The ancient saying goes, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” King Abdullah II of Jordan may be wishing he’d kept this wisdom in mind as his cousin, Sherif Hassan bin Zaid, and one of his closest advisers during his 22-year reign, Bassem Awadallah, prepare to go on trial for incitement and sedition, allegedly planning a coup against the throne. His half-brother Prince Hamzah, at the center of the allegations, remains under house arrest, silenced for now, his future unknown. The Hashemites have been arguing in public for the first time in their 100-year rule of Jordan, signaling to the population a hitherto unseen level of desperation inside the royal family. Worse, it has been taken by many to be a crackdown against criticism and competition, sowing anxiety among an already fractured and worried population.
The past week has brought not only formal charges against the pair (to which they have pleaded not guilty) but also increasingly surreal leaks of the evidence against them, released almost daily, circulating quickly via various social media platforms.
First, documents listing intercepted messages and clips of those voice messages ricocheted around WhatsApp networks, but then came an 8-minute video, edited clips accompanied by Arabic translation and overlaid with sinister music, contrasting with the levity and jokes of the messages. When I first saw the length of the video and the opening titles: “Exclusive leaks in the case of Prince Hamzah,” I thought, “This is it. This is the smoking gun.” But as the minutes ticked on, I grew more bewildered at the paucity of the evidence; I could foresee any number of possible arguments in their defense. And I simultaneously became embarrassed on their behalf; these are personal and often foolish interactions between cousins, joking about food and “lube,” humiliating for the world at large to overhear. “They want to break this image people have of him and take him off his pedestal,” said one of his friends. Was this more to do with humiliation, to lessen Hamzah’s popularity, his threat to the future king’s position, Crown Prince Hussein?
Jordan, an important Western ally in the Middle East, has carefully cultivated an image of stability and order to the world (earning it the moniker the “Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom” in the expat community). At a coffee break during a conference in Oxford discussing intractable conflicts, I witnessed a Lebanese member of parliament saying to his Jordanian counterpart, “Ah, Amman, you are Beirut’s greatest advertisement.” Without missing a beat, the Jordanian politician replied, “And you are ours.” What is perhaps less obvious to outsiders is that this calm, functional society, at such odds to chaotic and energetic Beirut, draws its stability from a variety of repressive measures, hidden, or at least ignored, until events like these, which lay them bare.
It all started with an article in the Washington Post on April 3, based on leaks from Jordanian intelligence sources, breaking the story of “as many as 20” arrests and the restriction of Hamzah’s movements. Shock is the most common word used to describe how people felt as the news filtered through. At first the authorities denied that Hamzah had been deprived of his freedom, but later that day, two videos came from the prince, one in English leaked to the BBC and the other in Arabic, both going viral on social and traditional media platforms. In these eerie recordings, reminiscent of kidnapping videos, the prince earnestly addresses his phone, flatly contradicting the official narrative, stating he had been visited by the joint chiefs of staff and told not to leave the house nor communicate with anyone. His guards had been removed, he said; phone lines were cut, and he expected all other connections to be severed at any time — which indeed they were, along with the phone and internet of every other house in the area. He denied the charges but took the chance to repeat his past critiques of the country: “I am not the cause of the current devastation of the country,” he says, citing corruption and an inability to voice any concerns: “They try and arrest us and silence everyone who loves his country … accusing them of following a foreign agenda.”
There is no doubt that Abdullah has been walking an extremely tricky line between pressures from longtime allies the United States and Saudi Arabia and his own large population of Palestinian origin. Former President Donald Trump’s peace plan for the Middle East, his so-called deal of the century, was partially achieved in the Abraham Accords signed in 2020 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. But a similar plan for Saudi Arabia did not go as smoothly, and Abdullah was one of the stumbling blocks to a deal through his resistance over concessions regarding the status of Jerusalem. The Hashemite monarchy has custodianship of holy sites in the city, a position that both draws on and supports the lineage’s religious legitimacy (the Hashemites are direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad). Removing the custodianship from sites like Al-Aqsa Mosque is therefore a “red line” for Abdullah, who felt under threat by the blossoming relationship between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Trump administration, with the Saudis seeking to increase their religious influence and legitimacy at the expense of the Jordanians’. At the same time, Abdullah did not want to risk the livelihoods of the many hundreds of thousands of Jordanians working in Saudi Arabia, only too aware of the impact of the expulsion of Jordanians from Kuwait over their support for Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.
This is the wider context for the recent charges against the three, who, it is claimed, saw an opportunity in these geopolitical upheavals to advance a different vision for the country, a vision of Hamzah in a position of power, supported by foreign powers seeking to undermine Abdullah’s position over Israel. But with these leaked recordings from Hamzah came incredulity at the charges against him. “Who was he planning this coup with, his bodyguards, his maids?” said one of his friends, Ahmad. This was an opinion echoed by many I spoke to in the weeks following the news, an opinion still common today.
The palace was put on the back foot by the videos and scrambled to put together a press conference, headed by the foreign minister Ayman Safadi, who once again offered the narrative of a plot to destabilize Jordan, backed by other countries, but once again provided no evidence. “They didn’t plan for the reaction,” says Jordanian researcher Ghazi, referring to Hamzah’s videos. “That’s quite clear, while the messages continued from Hamzah they were just reacting to events,” Ghazi adds. And then the foreign messages of support started coming in, from other Arab countries, from the Biden administration, and even from China, without any explanation as to what they were supporting or opposing. The lack of clarity was unsettling.
With the official response focusing on his culpability, another leak came from Hamzah, this time a recording of the very moment he was visited by the joint chief of staff and placed under house arrest. It was another deep shock to the elites, the moment of constraining a prince available to anyone to hear. “There was a joke at this time,” Ahmad told me. “You know how lots of Arabs listen to Fairouz (the iconic Lebanese singer) in the morning? Well, the joke was that we all woke up and listened to this recording instead of Fairouz, again and again.” This back-and-forth between Hashemites polarized opinion, and statements of support for the king issued by figures inside and outside the kingdom, including members of the royal family, exacerbated this. “It’s turned into a popularity contest,” Ahmad said, just a few weeks after the events.
I feel it’s getting to the point where people will ask, ‘Are you on Hamzah’s side or His Majesty’s?’
Husam, a young businessperson, agreed: “I feel it’s getting to the point where people will ask, ‘Are you on Hamzah’s side or His Majesty’s?’ We’re polarized. It’s the first time in Hashemite history that this has happened.”
Prince Hassan, uncle of both Abdullah and Hamzah, was chosen to mediate the dispute between them, prompting satirical news site Al-Hudood to report the situation as, “Jordanian regime saves the Jordanian regime from the Jordanian regime’s threat to its stability.” Hassan, who was crown prince for over 30 years under his brother, the late King Hussein, has a wealth of experience and is popular in the country, and so was a good choice of mediator. “It was largely based on … the two parties’ appreciation of whatever credibility I have accrued,” Hassan told me, “Which I kept pointing out — that squandering my credibility isn’t in your interest because it’s your credibility.” That is, the Hashemite brand stands and falls with all members of the family, or as Hamzah’s friend Nadia put it: “We’ve always understood that they know they’re only as strong as their unit.”
Hamzah issued a statement in support of the king and was seen alongside his half-brother, uncle, and other members of the family at the grave of Hussein soon after. But loyalty alone was not the issue. More fundamentally, his videos detailing the problems in the country resonated across society. “It was the first time someone was saying what we were thinking,” Husam told me. “Everyone is Hamzah.” He was quick to say he didn’t want a replacement at the top — “never that,” the danger of instability only too clear from neighboring Syria — but it still made him and his friends happy to hear a prince expressing what they all feel about their country. “We’re all leaving because of the corruption,” he said. “It’s impossible to do business here.” He laughs that you could even bribe your way out of the coronavirus curfew, buying a permit for $200. His friend chimed in: “And we’re the lucky ones, the 1%, because we can leave. I just feel sorry for the rest of the country who have to stay.”
These young men of course do not represent the majority of the country. Ghazi explained the demographic patterns. “The Jordanians from Palestinian origin are not interacting actively with this crisis. … the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, they are also not touching this.” He mentions the mu’arida kharijiya, the expatriate opposition, and the hirak or Arab Spring protesters from 2011, who have all used the events to advance their differing agendas to do with reform and democratization. “But” Ghazi says, “the most active is that demographic of East Bank middle-class Jordanians, maybe 10-15% of the population, who for the past 20 years haven’t had a platform or proxy or cause to express their opposition without being labeled as disloyal.” And this is what Hamzah offered in his video message — an expression of opinions for those who have increasingly felt unable to voice their own; an important demographic for the rulers of Jordan to keep on their side.
This seems like a spectacular case of unintended consequences, as it is precisely Hamzah’s popularity with Jordanians that is widely seen as the reason for the charges against him. Looking and speaking like his father, the beloved Hussein, being close with the tribes, speaking out against corruption, he is seen as having a connection to the population that Abdullah lacks and is therefore viewed as competition, if not to the king, then to his son, the crown prince. But instead of removing this threat, recent events actually propelled Hamzah into the role of speaking for the population and increased his popularity, at least for a while.
“Since 2007 I’ve been working on this issue of role models,” said Alia, also a Jordanian researcher, “asking thousands and thousands of Jordanian youth. Apart from their parents or the Prophet Muhammad, there are none.” She describes reading online posts in the wake of the alleged coup and observed a very new narrative in which Hamzah is a figure to be admired and looked up to, with comments such as, “I see in you something different, I don’t know what it is, but it resembles me, it suits me, and I belong to it,” and “he understands my problems.” As Husam said to me, “Everyone is Hamzah.”
This is particularly valuable in a place with a distinct lack of freedom of expression. Within days of the arrests came a media gag order; while the world reported and opined on the situation, Jordanian voices were lacking, though this wasn’t the most shocking part of the affair for many. “We’re used to that these days,” said one young woman. In the last year alone, there have been gag orders to prevent reporting on a hospital scandal in Salt in May and the clampdown on a teachers’ union last summer. But there are more structural issues with the Jordanian media than just gag orders appearing from time to time, as even Hassan acknowledges. “I would put it to you that even before it was shut down it didn’t exist because … a high percentage of them are in somebody’s pocket anyway.”
Researcher Alia explained why: “It’s a function of our close-knit communities. We are a tribal society with close connections, so it’s easy to find someone out there in the media who will write something in support of what you do, either because of money or a personal connection. In this sense, the media isn’t free.”
At odds with the pro-Western image Jordan likes to promote, there has been a trend of moving away from freedom of speech under Abdullah; the country has just been downgraded from “partly free” to “not free” by Freedom House. “The past 10 years have got us to a point of anxiety, of worry, of second guessing, which really reminds of how people spoke about living in Syria — that this has come to us in 2021 is really so sad,” said Nadia. The space for expressing yourself in Jordan is constantly shrinking: to hear Hamzah voice your own opinion was to feel represented. Clearly there are spaces to express yourself, seen in the many social media posts and messages in support of Hamzah or the king, but more telling is that of all my interviewees, no one except Hassan was willing to go on the record.
“I think this is twofold,” said Alia. “One reason is that we were constantly told by our parents that we shouldn’t be vocal, we shouldn’t criticize — there’s this old perception that if you said the wrong thing the mukhabarat would take you in.” And on top of this fear of consequences, “there’s a fear of being judged. You can’t change your mind here; something you say one day is a life sentence, a label of who you are, so people shy away from saying anything at all.”
The authorities certainly found a way to stop Hamzah’s communiques, and his messages slowly petered out. Given the thirst for a representative among the young East Bankers, those of the “We are all Hamzah” type, perhaps what happened next was inevitable: A firebrand member of parliament, Osama Ajarmeh, became vocal, offering the same platform of expression, echoing Hamzah’s points. Early on, he proved popular with the same demographic who support Hamzah, given the similarity of the messages and the silencing of Hamzah himself. But this member of the Ajarmeh tribe overreached catastrophically.
A video circulated around social media of a speech in which he threatened to shoot the king between the eyes and claimed his tribe could rule instead of the Hashemites. He was removed from his parliamentary position, and although there were protests over his treatment, he was later arrested. “If he hadn’t done that, he would have been a big problem,” Ghazi says. “It’s similar to when Daesh (the Islamic State group) burned the (Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh), and their popularity went from 70% and ‘it’s not our war’ to really low numbers and ‘it’s our war as Jordanians’ — it’s the same situation. Osama was going up and up and up, and now he’s nothing.”
But this miscalculation only removes one symptom of an underlying problem: With Hamzah silenced and Ajarmeh first removed from office and a few weeks later arrested, it’s only a matter of time before other figureheads emerge to express the views of an intimidated but passionate part of the population, afraid to speak publicly themselves. Perhaps this is why the king has just announced a new political initiative: the formation of a 92-member committee, headed by former prime minister Samir Rifai, tasked with drawing up political reforms. It is hoped that this will lead to a “qualitative leap in the political and parliamentary life” of the country, Abdullah said, but many remain unconvinced about its chances.
“It’s very diverse, that’s a good thing,” said Ghazi, referring to its composition of Islamists, leftists, conservatives, liberals — even people who have been openly anti-monarchy. “But how was it created, how were these people chosen?” Ahmad is more cynical. “The fact that Samir Rifai is heading it, a former prime minister, part of the regime who drove the country to where it is now — if he is head of the committee there is no pretense of neutrality. It’s just another insult to our intelligence,” Ahmad says.
Many feel that some of the names have been brought into the fold in order to keep them quiet; Hassan Barari, a prominent anti-monarchy Jordanian who has been living in Qatar, is one such figure. Speaking of him and others, Alia comments, “I have seen that their posts on social media have shifted since they joined the committee.”
The palace has not appointed wisely recently, seen in the recent reappointment of Jafar Hassan as director of the king’s office. “It was a sense of ‘control-z’ — you know when you type something and undo it — this sent us back to 2017, 2018,” one friend told me, removing any hope in planned political reforms. Originally brought into the royal court by Awadallah, one of the two facing charges, Jafar Hassan’s central role sends a confusing message: Not all friends of suspected traitors are to be mistrusted, but which are safe, and which are not is still unclear to Jordanian elites. Instead of yet another opaque political entity, perhaps there could be a more inclusive approach to participatory democracy, such as a “citizen’s assembly” as advocated by Hassan and detailed in a previous New Lines article.
But the wider signs are not encouraging. The country’s swift ban of Clubhouse, a new social media platform based on audio discussion rooms, the repeated media gags, and indeed the initial arrests (all but two of those 20 or so arrested were released during Ramadan with no charges or explanation) discourage people from speaking up and being a part of the country’s discussions. And it’s not only the authorities who pose the problem: Everyone in society needs to take responsibility for change.
“We all know what should happen, but we don’t know how because it’s so complex,” says Alia, going on to point out that criticizing a corrupt political class for ruining the country is the easy part of demanding change; understanding your own participation in the endemic corruption requires more effort. “The King’s discussion papers are fabulous, really. Hassan’s ideas (for a civic assembly) are great — we all want the same things but the problems are deep, endemic and there is no personal responsibility to change your own life,” Alia says.
Even with the transcripts of calls and messages between Hamzah, Zaid, and Awadallah available for all to see, people cannot accept the court’s (and therefore the government’s) version of events. “It’s complete nonsense,” said one young Jordanian. “There’s no evidence to this day.” I point to the evidence in the form of the indictment and the leaks of messages. “That’s nothing close to a coup d’état. There’s nothing about the army, and how can anyone have a coup without an army?”
In this refusal to accept the official version of events, Ghazi sees an underlying problem in the fracture lines between government and population. “When you’re a rational person and you’re presented with evidence and you’re still not ready to accept it, it’s a lack of trust. That’s the core issue.” The problem is not simply a lack of clarity around this one issue, but rather it stems from a steady erosion of trust in officials and the media at large. Nothing signifies this more than where Jordanians must go to find out what is happening in their country: Western media. The Jordanian press is either forbidden or scared to investigate, and in any case, they are not trusted to be truly independent. There is a crisis of legitimacy in the authorities, and such an abiding distrust of internal information that the fractures will be deep for a long time to come.
In the midst of this distrust and uncertainty, the trial approaches. This comes at a time when Jordan faces myriad problems: It is host to the second-highest number of refugees per capita in the world, suffers from acute water shortages and high COVID-19 numbers, and all the accompanying social issues that come with an economic crisis. “At the end of the day, Jordan is really not in a good place,” said Nadia. “People have major concerns day-to-day just surviving and eating and looking after their children. We really don’t need the feeling that at any moment the country is divided and there’s going to be a coup, or instability.”
Many are angry at the perceived incompetence and endemic corruption, which have meant failure to address the chronic, structural problems in Jordan. “We have failed in every aspect, failed to capitalize on every chance we’ve had — we’ve had so much investment in this country, from Iraqis, America, even when the Syrians came, we got compensation from the U.N., but have we done anything?” said Ahmad, who, like so many others, was overjoyed to hear Hamzah voicing his own thoughts on these issues. The anger is evident, but so is the energy and love for his country that could be harnessed if only there was an outlet and a measure of unity — enough to hold a conversation. This is perhaps what Abdullah was thinking of in establishing the ideologically diverse committee of 92 citizens, but there is a lot of work to be done in building trust in the committee and an atmosphere where citizens feel able to voice their opinions without fear of being rounded up in humiliating ways.
At stake is nothing less than what it means to be Jordanian, to belong to and work for the nation, essential for the future of the famed stability of the country. The country is leaking its elites, unable to provide for their families in the same way their parents provided for them, chafing at the increasing restrictions on expression, unable to voice their despair at the corruption and oppression. Hamzah reminds the population of his father, a role model Abdullah never aspired to be, choosing instead to be different — no bad thing for a monarch. But his actions against Hamzah, with thus far scant evidence against him, have failed to dent the popularity of his younger half-brother. “Keep your enemies closer” may yet be the most relevant advice for the king.
All names except those of the royal family and the two charged have been changed.