Protests in Jordan: Little trust, little freedom

Protests in Jordan: Little trust, little freedom

The high fuel prices were only the trigger for the protests in Jordan. Behind this is a deep need for social change.

An armored vehicle at the side of a road

Security forces in Maan, where anti-Jordanian government protests broke out in December Photo: Khalil Mazraaw/Afp

It is not a belated Arab Spring. The protests that Jordan rioted for a good two weeks have lost their momentum. The security forces have arrested dozens of protesters, including a former mayor. And the King Abdullah II ordered the government to freeze taxes on kerosene. Whether this will be enough to appease society’s resentment remains to be seen. But the latest protests show one thing for sure: what needs to change so that they don’t flare up again.

In early December, truck drivers organized strikes and protests against fuel price hikes, which spilled into a broader protest against the rising cost of living and also against the ruling class. Four police officers were killed – apparently by radical Islamists who have little to do with the protests. But the country is in shock.

Jordan has so far been considered a safe haven in a region plagued by conflict. The kingdom, which has few resources and is partly dependent on foreign aid, has experienced several setbacks in recent years. The conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq quickly caused the number of refugees in the country to rise to several hundred thousand. The coronavirus pandemic drove up unemployment and poverty.

That preserved his stability kingdom earlier, by providing support and jobs to the tribes, traditionally the ‘backbone of the monarchy’. In addition, important goods were heavily subsidized. But the state now has more than $40 billion in debt and an inflated public service. The austerity measures the country agreed with the International Monetary Fund have resulted in some subsidies being scrapped. This is now confronted with an increase in the cost of living due to the pandemic and the Ukraine war.

It’s also about poverty and a lack of prospects: among younger people, almost 50 percent are unemployed

The Arab Spring left Jordan relatively unscathed. In recent years, however, there have been repeated protests against price increases, corruption and low salaries. They have been suppressed but continue to smolder beneath the surface. Two years ago there were mass arrests after the teachers union went on strike and the union itself was banned. In 2021 and early 2022 there were again isolated demonstrations. According to media reports, even the king was criticized in some cases, which is taboo in Jordan.

Recent protests have been sparked by high gasoline and heating oil prices, but these are only a symptom of deeper problems. It’s also about poverty and a lack of prospects, especially for the younger generation. Unemployment in Jordan is 22.6 percent, and among young people it is almost 50 percent. The average wage is around 700 euros, the minimum wage around 350 euros. But it is also about repression and a lack of trust in the country’s political institutions. According to a recent survey by the research institute Nama and the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 64 percent of the students surveyed think that their tribe best represents their interests, but only 5 percent think the same about the government. 63 percent stated that they did not want to vote for political parties. When asked which system was the best to solve problems, the most popular answer was: “A system governed by Islamic law, with no political parties or elections.”

Jordan is a monarchy with a parliamentary system, but the king has a major influence on political life. The tribes have weight in the elections, parties have not played a major role so far – the only successful ones were the Islamic ones. In the last parliamentary elections, just under 30 percent of voters went to the polls.

That is about to change: more than a year ago, King Abdullah II announced political reforms intended to strengthen the role of the parties and “modernize” the political system. The question is how? Because in the ranking of the US organization Freedom House, Jordan was downgraded as “not free”, a recent report by the NGO Human Rights Watch complained about the persecution and harassment of activists, journalists and trade unionists. Stability seems to be increasingly guaranteed by the security apparatus. Self-censorship is very common even among journalists. In April, the king’s half-brother, Prince Hamza, announced that he would relinquish his title. Hardly anything has been read about it in the Jordanian media. And two years ago, there was a blackout on the incidents surrounding the teachers’ union.

It is a contradiction that democratic reforms are initiated, but the democratic space is shrinking and public debate is limited. To put it bluntly, one could ask: Is Jordan ready for democracy? Democracy does not only work through laws, but needs the will of society to create them, their confidence that change is possible and, last but not least, the freedom and the means to steer this change.

The frequent government reshuffles also seem to leave many Jordanians unimpressed, because they have lost confidence that things can change. Ignoring the issues or stifling dissent won’t help either. It can only reinforce people’s belief that the ruling elite doesn’t care about them. A deep change on a social and political level is needed. Otherwise the intended reforms threaten to come to nothing.

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