The Not-Egypt

or, Jordan Is Approaching Modern and Entirely Stable

Amman, Jordan

I’ve been having the same conversation over and over again in the last few days … no, in the last few weeks, in fact! I’ve had it with Returned Peace Corps/Jordan Volunteers, with Jordanians, with Egyptians, with Americans. While everyone in the media is calling Jordan “the next Egypt” and expecting Jordan’s imminent collapse in its own revolution, my friends and I are talking about what a mistake it is to consider Jordan and Egypt even remotely in the same category.

As Peace Corps/Jordan Volunteers, we thought we were living in a really poor country. That’s what Peace Corps Volunteers do, after all. And I don’t mean to suggest that Jordan isn’t a place with pervasive, urgent problems of poverty, unemployment, corruption, education and infrastructure. But those of us, Peace Corps Volunteers and Jordanians, who have been to Egypt have a very different view now. Jordan is not a Third World country anymore; it’s solidly Second World, on its way to the First World. Poverty, education, corruption and infrastructure in Egypt are in a completely different category.

The degree of despair and hopelessness in Egypt was, until last week, an oppressive weight on me nearly everywhere I went in my daily life in Egypt. When you asked Egyptians about their future, they generally shrugged hopelessly and invoked God. “As God wills,” or “It’s in God’s hands.” It’s not that you don’t see such fatalism in Jordan, but it’s not so nearly universal as it seemed to be in Egypt.

I think it’s why there’s so much more harassment in Egypt. Everywhere we girls go in Cairo, almost every young man we pass shouts “Ya muzza [banana]!” or “Ya buTTa [duck]!” or “Ya 3assal [honey]!” or one of a hundred other variations on “Hey, baby!” These are young men who probably hold a Bachelor’s degree, but are likely unemployed or underemployed. They can’t expect to marry before 40, or even have a girlfriend. They’re socially, economically, sexually and emotionally frustrated. With no hope in sight, they amuse themselves by harassing passing women – not just foreigners, but Egyptian women, too, both with and without the hijab. You get a little of that in Jordan, but again, not on the same scale.

Since I returned to Egypt on Jan 27, though, I only heard these variations on “Hey, baby!” twice, and both times from pro-Mubarak thugs. For the first time Egyptians are feeling like they have some hope, some agency in their own futures. Jordanians have been developing that sense of agency for many years, and don’t show the kind of hopelessness and despair I’m accustomed to in Egypt. A Bachelor’s degree means something in Jordan; not as much as it means in America, but something. Men can expect to marry in their late 20s and early 30s. The job market is not as tight. An entrepreneurial Jordanian, especially among the increasing number with computer and English skills, can hope to make something of himself or herself that’s better than what his or her father could achieve.

The country has a long way to go, but it’s definitely going there. King Abdullah II’s school reforms have transformed education in the Kingdom, and I watched it happen first hand as a Peace Corps Volunteer. University reforms are still necessary, but as today’s schoolkids enter university, that change is inevitable. There are now computers in 99% of Jordanian schools, and more and more Jordanian families are acquiring computers and Internet access. From school reforms, the culture of the whole country is changing, becoming more aware of the greater world, learning more critical thinking skills, and becoming more politically active at home.

What’s essential to understand about Jordan is that, though things are in need of significant improvement, you can see that improvement happening, bit by bit, around the country. The Jordanian standard of living is slowly going up, and the people know that their king, for all that he’s controversial, has had a lot to do with how the country has improved. He has pushed for economic, educational and social reform. While many Jordanians may feel that he and his wife are more Westernized than Jordanian, they still see the tangible benefits of modernization, of conforming to the international standards of the Western, developed nations. Though privately they complain about this or that the king is doing, I still believe that most Jordanians are proud of their king.

You could see this clearly by comparing the massive protests in Egypt to the small demonstrations in Jordan. On Friday, 28 January, Egyptians came into the streets by the millions demanding “the fall of the system,” i.e. of the whole government leadership, and the resignation of Pres. Mubarak. In contrast, a couple hundred Jordanians came out to ask for certain laws to be repealed. The Egyptian police responded with teargas, water cannons and rubber bullets, but the Jordanian police brought Pepsi and sandwiches to the demonstrators. On Friday, 4 January, millions of Egyptians came out again, demanding freedom of expression and the fall of the government. In Jordan, about 50 Communists gathered to chant a few slogans in the most desultory, bored fashion you could imagine for a demonstration. Even the sensationalists at CNN, when they went around downtown Amman, Jordan, looking for revolutionaries, couldn’t find anyone who even wanted to protest, let along overthrow the government.

The Sad Consequences
Knowing what I know about Jordan, and what my American and Jordanian friends see on the streets here, I know that Jordan is still the safest place I’ve ever lived in the world. I’ve heard that hundreds of tourists have canceled their plans to vacation in Jordan, because it’s an inch away from Cairo on a map, or because of the media’s attempt to portray Jordan as the next powderkeg. Jordan depends heavily on those tourists and their money, and this will be a blow for Jordan’s already shaky economy. But Jordan has been through this before, with 9/11, the War in Iraq, the Amman hotel bombings in 2005, and the economic crisis of 2008. Every time it seems that Jordan’s tourism sector is finally stable, some global event sends it into a tailspin. Every time Jordan comes back, though, they come back stronger. In the long term, I think Jordan and Jordanians will find themselves in an even better position than ever: more foreign aid, more foreign investment, and more tourism, as Jordan becomes ever better known as the most stable nation on the Red Sea or in the Arab World entirely.

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