey the damage done to their home in the Jordanian city of Ma'an.
photo: Jehed Nga
Hamed Kreishan and his son survey the damage done to their home in the Jordanian city of Ma'an.

Many observers discount the importance of Chalabi, and no one seems to believe he has much of a following. Though he may have links with an Egyptian Islamist group, there seems to be an informal consensus that he is an opportunist who saw frustrations worth exploiting.

"There is no democracy in Jordan," says Sheikh Al-Muhameed, words that could surely get him into trouble. But this is the other side of the violence in the south, away from economic frustrations and external irritants, like Palestine and Iraq. According to Hisham Boustani, a Jordanian political activist who has served jail time for his views, the violence in Ma'an relates directly to the worsening political landscape. Since June 2001, when King Abdullah dissolved the parliament, Jordanians have been subject to over 120 so-called "temporary laws."

"There are two kinds of these laws," Boustani says. "Economic laws, and those that target freedoms." Boustani, a Marxist, claims the rushed financial regulations support the "neoliberal nature of the economy." For a city like Ma'an, this means surrounding towns, like the port city of Aqaba, have been absorbed into small free-trade zones to encourage investment. But Sheikh Al-Muhameed also talks about laws that target freedoms, and viewed from this perspective, Mohammed Chalabi and his views hold real import.

Consider the case of Laith Shubaylat, another outspoken local cleric, who in 1998 gave an anti-U.S. speech at Ma'an's main mosque, after the Clinton administration bombed Iraq. In a recent article, University of Maryland professor Jillian Schwedler noted that Shubaylat was arrested, eight were people killed, and the town's weapons were confiscated during a month-long siege. "Shubaylat was quickly released," she writes, "but the humiliations of 1998 were not forgotten."

Sheik Al-Muhameed excuses himself for evening prayers, then turns back. "There have been many big battles in here," he says, recalling the Arab victory over the Turks in Ma'an during World War I. The government needs to help the city's poor, end unemployment, and "balance society," as he sees it. "There is strength here," he cautions. "We speak up."

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