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Preaching the gospel of liberalism to the Jordanian street

By Philippe Assouline, 31 December 2012

Mudar Zahran, one of the leaders of his country’s burgeoning Dignity Revolution, says spring is in the air. And, he claims, a post-Hashemite Jordan will have huge implications for the Palestinians, who may be forced to choose — Western-style secular democracy or a government led by the likes of Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal

To hear Mudar Zahran tell it, change is coming to Jordan, and fast. “The King is not going to survive, it’s out of the question… I give him until next summer, more or less. And even if I am wrong, I can’t see the King making it to 2014 by any stretch.”

The Britain-based Zahran, aged 39 and a father to three young children, is one of 15 people, in exile or still in Jordan, who together are leading the “Dignity Revolution,” which erupted on the streets of Amman on November 15, 2012. The movement seeks to topple King Abdullah and replace him with democratic leadership, and Zahran firmly believes that his grouping of secular parties — the Jordanian Opposition Coalition (JOC) — speaks for the vast majority of Jordanians, both Palestinians and Bedouin.

Polite to a fault, Zahran was educated in the US and is a prolific writer — a skill he uses to inspire opposition to the King in Jordan, in particular among the Palestinian majority. Though a devout Muslim, he also seeks to shape the next government by “preaching the gospel” of a secular democracy to the Jordanian street.

His conviction comes from experience. Zahran has lived abroad for half his life, including in a number of Western democracies. He holds two master’s degrees, has worked as assistant policy coordinator at the American Embassy in Amman and is currently completing a Ph.D. in finance. Highly skilled, very affable and fluently multilingual, one would expect to find him in the upper echelons of Jordanian government or business. But because of his vocal opposition to the King, he says, he has been targeted by Jordan’s notorious intelligence services and was forced to seek asylum in the UK. His family thus lost much of its fortune, and he nearly lost his life.

Mudar ZahranMudar Zahran, a leader of Jordan’s ‘Dignity Revolution,’ which seeks to topple King Abdullah and replace him with democratic leadership (photo credit: courtesy)

“The UK saved my life by granting me asylum,” he says. “They saved my children” — two girls and one boy, aged 5, 6 and 7 — “from becoming orphans.”

Since then, Zahran has been leading with his partners a “tsunami of opposition” to the Hashemites, through his writings and social media. “Palestinians [of Jordan] and Bedouins, they hate the Hashemites,” he said recently during one of many extended phone conversations. “That is what you see today — people chanting against them.”

Zahran often compares his struggle to topple Abdullah II to other Arab Spring revolutions, but unlike other Arab countries where dissidents often declared their hostility to Israel and the West, Zahran’s anger is directed solely at Arab leaders, chief among them the Hashemites.

I have more reason to hate what my so-called Arab brothers did to me than Israel,” he explains. “In Islam, God supports a non-Muslim state, an infidel state that is just and fair, over a Muslim state that is unfair and treats its people with tyranny. This is what you find in Islamic books. And I assure you, most Palestinians would rather have an Israeli citizenship than Jordanian citizenship — and guess what, most [Bedouins] too! The Bedouins in the south [of Jordan] can’t find food for their children. They are dying of hunger while our king is buying Ferraris every other day.”

Abusing the Palestinian cause?

Zahran repeatedly emphasizes that he is first and foremost a Jordanian but that it is his Palestinian heritage that drives much of his opposition to the King, a ruler he sees as “feeding on the Palestinian cause as a parasite”.

“I am a textbook Palestinian… I have seen it all,” he said, presenting his Palestinian bona fides. We’ve had family members who were imprisoned because of terrorist acts, just like any family in the West Bank… I have a cousin who was killed by Israeli forces on my wedding day, and I saw his corpse on Al Jazeera.”

“Of course,” he hastens to add, “Al Jazeera didn’t report that he had been caught in cross fire between Israel and PLO forces.”

Such nuances feature prominently in Zahran’s thinking. He is vehemently opposed to what he sees as the cynical exploitation of the Palestinian cause by Arab leaders, a phenomenon which he blames for his own family’s repeated displacement from the outskirts of Jerusalem.

‘As long as the Palestinians fight with the Israelis, no one will turn around and look at what the Arabs are doing to one another’

“They were listening to Nasser’s Egyptian radio [in 1967] saying that ‘the Jews are butchering everyone and raping the women.’ It was one of the ironies that their relatives who stayed saw none of that. We have never had a single relative killed in the so-called ‘Jewish massacres of the Palestinians.’ It shows it is the Arabs who played the greater role in terrorizing the Palestinians and creating Palestinian misery. Nasser’s Egypt actually gave them instructions to leave… and then gave them the promise that it would be a very short time before they’d be back home.”

He says his family suffered the same ordeal in 1948: being pushed to leave their homes in what would become Israel through what Zahran sees as an ongoing, and baseless fear campaign: “They got fooled twice.”

“There is a huge campaign to terrorize the Palestinians. As long as the Palestinians fight with the Israelis, no one will turn around and look at what the Arabs are doing to one another. Look, no one is really reporting much about Assad bombing Palestinian refugees with Mig 29s but you can read all about the latest car accident in Jerusalem,” he says in a refrain often espoused by Arab liberals and dissidents. “The Palestinian cause is a necessity for the Arab regimes — and one of the regimes that prospered most from this is the Hashemite regime.”

Of passports and citizenship

But what angers Zahran most is the Hashemite monarchy’s perceived cultivation of artificial divisions between Jordan’s Palestinian majority and its Bedouin minority by systematically depriving the Palestinians of their rights, a policy he referred to as “Apartheid.”

All Arab countries, “all of these names — Jordanian, Palestinian, a Qatari, etc. — are bogus names; they never existed,” he says. “We were all Arabs and proudly so…  The Hashemite regime, like all Arab regimes, works on our divisions to make us hate one another, creating bogus animosities between us. In order to make us hate each other for the last 40 years and therefore stay in power, the Jordanians of Palestinian origin were deprived of education and government jobs; no more than 10 percent of the ministers in Jordanian government can be Palestinian.”

One egregious method of turning Jordanians of Bedouin origin and the Palestinian majority against one another, he claims, has been the arbitrary stripping of Palestinians of their Jordanian citizenship by King Abdullah II.

“It’s a witch hunt to create a sense of fear within the Palestinian majority… the king is playing politics with his people’s basic rights. We have children who were pulled out of school and told ‘go home! You’re not Jordanian, you are Palestinian,’ because the government removed the father’s passport. So someone who was born in Jordan, who’s never seen the West Bank or Gaza, who has never set foot anywhere else, who has always had a Jordanian passport, and also Palestinians born in the West Bank under Jordanian rule — they are being deprived of their citizenship by a regime that has occupied part of the British mandate over Palestine,”he underlines, a reference to the territory of Jordan. “This is a tragedy.”

Zahran is incensed that the media have not reported on this phenomenon more broadly, saying that “If Israel wanted to withdraw 40-50,000 passports from Israeli Arabs this would be a United Nations issue but, again, when Arabs hurt other Arabs it’s okay… It’s a massacre of human rights that is going on in Jordan, and yet some speak of giving the King a Nobel Prize!”

‘Why are we opening our hospitals to our Libyan brothers in Jordan, opening our universities to our Saudi brothers, our job market to our Egyptian brothers — 340,000 working in Jordan — and denying a tourist visa to a Palestinian in the West Bank who already holds a Jordanian passport?! That’s unfair… a passport that doesn’t allow you to enter your own country!’

The confiscation of Palestinians’ passports by the regime is a hot button issue for Zahran, he says, because, when founded, Jordan was intended to serve as a Palestinian state.

“It was the choice of the Hashemites to turn what was supposed to be a Jewish state under the legally binding Balfour Declaration [covering what is today Israel, the West Bank and Jordan] into two states… The Hashemites convinced the Jews to accept that 78% of the British Mandate [over Palestine] — that’s Jordan today – would be taken to establish a Palestinian homeland instead… to draw a line in the sand and call this part [i.e., Jordan], the Arab homeland. The Hashemites are still refusing to honor this.”

What’s worse, the ruling Hashemites “insisted that the West Bank become a part of the Hashemite kingdom as well [starting in 1948]. Then, when they retreated and ran away wearing women’s clothes in 1967, they came back and told us suddenly: ‘You from the West Bank are now not Jordanians any longer, you are Palestinian.’”

Zahran’s interpretation of the Jordanian regime’s message to its newly minted Palestinians after Israel captured the West Bank? “You can live here as a subhuman who pays taxes and gets nothing in return.”

He believes that the exclusion and precarious situation of Jordan’s Palestinians, who are pushed to look to Israel for redress, is a “huge” part of what is fueling hatred and animosity toward Israel.

“Most Palestinians in the West Bank hold [only] Jordanian passports, except for a few thousand… Even [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas has a Jordanian passport, as does his family and most senior officials in the PA,” he says. “Why are we opening our hospitals to our Libyan brothers in Jordan, opening our universities to our Saudi brothers, our job market to our Egyptian brothers – 340,000 of them work in Jordan — and denying a tourist visa to a Palestinian in the West Bank who already holds a Jordanian passport?! That’s unfair… a passport that doesn’t allow you to enter your own country!”

Zahran therefore believes that a democratic Jordan that embraces its Palestinian majority will help to solve the conflict with Israel.

“The West-Bankers can call themselves Jordanians as much as I can call myself Palestinian,” he says. “They can have a state or not, attach it to Jordan or not, but once we get rid of the Hashemite regime we can have a huge change of circumstances.”

Of moderates and Islamists

Zahran believes the popular image of the Jordanian monarchy as a moderate bulwark amid a rising tide of Islamism in the Middle East is deceptive. The King, rather than fight Islamists, actually props them up in order to make himself appear as a crucial moderate, he claims — “like a man who trains vicious Rottweilers and then says ‘I’m keeping them at bay.’”

According to Zahran, this unspoken alliance between the Islamists and Abdullah runs deep.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has been pampered by the regime,” he claims. “They own private hospitals, schools, private businesses, even parts of government institutions — they are very rich. We don’t have money.”

Zahran sees the coming contest over Jordan as one between well-funded but unpopular Islamists and secular forces that, while representing the public, lack resources.

“The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood said on November 20 that he examined the Brotherhood’s options and they don’t want to see the regime fall. What that means is that if [the Hashemites] fall, he doesn’t think the Muslim Brotherhood can win.” In fact, because of Jordan’s proximity to Iraq and Syria, both historically secular states that have influenced the Kingdom, Zahran believes that the Muslim Brotherhood commands the support of no more than one in eight Jordanians.

And this secularism is reflected in the JOC’s platform. “The secular Jordanian Opposition Coalition understands fully that if we want support from the West, the price is to maintain peaceful relations in the area, to maintain peace treaties and to not compromise Israel’s security, and” — he adds significantly — “we want that for our own good.

“But this doesn’t mean it will be easy. The media does not report about the secular opposition running the whole revolution coalition. They just report on the Muslim Brotherhood. We secular forces don’t have the money or support that we need.”

Indeed, Zahran is adamant that the West must empower those parties in Jordan that share Western values and objectives, and that it must do so before it is too late. “There are two options before you: a secular force that is dominant but poor and ignored by the media, and which will respect the peace treaty with Israel and take a forceful stand against terrorism… or the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s either or. The world has to choose.”

And then, citing Iranian meddling in Jordan, he issues a dramatic warning: “If the king of Jordan falls, unless someone helps the seculars, [Hamas kingpin] Khaled Mashaal, a citizen of Jordan, is very eligible to become the next president of Jordan.”

In his opinion, the West has at most 100 days to four months to strengthen the secular forces, “or Jordan will end up like Egypt.”

Of Israel and the Palestinians

“I’ve been the subject of apartheid by the Jordanian regime, I’ve been the subject of discrimination and persecution at universities, even when applying for my kids’ birth certificates,” Zahran says, “and I realize that Jews deserve a place they can call home.”

It’s not that Zahran is a Zionist — he isn’t — but he sees Israel as having consistently offered a hand for peace. He mentions, by way of example, that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s own brother-in-law was treated in an Israeli hospital while Hamas rockets were raining down on Israeli cities. And he sees all talk of destroying Israel as counterproductive fantasy.

In fact, where Zahran is critical of Israel, it is for bringing about violence through what he perceives as misguided efforts to manufacture peace. “We had Israelis coming up with crazy solutions that destroyed the whole situation, and Oslo is one of them,” he says. “An unfeasible, imaginary solution that came from dreamers who said, ‘All we have to do is give up, just get rid of the West Bank and we will have peace and quiet.’ That was unrealistic.”

Similarly, Zahran does not believe that Israel should be negotiating with the PLO or Hamas, parties whose charters, he says, both call for the destruction of Israel.

What about the possibility of a confederation of Jordan and the West Bank, an idea that was recently floated by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas?

“I think good borders make good friends — the borders will be along the outskirts of the West Bank cities or on the Jordan river — as long as there is a responsible government in Jordan that realizes why, historically, Jordan, was created [i.e, to be a Palestinian Arab state], then everything will be fine.

‘The King wants access to the West. He likes to shop and is an avid gambler’

“So if we come to prove we are an independent state that is peaceful and doesn’t ‘turn the demographic time bomb on Israel,’ as the King wants, if we show that we are also responsible [in practice] beyond intentions, that we can have good fiscal policy, that we can make our people prosperous… I am sure the Palestinians in the West Bank will welcome us back … [And] we would absolutely welcome a joint confederation between us and [the West Bank Palestinians] if it keeps the area secure.”

Asked whether his vision of a democratic Jordan open to the idea of a confederation with the West Bank would not simply render Jordan a Palestinian state, he says: “I am not so concerned as the world is with the name… Jordan will stay Jordan. But there is a proverb: If it acts like a duck, walks like a duck…”

Zahran does expect blood to be spilled in the fight against the Hashemites. “They are already killing people.” But he expects nowhere near the slaughter happening in Syria, where over 45,000 people have been killed by Bashir Assad’s forces.

“The King wants access to the West. He likes to shop and is an avid gambler,” Zahran says, adding that the US, through its military aid, effectively controls Jordan’s military. He therefore doesn’t expect any armed conflict to last more than three months. But “we are ready for confrontation,” he asserts.

Zahran says his his family is still paying the price for his activism. He speaks about threats on his life and the disappearance of his family’s fortune. He mentions a young, unknown blogger who was stabbed and smeared as a prostitute in the Jordanian press for her online criticism of the regime. He has personally been attacked in a prominent Jordanian daily by an official of Al Quds university, a man with close ties to the Jordanian government, and says he has had his personal arguments with his wife, in London, recounted to him word for word by people close to the Jordanian government. “I am under close surveillance,” he says, and claims he has it on good authority that his murder is being considered in the corridors of Jordanian power.

“If I am killed it will be by a direct order from the King,” he says with dry, pensive certainty. “We Palestinians are known to be stubborn in fighting for what we want. So many Palestinians have died fighting the wrong enemy. If I am killed, I will be happy to have died for the right cause.

“And I have no fear. God is my savior.”





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