Jordanians end protests but discontent continues in region

Jordan’s problems, with both its economy and public trust, are shared to varying degrees by other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Sunday 10/06/2018
A sign held during a protest against austerity measures in Amman reads,“We are broke.” (AFP)
Lingering woes. A sign held during a protest against austerity measures in Amman reads, “We are broke.” (AFP)

LONDON - The demonstrations that rocked Jordanian cities for more than a week ended after the government gave in to protesters’ main demands but the factors that drove the general discontent are likely to remain concerns in Jordan and other Arab countries.

Thousands of Jordanians responded to a call by leading unions for a general strike May 30 to protest legislation that would have increased the income tax. The unprecedented size of the demonstrations and protesters’ promise for more strikes led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki, who was replaced by Jordanian King Abdullah II with Omar Razzaz.

The protesters were unmoved by Mulki’s resignation and stuck to their key demand that the tax hike be scrapped, despite calls by some union leaders to give the new government a chance. It was only when Razzaz promised to shelve the legislation that protesters ended their marches and sit-ins.

The proposed tax increase was viewed as the last straw by a population that suffers from high unemployment, reduced subsidies and increasing cost of living. The government is also widely regarded as corrupt and unresponsive to the concerns of its citizens.

External factors?

Responding to the unrest, Jordanian officials blamed external factors, such the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise in energy prices and the wider problems of the region.

“Jordan has been going through a very difficult situation that is not due to failure within the country. That is due to the fact that Jordan has been at the receiving end of every crisis in the region,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told CNN.

Safadi urged the international community to share Jordan’s burden, a call that was echoed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Recent events underscore the need for the international community, including regional donors, to shoulder more of the burdens of Jordan’s hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees and providing security in the region, all of which have placed extraordinary strains on its public finances,” said Gerry Rice, director of the IMF Communications Department.

Saudi Arabia announced plans for a summit with King Abdullah and the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to discuss ways to support Jordan but Amman needs long-term solutions to its economic problems.

Little trust in government 

Trust in the state appears to be scarce on Jordan’s streets. Commentators stressed that the government must listen to its citizens, especially when parliament and opposition parties are deemed weak.

“A new government is needed to embark on consultation with stakeholders on a new law. In other words, no government should impose a law like this depending on a spineless parliament,” wrote Hassan A. Barari in an opinion article in the Jordan Times.

This could explain why Razzaz included the word “dialogue” in three of his first four tweets after being designated prime minister.

Jordan’s problems, with both its economy and public trust, are shared to varying degrees with other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Regional waves of discontent 

Tunisians took to the streets in January to protest a budget proposal that included an increase in fuel prices and additional taxes on goods. The apparent lack of trust in the political class could explain why a significant portion of the country’s population abstained from taking part in recent local elections.

In Morocco, an online campaign to boycott leading consumer brands for being too pricey has begun to show results. Companies and the government urged an end to the boycott. Some government officials insulted the boycotters, calling them “morons” or “cattle.”

Algeria, too, has seen strikes in its health and education sectors over the past few months, with workers citing poor working conditions and low salaries. As rising prices begin to pinch, many Algerians wonder if the revenues of their country’s oil resources are being pocketed by corrupt officials.

Trust further deteriorates when security forces respond to demonstrations with heavy-handed tactics, as has been documented by rights groups in various MENA states, or when protesters themselves turn to violence and lose wider public support.

Any serious attempt to solve the region’s economic problems will likely require re-establishing trust in the state by the region’s youth as they are the leading force behind the protests.