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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Jordan protests against price rises signal growing resentment

Demonstrations have so far been small in scale — but analysts say they underscore the anger of a quieter majority who, in time, could react in far more forceful ways

Jordanians shout slogans during a protest against government austerity measures in front of the parliament building in Amman on February 1, 2018. Amel Pain / EPA
Jordanians shout slogans during a protest against government austerity measures in front of the parliament building in Amman on February 1, 2018. Amel Pain / EPA

A sit-in by scores of farmers outside the Jordanian parliament is entering its second week as widespread anger against a slew of unpopular austerity measures shows no sign of abating.

The farmers began their demonstration on Tuesday last week in protest against the introduction of taxes on agricultural goods which they say have drastically increased production costs. Since then, the police have destroyed a protest tent set up by the farmers, briefly detained three of the demonstrators and beaten another who later had to be hospitalised.

But despite all this, the farmers are refusing to budge.

"All product inputs like animal feed, insecticides and fertilisers were [previously] exempt from taxes. But when the government imposed taxes, it increased production cost by 10 per cent," said Abdul Shakour Jamjoum, head of the Jordanian Poultry Producers' Federation.

"The taxes will translate into losses for farmers and will eventually hurt the consumers."

Farmers are not the only ones angry about the austerity measures. In recent days, protests have broken out in several cities across the country, as Jordanians struggle to cope with the lifting of bread subsidies, which has doubled prices, and an increase of taxes on hundreds of everyday goods, ranging from internet and electricity to soft drinks and stationery.

So far at least, these protests have been fairly small in scale and have not spread to every part of the country. But analysts say this merely reflects the fact that most Jordanians have given up all hope in their government's ability to improve the economy and that the protests underscore the growing resentment of a quieter majority who, in time, could react in far more forceful ways.

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"Whether people took to the streets or not is not the indicator [by] which we measure social stability. The government’s measures are catastrophic," said Ahmed Awad, director of the Phenix Centre for Economic and Informatics Studies in Amman. "People are frustrated. Resentment is building and at some point the situation will explode and potentially lead to random chaos [such as rioting]."

Imad Hmoud, an independent business analyst based in Amman, also said the price increases were threatening social stability.

"Thefts are on the rise while people have lost faith in the political system," he said, pointing out that salaries have remained stagnant despite austerity measures in recent years.

"Citizens have already tried to tighten their belts in the past two years. They cannot take it anymore. How are they going to survive? Can they cut their food spending? Can they buy less milk for their babies?"

The cost-cutting measures introduced in this year's budget — which came into force last month — are the third round implemented since Amman struck an agreement with the International Monetary Fund in 2016 to generate revenue and curb spending. Under the deal, Jordan must reduce public debt to 77 per cent of GDP by 2021.

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With the debt currently standing at 95 per cent of GDP — 27.3 billion Jordanian dinars — however, this seems a tall order. And with unemployment and poverty levels already at 18.5 per cent and 14.4 per cent respectively, it does not seem as though Jordanians can be squeezed any further.

On Thursday last week, in one of the biggest anti-austerity protests seen so far, hundreds gathered in the town of Al Salt, 30 kilometres north-east of Amman, calling on prime minister Hani Mulki and the parliament to step down. The following day, protesters in the southern town of Karak chanted: "People want the downfall of the government."

But although Mr Mulki has been the target of protesters' chants, many Jordanians believe he is being used by the king as a buffer to absorb the rising discontent.

A video posted on Facebook last week showed an activist in the town of Dhiban, located 70km from Amman, addressing a small group of protesters.

"The prime minister did not (parachute) from the sky … We know who brought him … And we know that the policies he is adopting are imposed on him," the activist said.

"We have a message to the king: People want him to interfere … If he doesn’t take action, the country will reach a dead end."

"Things will escalate automatically whether there are protests or not. People are hungry," he added.

Odeh Hamaydeh, a former Jordanian intelligence officer, said the authorities had stepped up arrests of activists and targeted critics in recent years in an effort to prevent protests. They are particularly concerned about the potential for widespread unrest, he said, because of what has happened in neighbouring Syria and Iraq.

“The situation in Jordan is similar to Tunisia before the revolution. But once the prayer beads fall apart, there will be no point of return.”