When Jordan’s Prince Hamzah bin Al Hussein relinquished his title on April 3, official media outlets remained silent, wary of stepping out of line with the country’s authorities.
King Abdullah II’s half brother was the first royal in the kingdom’s history to make such a move, which came a year after he was accused of plotting against the king.
Since the announcement, in which Hamzah said his “personal convictions” were “not in line” with Jordan’s current institutions, confusion has lingered among the Jordanian public, with rumours that he was forced to sign an apology letter that was published by the Royal Court a month ago.
Hamzah’s announcement came as Jordan experiences a wave of public dissatisfaction, a crackdown on dissenting voices, and censorship of media outlets, the majority of which have still not been reported by the media.
“Our silence proved again that we are controlled, we work within a certain agenda, that we are not independent nor partial,” Khalid Qudah, an Amman-based political commentator, told Al Jazeera.
Hamzah’s criticisms of the Jordanian authorities hit a raw nerve, particularly as many of those opposed to King Abdullah II, but supportive of the institution of the monarchy, saw him as an alternative.
The sensitivity of the topic is therefore clear, and in a media landscape where the security services frequently pressure journalists not to publish articles on certain topics, few have dared to touch the subject.
“The Jordanian authorities want to silence opposition voices and this is terrifying,” said Mohammad Ersan, the editor-in-chief of two Jordanian media outlets. “Especially if you are an independent journalist – you worry every day that someone will knock on your door to arrest you.”
The Jordanian government has recently cracked down on activists, journalists, and union members, carrying out “preemptive” arrests. While silencing political dissent has become routine practice, arrests based solely on intent are seldom seen in the kingdom.
“Now, there is a new method of arrests, not based on what they [those arrested] do, but rather on their intent of doing something,” said Qudah, who is also on the board of the Jordan Press Association. “This is more dangerous; it is a big transformation.”
At least 150 people were arrested in the month preceding Hamzah’s statement, according to a recent report published by Democracy for the Arab World Now, a regional NGO. The report noted that the arrests were tied to the government’s efforts to prevent anti-government protests.
Maisara Malas, an engineer and union activist who was arrested on March 24 on the anniversary of a protest 11 years earlier, told Al Jazeera that he was arrested at the doorstep of his house and detained for 12 hours.
“Really, I didn’t know the reason,” Malas said, noting that he “forgot there was a protest that day”.
“Jordan has never dealt with a situation like this,” he added. “I feel like I’m living in a cruel system, not one based on legal or constitutional laws.”
Jordanian authorities have been unsettled ever since Hamzah publicly criticised Jordan’s “governing structure” and accused it of corruption and incompetence.
While Hamzah said he had been placed under house arrest at the time, the government attempted to put a line under the matter, wary of his popularity and evidence of a divide between Jordan’s elite.
Hamzah’s casual demeanour and resemblance to his father, the late King Hussein, have long brought him support – particularly among Jordan’s tribal populations, who were among King Hussein’s core supporters, and whose backing is now key to the regime’s stability.
“It’s his way of talking, his modesty,” a Jordanian from a tribe outside the country’s capital, Amman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera. “[When Hamzah visited us] he came without guards or anything, he was just driving a truck … This is how the people of Jordan love their leaders.”
During the Arab Spring-era demonstrations, driven in large part by economic discontent blamed on King Abdullah II’s economic liberalisation and privatisation policies, some protesters had vocalised their preferences for a transition to Hamzah’s rule.
King Abdullah II’s policies have threatened Jordan’s tribal populations, who benefit from patronage schemes and public sector jobs. It was among these populations that the pro-reform Unified Jordanian Hirak movement emerged at the onset of the Arab Spring, and where love for Hamzah runs deep.
“I like all of the Hashemite family [the Jordanian monarchy], but what I like about him [Hamzah] is that he’s very humble and he’s closer than the other princes and princesses to the citizens,” said a Jordanian from a tribe in Madaba, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“The people are closer to Hamzah’s narrative. It is on the side of people; it speaks about them and reflects their feelings,” said Qudah, who is also on the board of the Jordan Press Association.
Hunger and corruption
The Pandora Papers and Credit Suisse’s leaks of King Abdullah II’s millions in offshore accounts added to many Jordanian citizens’ criticisms of high-level government corruption, leaving the royal family on thin ice with an already frustrated populace.
“The Jordanian people, we reached a point now where we are really frustrated by the way the country is being ruled,” said Hind al-Fayez, a former MP from one of Jordan’s largest tribes, and who is now a Hirak member.
But, she told Al Jazeera, “It’s not that we’re not happy with the way King Abdullah is ruling the country, so we need his brother. No! We want the people to rule.”
“It’s about the huge gap between them [the royal family] and the people. The lack of confidence,” al-Fayez added.
In a recent public opinion poll, only 36 percent of Jordanians surveyed had trust in the current government.
Unemployment rates in Jordan have reached unprecedented levels, with nearly half of Jordan’s youth – the largest and growing segment of the population – unemployed.
“The Jordanian people have nothing to lose,” said al-Fayez. “We are hungry.”
“People used to knock on my door, asking for financial help, for jobs,” she added. “Now, people are asking for one meal – for a sandwich. They’re hungry. This is a bomb that might explode at any time.”
The modifications to the 2022 electoral law, which would allow for the formation of political parties, would be the government’s “last chance of encouraging democracy”, al-Fayez said, noting that there should be more space in Parliament allowed for Hirak representatives.
“Otherwise, there will be a revolution,” al-Fayez added. “It’s about time now, the people should snap out of it and say, ‘we have the right to rule our country – stop sucking our blood.’”