For any astute observer watching Jordan over the past several months, the violent protests that erupted Tuesday night in response to hikes in fuel prices were certainly no surprise. While Jordanians appreciate their relative stability—particularly with news of the deadly destruction in Syria and tinderbox tension in nearby Lebanon—the underlying anger and dissatisfaction that has been erupting in protests throughout Jordan for the past two years had not disappeared. What is remarkable about the latest round of demonstrations is that some voices are calling for an overthrow of the monarchy, an unthinkable and shocking demand even a year ago. Ongoing economic pressure from rising prices, reduced revenue from tourism and remittances, and a state that can no longer provide enough jobs—combined with deep frustration with the lack of political change—is proving to be a combustible mix.
Prime Minister Ansour’s November 13 announcement of increased fuel prices led to spikes in household gas costs by 53 percent, gasoline by 12 percent, and public transportation by 11 percent. Angry protestors poured into the streets in Amman and several other major towns that evening, burning tires and chanting anti-regime slogans; demonstrations have quickly gathered steam throughout all twelve governorates and show no sign of dissipating any time soon.
Major opposition parties denounced the price increases, but the ad-hoc gatherings are also drawing support from a diverse group of Jordanians ranging from members of the teachers’ union to university students to conservative East Bank tribal groups. The chants quickly escalated from calls for the resignation of the prime minister to the fall of the regime and King Abdullah—a demand that would have been highly taboo until just recently
The move to reduce fuel subsidies comes as part of an economic reckoning that the Hashemite Kingdom simply can no longer avoid. Jordan has been struggling with a $5 billion budget deficit, and the government has been courting a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which would mandate a reduction in public spending—specifically on subsidies—in order to address the country’s growing deficit. The Jordanian government attempted a similar effort to raise fuel prices in September of this year, but in response to public outrage King Abdullah intervened, overturning the government’s decision and reinstating the subsidy. The move appeared to be a short-term fix to gather popular support for the King as, from an economic standpoint, subsidy reform is unavoidable.
Jordan’s leadership has managed to avoid the fate of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt in part because it received significant cash grants from Gulf neighbors to help maintain stability. In the face of regional unrest that led to rising fuel and food costs and loss of remittances from abroad, these funds allowed the government to maintain expensive subsidies, increase government wages, and invest in social programs. Now, with an unsustainable level of government spending and pressure from the IMF, the government has little choice but to suffer the wrath of the public. This week’s protests may prove that the palace’s strategy to appease frustration—political and economic—is coming to a crashing halt.
Jordan did not escape the winds of the Arab spring entirely, but it did not witness the same kind of sustained popular unrest seen in North Africa due to several factors: the enduring legitimacy of the monarchy, lack of a unified opposition encompassing Palestinian-Jordanians and tribal East Bankers, and the impression that greater pluralism and participation in decision-making was in the cards. Echoing the success of King Mohamed IV’s approach in Morocco, King Abdullah managed to keep a mass uprising at bay through a two-prong strategy of easing economic conditions and initiating a political reform process that would decrease the power of the palace. These measures bought the regime much-needed time, but the inability to deliver on either front is now causing King Abdullah and his circle of supporters some serious problems.
Now, in addition to increasing economic distress exacerbated by subsidy reform, there is a growing recognition that King Abdullah does not intend to implement significant political reform. Many Jordanians wanted to believe King Abdullah’s lofty rhetoric about ushering in a new era of citizen participation with strong political parties and pluralism. His actions in the past two months, however, have shown otherwise.
In an effort to respond to unrest and forestall street violence early in 2011, King Abdullah replaced his government, called for constitutional reform, and established a National Dialogue Committee, whose members submitted drafts for a new electoral law and political parties law. Although the stated intent was to open political space and strengthen the role of parties, the laws ultimately passed by the government achieved the reverse. Neither the new laws nor the constitutional changes fundamentally altered the balance of power within the government or opened up the decision-making process to those outside the king’s inner circle.
In particular, the electoral law that was ultimately passed in October 2012 was a huge blow to all opposition forces across the spectrum, from leftists to Islamists. The new law added a national proportional list to elect 27 of the total 150 parliamentary seats and established an independent election commission. Beyond these changes, however, a system was largely preserved that benefits tribal groups and the regime’s core supporters to the detriment of Palestinian-Jordanians, political parties, and independent candidates, and that maintains a districting system that is skewed and undemocratic. The electoral law was thus a missed opportunity that damaged the credibility of King Abdullah’s entire reform effort. For many, the final form of the law showed the palace’s true colors. On a recent visit to Jordan to discuss the upcoming parliamentary elections in January 2013, the frustration and intense disappointment among reformists was palpable.
As a result, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party and largest opposition force in Jordan, has pledged to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled for January 23, 2013, along with the National Front for Reform and some other smaller movements. At the same time, the sacred allegiance of East Bank tribes to the monarchy has shifted; privatizations have weakened their traditional dominance of the public sector and cuts in public spending have created severe economic hardships in the rural areas where tribal Jordanians are concentrated. If large numbers of the Hirak opposition groups from the East Bank tribal areas– which have traditionally formed the King’s strongest support base–also decide to boycott, the elections would have little credibility.
Economic despair, coupled with the demand for greater political rights, was the primary motivating factor for political change in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen; Jordan will be no different. Although each transitioning country will chart its own unique course, the desire for economic justice, dignity through employment, and limits on the abuse of power and state-sponsored corruption, are remarkably universal.
At a recent forum in Amman at which political parties courted youth supporters, several university students discussed on what basis they would select a political party to support (if any) and what issue was their greatest concern. Each one offered the same response: finding a job and having enough money to get married and support a family were their top priorities. If the Jordanian government can find a way to answer these needs without opening up political space and broadening decision-making authority, perhaps the monarchy will continue in its current form. But if the recent protests are any indication, King Abdullah will have to accommodate demands for political change and account for claims of corruption that touch the palace and the royal family in order to push through necessary and painful economic changes.
A year ago, opposition groups called for reforms that would more equitably disperse limited decision-making powers. Today, their demands extend to the very heart of the monarchy. Answering these increasingly virulent and violent protests will require King Abdullah to deliver in the economic and political spheres in a way that goes far beyond the cosmetic changes made thus far.
Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. She participated in an assessment mission evaluating the electoral environment in Jordan with the International Republican Institute from October 16-21, 2012.