Muslim Brotherhood fuel Jordan gas price protests

Fuel prices, Riyadh’s refusal to grant loan are central issues; Gas pipeline explosions in Sinai cost Amman $7m. a day.

Jordan protests gas price 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)
Jordan protests gas price 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)
Two interrelated factors – the Jordanian government’s decision to lift gas and other fuel subsidies and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood – precipitated last week’s unrest in the Hashemite Kingdom, an expert said on Sunday.
The protests raised fears about the stability of Israel’s neighbor at a particularly volatile time for the region.
According to Prof. Hillel Frisch from Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center, traditionally, Jordan’s monarchy has “bought the population,” appeasing them with heavy food and fuel subsidies.
When the Jordanian government announced its decision to lift the generous fuel subsidies last week, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said the country urgently needed to offset $5 billion in state losses.
The Muslim Brotherhood, a growing force in Jordan, has taken advantage of the protests, on Friday joining rioters in Amman who demanded the downfall of King Abdullah.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its Jordanian political wing the Islamic Action Front, has impacted the increasingly volatile situation in Jordan, said Frisch.
The main opposition force to King Abdullah and the Jordanian government, the Brotherhood has also garnered considerable support from Jordan’s 2 million strong Palestinian population, the professor said.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is now the main Palestinian party even though its leader is from an East Jordanian background,” he noted.
Last week’s demonstrations also spread to the largest of Jordan’s 13 Palestinian refugee camps, Baqa’a, just outside Amman, where hundreds of young Palestinians burned tires and threw stones at police, according to reports.
Like protesters in Amman, the Baqa’a demonstrators shouted slogans against the high fuel costs, but also condemned Israel’s strikes on Gaza, according to Jordan’s Arabic daily Assabeel.
In an interview with Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper at the weekend, the deputy controller general of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, Zaki Bani Arshid, said that the Islamist group is “determined to stay on the streets and participate in all popular movements until the government reneges on its decision [to cut fuel subsidies].”
The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood is such that, during last week’s protests, the government approached Islamist leaders asking for its help in calming the streets.
However, the Brotherhood insisted that government first accede to several of its demands, including limiting the king’s constitutional powers, reversing the fuel subsidies decision and canceling the upcoming January 23 parliamentary elections and holding new ones under a new law, according to The Jordan Times.
On Thursday, referring to the Brotherhood’s threats to boycott the elections, Ensour said the protests only sought to “make the upcoming parliamentary elections a failure,” the Jordan Times reported.
In statements on Saturday, the Muslim Brotherhood denied their overall goal is to overthrow the regime, saying that they demanded only reform.
The dire economic situation is partly due to cuts in Egyptian gas supplies, which have spiked due to Islamists in the Sinai Peninsula repeatedly blowing up the pipeline that transports gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan. The cuts cost Amman an extra $7 million a day.
According to Frisch, however, another a factor that has exacerbated Jordan’s economic situation has been the loss of financial support from oilrich Gulf states.
“The problem would have been more resolvable had the Gulf States been more forthcoming with aid,” Frisch said, referring to Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to hand over cash this year to help keep Jordan afloat.
After the Arab Spring saw regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia fall, oil-rich Gulf states have sought out allies in the region, and have focused on monarchies like Jordan.
Last year, Saudi Arabia gave Jordan a last-minute $1.4b. cash handout to keep Jordan financially stable but withheld aid this year, officials have said.
According to Frisch, the souring of relations between Jordan and its patron Saudi Arabia is a result of Amman’s reluctance to support the insurgency in Syria.
Jordan’s King Abdullah has resisted pressure from Saudi Arabia to use the kingdom as a “weapons depot” for rebel forces, because of fears of a backlash from Syria but also from the growing number of jihadist elements within the kingdom itself.
Already, some 3,800 Syrian rebels have entered Jordan since fighting began, according to The Economist, raising fears that they could provoke bloody retaliations from Bashar Assad’s forces as well as recruit Jordanian Salafist- Jihadists to their cause.
Amman’s concerns over the rise of Syria-linked extremists were raised last month, when a Jordanian soldier was killed in clashes with eight gunmen illegally attempting to cross the border with Syria. The soldier’s death came just hours after authorities in the Hashemite kingdom revealed they had foiled a major terror plot by a Salafist-Jihadist group linked to al-Qaida.
Frisch said that while it was hard to predict whether the current unrest in Jordan would ultimately lead to a real crisis for the Hashemite regime, the protests are the most serious situation the Jordanian monarchy has faced since Black September, the month in 1970 when Hashemite King Hussein moved to quash Palestinian militancy.
One solution is likely to be more money from Gulf states.
In September, Qatar signed a deal with Jordan to supply $1.25b. over five years to back economic reforms, according to the state run Petra news agency.
If the situation were to worsen, it is likely that Saudi Arabia would move to pump more money into Jordan to help stave off the crisis, Frisch added.
“Saudi Arabia cannot afford to lose the Hashemite kingdom,” he concluded.