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The View From Jordan

The country of Jordan is sometimes called a mosaic. It is literally home to one of the oldest mosaics in the world, including the famous Holy Land map. Symbolically, it is also home to many different people who fled war and turmoil in the region. Its stability and hospitality over the years welcomed refugees from Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and even Sudan. It's a temporary workplace for migrant workers and students, including 500,000 Egyptians and others outside the region. It's a country of nearly six million people. It's also a country that struggles with identity, including political and social identity.

When three suicide bombers struck Amman and killed over 60 Jordanians in 2005, there was no doubt people in Jordan were united, both in the way that people do when such a tragedy strikes and in protest. But it is also a country that has witnessed civil unrest in its history and where the notion of citizenship is trumpeted by tribal affiliations, country of origin or even personal interests. In fact, that seems to be what Jordan does not share with Egypt or Tunisia. What we see on our television screens are Egyptians united (for now) in their discontent at the lack of political and economic reform as well as police brutality and humiliation. Jordanians in such a case would be split in their allegiances but not their grievances -- between their discontent with the status quo, their love for their land and suspicion of what others, even in their own society really want to see if serious political reform is implemented.

Sometimes people say Amman is Jordan; half the population lives in the capital. Amman is where infrastructure development and investments mostly have taken place. For Jordanians who have not traveled outside of Jordan, Amman is also the place where East meets West, culturally. However, it is hard to ignore the other half of the population. Some Jordanians, who live outside of Amman, commute daily by public transportation to work in large grocery stores, malls, telephone companies, banks, non-governmental organizations, café's and restaurants. What they see is another world, different from theirs: Young students who attend universities and others who have traveled abroad on a grant. They meet customers and colleagues who speak about future plans, opportunities they hope to seek if they work hard or find the right person to help them.

Jordanians living outside of Amman return to their homes feeling more frustrated. They feel discouraged. They understand what they don't have. They continue to believe that where they are born defines who they are. If they don't know the right people, they are stuck. If they do badly on a mandatory high school exam, their future is bleak. They feel split between family obligations and their newfound individualism and ambition. Of course, some in Amman also feel this but it seems more profound to those living outside.

However, Tunisia and Egypt have sparked an amazing yet cautious sense of hope in young people here. A Jordanian friend of mine who works in Egypt and joined protesters in Tahrir Square recently posted a status update on his Facebook page: "Am I the only one who cannot sleep at night? I leave the television switched on all night on the news, so that even if I doze off I know this isn't just a dream." Jordanians from all walks of life agree that the status quo cannot remain. Economic grievances, including the price of petrol and tomatoes, became the talk of the town this year. Last year, a joke went around town that a famous Jordanian comedian was presented with an award. At the ceremony he posed with a box of tomatoes because it became such a hot commodity.

Discontent and apathy in the electoral system turned off a lot of voters in Amman during the last parliamentary elections. In other cities there was a higher turnout; they vote mostly for better civil services in their towns, not politics per say. A friend of mine who just returned from conducting a training workshop for children in the city of Petra said tribes there had a list of grievances -- most wanted better services, including a recreational center for their children. "A small girl came up to me," recalled my friend. "She told me: Please don't go, we want you to teach us. We hate our school and we are so bored here." My friend looked away and then announced, "The town is dead. They have nothing to do."

There have been numerous reports in the western media equating Jordan with Tunisia and Egypt. It's an exaggeration. There were nearly a thousand people scattered in the kingdom during a protest I attended last Friday. Indeed, Jordan is like a mosaic. The big picture is clear. The list of grievances heard in Egypt and Tunisia are also heard here: lack of political reform, limited freedom of expression, failed economic reform, high unemployment rate.

Nevertheless, when we examine the situation carefully in Jordan, it is difficult to see a united consensus of what exactly reform would mean or what democracy would entail. Will it include a return to the National Agenda Reform? Will it include a change in the press and publication laws? Abandoning the vague anti-terrorism penal code? Imprisonment for writings or speeches that undermine national unity, incite others to commit crimes, sow the seeds of hatred and division in society, disrupt society's basic norms by promoting deviation, spread false information or rumors, incite others to destabilize or organize demonstrations or strikes in contradiction to the law, or commit any act which undermines the dignity and reputation of the state. If democracy is also an evolving culture, will society be willing to move forward and also work to support societal reform? Will reform in the education system, based on memorization and rote learning, be implemented?

Last week, the newly appointed prime minister announced familiar steps to improve Jordan. There were also pledges made in the past but they have not been implemented: Greater press freedom, less corruption, political reform, more jobs and transparency. Today Jordanians seem to be waiting. If implementation fails this time around though, I doubt they will remain quiet.