A general strike and huge demonstrations of an unprecedented scale have shaken the Jordanian kingdom, against the backdrop of a steep rise in the cost of living and government corruption. The struggle has succeeded in cancelling some of the government’s austerity decrees and has removed the prime minister. The continuing struggle represents a new hope for the region. Shahar Benhorin, Socialist Struggle Movement, Israel-Palestine, reports on the growing rebellion.
King Abdullah returned urgently from a visit to Albania and fired prime minister Hani al-Mulqi in an attempt to calm the social upheaval in Jordan.
33 trade unions announced a nationwide strike on Wednesday 30 May and opened the dam of workers’ anger. Despite the Ramadan fast, tens of thousands of demonstrators have stormed the streets of Amman in recent days.
On 2 June the demonstrations in various locations reached a peak, with the overall number of demonstrators estimated at more than 200,000. The demonstrations continued during the night between Sunday and Monday, major intersections in Amman and other cities were blocked, and in several locations there were also reports of protesters at government offices and corporations. In addition, incidents of shooting at police were reported.
Jordan has been considered one of the most ‘stable’ countries in the Middle East. Even the demonstrations of thousands in 2011-12, at the height of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutionary wave that swept the region, did not reach such a scale. In fact, the current protest is unprecedented in scale and intensity, even in comparison to the successful protest of 1989 against economic decrees and the government.
The IMF provided the kingdom with a loan along with diktats for a series of neoliberal moves to reduce the budget deficit and public debt, which climbed to 96% of GDP. The state budget, approved in January, includes a series of austerity measures, led by a sharp rise in the tax burden on the working class. A new purchase tax hiked-up the prices of basic goods, including water and fuel. But the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands have met with strong and growing resistance.
Last year, protests against the cost of living began, and a popular boycott of buying eggs was organised, with the participation of hundreds of thousands. This time, in the gas stations protesters put on placards saying: “Brother citizen, I don’t want to prevent you from filling your tank, but I plead with you to boycott the gas stations for three days”.
The social media networks are raging, along with the streets, and protest slogans are flooding them against the “thieves’ government” and more.
The trigger for the general strike and the mass demonstrations was a new law pushed by PM al-Mulqi, in response to the IMF, raising tax not only on corporations but also on employees, and applying it to the more impoverished layers of the working class. The tax exemption floor will drop from $17,000 a year to $11,000 a year.
The Jordanian government arrogantly assumed that it could overcome the ‘background noise’ of protest and decided to raise fuel and electricity prices for the fifth time this year! This decision intensified public anger and was met with increased mobilisation for demonstrations at the end of the Friday prayers (1 June) and the next day.
King Abdullah intervened and announced the cancellation of the last raise, but the unions and the demonstrators were not satisfied. The king hopes that, like previous political crises, changes in the government will ease and stabilise the political situation, but this will not be enough.
The main requirement of the movement is the repeal of the new income tax bill. On 2 June, a vague agreement was signed between the government and the unions, including the establishment of a committee to examine changes in the legislative steps on the agenda, but without any agreement regarding the law on income. However, it is likely that the law will be frozen, especially after dozens of MPs have already been pushed to express their opposition to it.
But in the demonstrations, especially outside the capital Amman, there are calls that go further, demanding that the government and parliament must go. Even calls for the king’s removal were reported.
Another general strike
The unions, representing both public and private sector employees, announced another nationwide strike for 6 June. At present, the initiative is still in the hands of the unions and organisers of the demonstrations in the various centres, and the regime is in a position of defence and response, but the developments have not completely departed from its control.
The Crown Prince, Prince Hussein, arrived on the scene to greet the policemen and to urge them to refrain from killing demonstrators. At this stage, the Jordanian regime would risk a bigger explosion if it tried to crush the struggle with police force.
It has already managed to provoke the established middle classes, who are under growing economic pressure, as well as tribal leaders, who the regime has relied on in the past to help it curb social struggles. Now these middle layers have joined the demonstrations.
If the king gambles – as the prime minister has done – to comply with the IMF by continuing to implement the new economic decrees, the movement against the cost of living could turn into a revolutionary movement to overthrow the regime itself. The regime’s dilemma is that even if it makes concessions, it may spur the collapse of the ‘fear barrier’ and build the self-confidence of the masses, and then face a more determined movement.
The ruling classes in the region have reason to fear this dramatic escalation in the Jordanian class struggle. It could help re-establish self-confidence and a fighting spirit in the masses in other countries and promote the end of the ‘Arab Winter’ (the retreat of the 2011 mass movements), which enabled the ruling classes, reactionary forces and imperialist powers to lead destructive counter-revolutions and plunge the whole region into bloody conflicts and growing distress.
The regional circumstances have been a central factor in allowing Netanyahu’s right-wing governments to survive in recent years, on the basis of intensive security demagoguery.
A bankrupt system
If the regime abolishes the austerity measures to quieten the masses, it will need an alternative economic plan to try to stem the development of a more severe crisis in the faltering capitalist economy.
It is possible that the IMF, under the pressure of developments, may moderate its diktats, and perhaps there will be proposals for economic ‘aid’ from the capitalist powers. But these will not be enough to deal structurally with the debt problems, the cost of living, high unemployment – swelled by the refugee crisis – and the growing anger over inequality. Women in Jordan suffer from huge gender disparities, and despite one of the highest levels of education in the Middle East, only a small number of them find employment.
The capitalist regime will probably try to postpone some of the decrees, but will continue to try to solve the structural problems in the economy by means of a neoliberal policy aimed at making it easier for the Jordanian and foreign capital owners to exploit Jordanian workers as they wish.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which has managed to exploit waves of demonstrations and previous political crises to enlist support, while supporting the monarchy and advancing a right-wing pro-capitalist agenda, is not playing a central role in developments this time. Workers’ organisations and young people are leading the demonstrations.
This reinforces the potential for building a more effective struggle against austerity measures, poverty, corrupted politics, repression and inequality – while promoting an alternative plan that will represent the real interests of workers, the poor and young people.
That would be in contrast to the vague calls by some middle-class circles to establish a ‘national salvation government’. However, any ‘alternative’ government that would try to solve the crisis on a capitalist basis, even if it prioritises concessions to quell mass rage, would sooner or later have to abide by ruling class demands for pro-capitalist and anti-working class measures in an attempt to stabilise the system.
A true ‘salvation’ government will have to directly represent workers’ organisations, youth movements and community organisations, and consist of genuine representatives of them. It will face the task of leading a fight against the rich royal family, the wealthy capitalists and imperialist corporations in order to eradicate poverty and unemployment and establish a genuine democracy, on the basis of a policy of socialist change.
The developments in Jordan are a source of hope, along with the awakening of the popular mass protests of the residents in the Gaza Strip, for a return to the path of the struggle that is needed throughout the region against corrupt elites, oppressive governments and bankrupt regimes.