Two thousand Jordanian citizens are estimated to be fighting alongside radical groups in Syria. In attempts to address the threat of spillover from the Syrian war – in particular the unsanctioned movement of fighters between Jordan and Syria– the government submitted a draft law amending the 2006 Terrorism Prevention Law. Yet the proposal continues a dangerous trend of using the rising jihadist threat in the region to legitimize domestic clampdowns on free expression. The new amendments, passed by both houses of parliament in late April and awaiting the king’s approval, risk further inhibiting dissent by using the threat from Syria as a pretext for a vague definition of terrorism at home. While this approach may prove successful for short-term stability, it undermines prospects for a constructive societal dialogue that could find a sustainable solution to Jordan’s terror threat.
After the 2011 Arab uprisings, the Jordanian government initially relaxed certain restrictions on public space. Protests and public criticism of the country’s leaders, nearly unheard of in previous years, became common. Major violations, such as the arrest of journalists, decreased. But instability in neighboring states has caused the government to tread back – by issuing new and more extreme anti-terrorism laws, banning of books or media outlets that do not comply with restrictive laws, and pressuring opposition groups.
Jordan has so far avoided significant Syria-related violence, but cross-border troubles are an increasing worry. Jordanian officials have foiled attempts to smuggle ammunition and armored vehicles from Syria, and the government’s response uses the increase in cross-border movement for political ends. “Terrorism” has in turn been given a malleable definition so that security services and courts have more leeway in prosecuting citizens for dissent. This move is part-and-parcel of the government’s hope to consolidate more power, reflecting the monarchy’s growing comfort with an untenable status quo.
Although much of the language in the 2014 draft law already exists within the Jordanian penal code – especially clauses 147 to 149, which deal with terrorism – the new amendments are far more punitive. Any measure that “disturbs the kingdom’s relations with a foreign country” is an act of terror under the proposed legislation. While clause 118 already criminalizes such behavior, the new draft law differs by increasing penalties from a minimum of five years of detention to five years of hard labor. This will reinforce the government’s mandate to prosecute free expression and force activists and media to practice greater self-censorship. Three Jordanian activists were jailed in September 2013 for putting up posters of the four-fingered “rabia,” the mass anti-coup symbol in Egypt, and another was arrested in April 2014. While some were freed, critics worry other arrests will follow. A 2013 poll found that over 90 percent of journalists practice self-censorship, an increase after a large drop during the first two years since the 2011 Arab uprisings.
Under the new amendments, if “intentionally abstaining” from an act aids criminal activity, leads to “strife” (fitna), harms “the public well-being,” or “disturbs public order,” it is considered terrorism. Yet like the current penal code, the new amendments do not define fitna, public well-being, and other terms, leaving their definition and the determination of intent up to the security courts. This threatens to turn them into a convenient catch-all for any actions that may rub authorities the wrong way. And crucially, this vague language threatens to allow much harsher prosecution of minor offenses than before.
In the context of Jordan’s vibrant social media activism, the draft law explicitly targets internet activities, establishing a new legal framework for suppressing them. This is a reflection of the nature of the Syrian conflict, which may be the first war in which social media has played a key role, from recruitment for various armed groups to battlefield campaigns. In recent months, Jordanians have been arrested for online activity, such as a student with Islamist ties and a young man who insulted the king and other foreign leaders. Their actions could be classified as terrorism under the draft amendments, particularly the clause about “disturbing relations with a foreign state.”
Jordan’s security services have already cracked down on opposition movements, including the Jordanian Youth Movement, known as Hirak, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the authorities’ promises in September 2013 that the jurisdiction of the State Security Court would be limited to the “five grand crimes” over which it has constitutional authority, that month saw the arrest of 11 activists to be tried before the SSC.
In March 2014, a Hirak activist was reportedly imprisoned on various charges, including “stirring up unrest” and “unauthorized assembly,” but with no reference to specific incidents. Eleven youth activists of the Muslim Brotherhood were also arrested in October 2013 on charges including “inciting to undermine the ruling regime.” And the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, has repeatedly denounced what it calls harassment of and pressure against Islamists, citing long delays imposed on them at borders and airports. If the new amendments to the anti-terrorism law are ratified, authorities will have the legal tools to escalate the scope and severity of this campaign.
Solutions to Jordan’s cross-border issues and resulting extremist activity ought to involve socially inclusive measures that encourage dialogue to address the root causes of radicalization. Security solutions that achieve short-term stability and ensure the state’s monopoly over political discourse can only lead to instability in the long term. Jordanian decision-makers must accordingly rethink the draft amendments to the anti-terror law and how it may exacerbate the very problem they are hoping to address.
David Bishop is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 01, 2014, on page 7.