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February 21, 2018 No.
1376

Protests In Jordan Following Austerity Measures – Including Elimination Of Bread Subsidy

By: Z. Harel*

Introduction

For years, Jordan has been in economic crisis, with a budget deficit and a large public debt. Most of the revenue for the budget comes from aid in the form of grants from its allies, primarily the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, but these have been reduced in recent years. As part of reforms that Jordan is carrying out under pressure from the IMF, in January 2018 the government passed a series of austerity measures that included cuts in state spending. Under a new budget, fast-tracked and passed by the parliament on December 31, 2017,[1] the subsidy for flour was eliminated, leading to a 65% to100% rise in the price of bread.[2] Additionally, sales tax was raised 6% to 10% on 160 goods and services, and a 4% to 5% sales tax was levied on products that had previously not been taxed.[3] In early February, fuel and electricity also went up, as did taxes on public transportation.[4]

It should be noted that prices also rose in the country in early 2017, so that in less than a year the cost of living has increased by 18%.[5] Likewise, in recent days there is discussion of amending the income tax law to include more people as taxpayers, also in accordance with IMF demands.[6]

The Jordanian government has worked hard to prepare public opinion for these measures. The elimination of the bread subsidy was framed as a transfer of subsidy budget from the product, i.e. bread, to consumers who were Jordanian citizens, and a mechanism was established for paying compensation to citizens in their wages or government benefit allowances, according to government-set eligibility requirements. Syrian refugees and foreign workers are not, however, receiving this compensation.[7] As Industry, Trade, and Supply Minister Yarub Qudah   explained at a January 8, 2018 press conference where he presented the new bread prices, non-citizens now comprised 35% of the population, and consume some 40% of the bread in the country, and this arrangement takes all that into account.[8] By saying this, he was also sending a message to the international community about the burden that Jordan was shouldering in taking in the refugees, and its need for aid in this matter.[9]

The price increases sparked protest, in the form of harsh criticism by the opposition, reactions on social media, and demonstrations and unrest across the country. The Jordanian press joined in, publishing articles about the dire straits of the citizens and the disconnect between the government and the Jordanian street. At the same time, government officials, headed by King Abdullah II himself, sought to calm the waters, as did commentators in the government daily Al-Rai and other publications close to the regime, which all mobilized to ward off the criticism.

This is not the first time that unrest followed austerity measures and increases in the cost of living. In 2012, protests broke out across the country after the government eliminated the fuel subsidy. At these protests, there was criticism of King Abdullah, and even threats to bring down the regime.[10] This time, though, at least so far, the main criticism is against the government, not the king.

This report will review protests and criticism following the Jordanian government's austerity measures, and the Jordanian establishment's attempts to blunt it.

Jordanian Opposition: Down With The Government, Rise Up Against It

As mentioned, the government's austerity measures sparked furious criticism from the Jordanian opposition. The National Coalition for Reform parliamentary faction, which includes members of the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the government's decisions, called for its resignation, and even sought a no-confidence vote against it in parliament.[11] A statement issued by its parliamentary faction said: "The removal of this government, which has become a burden on the homeland and the citizen, is now a national duty and an urgent necessity, after it has placed every possible millstone around the citizen's neck and turned his life into an unbearable hell."[12] The faction chairman, Abdullah Al-'Akayleh, said in an interview with the online daily Arabi21 that "the government is counting on the majority to remain silent [about its measures]," but the citizens may reach a breaking point, "and that would spell disaster."[13]

Non-parliamentary opposition factions joined the protests; some called for civil disobedience and for boycotting the products whose prices have gone up. Opposition activist and former MP Hind Al-Fayez called on the public to rise up against the government measures and block the square in front of the prime minister's office in Amman. She also urged the king to be just with the people.[14]

Oppositionist Mudar Zahran, who resides in London, took the opportunity to fan the flames of protest and agitate against the king by circulating on social media videos of mass demonstrations and calls against the crown. The videos were presented as showing the current protests but at least some of them were from several years ago.[15]

The Citizens Take To The Streets: Demonstrations And Riots

After the new prices went into effect in early February, protests broke out in several locations around the kingdom. On February 1, 2018, hundreds demonstrated in front of the prime minister's office and parliament headquarters in Amman, calling for the dismissal of the government and parliament and holding up placards saying "No to the Policy of Starvation," and "We Are the Red Line."[16]


Demonstration in front of the parliament headquarters in Amman. Sign reads: "Bread and tea are our breakfast, lunch and dinner." (Jfanews.com.jo, February 1, 2018)

On February 2, the first Friday after the price hikes, protest marches were held following the Friday prayers in several districts,[17] and on February 4 there were riots and tire burnings in the city of Al-Salt.[18]  The protests turned violent in Al-Karak as well: on February 8, protesters threw stones at the district governor's headquarters, burned tires and burned down a government office in charge of overseeing prices. The security forces dispersed the protesters and arrested several of them.[19]  On February 11, it was reported that an army warehouse had been torched.[20]


Riots in Al-Salt (Al-Sabil, Jordan, February 4, 2018)

On the night of February 10 protesters marched towards the Royal Bureau in Amman, demanding the dismissal of the government and parliament. They also demanded the dismissal of officials who have been circulating among government posts for decades, saying that those who took part in creating the kingdom's current problems cannot be part of the solution, and calling for the country to take a different economic direction.[21]

There were also reports of Jordanian citizens who attempted suicide due to the economic situation.[22] Some even drew a connection between the government's economic measures and several robberies that took place in the country.[23] Yet another expression of protest was a sermon given by a preacher in 'Ajloun in northern Jordan, who deviated from the standard sermon provided by the Endowments Ministry and devoted his remarks to the difficult economic situation of Jordanians in light of the rising prices. He called on the state to intervene and levy taxes on the rich "instead of tapping the pockets of the poor." The incident led to the preacher's dismissal.[24]

Protests On Social Media

Protests were also expressed on social media, with users posting angry and often sarcastic posts on Facebook and Twitter and launching hashtags, such as "Where are they leading you, our country?", "price hike," and "Bread."

One Twitter user noted that in 2018 the government raised the price of bread, in 2019 it would start taxing air, and in 2020 there would be a "mass extermination," and this is how Jordan would solve its debt problem.[25]

Following a January 22, 2018 armed robbery in Amman, Jordanian cartoonist Osama Hajjaj tweeted a cartoon presenting the crime as an understandable reaction to the government's decisions. The cartoon was retweeted widely by other users:


Cartoon by Osama Hajjaj: "The government left the citizen naked, [so] he naturally commits armed robbery"[26]

Many users posted photos from the protests and riots. Facebook user Abu Iskander Al-Majali from Al-Karak posted an image of protests in the city and wrote: "This is a message from Al-Karak to Raghadan [the royal palace]. Will you understand it before it is too late [?]"[27]

As mentioned, users also circulated old videos, apparently from 2011-2012, of mass protests in Jordan in which calls to topple the regime were heard.[28] In response, the Cyber Crime Section at the Public Security Directorate posted an announcement warning the citizens that unknown elements were circulating old videos in the guise of current ones with the aim of deceiving and inciting the public. The announcement called on Jordanians to avoid circulating these videos and to report them if they encounter them.[29]


One of the old videos, circulated with the text "the Jordanian's liberation revolution has begun" (Source: Facebook.com/398528963812276, February 10, 2018)

Jordanian Press Criticizes Government's Economic Decisions; Claims It Is Out Of Touch With The People

Criticism of price hikes also appeared in the Jordanian press, especially the non-establishment press, which published articles presenting the predicament of the Jordanian citizen and alleging a disconnect between the government and the street.

Al-Ghad Editor: The Government Doesn't Understand The Citizens' Plight; The Gap Between The Public And The State Is Wide And Dangerous

In a February 4, 2018 article titled "Governments That Are Not Fluent in the Language of Their People," Jumana Ghunaimat, editor-in-chief of the Jordanian Al-Ghad daily, claimed that the Jordanian establishment is not aware of the feelings of its citizens, and called for a dialogue between the government and the different sectors of society so that the government would understand the citizens' hardships. She wrote: "The government still doesn't realize the extent of the anger in the hearts of Jordanians as the result of long-term neglect on the part of [Jordan's] governments... [The fact that] people are taking to the streets in more than one location, in protest against the decisions of the government, indicates their difficult situation... The suffering encompasses citizens from all sectors... Even public sector employees – both military and civilian – are suffering, for their meager income is clearly insufficient to meet their daily needs with dignity. They, who were the mainstay of the middle class, have been neglected for years as a result of the harsh government policy and the lack of any real development plans...

"In light of the difficult economic situation, the deficit [in the state budget], the [public] debt and the sensitivity about the currency's stability, senior officials continue to seek new ways to tap the pockets of Jordanians, and now they are legislating a new tax law to broaden the taxpayer base so as to increase income...

"Today, the gap between the public and the state is wide and dangerous. [I] do not mean a crisis of confidence, which is another story. [I] am talking of the feeling of the citizen – who has been ground down by the taxes and whose expenses for [private] education and health services, as a result of the deterioration in government services, have depleted his income – that he has been wronged and that a heavy economic burden has been placed upon him... The officials, as the only ones with the right to decide on a rise in prices, are moving farther and farther away from the public and provoking it... [They are doing] this without fully understanding the great changes taking place in society, and without attempting to internalize the changes that have taken place in the character of the Jordanian citizen, who is filled with rage at the governments that have achieved nothing and have never managed to present real solutions for the problems of the [public] debt and the [budget] deficit.

"The solution is for someone to issue a warning and whisper in the ears of the officials what the Jordanian [citizen] is feeling and inform them that every decision that has been made or will be made plays on the frayed nerves of the public and increases its anger. We do not need unilateral decisions, which emanate from an isolated element of government [i.e. Finance Minister Omar Al-Malhas], to worsen the situation of the public. Further, we expect the government to open a dialogue with society and its different sectors, which may perhaps [help it] understand the public's situation and spare the public its bad decisions..."[30]


January 17, 2018 cartoon in Al-Ghad: Oxygen meter installed on the nose of a citizen; soon not even air will be free

Jordanian Journalist: A Citizen's Suicide Attempt Due To Economic Distress Is A Serious Message To The Government

Following the suicide attempt of a Jordanian citizen who had been fired from his job, Muhammad Abu Rumman, a journalist and researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, published a column in the Al-Ghad daily on February 1, 2018, in which he addressed the social implications of the economic crisis and called upon the government to initiate dialogue with the Jordanian public. He wrote, "A citizen who was fired from the Ministry of Public Works threatened, as a result, to kill himself along with his two children by jumping from the roof of the tallest building in Amman. Those who responded on social media saw this as a serious message to the government about the deteriorating mental state of the citizens due to the current economic situation...

"The government's responses to what we are reading on social media and to the negative atmosphere that is steadily worsening indicates a state of total paralysis and an inability to connect with the street. [The government] suffices with [simply] monitoring events and relies on the security apparatuses 'to prevent the outbreak of fires' [i.e. popular protests]... At the very least, the government should not abandon the street to feelings of frustration, despair, or anxiety, for this tainted atmosphere harms investments, security, and the general situation [of the country]. At the very least, it should enter into a courageous dialogue with the street, show its cards and [present] its claims, and allow for opposition and criticism... Such a dialogue would reduce tension, guide the national public debate [in this matter] and create an atmosphere in which everyone hears each other, instead of surrendering to the idea that the government is totally disconnected from the [Jordanian] street."[31]

Independent Journalist: The Government Decisions Are Wiping Out The Middle Class, It Should Stand Down

In a January 17, 2018 article on the ammonnews.net website, titled "A Nail in the Coffin of the Middle Class," journalist Musa 'Awni Al-Saket asserted that the government decisions are contrary to basic economic logic and harm the Jordanian middle class, and called on the government to resign. He wrote, "Did the decision-makers examine the social and economic implications of these decisions before approving them; or are they externally dictated and have to be implemented; or do they view them as a creative, outside-the-box economic solution[?] Had they properly examined these decisions, they would not have made them. It's a basic tenet of economics that adding taxes and levies may finish off the middle class, which the government has long boasted about protecting, since it is the element that drives the wheels of the economy... The main reason for the plight of our national economy is the absence of economic policy, the absence of an economic plan, and the absence of a correct approach, based on building trust and true partnership, as the king advocates. It's time for the resignation of the government, which has proved its failure to manage many issues, specifically the economic issue. True, there are ministers who worked day and night and made great efforts with respect to several of these issues, but these were not sufficient to deal with the situation. The time has come to respect the wisdom of the citizen and his right to live in dignity, so that he may be a factor that advances his homeland."[32]

Jordanian Establishment Strives To Restore Calm, Urges Citizens To Understand Need For Painful Measures

Amid the harsh criticism and the increasing protests and riots, the Jordanian establishment made efforts to calm the situation and quell the public's anger. Prime Minister Hani Al-Mulki formed a ministerial committee headed by Social Development Minister Hala Lattouf, which he said would "create a social safety net" and set out clear criteria for entitlement to government aid following the new economic decisions.[33]  Government officials, as well as the king, took to the media to explain that the decisions were unavoidable,[34] and articles in the government daily Al-Rai also attempted to answer the criticism.

King 'Abdallah: Jordan Is Obliged To Comply With IMF Recommendations; People Must Support Government As It Deals With Crisis

Jordan's King 'Abdallah has repeatedly expressed solidarity with the people and urged the government to help the needy and the middle class.[35] In a February 4, 2018 audience with public figures and army veterans in the city of Al-Salt, one of the hotspots of the protests and riots, he expressed understanding of the people's economic difficulties, saying: "Jordan is experiencing severe economic pressures, which compelled it to comply with a large majority of the IMF recommendations [i.e., hike taxes on products and services]. The government refrained from implementing many [other] IMF recommendations. The people must stand with the Jordanian [government] so it can adhere to its positions, meet the challenges and overcome the crises."[36]

Senior Al-Rai Columnist: The Opposition To The Economic Decisions Is Populist, Counters The Public Interest

Fahed Al-Fanek, the former board chairman of the government daily Al-Rai and currently a columnist for the daily, came out against those who opposed the government's measures, saying that they are motivated by populism and self-interest, and that the alternatives to the government's measures will increase public debt and ultimately harm the public. He wrote: "The people who oppose the tax hike... have [two] motivations. The first is the direct interest [of not paying more taxes], and the second is to gain popularity, because the public loves those who call to lower taxes and hate those [who call to increase them], regardless of the consequences. That is natural and understandable. The government should ignore both, and proceed according to its preapproved and agreed-upon plan... There are easy decisions that cost nothing, and difficult decisions that come at an economic cost to the citizens... Everyone knows that lowering taxes and subsidizing products means taking more loans and increasing the debt, and vice versa. So it is a choice between two options: populism, or [promoting the genuine] public interest. Sadly, most [public figures] choose populism over the public interest."[37]

Al-Rai Columnist: The Government Has The Country's And Citizens' Interests At Heart

Al-Rai columnist 'Issam Qadmani condemned the slogans heard at the protests, which accused the government of pursuing a policy of starving and humiliating the citizens: "I do not understand the meaning of some of the slogans uttered by the demonstrators who protested the lifting of the bread subsidy and the regulating of the sales tax, slogans such as 'no to the policy of starving, subjugating, degrading and bleeding [the citizenry]', [which make it sound] as if the government is hostile [to the people]. 'Starving, subjugating, degrading, bleeding' – why [use such expressions]? This is not an occupation government... or a government hostile to its citizens, that it deserves such expressions hurled at it... Policies of 'starving, subjugating, degrading, bleeding' [the citizens] are adopted by occupation or mandate governments, like the colonialist French and British governments of the 20th century. But this is a patriotic Jordanian government, whose ministers and prime minister issue from the people itself... They do not hide behind iron fences or live in ivory palaces... The Jordanians know the name, surname and skin color of each and every minister. How could [these ministers] possibly adopt a policy of starvation, subjugation and degradation?"[38]

Senior Journalists Warn Against Attempts To Hijack Protests

In a February 11 article, Faisal Malkawi, a senior member of Al-Rai's editorial board, responded to the circulation on social media of old videos calling to topple the Jordanian regime, saying that those who were circulating them would not manage to undermine the patriotism of Jordanians. He wrote: "In the recent days, amid the sights of Jordanians [protesting against] the economic situation... some are trying to manipulate the civilized and non-violent [protests] we are seeing by means of domestic elements that are swayed by foreign agendas. They do this by [spreading] lies, which find fertile breeding grounds in unrestrained social media [accounts], and by circulating videos and [reports about] events that occurred years ago, and some of which did not even occur in Jordan... These professional troublemakers forget that the minute a Jordanian senses danger, or sees attempts to exploit a troublesome situation, he displays utter loyalty to the state and places it at the top of his agenda, while overcoming every difficulty or challenge, no matter what the circumstances, in light of the sanctity of the homeland..."[39]  

In an article in the daily Al-Ghad, journalist Fahed Al-Khitan, who is close to the royal court, likewise criticized elements who he said were trying to hijack the protests by spreading slogans from the time of the Arab Spring, apparently slogans calling to topple the regime. He wrote: "There is no argument about the citizens' right to protest, but violating constitutional principles, and spreading slogans that the people denounced even at the height of the Arab Spring, is a dangerous shift [that jeopardizes] the legitimate aspirations of Jordanians and [constitutes] a clear attempt to sabotage the legitimate protests. Undermining the foundations of the state is a destructive act, not an act of peaceful protest. The attempt of some people to reenact a worthless moment [in our recent history] and to revive juvenile discourse, which was proved to be disastrous during the years of the Arab Spring, is nothing but a knife in the back of the state, which is standing on the cusp of a fateful confrontation and is surrounded by threats from every direction."[40]   

 

* Z. Harel is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 1, 2018.

[2] Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 9, 2018.

[3] Al-Ghad, (Jordan), January 17; Al-Dustour (Jordan), January 16; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 17, 2018. 

[4] Al-Sabeel, Al-Dustour (Jordan), February 3; Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 4, 2018.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 17, 2018.

[6] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 13, 2018.

[7] Al-Ghad (Jordan), October 4, 2017; Al-Rai (Jordan), October 16, 2017.

[8] Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 9, 2018.

[9] Al-Rai Al-Youm (Jordan), January 8, 2018; see also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1244, Debate In Jordan On Syrian Refugees' Future In The Country – From Fear They'll Be Naturalized To Calls For Integrating Them Into Jordanian Society, April 27, 2016.

[11] Raialyoum.com, February 1, 2018; Al-Ghad, February 1, 2018; Al-Sabil (Jordan), February 12, 2018.

[12] Albosala.com, January 18, 2018.

[13] Arabi21.com, February 4, 2018.

[14] Raialyoum.com, January 18, 2018.

[15] Facebook.com/jo.opposition, February 12, 13, 2018.

[16] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 2, 2018.

[17] Albosala.com, February 2, 2018; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 3, 2018.

[18] Al-Sabil (Jordan), February 4, 2018.

[19] Allofjo.net, February 8, 2018; rayalyoum.com, February 9, 2018.

[20] Alarabi21.com, February 11, 2018.

[21] Jo24.net, February 11, 2018.

[22] Raialyoum.com, February 1, 2018; Khaberni.com, February 12, 2018.

[23] Albawaba.com, January 23, 2018; Raialyoum.com, January 24, 2018.

[24] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 13, 2018; Khaberni.com, Jordan 13, 2018.

[25] Twitter.com/ollaatweet, January 8,  2018.

[26] Twitter.com/osamacartoons, January 22, 2018.

[27] Facebook.com/derar_majali, February 9, 2018.

[29] Al-Dustour (Jordan), February 11, 2018.

[30] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 4, 2018.

[31] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 1, 2018.

[32] Ammonnews.net, January 17, 2018.

[33] Al-Rai (Jordan), January 8, 2018.

[34] Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 9, 2018; Al-Rai (Jordan), January 16, 2018.

[35] Al-Ghad (Jordan), January 9, January 31, February 13, 2018.

[36] Ammonnews.net, February 4, 2018.

[37] Al-Rai (Jordan), February 7, 2018.

[38] Al-Rai (Jordan), February 3, 2018.

[39] Al-Rai (Jordan), February 11, 2018.

[40] Al-Ghad (Jordan), February 11, 2018.