x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Jordan's rural poor the loudest critics of 'corrupt' politics

Jordan's Bedouin and tribal communities have become the loudest agitators against a political system they view as corrupt and dysfunctional.

Mohammed Zurqan, 61, who heads a clan of 1,400 people, has become concerned about the poverty of his constituents. “Look, I'm a sheikh, but things are so bad here that I can't even afford a car.”
Mohammed Zurqan, 61, who heads a clan of 1,400 people, has become concerned about the poverty of his constituents. “Look, I'm a sheikh, but things are so bad here that I can't even afford a car.”

TAFILAH, JORDAN // Residents of this isolated village in Jordan's vast southern desert simmer with resentment. Unemployment soars. Poverty festers. The young long for the opportunities available in the capital, Amman, about 180 kilometres away, which bustles with entertainment and jobs.

It is from the Bedouin and tribal communities in towns such as Tafilah where Jordan's monarchy has historically drawn its support. But during the past year they have become the loudest agitators against a political system they view as corrupt and dysfunctional.

While pro-reform demonstrations in the capital never gained much steam since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread to other Arab countries, the weekly protests on the streets of Tafilah and across Jordan's south have been more intense. Discontent in these conservative rural areas is what analysts say not only keeps Jordan's protest movement going but also tests the country's stability.

"It's a sign that Jordan's social contract is breaking," said Hussein Tawfiq, a human-rights lawyer and independent political analyst, from a suburb of Amman.

That contract has consisted of balancing a population of six million divided between Palestinian refugees who, becoming citizens, primarily live in cities and the monarchy's rural support base.

The latter is a mix of indigenous tribal and Bedouin communities that gave their loyalty to Jordanian kings in return for jobs in the military, security agencies and state-run industries. But they have watched, over the years, as Palestinians grew to more than 60 per cent of the population and far wealthier by controlling the country's private businesses.

Many rural Jordanians, as a result, see life under King Abdullah II's 13-year rule as getting worse.

Their public-sector wages have been weakened by the inflation caused by a rise in international food prices, inflows of Iraqi refugees following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and reductions in fuel subsidies. Their once secure state-provided jobs began vanishing when the monarchy started privatising government-run industry 15 years ago.

Analysts say more than 10,000 people lost jobs during that push, many of them from rural areas in the south that had worked in state-run mining companies. That sent unemployment rising in places, such as Tafilah, well beyond even the unofficial rate of 17 per cent, said Imad Hmoud, a business analyst and former editor of Jordan's Al Ghad newspaper.

He said rural communities now equate privatisation with corruption because the state's efforts to streamline its budget did nothing to stem Jordan's public debt from ballooning to US$20 billion (Dh73.4bn).

"They're asking where all the money has gone," said Mr Hmoud. "When you are in a place where there is no development, no income-generating industries, no jobs, and then you see in Amman the corruption, the outright looting, of course you will go out to the streets and fight to end corruption."

Moreover, some rural Jordanians now see as a political obstacle the gerrymandered electoral system, meant to give them more influence in parliament over urban Palestinians. Proposed reforms to distribute parliamentaty seats between urban and rural areas more equitably are believed to have faced resistance from the monarchy and, in April, convinced the reform-minded prime minister, Awn Khasawneh, to resign in frustration after only six months on the job.

The king is expected to soon form the country's fourth government since the Arab Spring started in December 2010.

"We're tired of these political games, and nowhere is frustration over this higher than in the rural areas in the south," said Ali Habashneh, a former army general who leads a group of retired military leaders calling for curbs to the king's powers.

That stalemate fuels demonstrations in places such as Tafilah. In June 2011, a number of its residents reportedly stoned King Abdullah's motorcade, although the government later denied this.

In March, security forces arrested three dozen protesters during a demonstration in which participants burnt tyres and criticised the monarchy.

Saed Al Oran, 29, a spokesman for a group of protesters in Tafilah, said residents became fed up with a lack of job opportunities and corruption.

His group believes a solution to Tafilah's problems can only come from reforms, such as ending the king's ability to select prime ministers and local governors, curbing his power over the judiciary and placing financial constraints on the royal family's budget.

The group reject claims that it wants power at the expense of urban Palestinians. Instead, it wants to end the traditional patronage system that favoured tribal figures in their area.

Tafilah residents say such patronage regularly results in corruption, including a community health centre worth several million dollars and funded by a western donor agency sponsored by a western donor agency. Although construction finished five years ago, it only recently opened - a lag that residents suspect was a result of local leaders lining their pockets with donor money.

"We're tired of this corruption," said Mr Al Oran. "The state tells the West that our problem is purely economic, but it's political and we're tired of the old ways of doing things here," he said.

But such blunt criticism of the king's powers has alarmed elders in Tafilah, such as Mohammed Zurqan, 61, who heads a clan of 1,400 people. He too has become concerned about the poverty of his constituents, especially since Tafilah's main industry - the state-run phosphate mining company - was privatised during the past decade.

"I go to see the people in the government to tell them there is a crisis here, that our people are marginalised, but they don't help me," said Mr Zurqan. He added: "Look, I'm a sheikh, but things are so bad here that I can't even afford a car."

In the past, the state could have blunted public discontent by raising salaries for members of the military or paying cash to local sheikhs. But younger residents see these old mechanisms as a source of their problems.

"Look, the older generation looked to the state for their rights and well-being," said Mustafa Huneifat, 35, a teacher of English at a public school in Tafilah.

"But the younger people are educated. They're connected to the rest of the world and they want to be run like a normal country."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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