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Why Jordanians are protesting

- June 4, 2018
Jordanian protesters raise a national flag during a demonstration outside the prime minister’s office in the capital, Amman, on June 4. (Raad Adayleh/AP)

Ramadan is the month of fasting and reflection in the Arab world. For many, it is also a month to reach out to others, to make things right. But this Ramadan is like no other in Jordanian history. This Ramadan has been marked by fasting and some of the most massive protests in Jordanian history.

A single-day strike about taxes quickly morphed into days of protests and demonstrations, not just in the capital, Amman, but also all over the country. The protests brought down a prime minister and his government and led to at least the temporary suspension of controversial state policies. What is most striking about the protests is how broad-based, nonpartisan and diverse they are, by almost every measure.

Protests and protesters

On Wednesday, more than 30 professional associations and trade unions — representing pharmacists, engineers, journalists, lawyers, medical professionals and others — launched a joint strike. This looked at first like a tax revolt by middle-class professionals, and in some ways it was. But youth-based movements known as Hirak also took to the streets, and protests emerged almost immediately not only in Amman, but also in Irbid, Madaba, Kerak, Jerash, Ma’an, Zarqa, Mafraq, Tafileh, and across the kingdom.

Unlike many previous waves of protest, these demonstrations have not been rooted in older or traditional sources of opposition, such as leftist parties or the Muslim Brotherhood or related Islamist movements. Islamists have lost recent elections to leadership positions in many professional associations, so even these civil society organizations could no longer be disregarded as ‘really’ Islamist, as has happened in the past.

Indeed, neither the associations nor the protests can be dismissed by their opponents as simply “the usual suspects.” Rather, demonstrations have varied from place to place but range across the ideological spectrum. They are multigenerational and represent both middle-class and working-class Jordanians. Youth have participated by the thousands. Many demonstrations have included large numbers of women, as well as men, including women leading chants during the protests. And most protesters have joined as independent citizens, not as partisans or members of any particular organization.

Protest is not new in Jordan, but this time, the sheer depth and breadth of the protest movements is especially important. It does represent a true cross-section of Jordanian society and therefore is less vulnerable to the standard attack strategies used by anti-reform elites, who routinely claim that this or that protest has been hijacked by some identity or ideological group (often blame is placed on the Muslim Brotherhood or on external powers manipulating domestic politics).

Anti-reform elements in the regime have in the past used these framing strategies to question the patriotism and hence the legitimacy of protests and protesters. Mindful of this, and echoing the practices of previous rounds of protest, many demonstrators clearly marked their patriotism with Jordanian flags abounding, and chants of “peaceful” and “Jordanian” as they got closer to security forces.

Economic crises and austerity

The economic crisis in Jordan is severe, and national debt is almost as large as GDP. Amman is routinely ranked as one of the most expensive cities to live in the entire region, despite the fact that Jordan is not a wealthy oil state. This makes day-to-day living for most Jordanians a real struggle.

The kingdom has been undergoing various waves of neoliberal economic reforms, including privatization, since 1989, with a steadily reduced state commitment to social welfare. Unemployment rates, especially among youth, have steadily increased. Even for those that are employed, wages and salaries have stagnated and in no way have kept up with the cost of living.

Jordan’s foreign policy stances earned the economic support of major world powers and of major international financial institutions. But these economic linkages also come with strings attached, and once again fiscal crises and IMF restructuring are challenging the domestic political life of the kingdom.

But this time, a perfect storm is brewing that has made this process even more unsustainable and even dangerous. Regional turmoil raised costs for just about everything within Jordan, as refugees flowed into the country to escape the horrors of the Syrian civil war. Shifting regional alliance patterns — and in particular the appearance of a U.S.-Saudi-Israel axis — have at least partially marginalized Jordan, forcing the state to scramble to establish more avenues of external support.

With external sources of aid uncertain and debt increasing to crisis levels, Jordan turned to domestic taxation as an essential source of revenue. The tax bill raised taxes, to be sure, but it also sought simply to enforce taxation itself and to move against widespread tax evasion. Most Jordanians are actually tax exempt under the new bill, since most people have an income lower than the minimum threshold. Middle class professionals, on the other hand, rebelled against this. But Jordanians of all walks of life are affected by a sales tax increase to 16 percent and price increases in gas and electricity.

Protest demands and regime responses

Many demonstrators called for the ouster of the prime minister and his government, some called for the dissolution of parliament, and some — especially some of the more radical chants in Tafileh, for example — called out the king by name. But most did not. Most focused on the policy issues, not on specific figures in the state or regime. Most called for rescinding the austerity measures, and for a reassertion of Jordanian sovereignty against international institutions like the IMF and World Bank.

The protests are therefore only partly a tax revolt; they are also protests against economic austerity, against price increases, against an unaffordable cost of living, against corruption in public life and against a government that many Jordanians feel is unresponsive and out of touch with their daily struggles.

Some protesters chanted “Bread, freedom, and social justice,” while others played on various memes suggesting Jordanians are not an ATM for the government. Many feel that they can barely afford to get by as it is, so they resent being asked to bear the brunt of tough economic measures when they don’t believe that the rich, or the state, are making similar sacrifices. Many are simply saying “enough.”

Most protests have also pointedly used the language of citizenship to make their case. That is: Citizens not subjects. They speak therefore of citizenship, social justice and rights. This very language was not brand new, but it did become increasingly part of the protest lexicon in the demonstrations of 2011-2013 and also in a broad-based protest movement against a Jordanian-Israeli gas deal in more recent years.

Moving forward: new prime minister

On the third day of protests, King Abdullah II issued a decree suspending the price hikes.

Soon after, a majority of parliamentarians insisted that they would vote against the government’s tax bill, and the king called for a ‘national dialogue’ on the issues at hand.

Within five days of the initial strike, protesters secured another goal: the ouster of the government. On June 4, the king accepted the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet.

The new prime minister, Omar Razzaz, was Jordan’s minister of education and had previously been in charge of several different royal initiatives, including for youth empowerment. Unlike his conservative predecessor, Razzaz is known as more of a pro-reform and liberal figure. He is also a trained economist and former World Bank official, so one can expect a variety of public responses to his appointment.

Who bears the brunt of hardship?

If Jordanians are being asked to pay more in various forms of taxes or decreased state subsidies, then they at minimum want greater roles in deciding how and why this is to happen, and they expect to see an increase in services. Many of Jordan’s poor feel that they have been bearing the costs of adjustment for decades and have nothing left to give.

The narrative here should not just be about regime survival or state stability, but also about politics beyond the state — about everyday citizens seeking to afford (literally) a decent life, with real social and economic opportunities and hence a genuine future, about responsive and responsible governance, and about active and effective citizenship in a Jordan that doesn’t just survive, but also prospers. Not just for the elite — but for all Jordanians.

Curtis Ryan is a professor of political science at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. His latest book is “Jordan and the Arab Uprisings: Regime Survival and Politics Beyond the State.”