Student Union Election Day – Middle Eastern style.

Jordanian university students take their student union elections seriously.

Apparently the different candidates and parties are all tribal or family aligned. That is where the money for all these signs comes from.

Big, medium, small and sun-sized posters.

Big, medium, small and sun-sized posters.

Election day is pretty wild, lots of students don’t go to campus at all and there are plenty of police and military near the campus ready for trouble – which is expected. The police & army aren’t allowed on Uni campus though, so the unarmed uni security have to deal with it. We have made friends with some of them, we see them every day at the gate, and they are lovely! So we were hoping that they don’t have to deal with too much crap.

Some young students were dressed in military-style leather boots and camouflage pants. We assume they were students because to get on campus you have to use a student ID card. It was very disconcerting to see these guys essentially dressed for battle, especially since there were unconfirmed rumours of knives and guns being drawn in previous years. Some guys were wearing headwear in such a way that made it easy to cover their face quickly. They seemed fully prepared for quite a serious fight.

Despite this, there were no metal detectors or anything at the Uni gates. Maybe taking the threat of violence seriously will encourage violence? Or perhaps tribal leaders outside the uni give strict orders to the UJ students to keep it calm?

Kara and I only saw one fight. Two vans full of security screamed up to the Arts buildings and there was much yelling and ruckus but no one seemed to get hurt. It was kind of funny to see two very angry looking guys walk purposefully into the mob of men yelling whole holding hands. Here that’s about trust and a strong connection, men hold hands all the time, but it’s so non-masculine in Australia so it’s a bit odd to see in that context.

One of the most interesting things Kara and I saw and later talked about was the way security guards and students interacted. In Australia we tend to see police and similar authority figures as the position first and a person second, but here it seemed to be the other way around. The guards were really hands on but not in an intimidating way, they would grab emotional young men by their shoulders or clothes and shake them while yelling at them, but it was somehow not threatening and did nothing to escalate the situation. The guards were like father figures or something.

The way the day was handled was fascinating. There are some 41,000 students at UJ, 50% of whom voted that day. In Australia if there was 20,000 students in one place at one time every year, and there were fights every year, what kind of police presence would you expect? A bunch of un-armed, overweight middle aged men in minivans? Or police with dogs, batons, handcuffs, pepper spray and handguns?

Apparently there was tear gas used on the campus during the day (we didn’t see that), and there was some serious police capacity at the front gate, so maybe the contrast isn’t as significant as I’m making it out to be. Or maybe I just have such ridiculous expectations of the Middle East – based on hollywood movies and worst-case-scenario examples from the Western media – that anything less than a bomb or civil war seems tame?

Outside the main gate of the Uni.

Outside the main gate of the Uni.

Whatever the case, all this energy put into the elections should not be confused with a passion for democracy. The candidates all just seemed to want to win for family/tribal prestige. It had little to do with running the student union. The divisions and tensions over such an unimportant, small-time election may be representative of the rifts that cause conflicts throughout the whole region.

If all that matters is which tribe had more members on campus on the day, then why call it a vote? Call it a head count.

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