x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 August 2017

Discontent lingers over subsidy cuts in Jordan

Already angry at what they call the slow the pace of reform, many are now protesting at the removal of state subsidies on fuel and gas

Jordanians protest against rising fuel prices in Amman on Friday.
Jordanians protest against rising fuel prices in Amman on Friday.

AMMAN // For taxi driver Azzam Eid, last week's rise in fuel prices has made a deep cut in his livelihood.

He now brings in a quarter of his usual daily profit of 12 Jordanian dinars (Dh62) for his 12-hour day on the streets of Amman.

"Can I continue working like this? No, of course not," said Mr Eid, 39, a week after the government slashed some fuel and gas subsidies, raising the cost of the lowest grade of petrol by 15 per cent. "It's ridiculous. I have a family. I have two kids."

The fierce protests across Jordan, in response to the price rise, has focused on the economic pinch in which Jordanians found themselves - a departure from previous demonstrations in which the emphasis was on political reform.

While the anger has sputtered out to smaller, sporadic strikes, sit-ins and marches, analysts said that if the state fails to address Jordanians' concerns, the discontent over prices and jobs is unlikely to lessen.

Still, Jordan is not at a breaking point, observers said.

Opposition groups were quick to distance themselves from the near- unprecedented calls by a number of protesters for the downfall of King Abdullah II. And many Jordanians fear the loss of their country's relative stability in light of uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, especially their northern neighbour Syria, that deteriorated into civil war.

But protesters have pressed on. From a march by union members and a rally by Islamists in Amman, to demonstrations in Irbid, Ma'an, Karak, and other cities during the past week and a half, thousands have turned out to call for the government's resignation and the cancellation of the subsidy cuts, which pushed up the prices of cooking and heating gas by 54 per cent and diesel and kerosene products by nearly a third.

Police have arrested at least 157 people since the outbreak of protests on November 16. One person was killed during an attack on the police station in Irbid, and 75 people, including 58 policemen, have been injured.

Despite the move to cut subsidies, the kingdom still has a long way to go to shore up its shaky finances. Unemployment and poverty run high as aid from Arabian Gulf countries - a major source of income - has stalled.

A halt in cheaper gas from Egypt, the pipeline has been blown up at least 14 times, and the Egyptian government has redirected the gas to meet domestic demand, has left the Jordanian government paying premiums to meet energy demand.

An influx of Syrian refugees has added further strain on officials' attempts to rein in the country's swelling budget deficit and debts.

Thousands have turned out for demonstrations since the Arab Spring swept the region last year, but opposition groups said they the protests failed to achieve true political reform.

A coalition of disparate opposition groups, from the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood to liberals, students, union members, and communists, have mostly directed their calls for reform at ministers as opposed to the king. Insulting the king can result in jail. The groups have called for change within the system, unlike their contemporaries in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Arab states.

King Abdullah has made some adjustments, such as allowing for an elected prime minister after the January 23 parliamentary elections, taking steps to increase the parliament's independence, boosting multiparty participation, and creating more freedom for public gatherings. But opposition leaders have called these measures hollow.

"They called for reform, but they saw that nothing happened. The path was blocked. There was no solution," said Mohammed Sweidan, the managing editor of local news at Al Ghad, a daily paper. "We've had protests for a while - sit-ins, demonstrations, marches. It's all been for political reform. This time, it's something that really affects people's lives."

Opposition leaders said last week's outburst reflected a long-standing popular discontent.

"If real political reforms had taken place, the current economic situation wouldn't exist," said Maisara Malass, a trade-union activist.

An array of opposition groups have announced they will boycott the parliamentary vote, joining the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Islamic Action Front, in rejecting the new elections law.

"The situation is getting more complicated" and will be harder for the government to fix, said Zaki Bini Ersheid, vice chairman of the Brotherhood in Jordan.

King Abdullah has not spoken publicly about the matter, and analysts said they did not expect him to accede to demands for the government's resignation and a return to higher subsidies.

But Mr Bini Ersheid said that he still hoped that the king will realise the severity of the situation.

The government is positioning itself for a US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) loan from the International Monetary Fund that would give it more financial flexibility.

"If we receive some aid now, the government can do a lot economically," said Musa Shteiwi, the director of the University of Jordan's centre for strategic studies. "But I think protests will continue."

Ali, a blogger who attended several protests over the last week and asked that his last name be withheld, pledged to keep up the pressure on leaders. But, he said: "It's not time to call for the downfall of the regime".

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae