Jillian Schwedler, Protesting Jordan: Geographies of Power and Dissent (Stanford University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Jillian Schwedler (JS): In the early 2000s, I shared some political science articles on Jordan—including my own work—with one of my Jordanian colleagues. I later asked what they thought, and the comment was devastating: “I just don’t recognize Jordan.” The analyses were empirically correct, he said, but our focus on political parties, elections, parliaments, and other formal political institutions entirely missed what spaces and places where politics really happen. At the time, I was finishing my first book—Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge 2006)—and had already decided that my next project would focus on protests in Jordan, which I had begun observing in 1996. But after receiving that comment, I was determined to write about the kind of politics that Jordanians would recognize—even if they disagreed with my take on it. Protesting Jordan is the result of that effort—a detailed analysis of some one hundred and fifty years of public claim-making and their many political effects.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JS: The book’s central questions are broader than Jordan: Why do protests emerge in particular locations and moments and take the forms that they do? Why are state coercive apparatuses deployed unevenly against protests? What are the political effects of routine protests, given their ritual character, the repetitiveness of their demands, and the fact that they do not translate into political disruptions? What role do protests play in both challenging and reproducing state power? And how do regional and global financial and security arrangements shape protests at the local level and vice versa? Jordan is the central case study, but secondary examples show many surprising similarities with and connections to elsewhere in both the Global North and Global South.

The analysis is sweepingly historical, beginning with nineteenth-century revolts against Ottoman practices and continuing through the Covid-19 pandemic. It diverges from most analyses of the British-Hashemite state-making process, which view the revolts and demonstrations of the 1920s and 1930s as failed, having been crushed often violently with crucial assistance from the British Royal Air Force. What conventional analyses miss is the extent to which those acts of public resistance profoundly shaped the state that eventually emerged, just as protests continue to shape the state until today. To give just one example of how protests shaped Jordan’s political geography: Emir Abdullah chose the small trading town of Amman as his new capital in part because he met strong resistance to establishing his seat in larger towns like Salt, where locals took to the street in protest upon his arrival. I show how protests have shaped not only the geography of the regime’s support base, but also the built environment.

The book makes a number of original theoretical interventions, particularly concerning the spatial and temporal dimensions of protest. For example, I challenge the assumption that large protests in the capital are necessarily more threatening to a regime than small protests in outlying towns. Size can matter, of course, but so can a protest’s location, message, and participants. Large protests of several thousand in downtown Amman, for example, elicit little police interference; a dozen people gathering under a tent in a small East Bank town, by comparison, can provoke the gendarmerie to tear down the tent and forcibly disperse the gathering. What explains this puzzle is that the large downtown protests—which, given Amman’s urban geography, do not disrupt traffic or commerce outside of the immediate area—often adhere to an established spatial and temporal regime: protesters gather at the Grand Husseini Mosque, march to the Municipal Complex, and disperse after a couple hours. At some of the small protests outside of the capital, by comparison, activists may erect tents and mount sustained sit-ins where they are increasingly willing to directly criticize the king, despite it being illegal under several laws. The book pays careful attention to these kinds of protest dynamics, for large and small protests, and the changing repertoires of protest and repression.

In addition to the spatial and temporal dimensions of protests, I also examine how protests both challenge and reproduce state power, and how protests and repression in Jordan are connected to regional and global security entanglements. I engage the literatures on protest and social movements, of course, but I also draw heavily on works in critical security studies, political geography, architecture and urban planning, and anthropological and Marxist approaches to the state. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

JS: Protesting Jordan departs entirely from my earlier work, notably the inclusion-moderation hypothesis that I examined in Faith in Moderation. As noted above, I turned away from the study of formal institutions to put the agency of those asserting political claims in public at the center of my research agenda. But instead of focusing on a particular movement or wave of protests, I situate all manner of public claim-making in a long durée historical context, moving between the global and regional level, to the national and governorate levels, down to cities, towns, and even individual intersections and traffic circles. We see broad patterns of protest and repression across time and space, and we spend an afternoon in one location as protesters and police agencies gradually assemble and eventually disperse. The book also presents the most comprehensive examination of the spatial dynamics of Jordan’s protests during the period of the Arab uprisings, culminating in November 2012 when Jordanians did—contrary to what many analyses state—chant the uprisings slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime!” Finally, the book examines protests as well as urban space ethnographically, exploring how protests shape the built environment and vice versa. And I pay very close attention to what protesters say and do—their chants, slogans, placards, songs, and dances. What I found was an almost shocking escalation of instances in which Jordanians were directly criticizing the king—sometimes even mocking him. In sum, in terms of scope, methodology, and theoretical focus, Protesting Jordan marks a serious departure from Faith in Moderation and, at least for me, offers a much richer understanding of politics and how people seek to make their own history. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JS: I hope those interested in Jordan will find much that is empirically new here, as well as a fresh take on a state often analyzed through the tired narrative of being “forever on the brink” of collapse. But I think that protests are worthy of theorization in the own right, and so I am aiming to make larger interventions into other debates on protest and contention, the most original of which advance the small but growing literature on the spatial and temporal dimensions of protest in the built environment. The book is also a provocation to the literature on authoritarianism in the Middle East. I would be thrilled to see others adopt my approach to other cases in the Middle East and other regions, as that would give us a greater ability to explore these issues comparatively.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JS: I am currently working on an article-length project on protest, gender, and public space that is comparative at a global level. It builds on some insights from Jordan that I was not able to fully develop in the book, so it is related but distinct.

After that, I plan to start a major comparative project on gift shops run by revolutionary organizations, past and present, across the globe. I have already begun preliminary research on the gift shops at Hizollah’s museum near Mleeta in Lebanon and Sinn Fein’s bookshop/giftshop on the Falls Road in Belfast.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 5: An Ethnography of Place and the Politics of Routine Protests, pp. 127-131)

Protests are mounted in spaces that have other uses and meanings, as the very purpose of protest is to disrupt the normal to attract attention for claim-making. Even sustained occupations are mounted in spaces that have other uses and meanings. Here an ethnography of place is illuminating. In addition to examining the materiality of a particular location and how it is structured (Henri Lefebvre’s sense of abstract space), an ethnography of place explores how it is used, by whom, and what kind of place it is (concrete space, or “place”)—its meanings, its history, its affective dynamics, its location in spatial imaginaries, and how it embodies and conveys different forms of power. Lived and embodied spaces are produced and reproduced through their daily usage as much as through the disruptions created during moments of protest. … Attention to the rhythms and practices of spaces during non-protest times—including their affective dimensions—can deepen our understanding of how protests alter those spaces.

Take the protests that begin at the Grand Husseini Mosque in downtown Amman. For more than a century, the mosque has been known as the go-to place for demonstrations in the capital. But the location has many other meanings and uses, and those have changed over time. For decades it was the center of commerce in the city as well as the site of government administrative offices. But as Amman expanded, those offices and many businesses relocated westward in diverse locations. … Upscale hotels, restaurants, and shopping areas also emerged in western neighborhoods, creating the new spatial imaginary of “West Amman” associated with affluence, government power, and global connections. The Royal Court and Municipal Complex are still located downtown, but the area gradually deteriorated into a low-end shopping and dining destination for the lower classes and tourists visiting historic sites like the Roman ruins. Now considered by some as part of impoverished “East Amman,” the old city center is dusty, dirty, and loud. It has rhythms and energy that some find welcoming and lively, but that many West Amman residents avoid as trashy and dangerous.

How does understanding this atmosphere of the downtown area expand our understanding of protests there? For one thing, examining the rhythms and activities of the area in periods when there are no protests can help us understand precisely how protests disrupt those normal routines, and how those disruptions are experienced. When a large demonstration has been announced to commence at the Grand Husseini Mosque, for example, shop owners and customers who arrive that morning may encounter police vehicles or barricades. Some people will choose to leave the area to avoid inconveniences caused by the protest—such as detours necessitated by crowds and closed streets—but others will go about their routines even as the police presence steadily increases over the next hours. The atmosphere is typically not one of anxious anticipation of violence, however, but of mild curiosity if not outright indifference. Shop owners do not rush to board up windows; indeed, many stay open throughout protests, perhaps even hoping the crowds might bring a spike in business …. Some downtown protests are exceptions, as the next chapter will show, but most are routine and even boring. This affective response to impending protests downtown tells us that people are accustomed to protests in that space, and that they expect both protesters and the police to follow a familiar and non-violent routine.

This chapter examines routine protests as they are situated in the built environment. The scale of analysis zooms in on a single location, an area adjacent to the Kalouti Mosque in the affluent neighborhood of Rabia in West Amman. Built in the late 1990s, the mosque became place for protest during the Second Intifada in 2000, given the location’s proximity to the Israeli embassy. After those first massive protests of thousands strong for months, the Kalouti protests over time developed their own spatial and temporal routine, mostly unfolding in a predictable manner and in an atmosphere lacking tension or anxious anticipation. What are the political effects of such routine protests, given their ritual character, the repetitiveness of their demands, and the fact that they are seldom disruptive? I first examine how protests become routine, and why protesters often adhere to informal rules of routines specific to a location. I then provide an overview of Palestinian solidarity protests in Jordan to establish patterns that bring the particularities of the Kalouti protests into focus. Next, I examine the spatial and temporal routine of protests at the Kalouti Mosque in the 2000s through an ethnography of place, including how protests, police, and those not protesting move in and across the area before, during, and after protests. Finally, I show that while protests make claims on authority structures, the spatial and temporal routines of certain protests can simultaneously work to shore up the regime’s power.

Rules, routines, and repertoires

In June 2009, I sat in a taxi on my way to a protest in West Amman, directing the driver to a nearby landmark without mentioning that a protest was my destination. As we sat ensnarled in traffic, the driver complained about political demonstrations causing congestion. This affective response of annoyance rather than nervousness reminded me of my time living in Washington, DC, when taxi drivers similarly complained about closed streets and slowed traffic caused by protests. It is surprising, however, that localized protests are as normal a part of the urban environment in Amman as they are in Washington, DC, because the Jordanian state is authoritarian. Protests in Jordan thus challenge scholarly assumptions about differences in the expression of political dissent between democratic and non-democratic contexts.

That many Jordanians are astonished to learn how widespread protests are attests to their normalcy—most protests simply are not news. Many scholars are like Jordanians in this regard, in that they seem to take note of protests only when they are “big events” that hold the possibility of upending existing power structures. The Arab uprisings attracted such attention not only because of the spectacle of massive demonstrations in multiple countries simultaneously (see Chapter 6), but also because they brought down regimes and sent others scrambling to survive. As the alternately outraged and elated masses in multiple countries asserted their collective agency, they created the kind of moments in which new worlds suddenly seem possible, even within reach. But such “eventful” moments are relatively rare. Most protests hold little possibility of realizing the claims they are making, if they register at all. …

Outside of rare eventful moments, most protests are shaped by established repertoires, the known forms of protest and the kinds of police responses they will likely elicit. The informal rules of these repertoires can be violated, of course, albeit typically with greater consequences for protesters than for the police. Indeed, repertoires evolve precisely because participants—police as well as protesters—innovate or test red lines. …

The “rules” of the repertoire can also differ depending on who is protesting—whether they are known activists, political elite, first-time protesters, laborers, or members of a prominent family or tribe, to give just a few examples. … Meanwhile, outspoken critics such as parliament member Hind al-Fayiz (from both the powerful Fayiz family and the Bani Sakhr tribal confederation) routinely push boundaries and criticize the regime. And the informal rules are not only discursive but also spatial and temporal; red lines are drawn not only around what can be said and done and by whom, but also where one can do it and for how long. In this sense, spaces in which protests are repeatedly mounted develop spatial routines specific to them, even as they are instances of more general events such as “march.”

Protests at the Kalouti Mosque are ideal for a theorization of the spatial and temporal dimensions of routine protests. How did these protests become routine? What are the spatial and temporal dimensions of that routine, and what are the red lines whose crossing might invite escalated repression? How can an ethnography of place at the Kalouti protests help us understand the atmosphere and disruptive potential of the Kalouti protest routine? The next section locates the Kalouti protests within a nationwide geography of protest against Israel and in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle before turning to the Kalouti protests themselves.