News & Politics

Jordan’s South Rises, Again


The southern Jordanian town of Ma’an is quieter these days, and except for a few blue, heavily armored troop carriers and a couple of shot-up villas, there are no signs of the ferocious gun battles that lit this city of 70,000 for eight days last November. That fighting, sparked by a failed police manhunt for an Islamist activist named Mohammed Chalabi, a/k/a Abu Sayyaf, quickly escalated into a siege involving thousands of troops, special forces, heavy guns, and helicopters. Six people were killed, hundreds imprisoned. The government closed the city for a week, in what became the military’s largest operation since 1970’s Black September offensive against the PLO.

Many here think the blitz reflects fears that protests in Ma’an over a U.S. war on Iraq and the worsening situation of the Palestinians will spiral beyond official control. Certainly, the tension in Ma’an mirrors trouble in other Mideast nations trying to contain their own angry populations, especially Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia—all countries that, like Jordan, host American troops. If an American strike on Baghdad were indeed to cause a new kind of domino effect in the region, the unrest here might prove to have been the first push.

Ma’anis believe they were special candidates—with their penchant for resistance, and for carrying guns—for the forceful message delivered last fall. Jordanian leaders claimed they simply restored order to a lawless southern city, which they painted as a longtime haven for drug and gun smugglers, and Islamic radicals seeking to “impose a state within a state.” Smuggling and other crimes have been open secrets in Ma’an for years; Chalabi, a charismatic cleric there, did have a reputation for fiery, anti-establishment sermons, and police say his followers have a history of violence.

These two views don’t complete the story of Ma’an, a town stuck on a seesaw that refuses to balance. On the one side is a place where poverty, unemployment, and political marginalization swirl amid a special sense of history and entitlement. On the other is the nation of Jordan, stuck between regional crisis, a bleak economic outlook, calls for truer democracy, and periodic infiltrations by Islamic terrorist groups.

A report released two weeks ago found that the battles in the city “aggravated the feeling among Ma’anis and other Jordanians that the government relied too heavily on security measures to resolve issues rooted in political, social, and economic conditions.” The study, by the Belgium-based International Crisis Group (ICG), was presented directly to King Abdullah, and its authors say the young monarch understands their conclusions. They couldn’t have been easy for him to swallow. “Ma’an has become something of a litmus test for Jordan—a test of governmental policies, national institutions, the private sector and civil society,” they wrote. “There have been collective failures of all four to date, and time is running short.”

The desert road to Ma’an shadows the old Hijaz railway, built in the early 1900s by the last Ottoman caliph, mostly to shuttle pilgrims safely from Damascus to Medina, but also to keep a wary eye on the Arabian peninsula. In later decades, train traffic was replaced by the trucks and buses on the new Desert Highway, moving goods, tourists, and much needed cash through Jordan’s southern towns.

Hajj pilgrims no longer stop in Ma’an. The trains today mainly carry minerals, like phosphorous, from the vast mines that scar the nearby desert. Ma’an was hit harder than its neighbors when the Jordanian economy went into recession in the late ’80s, a situation made worse by the Gulf War. “Even desperate activities like children selling chewing gum in the street or begging were not available, mainly due to the social stigma,” says the ICG report.

In the 1980s, the vital Desert Highway was routed just west of here. It was along this same road that Jordanian police chased Chalabi and his wife, Salwa, on October 29, the day after an American diplomat was gunned down as he strolled that morning to his car outside his west Amman home. The Chalabis had been in the capital that week for what they said was a routine medical checkup. Salwa cannot walk, the result of a bullet wound, friends say, inflicted by her first husband.

The pair traveled about an hour in their gray 1975 Mercedes, till they reached the city of Qatrana, south of Amman. It was here, according to most of the versions of this tale, that they stopped at a police roadblock. The authorities were anxious to talk to Chalabi, a conservative imam outspoken in his anti-government and anti-American views, who police believed had information related to the assassination of the diplomat, 60-year-old Laurence Foley. That the couple ran the roadblock and led police on a 100-kilometer chase to Ma’an could only have hardened their suspicion. Chalabi would later claim he fled because he has been tortured in the past by the Jordanian police. And his supporters say it is beyond belief that the couple, in their almost 30-year-old clunker of car, would try to shake the authorities on a very straight desert highway with hardly any exits.

The off-ramp to Ma’an these days is guarded by soldiers with machine guns, checking the credentials of all who seek entry. The city was shut to outsiders, especially journalists, for weeks after the fall violence. Today, Mohammed Breikat, the city’s governor, receives visitors in a large white building far from the center of town. His Olympic-sized office is lined with large leather chairs, fronted by hand-tooled coffee tables supporting outsized glass ashtrays. Breikat is not from Ma’an, fitting the custom in Jordan, where a governor never governs in his hometown.

He says stories of excessive force during the recent tensions are exaggerated or just plain false. “There were no helicopters, and no military. This problem started with gangsters who had heavy weapons.” Many of the facts reported by the ICG, he maintains, “were pure imagination.” The problem in Ma’an was the absence of law, in the governor’s view, and the exploitation of that void by Chalabi and his supporters.

The question of law is at the center of most discussions about Ma’an. Even critics of the government seem to agree that different rules applied here, and that the smuggling, whether of cigarettes or arms, was largely tolerated. “Ma’an has a special aura about it,” says Rami Khouri, one of the authors of the ICG report, and now executive editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper. “Ma’anis remember their place as a major caravan stop, as a trading post, and this is still meaningful to people,” he argues. Khouri says the government held “that because the city was a latecomer to the country, that it had its own culture, and that because private industry hasn’t really gone there, Ma’an needed a little extra help.” This policy, he says, has clearly backfired.

Firsthand observers echo this sentiment. Adel Tweissi, president of Al-Hussein Bin Talal University in Ma’an, says “appeasement” by officials meant the problems steadily grew, unchecked, over the last three or four years. “There was no security, public or private,” he says. “These problems, the outrageous thefts, were always on our minds.”

Past the governor’s office, at the entrance to town, the kingdom’s ubiquitous “Jordan First” campaign, intended to distract people from the various Arab crises, is falling flat. Almost all the billboards that depict citizens of different stripes holding aloft the national flag have been defaced, either with white paint or a brown-looking sludge. Whether this is an example of the lawlessness, or simply a reaction to recent events, is unclear, though residents suggest it is the latter.

The few troops who remain here mostly guard the dusty entrance roads to the El Tor neighborhood, where one of November’s largest battles took place. In this slum, the character traits that make Ma’anis famous are on display. From his grocery shop on the main shopping drag, Adnan Al-Shomali says this latest crackdown was motivated only by the coming war in Iraq. Ma’anis repeat that opinion to a reporter throughout the day, despite the constant presence of a government minder. The shopkeeper says he has run out of the essentials, like sugar, because of the siege. The supplies he does get are thanks to the bedouin, who smuggle goods to the city from Saudi Arabia. Cigarettes, another contraband favorite, are in ready supply; a shop across the street is packed to the top of its 15-foot ceilings with every imaginable brand.

Down the road, on the roof of Hamed Kreishan’s residence, are pockmarked water heaters and a tattered Saudi flag, remnants of the government offensive. The bullets were intended for the now imprisoned Khamis Abu Darwish and his brothers Asri and Ahmed, who police say smuggled arms. Much of the ammunition aimed at them appears to have ended up in neighboring homes, the lion’s share of it in Kreishan’s, where 16 people live. There are bullet shells of varying calibers still in his walls, including a few 50mm shells he claims came from several helicopters that joined the battle. It is difficult to confirm what happened, and Kreishan doesn’t deny that the Abu Darwish boys may have used his house for cover. Hardly a room went unscathed, and the family says that what the bullets didn’t destroy was gutted by soldiers. “I don’t know who to complain to,” the patriarch says.

Kreishan declares his loyalty to Jordan, but can’t see how the action in Ma’an could have benefited the country. Like most of the Ma’anis he knows, he owns a gun. “Don’t all Jordanians have guns?” he asks.

A cousin of Khamis Abu Darwish comes by for coffee, and notes that while the government may have taken all the licensed weapons, most of the firearms in Ma’an are illegal, and therefore still here. “I think things will explode soon,” he says, citing war in Iraq as a potential spark. Neither he nor the mother of the Abu Darwish brothers seem willing to admit that Khamis and his brothers were smugglers. And no one interviewed in El Tor thinks Mohammed Chalabi was anything but a simple, uneducated man.

Another open secret in Ma’an is that the local gun trade had been arming the Palestinian intifada. The weaponry, smuggled from Saudi Arabia, mostly, but also Iraq, grew increasingly deadly, with rocket-propelled guns replacing pistols and rifles. This has given rise to local theories that Israel played some part in November’s violence. But a source with ties to the government suggests that U.S. pressure to act against terror, especially after Foley’s killing, was a more likely spur.

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.

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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