x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Jordan's reforms depend on trust

Pragmatic reforms should focus on ordinary Jordanians who want stability, prosperity and someone to listen to them.

There is something paradoxical about Jordan's frequent protests that usually peak after Friday prayers. Protesters - who often focus on unemployment and economic issues - block traffic and paralyse major urban centres. The result is even more uncertainty in the economic environment; in effect, demonstrators contribute to the very problems to which they object.

That is not to say that their complaints are baseless, or can be ignored. Protesters call for everything from a crackdown on corruption, to restoration of gas subsidies, overhaul of the judiciary and electoral reform ... the list goes on and on.

There are limits, at least on the economic front, to what the government can do - further subsidies or an expansion of state-sector employment are fiscally untenable in the long term. But unemployed Jordanians in the country's under-developed south are threatening to ramp up acts of civil disobedience to capture the government's attention. "We want to step up our measures because nobody is listening to us," Rashed Al Khattab, a protester in Ma'an, told The National.

What Amman can do is address that growing sense of alienation in society. Since 2005, Jordanians have been promised change, but the pace has been very slow. The 10-year National Agenda unveiled in February 2005 was meant to be a blueprint for reforms - ranging from reducing double-digit unemployment to broadening political respresentation - but so far there has been little concrete progress.

The strategy to mollify frustration has been a series of cabinet reshuffles, which some Jordanians have seen as cosmetic fixes. As the country goes to the polls for parliamentary elections tomorrow, Islamist and youth leaders say they will boycott.

Admittedly, there are elements of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition who will object to absolutely anything and everything. Pragmatic reforms will not win those parties over, but instead should focus on the majority of Jordanians who want stability, prosperity and, as Mr Al Khattab has said, someone to listen to them.

Morocco offers something of an example. In 2011, as protests mounted, Rabat unveiled a new constitution, paving the way for a partial handover of power to elected leaders. This allowed for discussions on economic issues to occur in a less-charged environment. Morocco still has a long way to go, but Jordan must take that first step.