Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
News, October 2011
Jordanian Government Thugs Attack Opposition Rallies in Various Cities, Including a Shubaylat Lecture
Attack on activist places spotlight on ‘thugs’
Jordan Times, 6 October 2011
By Taylor Luck
WITH THE VIOLENT interruption of a lecture by opposition figure Layth Shubaylat near Jerash on Saturday, the debate over so-called “thugs” once again stepped out of obscurity and into the media spotlight.
Although their identities have largely remained anonymous, the actions of self-proclaimed government supporters have become infamous over recent months, revealing the violent side of the country’s struggle for reform.
Holding the Jordanian flag in one hand and stones in the other, “thugs” have disrupted rallies from Amman to the Jordan Valley -creating in the process what observers are calling a “black eye” for Jordan’s image as an open society and polarising the public debate.
Saturday’s incident in the village of Sakeb, near Jerash, didn’t amount to a personal attack on Shubaylat, but rather an attack on his lecture, the latest in a series of acts designed to disrupt opposition gatherings and intimidate activists from hitting the streets, analysts say.
“This is the true danger of the attack - it was directed at the event and not the man - it symbolised an attack on the pro-reform movement,” said Fahed Kheitan, Al-Arab Al Yawm chief editor and political observer.
The attack - during which men pelted the tent with stones and damaged Shubaylat’s car - triggered an angry response from pro-reform activists, who held demonstrations across the country calling for an end to a series of assaults that stretches back to the emergence of pro-reform protests earlier this year.
Sources have said that the problem was an intra-tribal clash between a small group of young reformists from Sakeb and the rest of the tribe members who reject that these youths speak for the entire town.
After first appearing in clashes during a leftist demonstration in downtown Amman in February, so-called “thugs” have become a fixture of the Jordanian street - staging counter-protests and pelting protesters with stones and are directly linked to the Arab Spring, observers say.
Leading attacks on figures ranging from activists to journalists, many so-called thugs share common characteristics, according to analysts. Many tend to originate from the governorates, are working class males and are current or former public sector employees, the analysts add.
All have one central trait in common, according to observers and eyewitnesses. All are fiercely loyal to the government and believe their violent acts come as part and parcel of their patriotic duty.
Government supporters interviewed by The Jordan Times said they are motivated by what they view as threats to national unity and stability, claiming they are willing to put their lives on the line in order to prevent the opposition from advancing their cause.
It is due to such nationalistic fervour that observers and activists place the burden of responsibility on the government to prevent the assaults.
“The government definitely carries the responsibility to protect protesters,” Kheitan said.
“There are actions to protect citizens, but only after the incident. There is never any action to prevent the attack while it is occurring,” he noted.
The government has repeatedly stressed that it is taking all necessary measures to ensure the protection of activists, both opposition and pro-government supporters alike.
In a press statement, Minister of Interior Mazen Saket rejected assertions that the government carried responsibility for the attack on Shbeilat, highlighting the presence of an extensive security detail to protect the opposition figure.
Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications Abdullah Abu Rumman reiterated the government’s respect for freedom of expression, rejecting as baseless activists’ accusations that officials have not taken action to prevent the assaults.
But observers and activists point to an ongoing lack of arrests and convictions in connection with the assaults as a sign that officials condone the behaviour and at worst, that some may be privately encouraging the attacks.
“Right now there is no check on the Jordanian street. These people say they are government supporters and the state is not reining them in,” said Basem Sakajha, political observer and Ad Dustour columnist.
“It is not clear who is exactly behind these attacks. But the fact that authorities seem unwilling to pursue them doesn’t look good to the public.”
Observers say the actions of so-called thugs, designed to intimidate and suppress dissenting voices, often achieve the opposite of the intended results, elevating small-scale protests to the front-page news.
“Layth Shubaylat definitely came out of the incident in a stronger position. The paper that he was about to present was going to have an audience of a few hundred people. Now he has the attention of thousands,” Sakijha noted, echoing statements by Shbeilat himself, who “thanked” those behind the assailants for elevating the incident to be watched by millions all over the region.
Muadh Battoush, whose Karak Popular Youth Movement has been the target of so-called thugs in the past, said Saturday’s incident was “unsurprising”.
“In all the marches where there have been attacks on protesters, each time the thugs have gotten away,” said Battoush, whose movement was one of several to hit the streets following the news of the Jerash incident.
Saed Ouran of the Free Tafilah Movement is one of several activists who claim a more sinister origin of armed government supporters, alleging coordination between security services and so-called thugs.
“We are seeing some of the same faces and same tactics. This is an organised effort, and it can only come with the agreement of security agencies,” Ouran charged.
“With the evidence that is available, it appears that there are either direct or indirect links between security apparatuses and these attackers,” Kheitan claimed.
While the origin and intentions of “thugs” have become contentious, so too has the term itself, observers say.
First made popular during the Egyptian uprising, pro-government supporters claim that the label is now used by the opposition for anyone who disagrees with their positions, while some believe the word has evolved into a derogatory term for citizens residing in the governorates.
Such rhetoric has spilled over from the streets and into the public debate over the reform process, according to Mohammed Abu Rumman, political observer and former member of the National Dialogue Committee.
“You have one side trying to use violence to silence the other, while the opposition is using words like ‘thugs’ to describe the government,” Abu Rumman said.
“This does not bode well for the reform process.”
With few arrests made in connection with Saturday’s attack and a war of words heating up between activists and officials, all signs indicate that the struggle for the street will continue.
“It doesn’t matter how many rocks they throw, we will not be intimidated from speaking out,” Ouran said.
“For every opinion is a Jordanian opinion.”
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