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The source of Jordan’s river of discontent

A week of protests has rattled both the Hashemite kingdom and the Middle East, in large part because young people focused on an Arab style of favoritism in government and business. A cultural shift against ‘wasta’ may have begun.

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in Amman, Jordan, June 6.
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In an interview last year, King Abdullah of Jordan admitted he can do only so much to end a deep cultural practice known in Arabic as wasta. The term refers to the common use of nepotism and cronyism in daily life, especially in hiring. One in 3 Jordanians, for example, works for the government, plum work often gained through favoritism, such as a tribal connection or even bribery.

Wasta,” the monarch said, “cannot be rooted out without first being categorically rejected and spurned by citizens.”

In early June, the king, who inherited his own job, almost saw his wish come true. For nearly a week, tens of thousands of Jordanians took to the streets in protests that, while initially focused on economic issues such as a proposed income tax, ended up venting public frustration with wasta and the lack of a meritocracy in business and government.

Many demonstrators held up loaves of flatbread with the words “corruption = hunger.” Others demanded a special commission to go after the corrupt. In a country where 70 percent of people are under age 30, the message was not lost.

“Young people no longer see themselves as subjects pleading for a gratuity,” one columnist wrote in The Jordan Times. “They consider themselves as the taxpayers who pay the salary of all public officials and, understandably, they want good value for their tax money.”

The protests were the largest in Jordan since the Arab Spring in 2011. This time, however, they were better organized and more unified and diverse. Union workers, middle-class professionals, and rural people turned out in many cities, sending shock waves across the region.

In Jordan itself, the king appointed a new prime minister and canceled recent austerity measures such as a reduction in energy subsidies. He also quickly arranged for $2.5 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

The common model of state patronage in the Middle East, which often relies on wasta, has mainly benefited the elite, bloated the public sector, and created economic stagnation. In April, the International Monetary Fund warned the Arab world – which has the highest rate of youth employment – that it must find jobs for 27 million young people entering the workforce in the next five years.

“More than 60 percent of [Arab] citizens perceive that connections – or wasta – determine whether or not you find a job,” said IMF chief Christine Lagarde. “The public dissatisfaction that is bubbling up in several countries is a reminder that even more urgent action is needed.”

Earlier this year, the World Bank issued a report, “Eruptions of Popular Anger: The Economics of the Arab Spring and Its Aftermath,” which warned that perceptions of wasta and corruption are negatively associated with “subjective well-being.” It found that a “broken social contract, not high inequality” was the main reason for the Arab Spring.

The protests in Jordan have led to a new urgency among political leaders to bring greater transparency, accountability, and political participation in government, particularly among marginalized youth – a third of whom are unemployed. Yet the first step, as the king pointed out, may have already been taken. Citizens themselves have risen up to “reject and spurn” wasta.

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