Jordan: No illusions in regime’s promised ‘reforms’

Need to build united workers’ alternative as social and political tensions grow

Amid growing social upheavals spreading across the Arab world, with more countries following Tunisia’s and Egypt’s revolutionary examples, Jordan has seen significant escalating unrest, as well. Weekly demonstrations have been taking place within the last three months in the capital Amman. Almost every Friday after the noon prayers people protest over the rising food prices and cost of living, against political corruption and November’s false elections. Most of the protests have been relatively small and peaceful. On a 25th March rally however things turned violent with one man dying and more than a hundred people getting injured, following brutal police interventions and clashes between anti-government protesters and a small group of the king’s supporters. The social tensions have been increasing since then, with the incident of a man setting himself ablaze outside Prime Ministry headquarters a few days ago. Also, clashes took place in Zarqa on 15 April during a rally called by the Salafist Muslims, who have been asking for the release of ninety Islamist prisoners. The Salafi movement is an extremist, ultra-conservative Islamic group, which follows Al-Qaida’s ideological lines.

Protesters’ demands are for political and economic reforms, democracy and freedom of expression. They call for an end to corruption and for a new, more proportional electoral law, thus challenging the monarchy’s authority of appointing the Prime Minister – an issue that was unthinkable for open discussion just a few years ago. Furthermore, they are asking for the dismantling of the mukhabarat, the General Intelligence Department, which has extensive powers over society and civilians’ lives. However, in contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, there has been no direct challenge against the king, so far, with the majority of the Jordanian population supporting and expressing their loyalty to him – even the pro-reformist groups claim that their demands are for changes in the regime, not for the regime’s change.

Minor reforms in bid to stop uprising

King Abdullah II and his government have not yet been able to calm down the masses despite the promises of reforms. The regime’s response to the people’s demands for change has hardly been any convincing, with minor reforms and open-ended pledges being announced but without any consistent action towards that direction. In February, the King dismissed his unpopular cabinet, after repeated demonstrations that occurred asking for the replacement of Prime Minister Samir Rifai. Marouf Bakhit was appointed as new PM with the main task of formulating democratic reforms. Bakhit, a former army general, served as a PM from 2005-07, during which he imposed extended security restrictions. In mid-March, regarding the continuous demands for reforms, the king formulated a 52-member ‘National Dialogue Committee’ for restructuring the government, but without including any representatives of the opposition youth activists. At the same time, some amendments were promised regarding the ‘Public Gatherings Law’, which will allow demonstrations to take place without prior permission from the government and will supposedly give more freedom of expression to civilians. In reality, more space is created for the counter opposition and the government’s thugs, rather than the pro-reform protesters. No matter how many pledges for reforms the regime makes, the majority of Jordanians have no faith in it anymore and want to see real change.

Oppositionists’ background

Most of the pro-reform protests in Jordan have been organised by the Islamic Action Front, which is the Muslim Brotherhoods’ Jordanian branch and government’s main political opposition. It has been joined by few unions and Leftist parties. These groups are considered to be the ‘traditional’ opposition, in which the Palestinian majority is also well represented (Palestinians or Jordanians of Palestinian descent form half of the 6 million Jordanian population).

However, what the government has not predicted is the participation of some of the more conservative forces in the recent rallies, also asking for reforms. East Bank tribesmen, military retirees and civil pensioners have joined the oppositionists’ front and are pushing the government for changes, especially regarding electorate amendments, thus trying to protect and enhance their own interests.

Even less predictable was the launching of a new movement by students and youth, called 24 March Shabab (Movement for Change). The young activists named it, as such, after the date on which a peaceful open-ended camp protest turned violent and was dispersed by police forces, just 24 hours afterwards. The Movement is calling for democracy and freedom of political expression in universities, as well as for the dismissal of Prime Minister Bakhit.

Still, with two thirds of the Jordanian population being under 30 and an unemployment rate of 41% amongst the youth, what the youth movement lacks is more radical, political demands. Slogans for free education, for tackling youth unemployment and for the integration of all young people into the labour market should be adopted. Considering, as well, that lower and middle class social layers, including teachers, who have been calling for unionisation, have joined the struggle, the oppositionists’ demands can be raised towards a more class-oriented direction. The fact that those layers have turned mostly to IAF for representation clearly shows that there is no other clear class alternative posed to their interests, at the moment, and this emphasises the immediate need for the formation of a Jordanian working class party.

State repression and division

Vague promises, social division tactics and increased state repression are part of the strategy the Jordanian ruling elite is using to avoid any serious uprisings, similar to those in many neighbouring countries. Threatening phone calls and hacked news websites are an attempt to keep the movement contained and to sustain the country’s ‘stability’. During the recent violent incidents, the government immediately accused the IAF of provoking the clashes, suggesting that IAF is following orders from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria. The regime is exploiting social tensions to serve its ‘divide and rule’ purposes and to block mass pressure from below. They are also taking advantage of long-standing fears about the Palestinian majority dominating Jordan’s national identity, if radical political changes take place. The regime and its allies within the East Bank tribes are trying to boost nationalism and create civil tensions. Reformists are portrayed as ‘traitors’ who threaten the country’s stability and unity. This is an attempt to exploit the nationalistic feeling amongst the Jordanian people by increasing the discrimination between Jordanians and Palestinians who reside in Jordan.

Jordan’s population includes a large number of Palestinians, Iraqis and Lebanese immigrants, with most of them having lived in Jordan for more than one generation. In the 1970’s, Jordan was used by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as its military and political base for fighting against Israel, but more fighting occurred between PLO and Hussein’s army. Since then, Jordanian society has been polarised. Palestinians still remain ‘second class citizens’ in Jordan and any attempt at independent political expression by them is controlled by the regime. Regarding working conditions, Palestinians do not have any rights to unionise and in terms of finding work it is necessary to clearly show their support to the establishment, especially in the public sector.

Jordanian regimes have always used labour migration policies to serve their financial and political interests. The country’s economic growth is heavily dependent on the exportation of labour forces, especially of Palestinian immigrants, whose remittances are a continuous source of financial revenue to Jordan. These policies have helped to defuse social struggles and maintaining the stability of Jordan in times of economic crisis.

The government’s efforts to divide Jordanian society clearly reveal their fear of a united uprising of the working class. With the majority of the Palestinian population hardly getting jobs or unionisation rights, the regime is doing its best to avoid the creation of a united front of the Jordanian and Palestinian working class.

Trade unions

Trade unions in Jordan have not yet been seriously involved in the current protest movement. The Jordan Medical Association is planning a second round of strikes within a month, demanding an increase in salaries, but has, so far, remained separate from the pro-reform movement.

In general, certain unions, in electricity, food industry, textile and health service sectors, are considered to have an active history of demands-oriented struggle. The role of the rest (railways, land transport, seaports etc) fluctuates, depending on the leadership’s politicisation and union consciousness.

What is crucial at this stage is the linking of the most militant trade unions with the youth movement, for the radicalisation of their demands and the development of class consciousness amongst the people.

Economic challenges for the working class

Jordan’s economy is one of the smallest amongst the Middle East countries, with insufficient resources in water, oil and other natural resources, indicating the government’s reliance to foreign assistance – mainly of US investors. The country is also challenged by long-standing high rates of unemployment, poverty and inflation, and a large budget deficit. The economy is considerably dependant on the public sector, which occupies 39% of the workforce. According to statistics, official unemployment rates are at 15% of the labour force, with 180,000 people looking for work. A substantial part of the private sector workforce is based on illegal, ‘black’ economy.

Another feature of the Jordanian work market is the dominance of male employees. Jordan has one of the lowest female economic participation rates of all Arab countries. Although women constitute 48% of the population, their economic participation rate is less than 12%, according to statistic sources.

As mentioned above, the country’s economy relies heavily on labour expatriates, many of them in highly skilled and professional jobs. Non-Jordanian workers occupy low-skilled and manual jobs in agriculture and personal services. It is estimated that ‘some 350,000 Jordanians are working abroad, mainly in the Gulf, while around 200,000 foreign workers are employed in Jordan’ (‘CIA World Factbook 2011’).

Fighting for the interests of the working class

For real change to take place, for the benefit of the majority and not only for the few, the Jordanian working class needs to unite and consciously build on the fight against the regime. The end of imperialist meddling and interference by Western powers is essential to allow the masses to determine their future. Unemployment, poverty and inequality can only be abolished under a democratically planned economy, controlled and managed by working class people. The majority of the Jordanian masses have already given up hope in the ruling elite; they now need a clear strategy for fighting for their class interests, under the leadership of a genuine working class party.

The ruling elite, alongside sections of the upper middle class, Islamic parties and the Bedouin tribes, will probably show strong resistance to real change, to protect their interests. But there are many examples in the history of the working class struggles, with most recent ones in Egypt and Tunisia, showing that when the masses arise they can overthrow despots and continue a struggle for real social change and the working class taking power.

The Jordanian working class and the youth movement and the poor, need to unite their struggles linking them with demands against corruption, unemployment and poverty; for democracy, freedom of expression and equality between men and women; for an increase in living conditions, including an increase in the minimum wage (the current minimum wage is just 110 dinars per month); for an end in discrimination and divisions, and for equal rights amongst the Jordanian population. To achieve this, the Jordanian working class needs strong, independent, campaigning class organisations, including unions, and the formation of a genuine working class party that represents the masses.

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April 2011