By Fares Braizat – September 15, 2018

Desperate people resort to desperate measures. One of those measures is “protest action” outside the established channels of political communication between citizens and state institutions. Popular support for protest action to prevent tax increase in June 2018 stood at 77 per cent, according to a poll which NAMA Strategic Intelligence conducted shortly after the formation of Prime Minister Omar Razzaz’s government. At that time, 85 per cent supported the protest that caused the fall of Hani Mulki’s government and 30 per cent supported protest to topple Razzaz’s even before he started formulating policies. The current income tax draft law has renewed calls for further protest action. Protest, this time, is called for by “thorny groups”, such as military and police retirees, as well as the teachers’ union among many others. Can these calls materialise in to a sustained and result-oriented protest action? 

Although the government has deployed ministers to “explain” its tax law and generate support, the legacy of May-June 2018 protests action may render the effort significantly futile. Comparative experiences point to four major explanations of protest movements: Grievances and relative deprivation, political opportunity structure, resource mobilisation and the diffusion effect. Grievances are commonly defined as feelings of dissatisfaction with important aspects of life, such as housing, living standard, income, employment, healthcare, human rights, safety and education. Grievances are dangerous when perceived, not necessarily actual, inequalities are framed in terms of a primordial identity (tribal, religious, ethnic, regional, etc.) and explained by relative deprivation at a collective level. The latter refers to a person or a group sensing a gap between what they felt they were entitled to and what they in fact received. If those grievances are not channelled properly through legitimate representation, they can cause socio-political restlessness. The reason why the majority of discontented people do not join protests is that people are prone to conflict avoidance, short-term-oriented and believe that imminent life difficulties may arise since there is no guarantee that life improvement will result from joining a protest movement.

Activists operate within the political opportunity structure with an environment of constraints and opportunities, determined by the political system and configured by the institutional arrangements and the prevailing patterns of political power. If the political system is open and inclusive, new social and political groups can have an opportunity to advocate their interests through the existing political structure: they are likely to pursue their interests through the conventional channels of communication, (i.e., representative institutions). Inversely, if the political system is exclusive and its institutions are closed to new groups or lack legitimacy, such as our current parliament, municipalities and political parties do, activists would take to the streets, or other spaces, to make their demands on the political system. A fair political system presents opportunities for all to voice their demands through effective representation channels. Both modes of representation present in Jordan; traditional (tribal and regional) and parliamentary are being challenged on the grounds of “how representative they really are”. Groups, regardless of organisational capacities, seek to open new avenues of opportunity to influence the system, if the system is not inclusive enough. State strategies determine whether protest movements are assimilative or confrontational. 

Defining an issue or a number of issues to be pursued by a group of people requires the mobilisation of resources in order to achieve identified objectives. Resources include individuals and their time, money and skills. Individuals pursuing causes are, presumably, rational actors who act in ways consistent with their short and/or long term interests. They act if the calculated benefit outweighs the entailed cost. Activists would create organisations to recruit individuals and mobilise resources. Protest movement organisation then would set its goals and act accordingly. Consequently, prosperity affords the resources necessary for protest movements, whereas the most deprived will be unable to sustain more than transient action unless they turn desperate and protest action becomes a zero sum game where desperate people resort to desperate measures. Given the structure of our society, collective identities can be mobilised if someone is killed and it is more dangerous if combined with grievances. 

Seven years ago the romantic idea of revolution, diffuse effect, that swept the region created an excitement among people in Jordan. Consequential to the violence in Libya, Yemen and Syria, romanticising the idea of revolution has suffered significant setbacks and increased the fear of uncertainty among Jordanians. However, external interference in Jordan cannot be ruled out as the events in Syria and other places have demonstrated over the past eight years. Global, regional and local political actors may find themselves in a peculiar and possibly irrational agreement to support “protest action” in Jordan for discordant reasons.

To make a sound assessment of potential protest action we should, firstly, look at ideas, ideologies and influence in order to determine which ideas are central or fringe to a protest movement through answering questions pertaining to pathways and processes of “idea making”. Then we should establish whether the protest movement has an ideology or not and what influence mechanisms are implemented by protest activists. Secondly, we ought to address recruitment and formation of the protest movement by examining public opinion perceptiveness, factors determining attraction to protest groups, political issues persuading people to join in and the type of messages appealing to people. Thirdly, examine whether there is a structure to the protest movement, its finance and communication strategies. Finally, sustainability of the protest movement ought to be examined by looking at its cohesion, strands of mainstream and extremism. These are the ingredients we ought to flesh out in order to understand what might happen in the next couple of weeks on our streets.

The writer is the Chairman of NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, H.E Dr. Fares Braizat. 

This article was originally published in Jordan Times on September 15, 2018. For the original article source, click here

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