Could Tribal Law be Taking Over in Jordan?

  • Posted on: 24 May 2018
  • By: laila Akel

Tribal law seems to be taking over civil law in Jordan, as the country witnesses what could be described as tribal war in the district of Madaba. The initial cause: a May 7, 2018, dispute between the country’s two major clans, the Shawabka and the Bani Sakhr. Beginning as a relational dispute between a Royal Guard and a married woman, the situation quickly escalated into large-scale rioting, roadblocks and shooting incidents, many of which have been broadcast on social media.

So, what do we know about the cause of the dispute and potential for a settlement?

The dispute began as a result of a relationship between a Royal Guard Officer Emad Shawabka and a married woman. According to sources, a year ago, the woman first approached the official to request that he delivers a letter to King Abdullah. The woman was later forced to flee to an outsider’s home as the man began to blackmail her, demanding sexual favors, and threaten her and her children’s lives. The outsider – a man unrelated to the woman – is part of the al-Fayaz family from Bani Sakhr.

The situation escalated when the Royal Guard, a Shawabka member, attacked the outsider in his home in Amman where he was housing the woman. According to the outsider, on Saturday, May 5th, some 30 members from the Shawabka clan attacked him and attempted to kidnap the woman. Five Shawabka clan members were later arrested as a result of video footage of the incident; their own clan leaders later turned in three others related to the attack to authorities.

In response, and in support of their fellow clan member, dozens from the al-Fayaz family of Bani Sakhr blocked the main road leading to Madaba and vandalized several storefronts; some videos indicated that shootings also took place.

Jordanian Security Forces (JSF) intervened to restore order and reopen the road. According to reports, it was the Shawabka clan who requested mediation from government and tribal leaders to resolve the conflict. Further, Emad Shawbka was arrested and transferred to a military court; he is accused of abusing his powers by collecting phone data from the woman and her husband, among other abuses.

Even given the highly sensitive nature of tribal disputes in Jordan, it’s unlikely for additional details to come out before a dispute settlement can be reached between the two tribes. The public prosecution banned publication of any additional information on this matter in newspapers or online through a gag order.   

As the state looks to resolve the conflict, due to the tribal nature of the local population in Jordan – heavily focused on maintaining honor - it can often be an obstacle for the government to impose its rule of law. Although customary tribal law was abolished in Jordan in 1976 it is still largely practiced and often supersedes Jordanian civil law. Multiple obstacles remain from the social structure to the stretch of tribal supporters into the government itself.

The social structure of Jordan tends to lean more tribal than institutional, particularly in certain parts of the country. All the while, the government has been publicly fighting this existing patronage in an effort to modernize the image of citizenship and patriotism through its Jordan First campaign. The campaign, launched in 2002, urges citizens to set aside “resistance and tribalism” to become a true a Jordanian patriot who “adheres to an abstract but inclusive framework, […] propagating the principles of equality, rule of law, transparency, accountability, human rights, pluralism and democracy.”

Raising an additional barrier to the move away from tribalism, experts question whether Jordanians not affiliated with a strong tribe enjoy the same protections by Jordanian security forces as those with strong tribal connections. According to Dana El Kurd, in the 2014 Parameters article “The Jordanian Military: A Key Regional Ally:

A cursory look at listed commanders or chiefs of staff within each service indicates most leadership positions are filled by a member of a prominent East Bank family or tribe (for example, the Al-Zabens, the Habashnehs, etc.), appointed by the king himself.

Given this, the abuse of power by Royal Guard Officer Emad Shawabka begs the question of how far such practices extend within the government. In fact, a 2006 Human Rights Watch report claimed arbitrary arrests and abuses were frequent within Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID), and that many suspects were held in detention, but never charged with a crime and then released without trial.

If tribal law does, in fact, trump civil law in this case, civil courts must take a clear position and stand by the final resolution. For example, in prior agreements, a tribal agreement could include a decision to deport all of the relatives of those convicted, forcing them to leave their homes for three months.

The transition from tribal to civil law in Jordan has been a long, arduous path, that some describe a “work in progress”. It’s possible that Jordanian officials may use this case as an opportunity to teach the nation that each person will be held responsible for his or her own acts, and leverage it as a step toward identifying a stable way to uphold the constitution and better protect basic human rights. 

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