Jordan: the royal fightback

King Abdullah of Jordan paid tribute to his security forces yesterday while visiting injured officers in hospital: "They are our brothers and our sons, who displayed the highest level of professionalism, responsibility and wisdom in dealing with the recent events," he said.

Fifty-eight police officers were reportedly injured during last week's riots which also led to the death of one activist.

In what appears to be a government fightback on the public relations front, Petra – the official news agency – says "tribal chiefs and community leaders" (who are not named) also visitedinjured security personnel in hospital. 

"A Public Security Department (PSD) statement said on Sunday that the visitors had expressed their regret to see those protecting lives and property in hospital and falling victim 'at the hands of treachery of a stray group targeting Jordan's security and the lives of its people'."

Petra also says it has been sent statements from more than a dozen tribes across the kingdom "in which they denounced the riots and the targeting of security forces".

Another of Petra's news items says that in Naour, 30km southwest of Amman, representatives of the local community " 
shared lunch with the district’s police station personnel and 15 other stations and gendarmerie personnel at various posts".

"The organisers said that the initiative is 'a small fraction of our debt to public security personnel', who are undergoing 'so much to protect us and our properties'."

The Jordan Times also reports complaints from shopkeepers in Amman's upmarket district of Jabal Hussein, blaming demonstrators for lost business.

"Store owners and employees were forced to ask customers to leave their stores immediately as they rushed to close their shops, fearing that they would be damaged during last week’s demonstrations over the lifting of fuel subsidies.

"Noting that their sales have been on the decline over the past few weeks and they hardly make profits, owners of shops in Jabal Hussein said the demonstrations in the area only worsened the situation."

Meanwhile the Associated Press reports that 89 people 
have been charged with "inciting violent revolt" and could face up to 15 years in jail. A further 39 are still being questioned.

Reuters has a slightly different version. Citing judicial officials, it says 130 demonstrators, many of them in their teens, are being detained for 15 days and could be charged with "threatening to undermine the regime, illegal gathering, and creating civil strife" – charges that Reuters says could result in up to five years' jail.

Reuters says convictions in such cases are rare, adding that "dozens of protesters arrested for insulting [King] Abdullah during smaller Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations were pardoned".

Musa Abdallat, a human rights lawyer quoted by Reuters, says: "They have been arrested to put pressure on them to retreat from their stances. Putting them in prison for their political views only leads to more frustration."

More protests

The Jordanian Teachers' Association (JTA), which initially called a one-day strike for Sunday, has now extended it for a second day. Apparently, this is so that the JTA can take part in the demonstration called for today by the Jordanian Professional Associations. 

The JTA claims that 70% of government schools for males, and 65% of female schools took part in the strike on Sunday, with the highest participation in Ma'an governorate and the lowest in Mafraq and Zarqa.

However, the Jordan Times quotes education ministry spokesperson Ayman Barakat as saying that classes in 90% of schools went as "usual" on Sunday, "denying the accusations made by the syndicate that the ministry has forced striking teachers to give classes".

The JTA says it is also planning to bring a lawsuit against the Public Security Department (PSD) for arresting six teachers who took part in the protests last week.

Yesterday, the National Front for Reform (NFR), a coalition of pro-reform movements headed by former prime minister Ahmad Obeidat, called for a major demonstration to be held in Amman on 30 November under the banner of "popular revolt for reform".

The Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Brotherhood, sent a letter to prime minister Abdullah Ensour yesterday, urging him to either freeze or rescind the fuel price rises that triggered last week's riots, and to release detainees.

Reuters quotes the letter as saying:

"The country's stability should be a bigger concern than enforcing the price rise. It's clear your decision was based on fiscal considerations and did not take into consideration its political and social impact."

Such criticisms from the Brotherhood are not unexpected but, more alarmingly for the king, Reuters notes that the government's austerity package has also alienated some of the monarch's core supporters:

"The chants against Abdullah [heard during demonstrations last week] were an escalation in demands by Jordan's tribes, the kingdom's original inhabitants that form the backbone of support for the ruling Hashemite dynasty. 

"The tribes depend on state perks and have been angered by the austerity moves that would cost them privileges and state jobs."

Fuel crisis

Explaining the government's reasons for lifting fuel subsidies, the Jordanian embassy in Washington placed disruption of natural gas supplies from Egypt at the top of its list.

"Disruption in Jordan’s long-standing gas supply from Egypt has doubled Jordan’s energy bill and drastically increased its deficit,"
it said. The lack of gas from Egypt has apparently forced Jordan to buy diesel to make up its energy shortfall.

Egypt now says it aims to restore Jordan's gas supplies in full by the middle of next month. The Egypt Independent reports:

"On Sunday, [Egypt's] petroleum minister Osama Kamal said now that demand for gas from Egypt’s electricity sector has declined, the government will be able to resume pumping to Jordan in full ...

"Egypt currently pumps only 70 million cubic feet of gas per day to Jordan, less than a third of the 240 million cubic feet per day specified in a 2004 agreement. Kamal explained that Egypt had to reduce its flow to Jordan as it prioritises gas distribution to its local market.

"The supply between Egypt and Jordan has been interrupted 15 times since 5 February 2011, as Sinai militants have repeatedly attacked the pipeline."

Meanwhile, the Jordan Times has an article urging householders to go "off-grid" and produce their own solar electricity.

What next?

Alistair Burt, the British foreign office minister with responsibility for the Middle East, was in Jordan on Sunday and "hailed His Majesty King Abdullah II's efforts to establish parliamentary democracy in Jordan," according to the official news agency, Petra.

Burt's actual words are not quoted on the foreign office website, so at present we have only Petra's version:

"The British minister said during a meeting with a number of journalists in Amman on Sunday, that the hardships the kingdom is going through cannot be isolated from the economic conditions and austerity policies pursued by many countries of the region and the world.

"He pointed out that his country supports efforts aimed at political dialogue and peaceful demonstration and renounces any kind of violence."

Assuming these remarks are accurately reported, they closely echo earlier comments from the US State Department. Britain, like the US, seems to be taking a very charitable view of King Abdullah's lacklustre "efforts to establish parliamentary democracy" over the last 13 years.

Also, while it's true that gobal economic conditions are a factor in Jordan's plight, American and British officials seem very reluctant to acknowledge that the king and his succession of ineffective governments have played any part in it.

It's all very well to argue that belt-tightening is a necessity but that is not going to be accepted by the public when so many Jordanians believe their country is run – often incompetently – by people on the make.

An article in the Australian Financial Review says:

"A main cause of anger is the formation of governments in Jordan, appointed by the king in a process shrouded in secrecy, which observers say has led to extensive patronage networks and an atmosphere of unaccountability ...

"Despite a series of initiatives, national dialogue gatherings, and constitutional amendments, protesters have said that citizens’ core demands have yet to be met: corruption has gone unaddressed, lawmakers have failed to alter an electoral system that allegedly panders to the regime’s loyalists and the power to appoint governments remains with the monarch."

The article includes quotes from several Jordanians which reflect this mood:

  • Mohammed Abu Rumman, political analyst at the University of Jordan Centre for Strategic Studies: "These riots are proof that the public has lost all trust or faith in the state and officials have to address this gap immediately."

  • Maher Abu Tayer, political analyst at al-Dustour newspaper: "This crisis is no longer a security issue or an economic issue – it is about the very political future of Jordan itself ... People are fed up with the way the country has been run in the past few years. This decision [on fuel subsidies] was the final straw."

  • Batir Wardim, political observer: "For years, governments have been unresponsive to the needs or demands of the people. After the Arab Spring, the people simply will no longer allow themselves to be governed the same way."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 November 2012.