x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

New wave of protest sweeps Jordan

Jordan's critics and allies increasingly warn of more trouble ahead if King Abdullah does not heed demands for more reform.

Jordanians protest after their government cuts fuel subsidies. Prices for cooking gas will rise by 50 per cent, while diesel and kerosene will rise 33 per cent, and lower grade petrol, 14 per cent.
Jordanians protest after their government cuts fuel subsidies. Prices for cooking gas will rise by 50 per cent, while diesel and kerosene will rise 33 per cent, and lower grade petrol, 14 per cent.

AMMAN // Fuel-price protests, vast public debt, an emboldened Muslim Brotherhood opposition and a civil war raging across the border are just some of the competing demands Jordan's King Abdullah has faced since the Arab Spring engulfed the region. And his task has become even more complicated after yesterday's protests.

Both critics and allies increasingly warn of more trouble ahead if the king does not heed demands for more reform.

Since the protests began in Jordan in January of last year, he has reshuffled his cabinet five times and overseen dozens of constitutional amendments. But the king remains caught between appeasing the opposition and his loyalist base who are wary of reforms.

Yesterday's protests erupted within hours of the government announcement that fuel subsidies would be cut. Frustrations over the economy and allegations of government corruption have boiled over in recent months.

"I hate to say this, but the only way to challenge the situation is to take to the streets," said a government official last month who is close to the king.

"But we can't have this polarisation when there are so many conflicts and so much upheaval tearing the region apart."

A moderate economic reformer with close ties to the west and Arabain Gulf countries, the 50-year-old king has remained firmly in control of the country on a reputation as a pillar of stability.

But the scope of his role is one pressure point.

Islamists and small tribal groups want more curbs on his power, yet their rallies have until now remained tame relative to the rest of the region.

Last month, thousands of Islamists marched through Amman in the biggest display of street power by the Muslim Brotherhood since protests began.

The rally took place a day after King Abdullah dissolved parliament and called for elections in January.

Emboldened by the election successes of brethren in Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamist movement vowed to boycott the upcoming poll over an election law passed by the government in July.

The law favours the monarchy's traditional support base of rural tribesman over the Brotherhood's urban base of Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

The latter form the majority of Jordan's six million population, but the new law would effectively enshrine the Brotherhood's under-representation in parliament.

"The powers that be have made it clear they do not want to compromise over reform," said Hamza Mansour, the head of the Brotherhood's political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF).

The Brotherhood wants the king to rein in corruption and relinquish some power, including the right to appoint prime ministers and dissolve parliament. But they have stopped short of calling for his removal.

The king's allies insist he is keen on ushering in change but, in the interests of stability, he prefers to introduce it gradually.

"Our society is tribal," said Faisal Al Fayez, who served as prime minister from 2003 to 2005. Any reforms, he added, had to be acceptable to tribal interests.

In the face of a spiralling public debt that has reached more than US$20 billion (Dh73.5bn), the king had no choice but to lift expensive subsidies.

But critics say that only a bold restructuring of the political system can resolve Jordan's ills and satisfy public discontent.

Some doubt that will happen.

"He still believes he can still solve Jordan's problems through economic reform," Imad Hmoud, a business analyst and former editor of Jordan's Al Ghad newspaper, said in reference to King Abdullah.

Instead of rolling out meaningful political reforms, the king has instead clamped down on dissent.

He recently approved legislation giving the government enhanced powers to block media websites and last month, and security forces arrested over a dozen peaceful demonstrators, that Human Rights Watch (HRW) said was evidence of "how shallow promises of political freedoms in Jordan are".

Some Jordanians fear that the situation might develop into a crisis.

"Before all these uprising, the number one issue for Jordanians was the economy," said Sammie Abu Hussein, 49, the owner of a book shop in Amman.

"Now everyone's concerned that what's happening in Syria could happen here."

But Jordan's powerful security agencies, which have been empowered since King Abdullah assumed the throne from his later father Hussein in 1999, could be stalling the reforms, according to an analyst.

"I personally believe this monarch realises well the dangers" of failing to speed up reforms, said Mustafa Hamarneh, a political commentator and activist from the city of Madaba.

"I think he's being held back by the intelligence agencies of the country."

Serious political reform would undermine the lucrative patronage networks these officials have carved out for themselves, Mr Hamarneh said, adding that they have gone to great lengths to "propagate myths" that reform could sow national chaos.

"It's in the interest of everyone to reform, except for those who have to be cleared out of the system because reform will definitely undermine them," he said.

hnaylor@thenational.ae