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David Schenker on Jordanian Politics

In this edition of Foreign Affairs Unedited, author David Schenker discusses Jordanian politics and his recent article "In Jordan, Problems and Politics are Local," with Foreign Affairs Deputy Web Editor Rebecca Chao.

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CHAO: How did you get involved in studying Jordanian politics?

SCHENKER: Well, years back I was writing a lot about relations Islamic and the State, particular Muslim brotherhood in Palestine, Hamas; relations with the Palestinian authority and then across the river in Jordan.  It's sort of a fascinating dynamic slits within the brotherhood.  How the Reshine interacts, how it tries to undercut, etc.  But then after a number of years of doing that I went to work at the Pentagon where I was responsible for Jordon, Syria, Lebanon and Palestinian affairs.  So I saw Jordan from an entirely different view there.

CHAO: Great.  And how did you end up in Jordan in March?

SCHENKER: I went over with a group of our trustees and with Denis Ross.  We periodically do these trips.  I go to Jordan a couple, three times a year, generally by myself.   But this was with the trustees.  I got there a few days early and did some of my own business and meetings before they showed up.

CHAO: And what interested you in learning about local Jordanian politics?

SCHENKER: Well I had been up in Rusayfa.  I generally like to get out of the capitols of whether it been when I got Lebanon, when I got to Egypt and so I devote a day or two to going to the places that take you a few hours by car and sometimes a little bit closer.  By I had been up in Zarka and Rusayfa in 2010, I'd been an international election monitor up there and was really interested this time not only in going to see Rudayna, but also in looking at the situation for the Salafi jihadies.  A guy named Honidal Mathesi, one of the leading sort of solifist jihadist in the kingdom lives in Rusayfa.  So I was hoping for an opportunity to go see him.  I stopped by his house, he wasn't home.

CHAO: Oh, wow.  Did he know you were coming?

SCHENKER: He wasn't.  I believe the government is taking away his cell phone these days in an effort to limit his communications.  And I'm not sure he would have seen me, but I wanted to give it a shot.  I did that right after I spent some time with Rudayna.

CHAO:What kind of meeting would that have been?  What would you have liked to ask him?

SCHENKER: Lord, knows.  The kingdom has 2000, 2500 foreign fighters.  Jihadies fighting in Sierra right now; many with Depithinistra, but also many recently with ISIS.  So I'd like to talk to him about how he sees developments there.  And also what he sees for the trajectory of the kingdom.  This is a guy who was in prison for many years and was recently release by the palace.  So it'd be interesting to get his take on what the situation is in Sierra and the chances for more Islamic ideology in the kingdom.

CHAO:  And then how did you first hear about Rudaynah?

SCHENKER: Well, when I was an international election monitor, back in 2010 I had gone up to Rusayfa and Sarka and IRI, the International Republican Institute who had sponsored me that trip, they take people out to the district the day or two before you actually monitor the elections.  So I had gone up there and actually had spent an hour or so with Rudaynah and her campaign team to talk to her about what her electoral strategy was.  What she thought of the electoral process.  And so I got a sense of who she was and where she was coming from.

CHAO:  And how did she agree to let you sort of shadow her for a day?

SCHENKER: Well, a lot of it was serendipity.  I had gone up there and had met with the former mayor of Rusayfa before I met with her.  I spent about two hours with him. Then I figured I go and chat with her and maybe have lunch with her.  But she was engrossed in this process and had these huge numbers of people waiting to come see her.  So, I just grabbed a seat in her office like a fly on the wall and watched.  And so obviously this is all being discussed in Arabic. So I speak Arabic, I periodically miss stuff, it's hard.

CHAO: Yeah.

SCHENKER: But it was just fascinating sitting there and watching this go on.  The office was packed and the anteroom there were 30 or so people waiting patiently; women, children, men.  And then within the room it was maybe a 10X15 room with a big desk and about 15 chairs around the room and it was packed.  And I was sitting basically next to Rudaynah's mom.

[laughter]

SCHENKER: Who was sitting there also watching; and they knew people from the community.  So it was fascinating.

[laughter]

CHAO: Does Rudaynah's mom always come with her to these meetings or was that just a first?

SCHENKER: No, I got the impression that she comes quite often.  And one of Rudaynah's youngest daughters was actually there as well, sort of running back and forth.  She appeared to be about 6 years old.  Her mom was basically giving her food every now and then and thanking her for patient because these things go on for a long time.  At 2 or 3:00 they go for lunch, so it's a long day for everybody involved.  I gather they had been there since before 10:00.  

CHAO: You mentioned that Rudaynah is also President of this charity.  How does that work?  She's President of this charity that she runs but she's also a parliamentarian.  Is there any kind of conflict of interest in doing that?

SCHENKER: Well I don't think so.  Many Jordanian parliamentarians, in fact most of them have day jobs.  They go to session when Jordanian parliament is and then have business that they either run or run on the side.  In fact, it's interesting because perhaps because these Jordanian parliamentarians have these other jobs, they don't always show up to parliamentary sessions.  So a number of Jordanian websites have taken to listing every day of the session who's present and who's absent.  And there's a fairly sizable number – amount of absenteeism.  I don’t know how that compares to the U.S. Congress.

CHAO: So going back just a little bit, so that our audience who haven't read your piece, can you just explain a little bit the differences in a big city like Amon and the Rusafa?

SCHENKER: Well listen, Rusafa is a town in a district call Zarka, most famous in the west for a guy named Abdul Sobzarkowi how is the head of Al-Qa'ida in Iraq during the hay day of the Iraq invasion and death Bin Laden's; is a town and a district that is about a 40 minute drive outside of Amon.  Many people who are living there might come to Amon to work.  But it is also home to a large Palestinian refugee camp.  And so you have 10s of thousands of Palestinians who live up there; many of whom are economically underprivileged.  Now when I talk about a refugee camp, these are not places that you could recognize necessarily as a camp.  There's a wall around it.

CHAO: Okay.

SCHENKER: But there's no gates, people come and go as they please.  And you also have – it's a little bit more rural.  Rusafa its self is urban, but Zarka is a large area that runs a couple hours, it might take you an hour and a half to get all the way to the furthest northern part of it.  It's a diverse place so it also has people of tribal origin who live there. But, there are parts that are incredibly economically disadvantaged.   I had gone to – I recall being an election observer up there and was at a school in Rusafa and Zarka for the end of – for the counting of the ballots.  This was within a refugee camp and there was a small riot when it was all done because people tried to get in.

CHAO: Oh, wow.

SCHENKER: Yeah.  It's just an interesting area.  And I think an important area because of all the economic disadvantage that it's one of the places to watch in the kingdom in terms of growing Islamic militancy.

CHAO: Very interesting.  And yet you mentioned that despite this threat, in terms of local politics you said there isn't a sense of concern over this growing Islamism in Jordan.  Can you explain that a little bit?

SCHENKER:  Yeah, it's really I think a secondary concern.  Jordan had its 9-11; it's 9-11 was these hotel bombings in Amon in 2005.  You had 60 people killed; 120 injuried, 3 Al-Qa'ida guys who came from Iraq and bombed 3 hotels.  It's enormous.  There had been I think a fair amount of support for Al-Qa'ida in the kingdom before then.  That dropped precipitously.  No doubt there is some worry about this – about the war in Sierra, about the spill over. But most people in Jordan are worried about the day to day.  They're worried about the economy, how they put food on the table; huge, 30% perhaps, unofficial unemployment rate.  They've got a million or so Syrian refugees who have come across the border.  There people are not living in refugee camps by in large; only a 100-130,000 of them are in refugee camps. The rest are living throughout the kingdom. They are living in apartment, driving up the cost of rent.  They are buying food that's increase inflation and they're going out and getting jobs.  So there are huge pressure on average Jordanian citizens and 15% of them or more have food insecurity; are at or below the poverty line.  So people are worried about the day to day.  There's an enormous amount of wealth in the kingdom, but there's also an enormous amount of poverty.

CHAO: So tell me a little bit about the constituents that day.  What was one story that stuck out to you?

SCHENKER: There was literally a few dozen or so, but you had people who were impoverished, looking for work.  You had people who want to get jobs with ministries, mostly people were looking for work with the government.  It was actually an incredible story;  it's somehow appealing for Jordanian particularly, they see it as having a lot more job security.  They won't have to work so hard.  They'll get a paycheck.  They might not even have to show up.

[laughter]

SCHENKER:  I joke.  But there was one woman who was talking to Rudaynah about hoping to get some help to get a job for her son.  And her son was – had a degree and was an IT specialist.  And she wanted Rudaynah to help her IT specialist son get a good job in the government.  And Rudaynah like looked at her said, "This guy has skills, why do you want him to get a job in the government?"

[laughter]

SCHENKER: Go to the private sector, and you shouldn't be looking for a job for your son.  Tell him to be looking for a job.  She was tough love. There was one I think – one occasion there was a guy who came in to talk about his son.  He said that he had been a fighter I think he said the Palestinian Army, it was sort of pro-Palestinian forces East in Jordan or that his grandpa had been in this. And his son now wanted to go into the army and was this going to be held against him.  And Rudaynah said something about this guy's son not presenting himself particularly well.  That he wasn't cleaned up; he wasn't well spoken.  That he was going to have to work on that, that no way.  The past wasn't being held against him; the present was being held against him.

[laughter]

SCHENKER: Yes, she had a number of these occasions.  But there were just some people that she couldn't help; which was also very sad.  There was one woman who wasn't getting enough of a pension because her children were classified as Syrian.  The nationality of the children goes to the father, it's par for the course in the Middle East.  But she was Jordanian and they were living in Jordan and her husband had meager salary and she was getting very little from the state.  Your heart really goes out to these people.  Or the woman I mention in the article, who I believe was waiting for her pension to come through and meanwhile was fishing food out of the garbage and Rudaynah gave her a bunch of ganars from her own purse; very sad.

CHAO: What about Rudaynah's own background?  Is she from Rusafa?

SCHENKER: She is but her family is part of Jordan's huge Palestinian refugee population.  They've been in Jordan for a long time.  They all have citizenship Jordan, unlike other Arab countries gave their Palestinians citizenship.  So, they vote.  They serve and they work in the government.  They can serve in Parliament.  But her father had been a prominent member of the Jordanian Goth Party.  She comes actually – there's something like 4 or 5 daughters in the family who are incredibly accomplished.  Rudaynah herself with a Master's in Business Administration or what not.  She has a sister who's a PHD in English Lit and is a translator.  She has one that's a doctor.  It's really – I've met a lot of her family; they're very impressive.  But then you have to – I don’t know if you're gonna get – but you have to sort of just oppose that with their – on this amazing constituent service with this incredibly radical, otherwise radical ideology.

CHAO: I did want to get to that; her sort of Palestinian background and activism.  So how does she come to become such a passionate activist for – or pro-Palestinian activist?

SCHENKER:  I remember this back from 2010, meeting her and being favorably impressed.  And driving around the district on election day and seeing this poster.  In fact, I took a cell phone shot of it.  I think it's included with the article; of Rudaynah in front of the Dome of the Rock with these three women Palistinian suicide bombers.  I remember talking to the folks back at IRI and saying, this woman's really impressive, but did you know about this?

And I think if you're that this was something that was new to them. But overall, you have to work with the parliamentarians that you can work with.  Rudaynahn is so many other ways is very appealing but she's been on TV.  She writes; is interviewed about how she supports the killing of Israelis in Jerusalem.  It's funny because I thought about it after I wrote this.  I hadn't planned on doing this big profile of her.  But after I wrote this I was thinking will Rudaynah be upset somehow with what I've written.  I plan on actually emailing her a link to the piece this week.  We've via Washington Institute have translated it into Arabic.  But would she be somehow unpleased with this.  My sense is not at all.  I think she'd be very pleased.

CHAO: Especially that that photos online.

[laughter]

SCHENKER: She is unabashedly a supporter of Palestinian; what you'd call resistance.  She's not embarrassed about that in any way.  And I think the depiction of her fined and detailed and considerate constituent service is something that she is no doubt proud of and so this is sort of a paradox but one that she lives with quite comfortably.

I didn't talk about this, but she actually – she was elected on what's called the woman's quota.  In Jordan has 15 seats or so allocated, 1/10th of the Parliamentary seats allocated to women.  Because I think actually only one woman won straight up in the last parliamentary elections.  So all the other woman are allowed in or given seats in parliament based on the percentage of votes that they get.  And they rank them so in fact they get a male from Rudaynah district didn't get in because she took his seat.  Rudaynah had hoped to win straight away without requiring the woman quota seat, but didn’t get it.  So I think only one woman actually got it this year or the last parliamentary elections. But yeah you have 15, 16 women I guess now in Jordanian Parliamnet.

CHAO:  Oh, wow, that's really interesting.  So in terms of women in politics, do you feel like the issues that women in Jordanian focus on are different from their male counterparts focus on?

SCHENKER: Well you had some years ago and parenteral issue in Jordan is honor killings.  These are the killings of women by tribal portion of Jordan society and because they somehow violated the family honor code.  There are any number of reasons and this is something that happens all too often in the kingdom.  And the punishments are not as severe as many would think they should be.  Many women have advocated for tougher penalties on that in the kingdom.  But this is an issue that is also an issue that is of concern to many male politicians.

Rudaynah, I don't know if it was Rudaynah or maybe it was Hindal Fiez, who told me that she had been a member; they have a women's caucus for these women in the parliament.  And that they were sending out statements without getting the sign off of all the women.  So I think actually Hindal Fiez had withdrawn from this womens caucus.  I'm not sure, family issues, health issues that are traditional. But many of these women are also like Rudaynah, on the Palestine committee or the corruption committee; the corruption work that Hindal Fiez does.  They're interested in a broad range of Jordanian national security issues as well.

CHAO: Did Rudaynah ever talk to you about difficulty in being a female parliamentarian, in getting her issues across?

SCHENKER: She's tough.  I think that she's this family with these incredibly strong women.  I don't think that she would experience it that way; athough there are societal barriers no doubt in Jordan that make it very difficult for many of these women.  But, Rudaynah has not spoken to me about this.  I think she sees herself as an equal, notwithstanding the riving in parliament because it's a quota, she behaves without a doubt as if she deserves to be there.

CHAO: So my last question relates to just what you said.  What would be one of the biggest lessons you draw from looking at local Jordanian politics and how it inform national politics as a whole?

SCHENKER: Like anywhere all politics are local.  These people have immediate concerns that revolve around their daily life, their daily bread and how to overcome these obstacles to get the services from their own government.  When we think about Jordan in the United States, we think about the spill over from Syria.  We think about the dangers of terrorist. We think about Jordan being an excellent ally and a peace partner of Israel.  

Most Jordanians when they're living their lives think about what is my paycheck, is a Syrian going to take my job.  Am I getting from my government what I need?  How's my education?  Are my kids going to be able to go to school and find work?  These are their concerns, not this sort of international politique.

[END]

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