A kingdom on edge

With parliamentary elections just around the corner, and a worsening financial crisis, disenchanted Jordanians are demanding reform.

January 21, 2013 15:12
Jordanian police during protests in Amman

Jordanian police 370. (photo credit: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

Brandishing orange, yellow and green anti-election leaflets and demanding reform, more than 1,000 Islamists, youth activists and members of various Jordanian opposition groups staged a rally after Friday prayers in the capital on January 18, calling for a boycott of the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

Placards denouncing corruption and rising prices outnumbered the candidate posters plastered throughout the capital. Many of the disenchanted demonstrators decried the recently amended electoral laws, which, they say, leave urban areas underrepresented and is doomed to usher in a parliament that is no different to the one that was elected in 2010.

“The people are not the source of power, this is our biggest problem,” 20-year-old Abdul Kahman Al-Jalowti said, holding up an oversized sign for the 24th of March Movement.

As Jordan stood on the brink of parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 23, touted by King Abdullah as ushering in significant electoral reform, many citizens remain unconvinced that any real change is likely to come from a new 150-seat parliament. And as a widespread boycott threatens to undermine the elections, other issues such as the changing dynamics of the opposition, a strained economy and the effects of the civil war in Syria are also impacting on the stability of Jordan.

“I think we have to be really careful about our predictions about destabilizing factors of the stability of the Kingdom… But the trajectory, unless things change, could potentially go in a bad direction,” David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, said from Washington in a phone interview.

The sweeping discontent is reflected in the boycott of the elections by the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of Jordan’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which draws strong support from Jordanians of Palestinian origin. Believing that reforms to the electoral laws have not gone far enough to allow parties to gain proportionate power in the parliament, the IAF will not be participating.

Under the current system, Jordanians can vote once for a candidate in their constituency and once for one from a national list. But critics of the amended law say this system is designed to preserve traditional support for the king in power, with only 27 seats available for candidates from the national list, while the other 108 are reserved for individuals – the majority of whom are expected to come from areas dominated by East Bank Jordanians.

Traditionally, they have been steadfast supporters of the regime.

Despite the king’s reforms to the electoral laws and his encouragement for people to go to the polls, a sentiment of malaise and doubt pervades the atmosphere of the more than 2.3 million Jordanians who registered to vote, from cab drivers to the politically active young and old.

Khalid Kalaldeh, a medical practitioner and a member of the Communist Party in Jordan for more than 20 years and now part of the Jordanian Social Left Movement, is boycotting the elections. He does not believe in their legitimacy and does not expect Jordanian citizens to be able to accept the decisions the candidates make while in power.

“The ones who are running, aside from a handful, are businessmen who have nothing to do with economics. Even they are thieves, corrupt people… Very difficult economic decisions are going to have to be taken by the parliament. If people trust a man and he comes with very difficult economic solutions, they will accept it – if he is clean. But… ,” Dr.

Kalaldeh said, trailing off with a shrug.

Shahd Hammouri, a 17-year-old social activist and university student, agrees that corruption is rampant not only in politics, but in daily life as well. Without electoral laws that encourage parties, she believes that parliament will continue to be made up of politicians who don’t represent the people of Jordan.

“My opinion is they should have done something more drastic with the law.

Personally speaking, I don’t see this law as just. There has to be a law that pushes political parties forward,” Hammouri asserted.

The Jordanians’ weariness with politics and lack of faith in the government comes during one of the most challenging economic situations the kingdom has faced in the past two decades. With Jordan’s budget running at a deficit of more than $3 billion, Abdullah was forced to seek an emergency $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last year. The loan was secured on condition that government subsidies would be slashed.

In recent months, Jordan has seen unprecedented numbers rallying in the streets in protest against the subsidy cuts, with thousands protesting in the capital and throughout the country in October and November against government corruption, the slow pace of electoral reform and the rising cost of living.

In November, after the government raised the price of cooking gas by more than 50 percent, the kingdom erupted in protests.

For nearly a week after the price hike, demonstrations continued throughout the country, resulting in the death of two officers and one civilian, as well as an estimated 300 arrests. Outside Amman, some demonstrators burned voter cards and attacked private and public property, including municipal buildings and the house of a governor.

Most of the detainees were released in December, but among allegations of torture and mistreatment by security and police forces. According to Amnesty International, 66 of 89 detainees questioned reported ill treatment or physical or verbal abuse at the time of their arrests or while in detention, while 53 said they were “tortured, beaten, insulted or ill-treated” before they were transferred to prison.

The arrests reflect a red line that was crossed publicly in the week of dissent that began on November 16, when thousands gathered in Jordan’s capital in front of Al- Husseini Mosque in downtown Amman and publicly called for the ouster of Abdullah.

According to Schenker, the fact that such fierce demonstrations came in the wake of a drastic hike in gas prices pointed to the priority of people’s grievances, and the deep divisions that still exist and complicate the issue of political change. “Corruption and the economy are the key issues,” Schenker said.

“Political reform is important, but it doesn’t rise to that level in terms of popular dissent actually because political reform is a divisive issue in the kingdom. For many people, political reform means that the indigenous East Bankers lose, and the Palestinian population is empowered.”

Despite divisions, these key issues have been a unifying force among the fractured opposition, including well-known groups such as the IAF and al-Hirak, an emerging movement made up primarily of young tribal activists, as well as leftists, independents and other grassroots movements. Though they are not necessarily standing side by side, the calls for an end to corruption can be heard from Amman to Irbid in the north and Tafileh in the south.

Tafileh has become a particularly important area that demonstrates a shift in politics in Jordan. A southern town that is home to mostly East Bank Jordanians, the people of Tafileh have traditionally been steadfast loyalists to the regime, and are even known for providing guards for the palace. But over the past year, with the lack of economic opportunity in the town and the belief that there has not been enough political reform, this has started to change.

Al-Hirak has grown out of southern towns such as Tafileh, Ma’an, Karak, Jarash, Ajloun, Salt and Shobak, as well as northern cities like Irbid. According to Sean Yom, a Jordan expert at Temple University in Philadelphia, these young, educated activists differ from other opposition groups such as the IAF because of their independence and lack of a history of organizational mobilization – and they are unhappy with their monarchy.

Kaifar Al-Mhesen, one of the founders of the al-Hirak movement in Tafileh, said in an interview that the movement is unique because “it’s the only movement that is saying that if no reforms take place, the current regime has to go.” He also stressed that despite the fact that the movement has its roots in tribal areas, al-Hirak strives to involve all members of the opposition by identifying with the common cause of reform.

Though this developing East Bank opposition is not yet a majority, it is an important development. In Tafileh, al- Hirak is becoming more organized, creating committees and, some analysts say, has the potential to be a significant problem for the regime.

“I think these are all factors that suggest that there’s not going to be a revolution in Jordan’s future, but al-Hirak isn’t insignificant. The monarchy now has two opposite constituencies to worry about. In the past it’s always been the Islamists,” Dr. Yom said in a phone interview. “For a monarchy that has long thought Islamists are the number one concern, this complicates the picture.”

With the Arab Spring sweeping through the region over the past two years, with dictators being overthrown and a civil war still raging in Syria, Jordan has seen to be relatively stable in relation to its regional counterparts.

But this regional dissent has severely disrupted Jordan’s economy, according to Khalid Wazzani, CEO and founding partner of a Jordanian consulting firm. Dr. Wazzani said that the Arab Spring had cost Jordan more than $4.2 billion.

Jordan’s Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Jaafar Hassan echoed this sentiment, noting the difficulty of countries affected fiscally by the Arab Spring to respond to the demands of the street.

“Countries are under more and more fiscal stress because the regional conditions have undermined growth and foreign investments, so the capability of countries in fulfilling the economic and financial requests of these protesters is more strained and limited,” Hassan said.

Jordan is a small country with limited resources. Privatization has affected the country in the past 20 years. Unemployment runs high, with 25 percent of students unable to find a job, and income is low – more than 14 percent of Jordanians live below the poverty line. Even with the recent lowering of cigarette prices from 1.80 to 1.40 Jordanian dinars, in light of all other subsidies that have been cut, citizens don’t seem to be won over by this small concession.

“All of the people are begging for food except the corrupt ones,” Intasa al-Khaluz, 50, said at the mid-January demonstration.

Khaluz has no political affiliation but was protesting because of the poor economic situation in Jordan.

The country is also facing the added burden of hosting thousands of Syrians as they flee the violence in their homeland.

The Jordanian government estimates that more than 300,000 Syrians are now living in the country, with more than 50,000 of them currently housed in the country’s largest refugee camp, Zaatari. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has registered 135,732 Syrians, with another 52,000 or so who have been in contact with the agency.

The rest of the displaced Syrians living outside the camps are putting a strain on an already vulnerable housing and job market.

With the civil war to the north continuing with no end in sight, the flood of refugees and the cost to host them does not promise to abate any time soon.

“The influx of Syrian refugees has been a great burden because today we have about 300,000 Syrians in Jordan,” Hassan said.

“The numbers by the summer might even double… We allow refugees free education in our public schools, in our health centers and hospitals. They have free health services and they enjoy all the subsidies that are provided to Jordanian citizens. So this adds a significant burden on an already strained budget and fiscal situation,” Hassan added.

According to Wazzani, and based on a study conducted by the Economic and Social Council, the cost of hosting the Syrians in Jordan comes to around $700 million.

But despite the fiscal challenges of hosting such a large population of refugees, some analysts have said Syria has also had a stabilizing effect on the kingdom. People are looking at other countries in the region in turmoil and staying home because they are afraid of compromising the safety of Jordan, even if they are dissatisfied with the state of their country.

“Basically, I think we’ve established it’s going to be business as usual, which is very depressing,” Yom said. “And if the benchmark in the Middle East is that we’re not Syria – that’s a pretty terrible barometer.”

There are significant pressures on Jordan.

Traditional politics are changing, with a new generation demanding reform, and the country has been directly affected by the unrest in the surrounding region. But despite political indifference or disillusionment, there are still some who remain positive for the future of Jordan.

“I’m optimistic. We’re going to better the future. But I don’t know how long it will take,” Kalaldeh said, as he sat in his office in Jabal al-Weibdeh in Amman, with a view of the city he loves behind him.

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