FEATURE-Tribal feuds threaten Jordan’s stability

* Tribal violence rises in Jordan

* Tribal law undermines judicial civil system

* Tribal violence spills to universities

By Suleiman al-Khalidi

SALT, Jordan, Jan 13 (BestGrowthStock) – A sleepy Jordanian town
erupts in violence last year after a young man is killed in a
police shootout. Members of his Khrisat and Salt tribes clash
with police, throwing stones, smashing ATM machines and burning
police cars.

The two-day rampage in the hillside town of Salt ends when
Khrisat tribal elders sign a deal over cups of Arabic coffee
with authorities to apply Atwa, a tribal truce granted to calm
the fury between conflicting parties in an incident that
normally would have been handled by civil justice.

Just over a month later, a feud among rival tribes over jobs
prompts thousands of rioters to set a court building alight and
smash property in the desert city of Maan, a southern tribal
stronghold that has long defied central authority.

The spate of clashes involving Jordan’s powerful tribes —
and the recourse to tribal law over state justice — have shaken
stability in Jordan, where tribal loyalty has for decades
underpinned the monarchy and the country’s security forces.

Some Jordanians say the government has willingly
accommodated a nationwide resurgence of customary law that
allows tribal justice to informally displace civil laws when
inter-communal tensions flare in tribal areas.

“It’s clear when the state intervenes in such a way it acts
as though it is part of the tribal conflict, rather than seeking
alternate ways to hold accountable an offending member of the
police. This undermines the judicial civil system,” said Sufian
Obeidat, a prominent Harvard-educated lawyer.

Prominent state figures including former prime ministers,
senior police officers and palace officials now give their
backing to tribal settlements which in some cases rule on
expulsion of families, or “jalwa”, to avoid tribal revenge.

“TRIBAL IDENTITY COMES FIRST”

In recent months the catalogue of tribal tensions includes
wholesale evictions of families through “jalwa” in the southern
city of Karak, brawls at several universities and smaller
inter-tribal feuds across the country where anti-riot gendarme
put whole neighbourhoods under curfew.

Although eruptions of tribal violence are not new, they have
become more frequent and eclipsed traditional pro-Iraq or
anti-Israel protests which triggered clashes with authorities in
the past.

Politicians and civic leaders say tribalism is a symptom of
a weakening of rule of law that harks back to the era before
Jordan became a British protectorate nearly a century ago.

“In Jordan tribal identity comes first, before the state or
the society you are in,” said Nidal Adaileh, a researcher on
tribal conflicts who works in Jordan’s Mutah University, whose
campus, like most other Jordanian universities, has been a
battleground of tribally-motivated violence.

Even the Western-educated King Abdullah, who has sought to
transform the kingdom into a modern nation state run by
institutions, succumbs to tribal pressure by allowing leading
members of his cabinet to appear as representatives of their
tribes in several state functions.

“The state this way sends a signal to people to adopt their
tribal identity. In a modern state, meritocracy should be the
criteria for positions without regard to origin,” said Obeidat.

“Today we are seeing more and more recourse to the tribe to
resolve day to day problems of people,” Obeidat added.

Some of the worst expressions of tribal enmity are mirrored
in the country’s state universities, where students who hail
from leading tribes and enjoy free admission quotas, turn
campuses into turf war zones for their respective tribes.

In Yarmouk university, the faculty decided to ban tribal
headgear, or “shemagh”, that many Jordanians wear as a symbol of
tribal loyalty on grounds it inflamed tribal passions.

A quarrel last month between two major tribes over student
polls in the University of Jordan (UJC), the country’s largest
with some 40,000 students, left a trail of destruction and led
to calls to end a widely practiced policy of appeasement in
tribally inspired conflicts.

“University deans who think their role is to act as tribal
mediators and bring an equal number of the feuding families
face-to-face to resolve disputes are responsible for aggravating
university violence,” said Mohammad al-Momani, political science
professor at Yarmouk University.

Analysts say Jordan’s governing elite has used tribalism to
counter the rising power of Islamists and counter the emergence
of a credible liberal opposition against autocratic governance.

Last November’s parliamentary election was held under an
electoral law that gave a strong platform to tribes, at the
expense of more politicised voters in urban centres. But it also
exacerbated inter-tribal rivalries.

Some street protests following the elections stemmed from
anger at the perceived intervention of the state to back one
preferred tribal candidate at the expense of others.

ECONOMIC WOES ADD TO DISTRESS

Growing inter-tribal feuds are also tapping into popular
disenchantment as the kingdom goes through its worst economic
downturn in decades, weakening the ability of the state to
create jobs in a public sector that has long absorbed poor
tribesmen in rural and poor Bedouin areas.

Anger has also been fuelled by perceptions of corruption in
successive governments that has widened inequalities within
tribal society and eroded the tribes’ traditional loyalty.

Sheikh Talal Seetan al-Madi, a leader of the Al-Issa tribe
in north Badia, recollects how in the past one policeman would
be sent by the governor to his grandfather, a tribal leader, in
the nomadic north to hand over a wanted fugitive to the state.

“Today a gendarme brigade is not enough to hand one
fugitive. The state is now pitted against tribes and unable to
control their anger, which is leading to an erosion of authority
that risks tribal chaos and rule of the jungle, which God forbid
in the current climate can create anything,” Sheikh Madi added.
(Editing by Dominic Evans and Samia Nakhoul)