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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Few easy options for Jordan’s incoming prime minister

Ongoing demonstrations have been larger than the 2011 protests

Incoming Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al Razzaz is seen in Amman, Jordan April 10, 2018. Muhammad Hamed / Reuters
Incoming Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al Razzaz is seen in Amman, Jordan April 10, 2018. Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

When King Abdullah II accepted Hani Mulki’s resignation on Monday it was a stunning turnaround for the former prime minister, who had introduced a series of austerity measures, including taxes, fuel price hikes and subsidy cuts since January with little public opposition. The trigger of the protests was an income tax law introduced by the government on Thursday that would have broadened the individual income tax base and increased taxes on businesses and corporations.

Monday was not the first time that a Jordanian prime minister resigned in the face of popular protests. During the Arab uprisings in 2011, when protests for reform shook the kingdom, premiers Samir Rifai and Marouf Bakhit both resigned in the face of popular pressure.

Yet the recent protests – which have shook the kingdom each night since Thursday – have been greater both in terms of numbers of demonstrators and geographic scope than in 2011. Tens of thousands of Jordanians are taking part in protests in every province and major town; security sources claim that there were over 60 protests on Sunday alone.

It has been a festival-like atmosphere at the prime ministry at the heart of Amman, where thousands of young people, families and couples have gathered each night to demand the repeal of the income tax and other austerity measures, many remaining until sunrise.

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Having seen a carousel of prime ministers before and previous reform efforts stall, activists this time have vowed to either to stay in the street or return to the street in force if their goals are not met.

Activists shared posts on Facebook and other social media platforms pledging to continue their protests Monday evening, repeating the slogan: “a change in personnel does not mean a change in policies.” Many are calling for the repeal of the income tax law, the dissolution of parliament, the overturn of recent taxes on goods, or a combination of three as preconditions for stopping their demonstrations.

Jordan’s professional associations, which took the lead in public action by holding a general strike last week, said a second planned general strike on Wednesday would proceed as planned unless the income tax law was withdrawn.

“Seeing Mulki go was a step in the right direction, but we have to get rid of the income tax law and overturn these taxes,” said protester Abdullah Mohammed, a 29-year-old Amman taxi driver and father of two.

Mr Mohammed, along with dozens of taxi drivers, shop owners, waiters, vendors and others – who normally have peak business at night during Ramadan – say demand is so low in the kingdom this year due to the economic situation that they would rather protest than accumulate losses.

“We are not here because we want to be, we are here because we can no longer make ends meet,” Mr Mohammed said. “We need the government to take emergency measures to [allow us to] earn a living again.”

Others have begun to call for a taskforce to look into alleged corruption by public officials.

Analysts and officials agree that incoming Prime Minister Omar Al Razzaz will have few easy options and many hurdles to clear. Unemployment in Jordan has reached 18.4 per cent – rising to around 30 per cent among youth. The budget deficit stands at $750 million for 2018, and that is after Jordan received hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid.

Jordan is still online for the $723 million credit line from the IMF, which requires the country to take steps to reduce its public debt from 95 per cent to 77 per cent by 2021. Jordan’s public sector employs over 55 per cent of the population, taking up a large part of the budget.

Even activists are split on Dr Al Razzaz’s economic acumen. While some welcome a premier with an economic background, others criticise his World Bank credentials.

“We want to liberate Jordan from the World Bank and IMF control, why did they put a former World Bank employee as head of the government?” asked 26-year-old protester Noor Ibrahim.

Government officials who have worked with Dr Al Razzaz have previously praised his communication skills, his willingness to listen, affability and ability to involve others into the decision-making process. In order for Jordan to stem even larger protests and quell frustration in the street, observers say the incoming premier’s ability to involve disaffected young Jordanians will be just as important as the economic policies themselves.

“Dr Razzaz’s first priority should be to regain the confidence of the people and work in coordination with other institutions in the country such as the parliament, civil society – and most importantly these young Jordanians,” says Nabil Sharif, Jordanian political analyst and former minister.

Yet while the new government takes shape and prepares to respond to protesters’ demands, analysts say it is the end of business as usual for Jordanian governments.

“The Jordanian people have finally discovered their power and that they can change things on the ground,” Mr Sharif said. “This is a new reality that the government must not only accept, but adapt to.”

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