SALT, Jordan (Reuters) - 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 catalog 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 neighborhoods 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 politicized voters in urban centers. 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 fueled 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
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