Last week's government decision to end subsidies for oil derivatives has triggered the worst episode of public protests and riots across Jordan since 1989. It also presented the most difficult challenge to the government since the arrival of the Arab Spring to the kingdom almost two years ago. Economic grievances drove thousands of Jordanians to the streets, some for the first time, demanding immediate political reforms. In some cases angry protesters scuffled with anti-riot police, attacked government buildings and set banks and cars on fire. To the shock of many some even shouted anti-regime slogans, forcing the Islamists and other political parties and professional unions to distance themselves and reiterate their demand of regime reforms.
What followed was a tense week of intermittent protests, public strikes and political mobilization which underlined the level of public anger and frustration. Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour continued to defend his decision to enforce the latest measures saying that government finances were in dire shape and that he could not wait any longer. He admitted that such measures should have been taken by previous governments some years ago, but said that unless they were adopted now the national economy would face a calamity.
Later on he insisted that the decision was his alone and that he assumes full responsibility for it. Speaking to reporters Dr Ensour, 73, said that he had gone against the advice of the intelligence circles and decided to float gasoline and cooking gas prices in order to alleviate pressure on the national treasury. The measures will raise gasoline prices by 11 percent and cooking gas costs by more than 50 percent. The decision will affect the majority of Jordanians although the government announced that it will give cash compensation to families whose annual income is less than $14,000. Many economists publicly challenged Ensour's statistics and logic. Commentators criticized the timing and the objectives and warned against a public backlash that will threaten Jordan's stability.
The Islamists, who have spearheaded the opposition especially in the past two years, were quick to condemn government's actions. They called on the prime minister to rescind or suspend the recent measures and warned that Jordanians will never accept them. They used the opportunity to press King Abdallah to carry out additional constitutional reforms. Others warned that the recent price hikes will undermine next January's parliamentary elections.
Jordan's economic woes are not new. The kingdom has endemic unemployment and poverty problems. The call for political reforms has been linked to combating economic ailments.
Many Jordanians believe that neo-liberal economic policies have led to widespread corruption. They believe that governments have done little to battle corruption or investigate wrongdoing in major privatization deals of once publicly owned companies.
In addition they blame bad planning for creating more than 60 independent corporations that drain government budget. Prime Minister Ensour has announced that his government will initiate a process to abolish or merge most of these corporations.
The recent protests have pointed to a new disturbing development. While political parties and professional unions have called for political reforms, a number of youth movements (hirak) have raised anti-regime slogans. These movements represent young Jordanians from all walks of life and from all parts of the kingdom. It is no wonder that arrests carried out last week included young Jordanians some of whom were accused of anti-regime actions and now face criminal trials before State Security courts.
It is clear that the government is paying the price for ignoring the unemployment problem and for failing to create development projects in deprived governorates like Kerak and Maan. Anti-regime slogans by young Jordanians, including those residing in Palestinian refugee camps, represent the biggest challenge to the regime yet. While Islamists and other parties have distanced themselves from them, the fact that hard-line youth movements are now active in the streets should not be ignored.
But in spite of recent protests it is not correct to believe that Jordan is on the brink of a popular uprising. Opposition political parties have reiterated that they want reforms and nothing more. The majority of Jordanians support the monarchy and believes it is the only institution capable of uniting the country and preserving stability. But even those who are most loyal to the regime believe that last week's events now warrant a grand political gesture by the king.
In their view an inclusive political process is needed now to offset public anger and frustration. It should include amending the election law so that opposition parties can be lured to join in. Some even went as far as demanding a national salvation government that can take over and prepare for an open and free election. In their view Jordan is at a crucial crossroad where dealing with the compounded problems requires consensus. The worst thing that could happen now is for the Jan. 23 elections to go on amid heightened political and economic pressures.
(This article was published in Arab News on Nov. 21, 2012)