Reporting from Amman, Jordan, and Beirut — Security forces imposed a clampdown and officials warned troublemakers of consequences as calm was restored Wednesday in southern Jordan after several days of tribal violence.
The clashes began Monday in the Maan governorate after the death of two people during a fight among workers at a water project, official media reported. The troubles quickly escalated into a wider dispute between rival clans and widespread rioting.
The independent Ammon News website Wednesday quoted a security source as saying 50 people had been arrested. Several people were reported injured.
The city of Maan, the governorate capital, has long been a hotbed of tribal disputes. Interior Minister Saad Hayel Sorrour on Tuesday insisted that a fresh deployment of security forces had restored order in the city after riots with anti-government overtones erupted in the wake of the two men's funerals.
But the local unrest could be a sign of broader problems for Jordan, a U.S.-backed monarchy that is one of the two Arab states — Egypt is the other — that have full diplomatic ties to neighboring Israel. As power has shifted from the tribes to more affluent, Westernized and urban Jordanians of Palestinian descent, some analysts worry that the unruliness is a sign of widening discontent with the country's establishment.
"The power base of the Jordanian regime has always been the tribes and the military," said Nabil Ghishan, a Jordanian political analyst and columnist. "These unrests are a result of the people losing confidence in the state."
Jordan's 6 million inhabitants are roughly grouped into tribal and formerly nomadic "East Bankers" and the descendants of those who fled or left what was then Palestine west of the Jordan River after the 1948 establishment of Israel. The tribes, which contribute disproportionately to the security forces, long constituted the backbone of support for the country's monarchy, now led by King Abdullah II.
Observers have for the last year and a half noted deteriorating security in the country's tribal south and north, poor rural areas far from the upscale neighborhoods of Amman, the national capital. Violence has broken out on occasion, with police sometimes unable to enter areas where tribal toughs wield powerful weapons and blithely shrug off the entreaties of clan leaders or public officials to stand down.
Critics of the government say tribal leaders have been marginalized and that the state is perceived as disengaged from the economic and social plight of rural areas amid rising prices and social inequality.
"They are signs of a social problem but could turn into a political problem," Randa Habib, a Jordanian political analyst and author, said of this week's clashes.
Some have long worried that Islamists could exploit the situation. The local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is already seeking to appear as the champion of political and social reforms, tapping into the widespread dissatisfaction among the lower classes to forge ties with tribal groups and even dissident former army officers who traditionally opposed the Islamists.
A group of retired generals last year warned that the lack of political reform and credible national figures in government could have consequences. They said escalating prices, perceived corruption and mismanagement would cause civil unrest.
"The Jordanians are frustrated economically, socially and politically," said retired army Gen. Ali Habashneh. "These are being expressed in acts of violence that eventually will be uncontrollable."
The violence in the south began after the two men were killed at the Disi Water Conveyance Project. Riots erupted, with mobs of angry men torching government buildings, shops and vehicles and setting tires on fire, officials and residents of the city of Maan told state news agencies.
Police told the English-language Jordan Times that masked men opened fire on a police station and that security forces dispersed the crowd with tear gas.
Maan residents were angry over what they perceived as the authorities' failure to arrest the alleged killers of the two workers.
Government officials accused some residents of exploiting the incident for their own ends. Some lawmakers charged that security forces failed to step in quickly enough, according to Ammon News.
Radwan Abdullah, a Jordanian political scientist, said the violence was caused by the state's failure to "provide security, identity and social justice."
Special correspondent Kadri reported from Amman and Times staff writer Daragahi from Beirut.