Jordan Feels a Jolt

Beirut – The wave of political protests that has struck parts of the Middle East and North Africa over the past few weeks has also affected the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The protest movement here, initiated in the wake of the Tunisian Jasmine revolution, underscores the population’s demand for political reform.

A movement of discontent over rising prices kicked off early in January in the city of Theiban, south of Amman. Some 200 demonstrators demanded that the government take greater control over prices and initiate more anti- corruption efforts. The movement gained momentum with protests erupting in Karak and Irbid.

At the end of January, 3,500 people rallied in Amman, led by Islamist opposition groups, leftist organisations and trade unions. They denounced the policies of Prime Minister Samir Rifai.

Jordan’s economy has a deficit of 1.6 billion dollars. It is largely dependent on foreign aid and investment to finance deficits in the budget, while poverty and unemployment run rampant.

Rifai’s announcement of a 550-million dollar subsidy package for fuel and staple products – like rice and sugar – did little to quell the people’s anger. He was quickly ousted and his government dissolved by King Abdullah II.

“There is a growing feeling of disparity between the economic elite, which is corrupt, and the rest of the population,” says Mohamad Al-Masri, researcher at the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. In the Jordanian countryside poverty is more apparent, while the flourishing business elite lives in wealthy Amman neighbourhoods, Masri said.

In recent weeks, the protestors’ demands have morphed into a request for greater political reform. “We want a government chosen by the majority of the Jordanian people and we want a balance of power. We will protest until our demands are taken seriously,” Hamzah Mansour, general secretary of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, told the Jordan Times.

The opposition, spearheaded by the IAF, has called for dissolution of the Jordanian parliament, which they claim came to power in the 2009 election because of fraud. It is also demanding new election laws that respect proportional representation, as well as an amendment to the Public Gatherings Law.

“They are also asking for the reactivation of the 1952 constitution, which provided the legislative body greater oversight over the executive,” says Masri.

Today, power is mostly in the hands of the king, who appoints the prime minister and can dissolve the parliament as well as the government.

The IAF’s call has been echoed in political blogs around Jordan. Blogger Khadder, author of the blog ‘Jordanian Issues’, asked how the king could so easily dismiss a prime minister “who had been granted 95 percent of parliament’s votes?” He went on to question the role of government institutions and their legitimacy.

A problem fuelling popular sentiment in Jordan is the misrepresentation of its Palestinian population, which is estimated to be about 40 percent. Jordanian Palestinian’s were exiled from Palestine after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. “Palestinian representation in parliament is currently less than 18 percent,” said Masri.

Current election law – by careful division of the various Jordanian regions – is viewed as being in favour of trans-Jordanian Bedouin pro-royalty loyalists over the Palestinian-Jordanians.

Attempting to diffuse tensions, King Abdullah has replaced Rifai with Maarouf Al-Bakhit as prime minister.

Earlier this week, Abdullah also promised that the new government would launch a national dialogue on political reform, tackle corruption and review Jordan’s restrictive election law to involve a wider range of political factions. In addition, the king made an unprecedented move by meeting with Islamist leaders, including those belonging to the IAF and Muslim Brotherhood.

“This meeting was symbolically extremely significant because it has not taken place in over nine years,” says Masri.

Prime Minister Bakhit was quoted telling lawmakers that the Public Gatherings Law will be changed so that large meetings would no longer require permission from the Interior Ministry and governors.

Bakhit also extended a hand to the Muslim Brotherhood, offering its members portfolios in the new government, which the political faction has declined.

In spite of promises of political reform, the crux of the matter is whether or not Jordan will face a similar fate as Egypt and Tunisia.

Prof. Hilal Khashan from the American University of Beirut does not foresee Jordan following the same route. “Jordan is a country that is fundamentally different from Tunisia. The possibility of revolt is highly unlikely because internal divisions and rivalry between Jordanians and Palestinian-Jordanians are too strong.” Khashan underlines that protests in the Hashemite Kingdom essentially targeted the government of Prime Minister Samir Rifai and carefully avoided attacking King Abdullah II.

Masri disagrees. “The Egyptian example – where a Muslim population lives alongside Christian Copts – has shown that protest movements could eventually turn mainstream even in fragmented societies.”

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