AMMAN: Jordan’s King Abdullah II has warned that the country is “at a crossroads”, as protesters angered by anti-austerity measures took to the streets again overnight despite the prime minister’s resignation. Around 2,000 demonstrators gathered close to the prime minister’s office in central Amman to denounce IMF-backed reforms, hours after premier Hani Mulki stepped down on Monday.
“We are demanding a change to the government’s economic program, not just a change in prime minister,” said university student Ahmad Abu Ghazzal, 23. “We’re sick of seeing changes in the cabinet-it’s not good enough and it doesn’t have any results,” he said. The king blamed the country’s economic woes on regional instability, the burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and a lack of international support.
“Jordan today stands at a crossroads: either it can come out of the crisis and provide a dignified life to our citizens, or, God forbid, it can go into the unknown-but we have to know where we are going,” he told a group of journalists late Monday, according to the official Petra agency. Protesters shouted slogans against the government and the International Monetary Fund as they gathered overnight under a heavy police presence.
Some carried Jordanian flags and chanted “we want rights and duties, not tips and handouts! and “down with the IMF!” Some brought children or presented trays of sweets to security forces. Last month, the government proposed a new income tax law, yet to be approved by parliament, aimed at raising taxes on employees by at least five percent and on companies by between 20 and 40 percent. It was the latest in a series of austerity measures since Amman secured a $723-million loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2016.
Since January, resource-poor Jordan, which suffers from high unemployment and poverty, has seen repeated price rises including for staples such as bread, as well as extra taxes on basic goods. Fuel prices have risen five times since the start of the year, while electricity bills have surged by 55 percent since February. The measures have sparked some of the biggest economic protests in five years. Jordan, a key US ally, has largely avoided the unrest witnessed by other countries in the region since the Arab Spring revolts broke out in 2011, although protests did flare late that year after the government cut fuel subsidies.
Resignation not enough
The latest protests started last week when unions called for nationwide demonstrations. They have rocked several other cities, including Irbid and Jarash in the north, Zarqa in the east, and the southern city of Maan, which saw deadly riots in the 1980s over rising food prices. After accepting Mulki’s resignation, the king asked Education Minister Omar al-Razzaz to form a new government, a government source said.
But the premier’s departure did not stop people from demonstrating after breaking the Ramadan fast in Amman and other cities. “When the protests began they weren’t just directed against Mulki as a person, they were against the income tax draft law and the price hikes,” said Bushra Abu Jabbara, a 34-year-old pharmacist. “We want the government to respond to our demands and withdraw the bill, which hasn’t happened yet,” she added.
A majority of deputies — 78 out of 130 MPs-have said they will vote against the draft legislation. Mulki’s resignation was “a positive sign” the government was taking the protesters’ demands seriously, Jordanian political analyst Samih al-Maitah said. “The income tax draft law is almost certain to be dropped now,” he said. The bill is one of a tranche of measures aimed at slashing Jordan’s public debt from over 90 percent of GDP to 77 percent by 2021.
King Abdullah said gas supply cuts due to attacks on an Egyptian pipeline to Israel and Jordan had cost the kingdom some $5.6 billion. He added that the closure of the borders with the kingdom’s main export markets, war-torn Syria and Iraq, and the cost of securing those frontiers, had added to Jordan’s economic woes. The UN refugee agency says it has registered more than 650,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan since the conflict in Syria began in March 2011. Jordan says it hosts 1.3 million Syrian refugees, and has repeatedly called for more international help.–AFP