The Eid Al Adha is now over. Jordanians had plenty of time to rest, relax, shop, socialise, perform important religious duties, travel and even be bored. But the government’s last-minute decision, before closing down for Eid, to maintain summertime throughout has contributed to filling people’s time during the days off.
The five-day holiday was quite long for a country that needs to mobilise every possible potential to enhance its productivity amidst a severe economic crisis. It would have been enough to end the break by Sunday. In 2011, one remembers, Al Adha holiday was a full nine days — five working days in between two weekends.
Maybe the break last week was necessary for the two-week-old government of Abdullah Ensour to plan its next moves, which were put off until after Eid. Most urgent is the economy and how to address the mounting financing difficulties.
The prime minister made it very clear that there should be another round of price rises, mainly of fuel and oil derivatives, and lifting of government subsidy on such products to meet the World Bank conditions for helping Jordan cope with the crisis.
Ensour, who was a strong opponent of previous governments’ similar decisions when he was a leading opposition figure in the dissolved parliament, turned staunchly in favour of the very same prescriptions he initially rejected. He went as far as warning Jordanians that they have to choose between price rises or devaluing the Jordanian dinar.
Had it not been for the sobriety, patience and wise understanding of the Jordanians, such hasty approach to a deeply sensitive matter could have triggered panic with disastrous consequences. Thank God it did not, and let us hope that the severe criticism the ill-advised prime ministerial mishap has generated would caution the government against such indiscretion.
The Jordanian dinar should be protected at any cost to prevent a very bad situation from becoming a fatal national disaster.
The excruciating reality is that when put before such a stark choice, Jordanians would accept neither. Objectively and in normal circumstances, prices should reflect the real value of the commodity on offer, and there should be no subsidies. We should, as other people in many other better-managed countries, pay the real price of our basic necessities, and as government and people, we should live within the limits of our means, no matter how modest, without borrowing against our future incomes and without accumulating deficit.
It is the duty of the authorities to build the entire governing system on such sound grounds where everything is clear and amply explained to the population and where people are convinced of the reliability of their governments’ measures.
The situation in Jordan is the exact opposite. Many, wrongly or rightly, blame it all on the successive governments’ incompetence and mismanagement. They blame corruption for squandering state assets and impoverishing the people; they condemn authorities’ dithering and unpersuasive drive to track down the corrupt and recover the stolen money; and as a result, they believe they should not shoulder the cost of a crisis that not only they did not create, but of which they are victims.
That is, of course, in addition to the fact that most people cannot afford additional price burdens on their diminishing incomes.
Among such confusion and an exceedingly eroded people confidence in the state, other objective factors that contributed to the crisis, such as the rising oil and food prices on the international market, the interruption of the Egyptian gas supply, the rising local demand and the reduction of foreign aid, fail to create a balance among the conflicting views.
Official governmental handling did not help either. The last few Cabinets, each enduring no longer than six months, have not been successful in confronting the crisis with any credible and adequate remedies to restore confidence and to convince the people that there is at last seriousness and openness in handling the situation.
To be accepted, price rises and the elimination of subsidies would make sense if part of a comprehensive economic reform package that should include, among other long-term planning measures, drastic decisions reducing public spending (not symbolically or artificially as has been), publishing correct figures of energy cost and revenue, initiating a convincing process for addressing the troubling issue of corruption and apprising the people of what the government earns and what it spends, and accountability.
Evidently, economic reform and short-term or long-term crisis management can only function within a balanced democratic system, which hopefully we are slowly heading for.
The most basic prerequisites for a functioning democracy, in addition to a fairly representative House of elected representatives, are a fully independent judiciary and a free press. There is no doubt that we are making progress in that direction, but the road ahead is still long and not without stubborn obstructions.
The next general elections will take place early next year. Assurances coming right from the top, from His Majesty King Abdullah, that they will be fair and correct, and that they would lead to parliamentary governments hold great promise. However, they come as we have a controversial Elections Law that resulted in elections boycotting by the opposition, which is not limited to the Islamic Action Front.
The good thing is that the debate continues, and not without positive effect. The problem is that the urgent measures needed to address a pressing economic crisis can hardly wait for the political process to mature, which rather than months may take years.
The current government needs to act quickly to deal with a critical situation. Raising some prices may have to be difficult to avoid, but it should be the last option. Other measures, short and long term, should be considered, too.
The imperative starting point is to convince a disheartened and a sceptical public that the government is honest and serious. Attempts to patronise, let alone mislead, a mature populace have only precipitated adverse results. It is time that the current government acknowledge the intensity of the calamity, put the people before the facts, no matter how ugly they can be, admit former malfunction, promise a credible programme of correction for immediate implementation that tackles corruption and ask people’s help to cross the storm towards the shores of national safety.
More than the economic crisis, we are facing a national crisis. The priority should be to get out of it for the sake of all of us. We need to join hands to act. Accountability, for sure, but safety should come before accountability.
The writer is a columnist at the Jordan Times, where this article was published on Oct. 31, 2012