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Jordan democracy activists enjoy camaraderie, freedom to protest

FOREIGN EXCHANGE

Former monarchists in the Herak movement take delight in tweaking King Abdullah II. Their protests haven't drawn a harsh crackdown.

January 24, 2013|By Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times
  • Election workers tally votes in Amman, Jordan, this week. Pro-democracy activists in the Herak group boycotted the parliamentary balloting.
Election workers tally votes in Amman, Jordan, this week. Pro-democracy… (Jamal Nasrallah, European…)

AMMAN, Jordan — The king of Tafayla had just been elected to the parliament. He strode through the neighborhood in the Jordanian capital Thursday, dressed in a black tracksuit and wearing a 5 o'clock shadow, his hair matted down. A henchman fired a handgun into the air in celebration as supporters shambled down an alley on their victory parade.

There was, however, one group of men who heard the commotion from their dim clubhouse but opted to stay inside, stewing over black coffee and smoking Rothmans and Kents. The newly elected lawmaker represents everything the band of pro-democracy activists detests about Jordan's political order. They say he bought votes from his tribe, and they know the rumors that he was the muscle for the monarchy, which sent goons downtown to beat up protesters at pro-reform rallies.

Like their nemesis, they are a product of Tafayla, a sprawling working-class district on Amman's steep eastern hills, home to rows of brown concrete apartment buildings and narrow streets. Their families had settled here since the 1960s as migrants from the southern city of At Tafilah. Here everyone knows one another through family or by word of mouth.

They called themselves the Herak, a pro-democracy gathering committed to reforming what they see as the nation's corrupt politics. There are Herak chapters across Jordan, hailing from the East Bank tribes, those from east of the Jordan River, who had been the traditional bulwark of support for the monarchy until the "Arab Spring."

The uprisings that have swept the Arab world since early 2011 transformed this group of men, who each week generally hold two protests against the policies of King Abdullah II. Under the king's father, Hussein, it would have been inconceivable to see such a fracturing of the monarchy's support among the tribes.

But Jordan has changed so much from that sleepy country of old. They surveyed a landscape where most of the nation's more than 5 million people struggled to get by. The industries that once employed residents of their towns in southern Jordan have been privatized, giving little benefit to the relatives they left behind. The activists were sure that only the wealthy friends of the king benefited.

On this day, other than the victory march they witnessed, the group debated election results. Slight gains for government critics meant nothing; the old order had dominated, seeming to justify the activists' confrontational stance of boycotting the vote, pressing for change from outside the electoral system. Later in the day, there would be a meeting to debate their next steps.

But for now, they leaned back on their couches, played with the Internet and gossiped. All of them have become caught up in the spirit of the Arab uprisings, in politics and reform. They were brothers despite their varying ages and riding a giddy wave, enamored of the possibility of change, however unrealistic. Perhaps they could be happier than most because, whatever warnings they received from the government, they had yet to be dealt a cold and ruthless blow.

There was Bara Said, a 26-year-old poet, and then university student Anis Irbaihat, 23, and their elder Mohammed Harasis, likely in his 50s, who had converted his guest room into the movement's political clubhouse. It was as much a barroom or barbershop, as the men shouted at one another and jabbed their fingers in clouds of cigarette smoke.

They seemed to delight in tweaking the king. In the days before the vote, they had set up a mock Facebook election page with fictional candidates, with names meant to taunt Abdullah: They named one party the Poker list, after what Jordanians insist is the king's rumored gambling habit.

Sometimes, the men went to the roof of their clubhouse. There they enjoyed a view below of the leafy court grounds where King Hussein and his father, Talal, are buried. The men stared down and told stories of how long ago, families would be invited by the royals for feasts in honor of the birth of a child. But now they gossiped that the king was set to sell the land, even though his ancestors were buried there.

They could see the lights gleaming around Amman and dream of the democracy they aspired to: a constitutional monarchy in which power lies with a freely elected parliament and jobs are awarded by merit. As they bantered, all of them believed they could make a difference.

Still not everything had been easy. Said was arrested twice for participating in protests. The second time he was fired from his job as a laborer at Royal Jordanian airline. Even then, he received an unexpected confidence boost when the police jailed him; one of the officers, also an East Banker, told him in a tacit nod, "Keep your head up high."

All of them smiled at the story. Irbaihat marveled at how much the last two years have been an education in politics and camaraderie.

"I am a child of the Arab Spring," he said, with a smile that might not have been possible in countries like Egypt or Syria or Libya that have weathered tougher times. "If we are in a house, a coffee shop or a party, everything turns into a political meeting."

He smiled again. For all of them, even after a rough election day, the world was still full of hope.

ned.parker@latimes.com

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