In Jordan, Islamists try to spin popular protests into political uprising

Nationwide protests in Jordan have focused mainly on economic issues. But the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to make them a catalyst for political reform.

Nader Daoud/AP
Jordanian protesters hold a giant national flag, as they march during a protest demanding the resignation of the prime minister and his government over price increases and inflation, in Amman, Jordan, Friday, Jan. 21.

Young people in the street waving baguettes and decrying unemployment rates, rising prices, and the government – protests in the Jordanian capital today unmistakably resembled the popular uprising in Tunisia.

Rather than a revolutionary movement, nationwide protests in Jordan have instead highlighted a rift between traditional government supporters in rural areas and a rising urban elite, analysts say.

As other Arab regimes struggle to find ways to deal with the ripples of Tunisia's so-called "Jasmine Revolution," Amman has rushed to reassure the conservative bedrock of the Hashemite Kingdom with economic incentives.

While it is yet to be seen whether the new measures will satisfy citizens, the pressure is on for Amman to outmaneuver the Islamist opposition, who are attempting to transform an economic crisis into a political debate.

'Political reform key to fixing economic problems'

At first slow to harness the growing discontent, the Muslim Brotherhood led today’s demonstrations and is trying to link Jordan’s economic woes with the need for greater political freedoms.

In addition to lowering taxes, the opposition has called for a new elections law based on proportional representation, electoral redistricting, even proposing constitutional reforms to have the position of prime minister selected by the people, rather than the king.

“Our message is that political reform is the key to fixing all social and economic problems. We need a new unity government and early elections for a democratically elected parliament representing the people that can handle these challenges,” said Muslim Brotherhood Spokesman Jamil Abu Baker.

Jordanian decisionmakers have made no indications of enacting the political reforms demanded by activists and protesters, resisting calls to dismiss Prime Minister Samir Rifai or dissolve the parliament, counting on populist economic measures as enough to ride out the Tunisia effect.

Economic unrest

Few took notice on Jan. 7, when 200 public-sector workers took to the streets in a village south of Amman over the rising cost of living. Without the participation of political parties or trade unions, the event did not even garner a mention in local newspapers.

Emboldened by the toppling of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the impromptu street protest grew into nationwide “days of anger,” with thousands of Jordanians hitting the streets.

Most concerning to decisionmakers is that unlike the urban, middle-class Tunisians who led the uprising there, the bulk of Jordan’s protesters have been Trans-Jordanians from rural areas. They are ardent tribal supporters of the regime who feel jilted by economic restructuring, which they believe has left them out in the cold.

“This group is anxious about their economic future, they are afraid about the future of the state, and they need answers from the government,” said Mohammad Abu Rumman of the University of Jordan's Centre for Strategic Studies.

The protests also revealed a prevailing sense that the government’s focus on privatization and foreign investments have failed to spur job creation outside the capital.

Inaction over inflation has riled Bedouin tribes and villagers who have long relied on careers in the public sector, where most salaries still hover close to the $225 monthly minimum wage, analysts say.

“This is the traditional backbone of the political system. These protests are being organized by issue-oriented people who are much more difficult to reign in,” says Fares Braizat of the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.

Ruling class seen as out of touch

While the Hashemite monarchy has been immune to the simmering frustrations on the Jordanian street, protesters have directed their anger at Mr. Rifai, the king's appointed prime minister and the scion of an influential family that has yielded three prime ministers.

To them, Rifai, who previously served as the chairman of an investment firm, has become a symbol of everything that is wrong in Jordan: a ruling class increasingly out of touch with the pressures facing ordinary citizens, analysts say.

“They feel that this government is from the upper 5 percent and has not traveled outside Amman or understood the challenges they face. They represent the class divisions in our society,” says Oraib Rantawi of the Amman-based Al Quds Political Studies Center.

Oil, sugar, politics

To prove that it is sensitive to citizens’ struggles, the government introduced an economic relief package on Jan. 12, lowering fuel taxes and subsidizing sugar and cooking oil at state-run consumer markets.

The measure failed to impress many protesters, who went on with plans to demonstrate across the country two days later.

Yesterday, on the eve of more nationwide protests, the government announced a second economic package: a $28 monthly raise for all military personnel and public sector workers and subsidized fuel cylinders, the two initiatives adding some $648 million to the country’s near-record $1.5 billion budget deficit.

Analysts say that although the recent measures may succeed in calming the street and reassuring the regime’s tribal base, Amman has yet to fully apply the lessons learned from Tunisia and address the disconnect between citizens and the government through political reform.

“Until there are new channels of dialogue, there will be more political alienation, with the people on one and those in power on the other. The gap is growing wider and larger,” Braizat said.

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