Jordanian bread-hungry Bedouins' civilized Riots versus British tea-sipping Hooligans

Published August 16th, 2011 - 01:02 GMT
The Bread Riots of 1996, Jordan.
The Bread Riots of 1996, Jordan.

It has been a common theme this week, digging on the English riots, and almost relishing seeing how the UK handled its people breaking out in a fiery storm of damage, given England's reputation of propriety, refinement and above all stability and strength as one of the richest economies.

The Chinese have been taking shots all week at the British who should know better: It argues that British youth are ‘wild beasts...they respond only to instinctive animal impulses — to eat and drink, have sex, seize or destroy the accessible property of others.’ They've particularly delighted in  British Prime Minister David Cameron’s suggestion that social networking websites should be blocked to maintain order, and will likely not forget this comment for a while- at least not when Europeans or indeed Brits bash China for limiting access to controversial information. China editorials this week have pontificated on the causes of this shameful failure in the Western way: “Europe’s sickness: years of high welfare payments, excessive personal liberties, and an increase in foreign immigration have rendered it impossible for the lowest rungs of society to enjoy material well-being.”

As for the Middle East, the region has not taken pains to hide their glee with the London events and commotion- not lead those dictator evil Arab leaders who were quick to censure Britain's style and response to riots. Middle Eastern autocrats are having a field day with the UK riots, taking pleasure at the mayhem in a western capital and interpreting it the way that suits their propaganda.  One hardline newspaper in Tehran blamed the violence on rising student tuition fees; another put the responsibility on the US and its economic policies. In Libya, the Gaddafi regime, once a friend of Britain but now a sworn enemy, also took a pot-shot at London. A presenter on state television on Wednesday hailed the rioting youth whom he said were demonstrating against a “fascist” government.

Even Israelis, have been a better beacon or exemplar for civilized protesting by the book. Israel who is known for using state violence of disproportionate degree (though against the Palestinian oppressed peoples) has been able to show us how it’s done ‘properly’- as they camped out in tents and made clear demands for better housing and spending to match earnings- seem to have common coherent demand list- not a wish list that resembles a shopping list more expected at Christmas as the London riots. Made it look like the Wimbledon of protesting- a form we'd have much more expected from Britain home to Wimbledon, exporter of the queue. 

Some have pointed out that that the riots were triggered by a tragic death, just like the first Arab revolution in Tunisia, and that they spread like wildfire thanks to social networking sites, like many Arab uprisings. The calls for better policing, the impact on the economy, are all reminders of the alarm heard in Arab cities in turmoil.

Others, however, have been appalled by the mere likening of a brave democratic struggle to hooligans looting and burning property. One tweet reported by Beirut Spring: the Arab Spring is not senseless violence and stupidity; the London riots are. Other tweets have regretted that the violent youth in London were stealing the thunder from the more 'legitimate' agenda and concern - that of the endangered protestors in Syria.  

Still some similarities seem more valid and have been nevertheless drawn, as on the year: As the Washington Post points out- “This is becoming a year of rebellion by the dispossessed — first in the Arab Middle East, then in Israel and now in one of the world’s richest democracies.

What do we find in common between the bread riots or famous "bread revolution" of Jordan in 1996, which was launched in protest against the economic policies and price inflations that doubled the price of this politically charged staple after the removal of subsidies.  This course of action was taken to promote Jordan’s International Monetary Fund (IMF) sponsored economic reform program that would extend new credits to the Kingdom but was only seen to exasperate poor economic conditions among the people who felt the brunt of it. Those from southern Jordan and particularly Karak couldn't see the merit to a measure that doubled the price of their bread and instead of meek acquiescence took to the streets to register their protest. Riots broke out and a bread revolution took a couple of days to quash.

So how did the lawless Bedouin tribes of the south of Jordan conduct themselves compared to the rampant London rebels- dispossessed- and law-bashing, these frustrated rioting youth and unemployed of the UK:

Rioting style and motive:

At first glance there are similarities: Both counterpart elements of society i.e. the Bedouins of Jordan and the underclasses of the UK - and their supporters, or more frequently those being cited as 'Chavs' of the UK felt disenfranchised by mainstream society, excluded or hard done by the nation's current or recent economic measures or policies- and don't feel served by the government who seems to act in the interest of ‘them’ not ‘us’. Still, it must be said, the Jordanians of the South are a powerful force to reckon with at the same time so simplifications are not easy to draw.  Both were rioters held in otherwise stable regions of order and respect- Jordan and Britain. Britain – the nation that ruled the seas and brought order and civilized modes of propriety, regimented orderly behavior, and codes of decency and uprightness. Jordan has in the past been held up "by the West as a paragon of stability and steadfastness in the Middle East.” 

It would be conjecture at this stage to go into similarities of agenda and political goals- suffice to say both groupings had economic cause for complaint: one harbored a simple and clear case or grievance revolving and ending at bread prices. The other was more complex, more 'sketchy' and less articulated - started at looting and pillaging as a mark of disrespect and disgust, arguably with a system they felt no stake in, and could end anywhere from the possession of iPads and Apples’ finest products to the latest in TV technology, in a HD ready 42" Plasma. Basics as bread did not hold significance where the threshold for good-living in the UK of one of the wealthiest economies does not rest with bread. The Jordanian's expressed their disgruntled state through threatened defiance with weaponry, the Britons choice modus operandi was arson and pillaging, topped with a complete disregard for community safety.

PM Mr. Kabariti of Jordan ‘96, by his decision to remove the subsidies, sparked riots in Karak and other poor southern towns.

Jordan's bread fiasco was resolved by soldiers in armored personnel carriers moving into the southern towns and instilling a ‘sullen’ but definite peace.

The British riots, taking effect during PM’s holidaying in Tuscany, were provoked by the police killing of a black man in his absence, and quelled more or less before his return, by police in concert with David Cameron broadcast threats. Cameron appeared on camera, threatening that each and every participant in the disorder would be caught and prosecuted harshly.  Of course with British CCTV camera the public well believed him, especially as images of police entering households and making firm arrests beamed out on TV to back up these threats. A surge of police were visibly out in the streets following the burning scenes and this seemed to extinguish the intent of destruction.

Jordan riots that demanded the concrete - as tangible as the bread itself- a reversal of the end of the economic policy and stepping down of the PM – but ended on the failed note of the army in all its force occupying the town and enforced strict curfew. Law enforcement came through. In the UK, the passion of the riots seemed to have literally burnt out or been spent in the 3 days til the law reared its stern and draconian no-nonsense head. Same with Jordan.

Both were quelled within a couple of days- in UK’s case 3 days, Jordan’s case 2 days:

That's where the similarity ends: Best of the British, Barbary of the Bedouins? Not quite.

In the Jordanian case, given that the rioters targeted government buildings as Ministry of Education for raising school fees – the rioters bore conviction in their acts bolstered as they were by the illusion of legitimacy or carried by a wave of moral highground, morality that they had a cause and logic behind it that sanctioned the protest. Their behavior was not outrageous and the expectations place on poorer Bedouin tribes in Jordan were not dashed. In the UK's case, the targets were commercial and could be reduced to material high street stores, specifically retailers of appealing electronic goods and fashionable accessories. One seems to have sought security in access to basics, the other insecurity and unlawful access to luxuries. British rioters were buoyed by a frenzy of hatred of law and order and a fever of crime and destruction swept over them in a bacchanalian orgy, until they were snapped out of their trance by the reality that anarchy did not reign supreme, and Cameron was back from his vacation to restore order with the sobering reminder that the trouble makers would be held to account for their disturbance.

Back to contemporaneous Mid-east insurrection wave: There is, of course, a sea of difference between what’s going on in the UK and the events in the current  Middle East climate, in both the actions of the youth and the response of the authorities. Deaths in the UK were few and far between and not administered by authorities except in the spark-off instant of the police shooting of Mark Duggan that arguably ignited the rioting or gave it that 'flimsy' excuse as consensus saw it...The riots of the UK differ flagrantly to those recent 2011 insurrections around the Middle East, and also to the 'riots' of '96 in Jordan. Even comparing like to like or riot to 'riot' as it were- throws up a very different picture.  The UK riots just last week were scenes of mayhem and had London literally burning. The Jordan riots while threatening to get ugly due to the potential touse arms etc but did not involve defacing public property, vandalism, theft or senseless destruction, chaos or harm to one another (as the now fast become abiding scene we are left with of an injured Londoner being set upon by greedy muggers in his weakest, bleeding, moment, caught on camera). In Tahrir Square and across Syira and Libya, we heard nothing of people turning against one another, nor being out for themselves. On the contrary these were stories of coming together to serve the higher and long-term interests of the people. (not an easy-grab free-bie for now)

To call the London riots protests is to endow them with a political calling that was by all accounts lacking. On the other hand greed and impunity was not in short supply. However, we did not witness lawlessness of this nature in the Arab demonstrations. They did not erupt into anarchy and loss of moral control.  And Egypt is not short of its supply of hunger and poverty-stricken beings that might be tempted to pillage and loot. They kept it political and to the point instead. Moral bankruptcy and greed in fact did not feature to our knowledge in the Arab revolutions – bar at the top – in the leadership, ruling elites and regimes. The haves rather than the have-nots did not do anything akin such theft and reprehensible or barbaric acts. As some have argued in the Twittersphere could this be because these Arab majority Muslim societies are more God-fearing and recognize haram from halal? That is not reflected at the top strata for sure, in either culture Britain’s top decks of society steal publically – with their parliamentary expenses scandal catching them out, siphoning off public funds in the name of greed and with craftiness.

Responses to the riots:

The government's quick and strong-armed response prevented them from running rampant for long in the Jordan case.  What’s interesting though is that emerging from the UK last week were many extreme and considered ‘hard-line’ or right-wing voiced solutions it could be said. We hear echoes of Mid-east unpopular leader approaches and tactics. While not implemented, there has been talk of firm Conservative values for property rights and rule of law, voiced fervently complete with threats of bringing in or “deploying the Parachute Regiment and a couple of RAF Tornadoes.” to show the rioters who’s in charge and means business. Force does seem to have been a mode of action considered amongst a wide array of the British spectrum, provoking much smug finger pointing globally at Britain, a critic of forceful, heavy-handed policing and a keeper of measured responses....we thought. Policing by Good manners! would have been more like it. While already officially under a right wing government, this week saw the UK witness a shift to right wing moods and values.

Like other 'insurrections' around the Mideast of late there has been much speculation and concern from the government on social media. How social media may or may not have been used to incite these riots and organise them, and indeed whether social networks shouldn’t be temporarily shut down in the wake of the riots in England, as David Cameron has hinted.  Not so different when it's happening in your own back yard, Mr. Cameron, overwhelmingly opined the international community, particularly those often picked on for clamping down on internet freedoms. Luckily for him, most of his own guard were fast to interject that shutting it down would do no good. “He would not only disenfranchise young people, arguably, more”; he would also risk cutting off any chance to organise a community clean-up effort and closing  off avenues available to find out who’s behind it. Advisors were fast to assure him that such a restrictive move would do more harm than good. Words that in a different context or setting you'd have expected to emerge from this horse's mouth.

When David Cameron, Ed Miliband and the entire British political class came together to denounce the rioters, a clear-cut case of criminals acting up – a line more dismissive than the Jordanian’s had been with the bread-rioters trouble-making. Beyond taking a firm line against acts of criminality and a disregard for law and order, their response that also aimed at finding blame factors and controlling the rowdy society not divergent form Jordan's firm policing and army stance and policing with the imposing of a curfew that elicited an uneasy but successful resolution, and reinstated public order. Draconian measures as could be expected from a right wing government who are notoriously hard on crime. Cameron's solution now is to seek aid from former New York Police chief Bratton who helped restore law and order during the 1992 Los Angeles riot:. “Supercop” advice initiative as it's being tagged-  is now being sought by - to stepp up security to more militant heavy- duty levels. Not very European in style.

There was a marked tendency, seen most distinctly in Cameron's speeches to distancing themselves from those criminal or lower denominations of society- almost a repulsion for the grimy elements of society. One British woman struck out at the rioters as ‘rats’.How similar to Gaddafi who has referred to his protesting public as rats and cockroacheswhat difference seeing your country get disorderly makes. Maybe for Brits who like order and propriety it is ever more disconcerting than for a more hot-blooded or warmer clime, such as in the Arab Hemisphere.  But not surprisingly, they were of course right to say that the 'ghastly and vile' 'antisocial' actions of these looters, arsonists and muggers were abhorrent and criminal, and that the police should be given more support.  Still, how was this so different from Gaddafi’s ‘my people love me’ but have other problems or issues clearly- insinuations.  Like knowing right from wrong. Bad parents, maybe bad state.

While some of the spokespeople from the Caribbean communities and other seen-to-be-representatives of portions of the rioters made the claim that what had visited England was the same contagion of people-power flu that had already done the rounds – sporadically in some places- in the Middle East, Spain, Italy, Israel now here another ‘Insurrection’- "it is happening in Syria it is happening in Clapham and it is happening in Liverpool" said one notable spokesman.

All the shock and outrage expressed in parliament did not wash with some people who were having none of it. Opinion pieces in the British broadsheet press were quick to point out the hypocrisy and phoniness of the moral outrage being expressed at the top echelons of Whitehall:  MPs spoke about the week’s dreadful events as if they were nothing to do with them. There was a sense that this misbehavior that had taken place while the cat was away holidaying, was down to the bad eggs acting out. What about those politicians looking in a mirror? How are looters on the streets dissimilar from elected people in power stealing from the state? That the criminality in the streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society, was a point not lost on many members of the upstanding public, who had been let down from top to bottom, it would seem. Did England need an overall overhaul of the system just as much as these Arab kingdoms or wobbling republics?

The British people were accused of greed and selfishness but where had they picked up these values? Filtered and concentrated in the under-classes.  Where had hooliganism and yobbish culture come from? The degenerates made such misconduct into a famous export that the UK together with tea and fine manners has become synonymous with. If people feel disenfranchised from rights, they will be loathe to carry out their responsibilities- if they don't feel looked after, even in a welfare state. If you want to live by the core conservative values (ideally universal) of honesty, decency, hard work, and putting back into society at least as much as you take out, then you should show equal treatment to expect equal service. Inclusion and sharing the stake.

When Cameron spoke of being let down by the rioters who showed a lack of morality, he seemed to suggest that morality was a measure of refinement applied only to the poor. “We will restore a stronger sense of morality and responsibility – in every town, in every street and in every estate.” He appeared not to grasp that this should apply to the rich and powerful as well.

This can remind us of the unfairness of applying the same great expectations or judging by the same moral marker the possessed with the dispossessed. Unless an even playing field it is not always easy to apply these standards uniformly. Nowhere more clear than with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whereby Israel and other international players are accused of putting the onus for better behavior on the unequal player or partner in peace- on the disadvantaged.

Quick to condemn the morally reprehensible or loathsome acts coming from these riots without seeing them as part and parcel of a society that condemns theft at the bottom but accepts it so long as it is smartly disguised or in other forms at the top- in this money-grabbing society- stingy, self-serving and tax laundering. Youth who seem morally bankrupt are only picking up vibes from our bankers, footballers, wealthy businessmen and politicians and these disenfranchised youth –without hope or aspiration, who have caused such mayhem and chaos over the past few days.

Barbaric, disgusting vandalism- appalled and dismayed the pillars of society. Barbaric a term you'd expect to come across on the subject of the Bedouin tribes of Jordan. But no, these bread rioters were not rampant or destructive. Lawless Britons it would seem are more barbaric than literally lawless Bedouin tribes or desert peoples who adhere to tribal and clan codes rather than state. Where honor killings are common place and blood feuds the prevalent way of managing disputes. Their demands were not met, but they were assuaged or quietened. Even the influential Bedouins did not overturn the rule of law and order.  Another story ending on the note of Police made arrests: Another example of the government looking for outside or criminal, deviant elements to the rioters- believing Iraq was involved in instigating uprising through the Baath party or the Jordan Arab Social Ba’ath Party (JASBP).

Jordan’s ‘rebels’ denied criminality and pointed to worsening economic conditions, rising poverty and unemployment and failed expectations concerning the yields of the 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Similar to the London rioters- who do not regard themselves as yobs or criminals but victims of a capitalist and unfavorable system, and so exempt from criminal charges. Marginalization and social exclusion marked by repeat stop-searches, more pointed than random feeling, was starting to grate on some races provoking a racial malaise in society. Under Tory or Conservative rule the government was making many spending cuts to their detriment, including on youth programs.

Even when Jordanian Bedouin tribes riot they do it in classier style than British mobs or chav/ hooligan culture. Lawless Bedouin tribes did their ruckus  with more grace than Britain’s chavy youth culture who live on the principles of deserving an iPhone 4. Britain for all its stiff upper lip culture, when the façade of severity and austerity is cracked, unleashes a rowdy animalistic greedy material grabbing, property-damaging monster: Their conduct was not great: which led people to take offense to having these riots elevated into ‘protests’ far more often organized gatherings with a clear aim and cleaning up exercises- In Jordan’s recent rallies of 2011, drinks and umbrellas were distributed.

A British Arab remarked, his contempt barely disguised for the inevitable parallels that flooded the media: “Could somebody explain to me the thinking which connects the riots in London with, say, Egypt? In June of 2010, Khaled Said was dragged out of an internet cafe and bludgeoned to death by riot police. In August of 2011, when Mark Duggan, who was by some accounts an armed gang member, was shot by armed police in an attempted arrest, and the UK's Independent Police Complaints Commission was investigating the report, while armies of thugs jumped the gun and started running amok. "

“Capitalism is inherently unfair, but one finds that the "underclass", such as it is, in countries like the UK were its most willing accomplices: the system has thrived for so long because people lived off of credit, far beyond their means, and voluntarily chose not to be members of a community, or perhaps form voter blocs to defend social welfare.” So not innocent bystanders but then feeding off a system that was complicit with encouraging this behavior.

Comparing the above two phenomena of Arab revolutions (not the Jordan riots) and UK riots is really a disservice to the noble revolutionaries in Egypt or Syria.

How different UK riots were from Arab Spring 2011:

David Starkey a renowned British historian, an expert on Tudor England, has recently diagnosed England with the ‘problem’ of going ‘Black’ – the youth want to be black or think they are black and embrace the ‘gangster’ culture that espouses nihilism, destruction and violence. In a proto-fascist remark he furthered his analysis by referring to the very touchy and inflammatory speech of Enoch Powell’s - River of Blood. These riots have encompassed more than one race and covered issues more universal than race- including but not restricted to economic hardships, unemployment and general disenfranchisement with the system.

Chavs becoming black?

Then again, have ‘chavs’ever been that well-behaved without emulating any role models, black or white? Isn’t hooliganism and yobbish culture, traditionally rife in British football- accompanied by ugly behavior and vandalism- popularized by the Brits world-wide like their tea, the preserve of the ‘chavs’if you will? A national export? Sarky e refers to a brand of culture that perhaps was best embodied by Ali G.

Lawlessness exists in Bedouin tribe spheres surely and not in England’s heart of culture breeding civilization. Well David Cameron, Tory leader of the UK would have it that this chaos was localized in the criminal elements of society lawless looters who have disgraced the nation—but maybe he means the disenfranchised members of his constituency who have nothing to lose. Just like those Arab citizens who given the alternative of repressed suppressed lives devoid of rights would go all out in protests that risk their lives. These are risking prison sentences. These are not quite protests and riots that emphasize damage of property  as much as they are symbolic of how excluded from the rule of law they feel and ownership and respect for property and authority. After all the way they meet law on a daily basis is in the form of undignified stop and searches meted out to them. Incidentally, since the riots, people whose children were implicated are being served eviction notice, expelled from their tenancy- and we’re seeing English racism rear its ugly head.

Muslims behaving well:

Apparently, all headlined Muslims who came to the fore in the UK riots behave remarkably well. One Muslim victim, an injured Malaysian student Asyraf Haziq, was famed as the young man who was mugged while down and caught on camera. Others were also victims caught up in the whole mayhem, like the three killed Pakistani Brits of Birmingham. Or the London Turks fending off their livelihood, stores and community’s from harm and destruction with sticks and stones (or rumor suggests wielding kebab knives!).

In support of our abstract comparison of one riot with another we can say that the Bedouin tribes- followers of Islam- behaved as exemplary models of rioting when compared to this mayhem and shambolic conduct and danger. Masked looters plundered stores and burned buildings, often without police officers or firefighters in sight.

So suddenly neither Arabs nor Muslims were the ones behaving badly last week in the UK riots.Western media never fails in its harsh criticism of Arabs and Muslins when they do something wrong, yet this deplorable behavior on the part of the nation that brought civilization and 'proper' manners to the world was something unprecedented, for the international community, let alone the ‘natives’: The ugliness of the vandalism had a lot of Brits exclaiming their visceral shock and disgust – scandalized and appalled by the anarchy. As one Brit abroad put it – “Seeing such scenes on TV and feeling like ambassadors of a tradition of manners and good grace, I have found the whole thing quite disgraceful and ghastly”.

David Cameron seems to have taken the path of Tory tradition- hard on crime and managed to re-establish order (well his police did) through threats of punishment: courts are working through the weekend to clear a huge backlog of cases involving those suspected of looting and other offences. Some 1,600 people have now been arrested, with around 800 already having appeared before magistrates. He has pumped the streets with a surge of pole-force security.

Cracking down on riots is sounding increasingly not dissimilar to an Arab dictator stepping up the savagery- yet still one must not underplay the fundamental difference of no brute force or atrocities from the rulers to the people.  

Crime and Punishment

Beneath the veneer of British order and propriety – tea at 4 in the afternoon with a nice slice of Victorian sponge cake, is some nasty old chaos and repression waiting to rear its ugly and thuggish head. This is tantamount to the hooliganism that the British have imported as a legacy and are by now synonymous with. This is a reminder, that from the most upstanding and morally upright comes the most reprehensible and shameful low form of conduct, and surprisingly lawlessness!

Elevating these rioting rabbles to the status of venerated protestors is being avoided- though rioters have tried to claim a hint of political purpose. Still, any initial political intent was lost  in the 3-day chaos as the cause (or spark of injustice in the police shooting of the riot's initial mascot) was disembodied by the mob mentality that dominated many of the copycat actions across.

There was no apparent drive identified by press and onlookers beyond the opportunistic desire to steal and get away with it.

Targets have not been town halls or, say, Tory HQ – unlike in Jordan's ‘96 case as cited- stormed by students last November – but branches of Dixons, Boots and Carphone Warehouse.  Even H & M the local, inexpensive fashion favorite. If they were making a political statement, it is that politics does not matter to them.

The irony of all this is that outside Britain, Europe and the US, the great noble story of 2011 has been the Arab spring, as the people of Syria, Yemen and beyond have taken to the streets. They demand democracy which England has, and abuses, as people call up their right to upgraded cell phones. Let’s not forget their marginalization though:"Riots are the language of the unheard" said Martin Luther King. And consider Malcom X’s line that "If you're not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed & loving the people who are doing the oppressing."

Blame it on the rioters shaming England

But the reaction of the 'majority' isn't to reflect on the institutions and their failures but on the rioters and their failures.

The aftermath should feature lots of soul-searching by the nation- not leaving problems to fester or sweeping them under the national rug til the next eruption or the London Olympics, or Arab strife, steals back the thunder.

The Jordan riots that demanded a reversal of the end of the bread subsidy lift and stepping down of the PM – ended only when the army occupied the town and enforced strict curfew. Rioters rarely get their needs met it would seem. Protests have had much more effective results- take Egypt’s recent ousting of a leader

Spain sporadically, Italy, and now Israel have murmured their frustrations in protest form—the contagion of people power is spreading but in different strains, most have not caused the outraged provoked by the UK’s show of shame.

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