Why Jordan’s 2018 Protests Mattered

By Jana Ababneh

“Do you know who governs us? The damned Monetary Fund. Take your money and leave us alone.”

– A common chant during the 2018 protests in Jordan.[1]

 

In 2018, Jordan faced the largest protest in the country’s history. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets. What started as a general one-day strike, organized by more than 30 trade unions after a new tax bill was submitted to parliament, soon became something much bigger.

Sean Yom, an expert on Jordanian politics, described the political unrest as a “ritual, not a revolution,” and cynically argued that it wouldn’t lead to change in the long run.[2]However, he misses an important point: the people of Jordan firmly do not want a revolution. They want democratic representation, a better welfare system, checks and balances against corruption, and economic prosperity. But toppling the monarchy? They have seen revolutions up close. As Syria’s next-door neighbor, Jordan saw exactly how a revolution could go wrong. Nearly a decade later, Assad is still in charge, millions have been killed or displaced, and Syria is worse off on every possible measure. Revolution? No, thank you. Protests, on the other hand, are safer.

In fact, demonstrations, protests, and general unrest aren’t uncommon in the kingdom. So what made this one special?

For one thing, the number of protestors was unheard of in Jordan. Nationwide, tens of thousands of Jordanian citizens of all backgrounds protested on an unprecedented scale. The movement was active in Amman, the nation’s capital, which is considered to be more affluent than other regions and whose citizens protest much less frequently. In fact, unlike the demonstrations of 1989 and 1996, the protest actually began in Amman.

It was the first time that a general strike led to a mass protest across class lines. A third factor was the youth-based hirak movements, which were instrumental in mobilizing Jordanians and organizing protests. Hirakgroups were formed in 2011 during the Arab Spring. Jillian Schwedler, an expert on Jordanian politics, described the hirakas “new activist identities for a cohort more willing to openly and directly criticize the king”.[3]However, the protests were completely nonviolent. Members cleaned up after themselves and offered food and drinks to genderma(police) who were present.

Lastly, social media teemed with political activity. Political chants gained a particularly large amount of traction; Maa’nash, literally translating to “we don’t have it”, became a rallying cry against the tax increase and against IMF-backed austerity measures in general.

Of course, cynics would say that there’s nothing special about it. This is a cycle we have seen before. In 2018, in 2012, in 1996, and in 1989: a financial crisis leads to protests leads to a change in government. But a change in government doesn’t always mean real, structural, democratic or economic change.

Background:

 

Jordan is a small country in the Middle East that many Americans know nothing about. In the eyes of the IMF and the World Bank, Jordan has long been considered a “model reformer”[4], oft-cited as a success story of economic and democratic improvement after liberalization.[5]However, the situation on the ground looks starkly different from the picture painted by the IMF and World Bank: one third of Jordan’s population lives in poverty, and wages have remained stagnant for decades even as inflation creeps up.[6]

Jordan has perplexed scholars; the monarchy, which has been said to be in crisis or “bound to fall any minute now” for the past 76 years, has remained strong. The King appoints the prime minister who in turn chooses his cabinet members. The constitution mandates checks and balances to both the King and the prime minister’s power (in theory). When things go wrong, prime ministers are often fired and replaced. This is what has been happening for decades.

Less than 5% of Jordanians pay any kind of income tax at all. [7]However, citizens are burdened with high indirect taxes, which are the main source of government revenues. [8]  Despite this, Jordanians receive very little in terms of state welfare or services. Feeble infrastructure, public hospitals, and public schools are often objects of complaint.

The lack of government role in public services leads the people to distrust voting as a way of voicing dissent; a lot of people either don’t vote or vote according to tribal ties. Similarly, politicians are seen as self-serving bureaucrats, and with good cause: a month after the protest began, news came out that government officials were facing charges for embezzling nearly 10 million Jordanian dinarsin public funds. [9]

Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that austerity measures – like cutting spending on welfare while increasing taxes – are so resented by the public. Austerity measures in Jordan aren’t just unpopular; they’ve consistently been a failure. For example, the government lifted bread subsidies in 2018 and 300 bakeries shut down as a result. [10]Lifting the bread subsidies was justified as a debt-reducing measure, but Jordan’s debts are now higher than ever.

Throughout this, Jordan has also absorbed enormous numbers of refugees from Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, and most recently Syria. Jordanians know all too well what the price of political chaos can be: they’ve seen their neighbors experience just that over and over again. However, despite this natural instinct to shy away from political demonstrations and conflict, protesting remains one of the few tools that the Jordanian people can use effectively to negotiate with the state. Protests tend to flare up in times of economic hardship, which is in many ways a legacy of the 1989 revolt.

1989:

 

Almost three decades ago, Jordan, then a relatively young and economically healthy country, descended into chaos. Its currency’s value plummeted. People were in a panic. In response, Jordan took the extreme measures of halting several large-scale construction projects, cutting subsidies for food and other essential goods, and reducing public employment. It wasn’t enough; private investors abroad lost interest in Jordan.[11]Zaid Al-Rifai, the newly appointed prime minister, began a deregulation and privatization campaign that would come to define Jordan’s economic policies for decades to come. [12]

The government was still unable to meet its debt payments and defaulted on its IMF loans. As a result of Jordan’s adherence to the IMF’s policies, the prices of several essential commodities went up. “Luxury” imports like telephones, cigarettes, refrigerators, and automobiles were banned completely, while new import duties were imposed on most consumer goods.The prices of cooking gas, diesel, and kerosenes all spiked.

Jordan’s population, sick and tired of undemocratic reforms forced upon them by a government they had not elected, finally erupted into a protest. The prime minister and his cabinet were promptly replaced. Martial law was lifted, and so were restrictions on freedom of the press. It wasn’t a dramatic overhaul of the monarchy, or even real democracy. But it was something.

Now

What would real and lasting transformation look like in Jordan?

The fact that Jordanians felt they were active citizens of the state, not merely passive subjects, is itself indicative of change. The citizens that participated in the demonstrations weren’t placated by the appointment of a new, popular prime minister. Instead, they have vowed to keep a close watch on the actions of his government. The image of the protests – the image of thousands of people from different religions, ethnicities, socioeconomic classes, and political beliefs marching as one collective – is not one that the Jordanian people are likely to forget.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

[1]Sara Ababneh. ““Do You Know Who Governs Us? The Damned Monetary Fund”: Jordan’s June 2018 Rising.” Middle East Research and Information Project. June 30, 2018. Accessed November 01, 2018. https://www.merip.org/mero/mero063018.

[2]Sean Yom, “Jordan’s Protests Are a Ritual, Not a Revolution,” Foreign Policy, June 11, 2018, accessed November 1, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/06/11/jordans-protests-are-a-ritual-not-a-revolution/.

[3]Jillian Schwedler, “Jordan’s Austerity Protests in Context,” Atlantic Council, June 8, 2018, accessed November 01, 2018, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/jordan-s-austerity-protests-in-context.

[4]Jane Harrigan, Hamed El-Said and Chengang Wang. The IMF and the World Bank in Jordan: A case of over-optimism and elusive growth.

[5]Pfeifer, Karen. “How Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Even Egypt Became IMF “Success Stories” in the 1990s.” Middle East Report, no. 210 (1999): 23-27. doi:10.2307/3012499.

[6]Omar Obeidat, “Third of Jordan’s Population Lives below Poverty Line at Some Point of One Year,” Jordan Times, July 02, 2014, accessed 11/1/2018, http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/third-jordan’s-population-lives-below-poverty-line-some-point-one-year

[7]Sean Yom, “Jordan’s Protests Are a Ritual, Not a Revolution,” Foreign Policy, June 11, 2018, accessed November 1, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/06/11/jordans-protests-are-a-ritual-not-a-revolution/.

[8]Ahmad Awad. “Tax Policies and Social Justice in Jordan.” Phenix Center for Economics & Informatics Studies.

[9]“A Wave of Charges against Corrupt Officials in Jordan,” RoyaNews, June 03, 2018, , accessed November 01, 2018, https://en.royanews.tv/news/14568/2018-07-03.

[10]“300 Bakeries Shut down since Lifting Bread Subsidies.” RoyaNews. July 09, 2018. Accessed November 01, 2018. https://en.royanews.tv/news/14622/2018-07-09#.

[11]Saʻid El-Naggar. Privatization and Structural Adjustment in the Arab Countries: Papers Presented at a Seminar Held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, December 5-7, 1988. Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund, 1993.

[12]Hani Horani, Azmet Al-Iqtisad Al-Urduni. Amman: Jordan University, 1990. Citation found in https://www.7iber.com/politics-economics/how-did-1989-uprising-happen/

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