Unprecedented and sometimes deadly tribal violence at university campuses in Jordan threatens the country’s ambitions to build a solid system of higher education, experts warn.
The latest unrest broke out in the restive southern city of Maan last month.
Maan has a bloody and rebellious past dating back to the turn of the last century, when it was the seat of the Great Arab Revolt that crushed Ottoman rule.
Armed clashes between students at the King Hussein bin Talal University in the city at the end of April killed four people and wounded more than 25, provoking a public outcry and royal fury.
“We cannot remain silent about all this violence and illegal actions. We cannot accept them,” King Abdullah II told MPs and government ministers at a meeting after the clashes.
“We need a strategy to tackle this problem which is affecting all Jordanians.
“The rule of law must be reinforced in a firm, courageous and transparent way, without any leniency or favouritism.”
Military prosecutors on Thursday charged five men with rioting, possessing automatic weapons and “forming a gang” over the university violence.
“This problem has become a very dangerous issue,” Hussein Khazaai, a sociologist at the Balqa Applied University, told AFP.
“More than 10 percent of the country’s 255,000 university students are involved in such violence, affecting the learning process of the remaining 90 percent.”
Campus violence has been on the rise, with 80 violent brawls reported in universities in 2012, compared with 31 in 2010, Khazaai said.
“Some students keep guns in their cars, just in case there is a fight. Small things create problems, but later families and tribes get involved, creating a much bigger conflict.
“They are destroying the universities,” he added.
According to Elizabeth Buckner, a PhD candidate in international and comparative education at Stanford University, these problems “threaten Jordan’s reputation as a regional higher education exporter and its larger goals of building a globally competitive university system.”
“Jordanian violence is most directly attributable to tribal rivalries, which are exacerbated by tribal influence in national admissions policies and in university-based administrative decisions,” Buckner said in an article published on Sada, an online Carnegie Endowment for International Peace journal.
“That Jordan cannot control violence on its campuses also highlights a larger tension in the country’s higher education between the universities’ desire to be modern and egalitarian and susceptibility to tribal pressure, which occasionally allows individuals to evade bureaucratic rules.”
Admissions policies are also widely recognised as a contributing factor, she said.
“They grant students from certain tribes or backgrounds admissions and scholarships through elaborate affirmative action policies… meaning that those with much lower academic preparation are often admitted to national universities.”
Oraib Rintawi, head of the Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, called the clashes “unprecedented.”
“The state has failed to apply the rule of law to all. Important segments in society feel that they are above the law. This level of university clashes is unprecedented,” Rintawi told AFP.
“This has strengthened tribal identity at the expense of national identity. The state must restore its prestige and reconsider the educational system.”
Rintawi echoed government concerns that campus violence could force thousands of international students to leave Jordanian universities.
Other experts agreed.
“The government is not doing enough prevent these growing problems, tackle their causes and punish perpetrators because it is in denial,” said Fakher Daass of the National Campaign for Defending Students’ Rights.
Musa Shteiwi, head of the University of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies, urged reform.
“The students are frustrated at the economic and political situation. They feel there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The state needs to act fast and start by reforming the entire educational system,” Shteiwi told AFP.