x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Jordan's silent majority takes to the streets

The lifting of fuel subsidies in Jordan has sent the normally detached Jordanians of Palestinian origin out in protest, raising alarm in the government. Suha Philip Ma'ayeh reports from Amman

Abdel Halim Qteishat with his daughters at home in Al Baqaa camp for Palestinian refugees, north Amman.
Abdel Halim Qteishat with his daughters at home in Al Baqaa camp for Palestinian refugees, north Amman.

AMMAN // Abu Yazan closed his small shop for the evening, in a hurry to join the crowd at the Hussein Palestinian refugee camp protesting the country-wide price hikes on gas and fuel.

"It is the first time we go out against prices. When we used to protest, it had to do with Gaza," Mr Yazan, a 32-year-old Jordanian of Palestinian origin said last month. As he locked his shop, a recording in the background blared: "Welcome! Half a dinar!", referring to the prices of the made-in-China trinkets, from hair bands to dusters, he sells in the crowded market.

"I swear to God we still did not feel the impact but, in a month, there will be more thefts and crimes. People will not tolerate the prices. I don't know how we are going to survive. The most important thing we think of now is how are we going to eat and drink," he said.

Government lifted the subsidies on November 13, raising the cost of heating and cooking gas by 54 per cent and some oil derivatives by up to 28 per cent. One person was killed and dozens injured, including policemen in the protests. More than 150 men were arrested.

It also sent Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who were once reluctant to join the small but persistant anti-government protests that began almost two years ago, trickling into the streets.

Their unexpected participation raised alarm in government that, since the Arab Spring, has counted on the detachment of a segment of the population that makes up more than 50 per cent of the country's 6.5 million population.

"It is the first time that the silent majority started taking to the streets," said Imad Hmoud, owner of Satel news website in Amman. "In the past two years, there was no consensus on the political demands, but now the economic grievances has widened the base of protesters and the Palestinians joined in."

"If their [economic] grievances are not addressed the demands will become stronger and they will ask for a role in the decision-making process. This will add pressure on the monarchy to make change," he said.

Unlike protests that called for reforming or toppling the monarchy, the demonstrators in camps such as Baqqa, Al Hussein and Azmi Mufti, largely blamed government corruption for the country's economic woes. Some protests made rare calls for the overthrow of the king.

But Jordan's prime minister, Abdullah Ensour, said shaky state finances forced him to hike prices to save the Jordanian economy from further deterioration.

The said the country's public debt had ballooned to Dh22 billion because of rising oil prices, the interruption of gas supplies from Egypt and government subsisidies for services.

"The debt value of the gross domestic product reached a record high and swelled to 75 per cent compared with 60 per cent," the minister was quoted as saying in the government news agency last week.

Abu Mutasem, 56, is an activist who sells furniture in Baqaa, the largest Palestinian refugee camp, which was opened in 1968, a year after te six-day Arab-Israeli war that send 380,000 fleeing to Jordan.

"Although we share one identity, we were neutral about the protests," said Mr Mutasem. "First it was Jordanians who were unhappy with the situation, although, unlike us, they have jobs in the government, security and the army. As long as the main citizen was unhappy, we thought of the protests as a Jordanian affair.

"Now there is an awakening due to the price hikes. We are all suffering."

Analysts say the initial reluctance of Palestinians to join the protest movement hinged on the question of identity - their perception of being temporary guests in Jordan, and concern about losing their jobs, businesses, having their citizenship revoked or being discrimated against.

Analysts say the initial reluctance of Palestinians to join the protest movement hinged on the question of identity - their perception of being temporary guests in Jordan, and concern about losing their jobs or citizenship if they are arrested. While Palestinians dominate the business sector and many enjoy equal rights with Jordanians, including the right to vote, they remain under-represented in the government sector, security jobs and political life. The election law is gerrymandered in areas that has a majority of Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

As well, many are haunted by the 1970 Black September unrest when the late King Hussein cracked down on Palestinian guerillas who attemped to overthrow him. As such, their loyalty is sometimes questioned in a country that has opened its doors for them in the refugee wave following the 1948-1967 Arab Israeli wars.

"They are afraid they will pay the price," Mohammad Abu Rumman, an analyst with the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, said. "They are concerned that their citizenships will be revoked and that they will be discriminated against because of their origin if they are detained or arrested. This is not necessarily true. Jordanians, who were arrested during the protests, were treated harshly. "

In 2009, Human Rights Watch criticised Jordan for revoking the citizenships of Jordanians of Palestinian origin. The government argued it was only asking them to clarify their status by renewing permits that recognise them as citizens in the West Bank, in an attempt to fend off moves by Israel to remove Palestinians from the territories. Since then, the government said, it has returned citizenship cards. But the feelings of insecurity among Palestinians remain in a country that is buffeted by turmoil between the Israeli Palestinian conflict to its west, Syria's war in the north and Iraq's instability in the east.

In the early days of Jordan's protests, their participation was limited mostly to members of the Islamic Action Front, Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood offshoot. But when the fuel and gas prices jumped, Jordanians and Palestinians equally felt the pinch.

Still, despite their participation, many are worried. They equate political activism with betraying their own country, aside from their concern about upsetting Jordan, a country that had welcomed them.

Sitting on a mattress in his Diwan, Abdel Halim Quteishat, 66, a poet and Palestinian refugee at the Baqaa refugee camp said he only supports the protests that demand holding the corrupt people accountable. He is concerned that any political reforms would lead to chaos and jeapordise the future of Palestinians in the country.

"We have boundaries in this country," he said. "Therefore we have to watch what we say ... We only want the regime to take the corrupt people to court and we do not want chaos."

He puts his faith in Jordan's ruling family, the Hashemites.

The Hashemites are the unifying factor. They are the least harmful among leaders in the Arab world. The alternative is unknown, he said.