Jordanians march for reform, gently

Protests in Jordan target the same ills as in the rest of the region, but the protesters are running a kinder, more peaceful uprising.

Jordan political reform 521 (photo credit: Hani Hazaimeh)
Jordan political reform 521
(photo credit: Hani Hazaimeh)
THERE IS NOTHING IN downtown Amman that looks or feels remotely like Tahrir Square in Cairo. But the spirit of protest sweeping the region from Tunisia in the west to Yemen in the east is being felt very palpably, albeit differently, in Jordan.
Thousands of Jordanian citizens took to the streets every Friday starting mid- January and continuing to early February, protesting against their government’s economic policies, which they say have dragged the country into debt and widened the gaps between rich and poor. And the demonstrators, like their counterparts in Tunis, Cairo and Sanaa, are demanding political reforms and greater democratic freedoms.
The unrest in the Hashemite Kingdom is reflective of the frustration felt across the region, where unprecedented uprisings have been spurred by a trio of complaints that have wracked the Arab world for years: repression, corruption and stagnation.
The protests, although peaceful, reached such a fever pitch that King Abdullah asked for Prime Minister Samir Rifai’s resignation on February 1, immediately appointing Marouf Bakhit, a former premier and former ambassador to Israel. But the move does not seem to have placated reformists, who say that Bakhit represents more of the same. So far, both the Islamic opposition and representatives of Jordan’s major tribes have expressed discontent with the moves, calling them insufficient and demanding new elections.
Long the loyal bedrock of the throne, the Bedouins began to voice their discontent with free-market economic policies, which they believe have left them behind.
Faced with unprecedented frustration, Abdullah launched a series of surprise visits to villages and remote Bedouin communities to check on citizens’ needs and to reassure them that the state was listening to their demands.
WITH ALMOST THE SAME demands as the Tunisian and Egyptian masses, Jordanians, led by a group of young people, who claim no political affiliation, started rallying support for the “Friday of Anger” marches – on January 21 and 28 – in a bid to put pressure on then-prime minister Rifai to resign.
Like the Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrators, Jordanians accused the government of corruption, mismanagement and repression. But whereas demonstrations in Egypt turned violent, with looters and exconvicts on the loose and numerous clashes between protesters, the situation in Jordan followed a different pattern.
From the beginning, the demonstrations in downtown Amman were peaceful. The several thousand people who showed up for the protests were angry and they repeatedly called for the dismissal of the government and comprehensive economic and political reform. However, as they marched, they also waved Jordanian flags with pride, and some held pictures of the Jordanian monarch. The frustration did not focus on the king himself, who remains a popular figure.
Indeed, Jordan, a constitutional monarchy, is in a different position than countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. While people here were protesting against nearly all branches of government, they nevertheless held banners and photos hailing the king to whom they feel loyal.
In addition to these emblems of patriotism, members of the Islamist movement displayed their green flags, which melded with the red banners of the Communist party and placards criticizing the government and the lower house of Parliament, as well as caricatures depicting the impact of rising prices on citizens.
Remarkably, the police held back. They did not prevent the protesters from sharing their wide variety of views, or use force at any time. In contrast, they distributed water and orange juice and the demonstrations ended peacefully after 90 minutes.
AS PROTESTERS RETURNED each week, Abdullah ordered the government to tackle rising prices and address the people’s complaints in a bid to contain the tension and reduce anger.
Within days, a special 6 percent sales tax imposed on kerosene and diesel was canceled and a tax on 90-octane petrol was reduced from 18 to 12 percent.
Moreover, Rifai’s government also announced a second package to alleviate citizens’ economic hardships, and 20 million Jordanian dinars (about $28 million) were allocated to offer sugar and oil at reduced prices. Another 20 million dinars were added to implement services and income-generating projects, and later, the government introduced a second 300 million dinar ($423 million) economic package, to help reduce the effects of rising prices, including salary raises for public sector workers, servicemen and pensioners.
These expansive measures, however, failed to curb the Friday protests in Jordan, which have continued. Frustration among the public continued to escalate, with thousands taking to the streets with the same slogans.
Former MP and leftist activist Mansour Murad said the march, which started from Al Husseini Mosque and ended at the Greater Amman Municipality headquarters, was a sign that citizens were not swayed by the recent economic measures.
“There are no guarantees that the government won’t raise taxes again in the future; these are only temporary measures meant to contain the public’s anger,” Murad told The Jordan Times on the sidelines of the demonstration. He urged the king to dissolve the lower house for “failing to defend the public’s interests” by giving the government a record vote of confidence in January.
During the latest march, members of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jordan Communist Party, Al Wihda Party and National Front Party called for greater political freedoms as a first step towards economic reform.
“The government’s economic team is taking decisions that undermine the future of the country.
This team includes members who have been too influential and only work to serve their own interests,” National Front Party Secretary General Amjad Majali told The Jordan Times during the protest.
Abdul Hadi Falahat, president of the Professional Associations Council and head of the Jordan Agricultural Engineers Association, called for greater political reform as a gateway to greater transparency in economic decision-making. “It is time for a government formed by the public, for the public, which puts the country’s interests above all considerations,” he said.
Former minister of municipal affairs Abdul Razzaq Tbeishat, who also participated in the protest, agreed. “Citizens can no longer take the rising costs of living. His Majesty the King instructed the government to take tangible steps to alleviate poverty but the government has failed to respond,” he said to The Jordan Times.
The decision to replace Rifai with Bakhit was received favorably by many in Jordanian society – though not by perhaps the most vocal opposition movement: the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood accuses Bakhit of being responsible for rigging parliamentary elections in 2007, which lead it to win only six seats under the banner of the IAF.
The intensity of demonstrations calling for political reform in Jordan has been waning, meanwhile, with only several hundreds of citizens taking part in scattered protests in Amman and other cities.
THE BROTHERHOOD IAF IS NOT the only opposition in Jordan.
Akram Himsi, Secretary General of the Ba’ath Socialist Arab Party, said they were waiting to see what policy would be implemented under the new premier. Himsi highlighted priorities set in the Royal Letter of Designation, citing the need to make changes to the Elections Law and Political Parties Law, safeguard and enhance public freedoms, and fight corruption.
“We do not judge persons, we judge policies,” Himsi said, urging “genuine dialogue between the government and the political spectra in the country.”
Senator and former police chief, Fadil Ali Fheid, said a “tough mission” is waiting for the new government, which has to address inherent challenges such as corruption, social justice and the vanishing middle class.
“These are complicated issues and no government can come up with magic solutions to address them overnight,” he said.
Political reform alone cannot solve these problems. Any solutions must take into account the socioeconomic element when setting up any policies, he added. He stressed that Bakhit needs time, a sufficient mandate, and power in order to be able to make bold decisions that affect change in a political environment that favors the status quo.
Although many political parties seem to be willing to give the new government a chance to make democratic changes in the kingdom’s political culture, others said they will be watching closely and will react accordingly if the new government is only trying to buy time.
The uprisings in the Middle East reflect decades of frustration among the Arabs against their rulers. Only time will tell whether the Egyptian and Tunisian upheavals will spread to other Arab countries, and whether other leaders can expect to find the revolution knocking on their doors.