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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

General strike brings Jordan to a standstill

Protesters continue to demand end to austerity as incoming PM prepares reform plan

Jordanian protesters chant slogans during an anti-austerity rally on June 6, 2018, in front of the Labor Union offices in Amman. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
Jordanian protesters chant slogans during an anti-austerity rally on June 6, 2018, in front of the Labor Union offices in Amman. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

Shops, universities, offices and schools across Jordan were shuttered and deserted on Wednesday as part of a nationwide strike as protests over taxes and austerity measured entered their seventh day.

It was a rare nationwide walk-out for Jordan, following the success of a shorter, three-hour strike last week that kicked off protests over an income tax law introduced by the government that would raise tax on individuals by five per cent and companies from 20 to 40 per cent.

Those protests prompted King Abdullah to appoint former World Bank economist Omar Razzaz to form a new government and review Jordan’s tax system.

The streets in Amman were largely empty on Wednesday. Striking employees stood in front of some office buildings and hospitals holding up placards reading “Down with the income tax law”.

Despite calls to give the incoming government a chance to review the law and austerity measures, protesters vowed to continue demonstrations, turning against a professional association and union leaders at a protest to mark Wednesday’s strike.

Addressing a demonstration to celebrate the nationwide work stoppage, head of the Professional Associations Council Ali Obous announced that professional associations and unions would suspend protests for one week to “give the government a chance” to prepare it reform plan.

Before he finished his sentence, the crowd of some 1,000 erupted in boos, with people chanting “you sold out,” and “to the Fourth Circle, the people will not retreat,” in reference to ongoing protests at the Prime Ministry at Amman’s Fourth Circle area.

Association leaders retreated from the outraged crowd for an emergency meeting, returning shortly afterwards to tell their members that protests would continue.

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Despite rising anger over the economy, protesters still express support for King Abdullah and the security services, insisting their demands are purely economic. They want an end to austerity measures and to corruption, which they believe has worsened the resource-poor kingdom’s economic woes.

Mohammed Fares, 56, is of an older generation of Jordanians who is protesting for the first time. Speaking at the unions protest on Wednesday, he vowed to continue marching until austerity was ended. Mr Fares, who works as an electrical engineer, said that after three slow years, his business dried up completely within weeks of the introduction of new taxes on goods and services in January.

“The King was very direct in his letter of designation to the incoming prime minister, and we hope the government follows His Majesty’s lead,” he said.

But fear remains among even the most conciliatory protesters that if a dialogue is launched and committees are formed, there will be little concrete action. Instead, they fear, the income tax law and other austerity measures will remain untouched.

“If they start to study the law and discuss the law, that means we will never remove it,” Mr Fares said.

Others voiced optimism over the choice of Dr Razzaz, who recently served as education minister, as prime minister. However, they fear interest groups and conservative elements will hinder progress.

“We must give the new prime minister a chance, but we have to get rid of corruption in this country first to make sure his reforms work,” said Thaaer Klayel, 27, whose interior design business may be forced to pay up to 40 per cent tax if the income tax law is passed.

Mr Klayel, along with four of his colleagues, said they were going to join the nightly protests at the prime ministry for the very first time. “If we stand our ground and make the government scrap this income tax law it will be a win for all of Jordan,” said Klayel.

Jordan’s government introduced the controversial income tax law last Thursday in line with the conditions of a $723 million credit line from the IMF which requires Jordan to reduce its public debt from 95 per cent currently to 77 per cent by 2021. Aid-reliant Jordan has a budget deficit of $750m.