Jordan: Thousands gather in Amman to demand reforms and change

Demonstrations continue despite the announcement of increased wages, subsidies and political reforms

Thousands of people gathered in Jordan’s capital, Amman, on Friday in the latest of a string of protests calling for political change and greater freedoms. Jordan is one of several Arab countries hit by demonstrations sparked by Tunisia’s recent uprising. On Friday, a number of Jordanian cities witnessed protest rallies with a wide participation of thousands of citizens. Opposition parties and trade unions led these protests. They demanded the sacking of the government and economic reforms.

Islamists, leftists and trade unionists gathered in central Amman. A crowd of at least 3,000 chanted: "We want change." Banners and chants showed a wider range of grievances than the high food prices that fuelled earlier protests, and included demands for free elections, the dismissal of Prime Minister Samir Rifai’s government and a representative parliament.

This is second wave of protests to erupt in Jordan after the revolutionary uprising of the masses in Tunisia. In the first protest almost two weeks ago, more than 5,000 people participated and demands were mostly centred on issues like price hikes and unemployment. The second demonstration was more political, with clear political and economic demands.

The uprising that overthrew the Tunisian president has inspired Jordan’s protests, as in several Arab countries. "After Tunisia, Arab nations have found their way towards the path of political freedom and dignity," said Zaki Bani Rusheid, a leading Islamist politician.

Demonstrations have taken place across Jordan calling for the reversal of free-market reforms that many blame for a widening gap between rich and poor. The neo-liberal economic onslaught of last years has resulted in crumbling services and fast-falling living conditions. Jordan is struggling with its worst economic downturn in decades. The government has announced measures to reduce the prices of essentials, create jobs and raise the salaries of civil servants. Protesters say the moves do not go far enough.

Jordanian activists rallied outside government offices on Saturday as they tried to step up their campaign to force the Prime Minister to step down. Hundreds of other protesters again hit the streets in capital Amman on the second day of a series of country-wide demonstrations. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the prime minister’s office shouting, "Our government is a bunch of thieves" and holding banners reading "No to poverty and hunger."

"We’ve come from distant, rural areas to Amman," said Mohammed Sunaid, a prominent labor activist. "We call for the overthrow of this government that has destroyed the poor. This government should be for all, not just the rich."

Jordan is struggling with its worst economic downturn in decades. Protesters say the government’s latest moves do not go far enough and have staged rallies calling for the reversal of free-market reforms which many blame for a widening gap between rich and poor. Protesters say the sale of the economy to foreign investors over the past decade has enriched the country’s business and political elite but has done little to help the poor. "We want a special court that will put on trial all those who sold the property of the Jordanian people,” Sunaid said.

Others have called for constitutional reforms to curb the extensive power of the king, who appoints cabinets, approves legislation and can dissolve parliament. "We hope that citizens will be able to chose the government that represents them…," said Ali Dalain, an activist and former deputy from the southern city of Karak.

Unlike Tunis or Egypt, the Jordanian state has long focused its economic drive and budgets on developing rural areas. But discontent has grown nonetheless, as the economic downturn weakened the state’s ability to create jobs in the public sector, which has traditionally employed poor tribesmen in rural areas.

In a desperate attempt to appease the demonstrators and opponents of the economic policies of the government, Jordan’s prime minister on Thursday said he had decided to expand subsidies for fuel and staple products and raise salaries for civil servants, at a cost of $425 million in 2011. Samir Rifai’s declaration came amid public anger at an "insufficient" government subsidy program. The government is under enormous pressure not just from the protests and growing anger of the masses, but also from the conservative establishment which is opposing reforms and concessions.

Last week, the government declared a $125 million package of new subsidies for fuel and staple products like sugar and rice. The move appeared to be sparked by fears similar protests to those in Tunisia. Thursday’s package comprises of a raise for civil servants, and an increase in pensions for retired military and civilian personnel as of Jan. 1. According to the AP (Associated Press), Rifai said the subsidies would also cover livestock and liquefied gas used for heating and cooking.

Last Sunday, representatives of the Jordanian trade unions and 14 opposition parties protested peacefully in front of the House of Representatives in Amman against Rifai government’s economic policy. According to official data, the rate of unemployment in the Kingdom stands at 14.3%, while independent sources put the figure at 30% in the country of 6.7 million inhabitants. The rate of poverty in the Kingdom amounts to 25%. Male unemployment amongst holders of bachelors’ and higher education qualifications is at 21% and at 64% for females. Jordan’s economy continues to struggle, weighed down by a record deficit of $2 billion this year, rising inflation and rampant unemployment and poverty.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II held a series of consultations with representatives of various political forces in the kingdom on Sunday, to learn more about the demands of the Jordanian people. The Palestinian Al Quds newspaper quoted a Jordanian source as saying: "The king held a series of consultations with senior officials in the country, including political activists, trade unionists and Islamists and listened to complaints in order to find out the needs of the Jordanian streets." The source added that, "the King paid unannounced visits to the poorest regions of the Kingdom in order to learn about the needs of its sons."

"Openness, frankness and discourse over all issues is the way to strengthen trust between people and government entities," the monarch was quoted as saying in a palace statement. "Everything should be put in front of people. There is nothing to be afraid of," said the 49-year-old monarch, who has faced stiff resistance from a conservative establishment to reforms they fear will empower the Islamists.

He urged the 120-member assembly to amend an electoral law criticised as designed to underrepresent the cities in favour of sparsely populated tribal areas to ensure a pliant assembly.

Under the constitution, most power rests with the king. Power lies squarely in the hands of King Abdullah II, who inherited an absolute monarchy from his father, who ruled for 46 years before his death in 1999. Promises of political reform are yet to materialise, with the King wielding the power to appoint ministers, dismiss parliament and rule by decree.

With strong support from the Bedouin-dominated military and financial backing from allies in Washington, King Abdullah looks to be “safe” for the time being. But the King could use the Prime Minister as a scapegoat and dismiss his government to calm down angry protesters. He might be able to survive for the time being but it will not possible for him to continue to govern like he is doing now. Pressure will mount on him to give up his absolute powers. Jordan’s protests have been relatively small in size, but they underline a rising tension with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, a key U.S. ally who has been making promises of reform in recent days in an apparent attempt to quell domestic discontent.

But as a monarch with deep support from the Bedouin-dominated military, Jordan’s ruler is not seen as being as vulnerable as Mubarak or Tunisia’s deposed leader, Ben Ali. Even the Brotherhood – a fiery critic of Jordan’s moderate government – has remained largely loyal to the king. They are targeting the Prime Minister and want some political concessions. They only want to continue the street protests to put more pressure on the king to make concessions and strike a deal that will enable them to form the government and elect their own Prime Minister.

The workers and poor in Jordan cannot trust the Muslim Brotherhood as real alternative. The Muslim Brotherhood is using these protests to make political gains instead of fighting for real change. Workers, young people and the poor need to build their own political voice and organisation which can fight for their interests and bring real social and political change. The left and trade union movement must forge an independent struggle to overthrow the rotten monarchy and to establish a government of the workers and poor of the country.

The CWI calls for:

Mass workers’ action, including a general strike, to overthrow the Monarchy and rotten capitalist system.

For full democratic rights immediately, including the right to assemble, to strike and to organise democratic and independent trade unions.

For the creation of democratically elected committees of mass struggle and defence against state repression, in the workplaces, communities, schools and colleges, linked on a local, regional and national scale, to spearhead the resistance.

No to sectarianism – For the unity of all workers across religious lines

No trust in any new ‘national unity’ regime based on the interests of the ruling class and imperialism

For immediate and free elections to a revolutionary democratic constituent assembly – For a majority workers’ and rural workers’ government

For a living minimum wage, guaranteed jobs, a massive programme of house building, education and health

End the neo-liberal onslaught and free market economic policies and nationalisation of Jordan’s big corporations, the banks and large estates and their democratic planning to meet the needs of the masses not an elite

For a socialist Jordan and a socialist confederation of the region, on an equal and voluntary basis

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February 2011