(February 21, 2018 / MEMRI)
For years, Jordan has struggled economically, with a budget deficit and a large public debt. Most of the revenue for the budget comes from aid in the form of grants from its allies, primarily the United States and Saudi Arabia, but these have been reduced in recent years. As part of reforms that Jordan is carrying out under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, the government passed a series of austerity measures in January that included cuts in state spending.
Under a new budget—fast-tracked and passed by the parliament on Dec. 31, 2017, —the subsidy for flour was eliminated, leading to a 65 percent to 100 percent rise in the price of bread. Additionally, sales tax was raised from 6 percent to 10 percent on 160 goods and services, and a 4 percent to 5 percent sales tax was levied on products that had previously not been taxed. In early February, fuel and electricity also went up, as did taxes on public transportation.
It should be noted that prices also rose in the country in early 2017, so that in less than a year, the cost of living has increased by a resounding 18 percent. Likewise, in recent days there has been discussion of amending the income-tax law to include more people as taxpayers, also in accordance with IMF demands.
The Jordanian government has worked hard to prepare public opinion for these measures. The elimination of the bread subsidy was framed as a transfer of subsidy budget from the product, i.e. bread, to consumers who were Jordanian citizens, and a mechanism was established for paying compensation to citizens in their wages or government benefit allowances, according to government-set eligibility requirements.
Syrian refugees and foreign workers will not, however, receive this compensation. As Industry, Trade and Supply Minister Yarub Qudah explained at a Jan. 8 press conference, when he presented the new bread prices, non-citizens now comprise 35 percent of the population and consume some 40 percent of the bread in the country; the new arrangement takes all that into account. By saying this, he was also sending a message to the international community about the burden Jordan was shouldering in taking in refugees, as well as the country’s need for related aid.
The price increases sparked protest in the form of harsh criticism by the opposition, reactions on social media, and demonstrations and unrest across the country. The Jordanian press joined in, publishing articles about the dire straits of the citizens, and the disconnect between the government and the Jordanian street.
At the same time, government officials—headed by King Abdullah II himself—sought to calm the waters, as did commentators in the government daily Al-Rai and other publications close to the regime, which all mobilized to ward off the criticism.
This is not the first time that unrest followed austerity measures and increases in the cost of living. In 2012, protests broke out across the country after the government eliminated the fuel subsidy. Back then, there was criticism of King Abdullah and even threats to bring down the regime. This time, however, at least so far, the main criticism is against the government, not the king.
Jordanian Opposition: Down With The Government, Rise Up Against It
As mentioned, the government’s austerity measures sparked furious criticism from the Jordanian opposition. The National Coalition for Reform parliamentary faction, which includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the government’s decisions, called for its resignation, and even sought a no-confidence vote against it in parliament.
The Citizens Take To The Streets: Demonstrations And Riots
After the new prices went into effect in early February, protests broke out in several locations around the kingdom. On February 1, 2018, hundreds demonstrated in front of the prime minister’s office and parliament headquarters in Amman, calling for the dismissal of the government and parliament and holding up placards saying “No to the Policy of Starvation,” and “We Are the Red Line.”
On February 2, the first Friday after the price hikes, protest marches were held following the Friday prayers in several districts,and on February 4 there were riots and tire burnings in the city of Al-Salt. The protests turned violent in Al-Karak as well: on February 8, protesters threw stones at the district governor’s headquarters, burned tires and burned down a government office in charge of overseeing prices. The security forces dispersed the protesters and arrested several of them. On February 11, it was reported that an army warehouse had been torched.
On the night of February 10 protesters marched towards the Royal Bureau in Amman, demanding the dismissal of the government and parliament. They also demanded the dismissal of officials who have been circulating among government posts for decades, saying that those who took part in creating the kingdom’s current problems cannot be part of the solution, and calling for the country to take a different economic direction.
There were also reports of Jordanian citizens who attempted suicide due to the economic situation. Some even drew a connection between the government’s economic measures and several robberies that took place in the country. Yet another expression of protest was a sermon given by a preacher in ‘Ajloun in northern Jordan, who deviated from the standard sermon provided by the Endowments Ministry and devoted his remarks to the difficult economic situation of Jordanians in light of the rising prices. He called on the state to intervene and levy taxes on the rich “instead of tapping the pockets of the poor.” The incident led to the preacher’s dismissal.
Protests On Social Media
Protests were also expressed on social media, with users posting angry and often sarcastic posts on Facebook and Twitter and launching hashtags, such as “Where are they leading you, our country?”, “price hike,” and “Bread.”
Jordanian Press Criticizes Government’s Economic Decisions; Claims It Is Out Of Touch With The People
Criticism of price hikes also appeared in the Jordanian press, especially the non-establishment press, which published articles presenting the predicament of the Jordanian citizen and alleging a disconnect between the government and the street.
Al-Ghad Editor: The Government Doesn’t Understand The Citizens’ Plight; The Gap Between The Public And The State Is Wide And Dangerous
In a February 4, 2018 article titled “Governments That Are Not Fluent in the Language of Their People,” Jumana Ghunaimat, editor-in-chief of the Jordanian Al-Ghad daily, claimed that the Jordanian establishment is not aware of the feelings of its citizens, and called for a dialogue between the government and the different sectors of society so that the government would understand the citizens’ hardships.
Jordanian Journalist: A Citizen’s Suicide Attempt Due To Economic Distress Is A Serious Message To The Government
Following the suicide attempt of a Jordanian citizen who had been fired from his job, Muhammad Abu Rumman, a journalist and researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, published a column in the Al-Ghad daily on February 1, 2018, in which he addressed the social implications of the economic crisis and called upon the government to initiate dialogue with the Jordanian public.
Independent Journalist: The Government Decisions Are Wiping Out The Middle Class, It Should Stand Down
In a January 17, 2018 article on the ammonnews.net website, titled “A Nail in the Coffin of the Middle Class,” journalist Musa ‘Awni Al-Saket asserted that the government decisions are contrary to basic economic logic and harm the Jordanian middle class, and called on the government to resign.
Jordanian Establishment Strives To Restore Calm, Urges Citizens To Understand Need For Painful Measures
Amid the harsh criticism and the increasing protests and riots, the Jordanian establishment made efforts to calm the situation and quell the public’s anger. Prime Minister Hani Al-Mulki formed a ministerial committee headed by Social Development Minister Hala Lattouf, which he said would “create a social safety net” and set out clear criteria for entitlement to government aid following the new economic decisions. Government officials, as well as the king, took to the media to explain that the decisions were unavoidable, and articles in the government daily Al-Rai also attempted to answer the criticism.
King ‘Abdallah: Jordan Is Obliged To Comply With IMF Recommendations; People Must Support Government As It Deals With Crisis
Jordan’s King ‘Abdallah has repeatedly expressed solidarity with the people and urged the government to help the needy and the middle class. In a February 4, 2018 audience with public figures and army veterans in the city of Al-Salt, one of the hotspots of the protests and riots, he expressed understanding of the people’s economic difficulties, saying: “Jordan is experiencing severe economic pressures, which compelled it to comply with a large majority of the IMF recommendations [i.e., hike taxes on products and services]. The government refrained from implementing many [other] IMF recommendations. The people must stand with the Jordanian [government] so it can adhere to its positions, meet the challenges and overcome the crises.”
* Z. Harel is a Research Fellow at MEMRI. Full article can be viewed here.