Friday,22 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-
Friday,22 June, 2018
Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-

Ahram Weekly

Hanging by a thread?

Corrupt rule and regional politics have been seen as lying behind the escalating crisis in Jordan, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif

Al-Ahram Weekly

Hours after Jordanians took to the streets on Wednesday, 14 November, to protest against cuts in fuel subsidies, the prominent commentator Nahed Hattar posed the question of whether “Jordan is getting closer to joining the Arab Spring’s fold”.
His answer was a clear yes, and he cited as evidence the popular protests organised by politically unaffiliated young men that were taking place in the country and that were using a slogan that has echoed in many parts of the Arab world: “the people want to bring down the regime.”
However, Hattar fell short of calling the protests in Jordan a revolution, though they were an uprising that had all the ingredients of becoming a revolution.
As the wave of protests over hikes in fuel prices enters its second week, it is still premature to call the protests a revolution in the making. Yet, if such protests continue unanswered, or if the regime chooses to suppress them violently, they may develop in that direction soon.  
The protests have triggered questions regarding the internal and external factors that have helped push the kingdom to the brink of the worst economic and political crisis it has seen since King Abdallah ascended the throne in 1999.
This crisis has not been triggered by the fuel price rises alone, since this is a political crisis that has exposed the fragility of the political process in Jordan, whose legitimacy is fast eroding as the gap of trust between the state and the public become wider.
The common statement issued by the country’s teachers and engineers syndicates may hold one explanation of the popular anger in the country against the regime.
Both unions have called for a general strike in the country, holding the regime responsible for ignoring “all the popular demands for more than 20 months, making the popular uprising inevitable”.
Such statements have done away with some of Jordan’s political taboos, including references to the king, who has been the target of some of the slogans.
“Steal all the companies [a reference to the privatisation of state industries], you and the rest of the gang,” said one slogan. “Steal from us to feed the whales,” stated another. A third slogan promised “a revolution from Zebian”, the district where protests first broke out in 2011, “against your palaces in Amman”.
Pro-palace commentators have made painstaking efforts to downplay the significance of such slogans, suggesting that they should not be taken out of context and that the real aim of the protest movement is reform and not ending monarchical rule.
In the meantime, the government, and the regime itself, does not seem to have a clear-cut strategy on how to deal with the protest movement. It has adopted an ad hoc policy, perhaps hoping that eventually the movement will lose its momentum and evaporate.
The only strategy ready to be used is to crush the protests, and observers have noted how during the last wave of protests the Jordanian security forces moved from their long-standing policy of “soft security” in handling the protests to adopt a more violent approach to silencing the protesters.
There is also the fear factor. The official narrative, channeled through an army of pro-regime journalists, is employed either to warn Jordanians against a “chaos scenario” in the country, or to call for the formation of popular committees to safeguard public property and state buildings against rioters.
Two approaches appear to be dominating government dealings with the crisis. The first is to refuse to backtrack on the fuel price rise, given the move’s economic and political consequences. Supporters of this view hope that the protests will eventually shrink in size.
A second approach has called for a delay in the price rises until after the country’s parliamentary elections, due in January. An elected government would then be in office, and this would have a popular mandate to make difficult decisions.
Supporters of the second approach argue that any continuation of the protests could pose a serious threat to the country, going beyond any immediate economic losses.
Events on the streets will be the decisive factor in shaping the state’s response in the coming days, but the fate of the parliamentary elections also hangs in the balance.
The country’s opposition Islamic Action Front (IAF) has announced its boycott of the elections, and leftist and liberal parties, which had agreed to participate before the fuel rise protests, have now also withdrawn.
Political forces from across the spectrum are now calling for a new elections law and a national unity government.
Those who want to preserve the status quo want to return to a reform agenda and take measures such as delaying the elections and forming a national dialogue committee that would include elements from the protest movement and political detainees.
This committee would then agree on common ground regarding the elections law, and it would be this body that would have the greater say in reforming the country’s constitution.
Although the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is part of the protest movement, it also wants to remain removed from and not to escalate its opposition to the regime or the monarchy.
The economic crisis in Jordan could also owe something to troubled Jordanian-Gulf relations. A crisis between Jordan and its Gulf allies has been simmering for some time, and aid from the Gulf countries has now largely dried up.
Jordanian commentators say that such aid has not been for free at the best of times, Fahed Al-Khtan of the Al-Ghad newspaper saying that this aid “has been in return for the countless security services Jordan has provided the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC),” an organisation of Arab Gulf countries.
In the early days of the wave of change that has hit the Arab world, the GCC states, fearful that this wave could reach them, moved quickly to offer both Jordan and Morocco, the only two Arab monarchies outside the GCC, membership of the GCC with all the privilege this brings.
However, the euphoria did not last long, since what the GCC was offering was simply a five-year cooperation programme and not full membership. Little has been achieved since then due to a lack of a strategic vision that would correspond with the security and geo-strategic needs of the GCC states on the one hand and the economic needs of Jordan on the other.
Meanwhile, GCC assistance to the kingdom has been put on hold, and in 2012 the country received no aid from the GCC. This Gulf boycott, if it can be so called, coincided with the discontinuation of gas exports to Jordan from Egypt, leaving the country’s budget in tatters.
Jordanian analysts believe that in light of the changes that have come about with the arrival of the Arab Spring, the old regional alliances, and particularly the “axis of moderates” of which Jordan was a member, have been thrown into doubt.
“Jordan, at the popular and official levels, is paying a heavy price for the change taking over the region,” commentator Bassem Al-Tawissi has written.
One reason for the Gulf states’ icy attitude towards the kingdom has been Jordan’s failure to play a part in bringing down the regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad in neighbouring Syria, disappointing GCC expectations.
“The GCC is not happy with Jordan’s performance during the crisis,” noted one Jordanian politician. “Riyadh does not understand that there is a big difference between Jordan’s dispatching military and police units to assist Saudi and Bahraini security and its militarily intervening in Syria.”
Jordan already considers the proliferation of Jihadi groups in neighbouring Syria as posing a serious threat to its national security. “Riyadh does not get this, and despite efforts at mediation it has blocked the arrival of aid in the Jordanian treasury,” the politician said.
Jordanian commentators say that the Gulf countries have a strategic interest in preserving the economic stability of Jordan. A Jordan that is stable and secure, they argue, would constitute a pillar of the moderate axis and a security pillar for the Gulf region.
Meanwhile, the momentum of protest has not waned as some had hoped, though the National Front for Reform, a newly established civil-society body headed by former prime minister Ahmed Obeidat, is due to organise a march called “the popular Intifada for reform”.
It is hoped that the state may be able to co-opt the protest movement through initiatives such as these, making it a movement for reform, not revolution.
 

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