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Jordan's teachers defy crackdown as government arrests union leaders

Anger as government suspends the activities of the country's national teachers union and arrests its ruling council
A woman raises a Jordanian national flag as she stands amid public school teachers demonstrating and demanding pay raises in Amman (AFP)
By Mohammad Ersan in Amman

Jordan's teachers have continued nationwide protests following an order to suspend the activities of the country's national teachers union and the arrest of its ruling council.

Teachers at the demonstrations have called for the resignation of Prime Minister Omar Razzaz and escalated their demands beyond seeking just better pay and conditions.

Supporters of the Jordanian Teachers Association (JTA) on Wednesay shouted "down with Prime Minister Omar Razzaz and Interior Minister Salameh Hammad" as they demonstrated in the cities of Irbid, Karak, Jerash and Mafraq. 

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Security forces had broken up protests in Karak, south of the capital Amman, using tear gas on Tuesday.

The scenes were not broadcast on local media due to a judicial gag order barring publication of news or commentary of the case involving the JTA.

The protests began when the deputy attorney general in Amman decided on 25 July to order the arrest of the JTA's ruling council and suspend the work of the union.

Thirteen members of the union's elected leadership are being detained based on legal complaints that some teachers have raised over the JTA contributing half a million Jordanian dinars ($705k) to a fund established by the government to help the victims of the coronavirus pandemic.

Protesting teachers told Middle East Eye that they were standing "against the liquidation of an elected union".

The government said the protesters threw stones in Karak, injuring members of the security forces. They also said the gathering was a violation of coronavirus precautionary measures.

Interior Minister Salameh Hammad on Tuesday said the government would never tolerate violence against security personnel.

Hammad told the Petra news agency that the incident in Karak, during which police officers were allegedly attacked while on duty, "is unacceptable and condemned".

Right to protest

Trouble between the government and the teachers is not new, with September 2019 witnessing the longest strike in the history of Jordan.

It was a teachers' strike that came after security officials tried to suppress attempts by teachers to protest outside government offices.

They had been protesting about their economic situation and wanted a long-promised 50 percent increase in their salaries, which led to a strike-ending agreement.

But the government then reneged on its own promise, citing the economic impact of the coronavirus.

'They have been trying for some time to destroy the union. Twenty-seven percent of the members of the central committee belong to the Brotherhood movement'

- Jamal Jeet, Hirak

Since then, tensions have only increased.

Abdel Qader Khatib, a member of the Islamic Action Front's freedoms and human rights committee, said Jordanian security forces had detained 60 teachers in different cities.

"The defence orders issued by the government as a result of the coronavirus are not supposed to suspend the constitution, which gave Jordanians the right to express themselves as well as the right to peaceful assembly within clear legal standards," he told MEE.

MP and JTA member Hoda Ottom said she held the government responsible for what had happened to the teachers and the spread of the protests.

"There is a high level of solidarity with the teachers... arrests only open up space for new leaders to fill the vacuum," she said.

"Today there is no union leader who can manage the teachers' protests. Today the families of the teachers are going out in the streets, thus widening the level of popular protest."

She said the government had failed to learn the lessons of previous confrontations with the teachers' union and had let the protests "snowball" across the country.

"The teachers are no longer asking for a pay raise but for the resignation of the government," she said.

"Doesn't the government worry that the demands will keep rising till they also include fighting corruption?"

Backed by the Brotherhood?

Jordanian authorities have previously linked the JTA with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The alleged connection was hinted at when officials said students had "become hostage to a council that doesn't see education as a calling and instead it is being used as part of partisan ideological agendas".

The teachers' conflict is taking place as the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan comes under increasing legal pressure.

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Last month, Jordan's top court officially dissolved the Jordanian branch of the Islamist movement, saying it had failed to "rectify its legal status". 

In recent years, properties owned by the Brotherhood have been transferred to the Muslim Brotherhood Association, a government-backed splinter group.

Jamal Jeet, a spokesman for the Hirak civil society group, said that attempts by the government to link the union to the Brotherhood were simply attempts to stir up division.

"They have been trying for some time to destroy the union. Twenty-seven percent of the members of the central committee belong to the Brotherhood movement," he said.

"What the government circulates is aimed at politicising [the union's] actions."

Mohammad Abu Rumman, a former minister of culture, said that there were numerous government officials convinced there was a "relationship between the union and the Brotherhood".

"This is aimed at justifying the attack on the union, and this public attack against the Muslim Brotherhood has regional aspects," he said, referring to the commonly held belief that the UAE has been applying pressure on the Jordanian government to crack down on its long-term foes.

"The teachers are the strongest power in the public sector, with 121,000 teachers. In 2019, they won a deal with the government after a strike and this left many upset in the government," he said.

"There is serious worry that other sectors of society will enter the protest and make similar demands as those of the teachers. This is especially difficult with the economic crisis due to coronavirus."

Hurting Jordanian interests

At a 26 July press conference, the government accused the teachers' union of working to hurt the interests of Jordan.

Amjad Adaileh, the minister for media affairs, told MEE that "it didn't make any arrests based on the military orders," emphasising that "all the arrests were made based on existing Jordanian laws".

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The minister told MEE during the press conference that it was not acceptable to hold "the future of the students and their families hostages by a union, and we refuse the way of bullying the government especially during the current economic and social circumstance".

"The suspension of the raise until the beginning of next year was a temporary decision for the entire public sector as well as the security and health sectors," he said.

Lamis Andoni, a veteran analyst, said that, if the government continued to crack down harshly on the protests, they would escalate beyond straightforward economic difficult economic questions to "issues of oppressive measures" and "freedom of press and expression".

She also pointed to the belief that there is a connection between the union and the Brotherhood.

"There is talk that there is Emirati pressure on Jordan to end... the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, there is a stream in Jordan that is clearly interested in a clash with the Muslim Brotherhood."

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