Fuel for Reform: Subsidy Cuts in Jordan Spark Calls for Democracy
December 4, 2012
By: Ryan Mulvenna | Printer Friendly
On November 13, Jordan’s government announced a decision to eliminate fuel subsidies, resulting in a significant increase in the price of fuel. The affected subsidies included gasoline and propane, which is used by many Jordanians for heating their homes and cooking. The announcement sparked widespread protests that escalated to full-scale riots in many cities across the country, which lasted through November 16, before diminishing over the weekend. In addition to protests against subsidy cuts, the protesters also demanded democratic reform.
The clashes are recognized as the most violent, intense wave of protests in Jordan since the Arab Spring began at the end of 2010. Throughout the country, security forces armed with tear gas met protesters armed with weapons ranging from torches to firearms. Unlike previous protests, the unrest was not only concentrated in the capital, Amman, but also involved intense riots in Karak, Aqaba, and Maan. In many cities, the riots involved assaults on gas stations and government buildings and many cars were torched.
Although the primary focus of these protests was the economic frustration caused by the elimination of fuel subsidies, small groups of protesters also advocated for political change. The government blamed the unrest on the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Islamic Action Front, accusing the group of exploiting popular discontent over fuel subsidies to drive protests to overthrow the government. In this case, some protesters did call for the resignation of Prime Minster Abdullah Ensour and the overthrow of King Abdullah, whereas protesters previously refrained from directing their discontent at the monarchy. Observers noted that the beginnings of a shift in public anger could be detected in these uprisings. However, Maher Abu Tayer, a columnist for the Jordanian newspaper ad-Dustour,noted that Jordan’s protests were far from the scale of the unrest that accompanied the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamzah Mansour asserted that rather than advocating for regime change, the group instead seeks democratic reforms within the current system.
According to the government, the fuel subsidies were eliminated because they were no longer sustainable. Jordan’s economy is severely strained due to economic shocks and a large budget deficit, as well as the additional economic pressure from the influx of nearly 240,000 Syrian refugees. Thus, cutting the subsidies was necessary to avoid a financial crisis. Moreover, the government was required to cut fuel subsidies under the terms of a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) arranged in August. An anonymous government spokesperson acknowledged that the timing of the cuts was unfortunate, as the need for heating fuel will rise with the coming winter, but he stated that the government was out of options given the impending financial crisis.
Despite the severe economic situation, the subsidies had been in effect for many years, and many citizens relied on them to meet their fuel needs. In an effort to ease tensions and calm the protesters, the government started a new program that gives cash payments to poor Jordanians to compensate for the increase in fuel prices. Even so, the protesters were angered less by the price increase than by the perception that there would be no need to cut the subsidies if government corruption had not drained the treasury. Abu Tayer noted that the economic crisis is real, but the government lacks the credibility to raise fuel prices as compensation for the crisis because of a widespread public belief in government corruption. Many people feel that they are being asked to sacrifice basic energy needs to pay for government cronyism and extravagance.
The Muslim Brotherhood intends to boycott the parliamentary election planned for January.
For previous news on Jordan, please see:
King Abdullah of Jordan Dissolves Parliament, Calls Elections
Reuters – Insight: Cash Crisis, Arab Ferment Threaten Jordan’s Stability
Voice of America – Jordanian Protesters Call for Revolution
Voice of America – Critics of Jordan’s King Bemoan Missed Opportunities
Washington Post – Jordan Hit with More Protests, Work Stoppages over Fuel Price Hikes
Washington Post – Jordan Calm for Now, but New Storms Loom