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The tribe and the law

Jan 12,2014 - Last updated at Jan 12,2014

I enjoyed watching former House speaker Saad Hayel Al Srour, in a widely circulated video, appealing to a Saudi tribe, on behalf of his long-time friend former prime minister Abdul Karim Kabariti, to drop their charges against the latter’s son over what seemed to have been a hot-headed youth brawl.

There was elegance about the words Srour used to underline the honour and dignity with which the Saudi tribe welcomed the jaha of influential men that came to wipe the slate clean between the two tribes.

This was a reconciliation meeting par excellence and truly showcased the positive side of the tribal tradition and its usefulness in Jordan.

The conflict they were resolving, if one can call it conflict, really, was also of the type that can, and if possible should, be resolved outside the loop of police, lawyers and courts and without impinging on the integrity, authority and preeminence of the law.

The parents of the young men — and their extended families and tribes — obviously wanted to avert an escalation which would take them to courts or even end up landing them with a criminal record as a result of what is hopefully only a one-time mistake, not to be repeated.

But I think this type of situation is the limit of what we should allow “tribal niceties” to tackle, if only because we run the risk of institutionalising and condoning where our collective need to “bury the hatchet” overtakes the need to institutionalise the rule of law and make that the overriding tradition as a country.

In two cases that seem to be occupying the news headlines — and with it the tribal as well as the police VIPs — we seem to be literally allowing negotiations between the families/tribes of the perpetrators and victims to become public knowledge and, I believe, pre-determine the outcome of the cases.

Both were horrendous crimes committed by criminals. In the first case, a young man publicly stabbed and murdered a young woman who rebuffed his advances; in the second, a man collaborated with a cheating wife to murder her husband — again publicly and gruesomely.

The families of the victims want admission of guilt from the perpetrators and promises of heavy sentencing (in one case the family of the victim has gone public with the grisly details of the method of execution they want).

And in a third incident — which I find quite shocking — this blurred delineation line between what is police business and what is tribe business has gone even blurrier.

The Obeidat tribe has apparently demanded the removal of street stalls from a market in Irbid because they have turned it into what they describe as a “centre for public aggravation and criminal activity” and they — the tribe — “have given the relevant authorities one week to implement their demands” before the tribe would “escalate” the situation.

The news item continues: “In response to the Obeidat threat, the security forces in Irbid have started a campaign to clear the stalls and apprehend the felons.”

Really. Who is the boss of whom in this story?

And why did the disgruntled citizens of Irbid not sign their complaint statement as “disgruntled citizens and residents of Irbid”, instead of describing themselves only as one tribe?

Are residents from other tribes not perturbed by the situation?

Because we have allowed the tribe to be publicly recognised as the arbiter and implementer of justice in so many situations — ranging from the traditional and quite pleasant negotiations for marriage to dealing with university violence and armed public brawling to outright criminal activity such as the two murders I mentioned above, we appear to have replaced the authority and superiority of the state with that of the tribe.

It, therefore, makes sense that the residents of Irbid with a grievance in their city would identity themselves as “tribal members” rather than citizens and residents of the city or even the state.

Their clout and sense of justice is clearly defined by their tribal alliance and the level of that clout is defined by the influence and size of the tribe.

Even Jordanians without tribes, most of Palestinian and Iraqi origins, have taken to investing in a meeting location for their family — if it is large enough — or even their city of origin or village, in order to exaggerate their special influence and place themselves on equal footing — in power and influence — with the tribal constellations typical of the indigenous Jordanians.

I hope it is clear that in state-building narratives this situation is called going backwards and in no way describes moving towards building a civil state in which the rule of law and justice guarantee citizenship rights and privileges.

We need to consider the messages we send out and compare those to the objectives we have.

Are we looking to become a country in which smaller units of power grow in importance and eventually become more influential and threatening than the state or are we ready to consign these smaller units to their rightful place as traditional social constructs that are most useful in creating cohesion among all Jordanians and adding colourful content to our social relationships as sub-communities?

This is an important question for Jordan today.

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