Protests in Jordan after the previous PM resigned. Photo: MALKAWI/GETTY IMAGES

Protests in Jordan have led to a new prime minister—what happens next?

Will reform reman elusive?
June 16, 2018

One June evening in Jordan’s capital, Amman, rows of policemen stood in a perfectly straight line next to security forces carrying batons. They blocked cars from a main road and the area known as the Fourth Circle, where the prime ministry rests on a small hill. Loud clapping, chants and cheers rang out. “Death rather than humiliation,” the protestors repeated rhythmically.

After days of widespread protests, the largest since the ill-fated Arab Spring, King Abdullah decided enough was enough and sacked his prime minister. It’s not the first time he’s pulled this move—the new man, Omar Razzaz, is the seventh prime minister since 2011—and, as on previous occasions, it appears to have worked for him. In a scathing rebuke, the king even accused most of his ministers as being asleep. The protests—which were sparked by the introduction of a controversial tax bill and fuelled by long-term issues such as youth unemployment, lack of genuine political participation and a protracted refugee crisis—are over. Jordan’s richer allies in the region, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, pledged $2.5bn in aid to help the country contain domestic anger over the austerity measures and finance development projects.

Yet this time it could be different. The street protests were spontaneous, widespread and reflected public resentment over the economy. The appointment of Razzaz, seen as a principled reformer without political baggage, is a sign that the long-promised process of reform may finally move into first gear. The renewed Gulf largesse comes with strings attached that do not give Jordan room to defer reform again.

The underlying conditions behind the desire for change persist, whether grounded in economic frustration, political dislocation or social exclusion. Joblessness among the youth feels like a social plague. One striking example is Russifeh, a town only a few kilometers from Amman, home to a large Palestinian refugee population, where a series of failed public policies have led to a palpable sense of neglect and hopelessness. Once the town met a positive stereotype of Arab rural life, filled with orchards and fields, cows and apricots, pomegranates and peach trees. Today, it is synonymous with school drop-outs, drug use and jihadis. It is overcrowded, lacking open spaces, parks or basic services.

Since 2011, public debates have been squeezed or even banned in Jordan. Suspensions and detentions of student activists have continued. Fear and self-censorship returned. This is no longer an approach that Jordan can afford. The lack of confidence and trust between the people and the government cannot be overcome except through a model of political reform that offers to bridge the gap between an angry public and a distant, ineffective system of government. The message of June’s protests is that something has to give.

The choice facing the king is whether or not to allow changes that will empower Razzaz’s government to implement an agenda that conflicts with the traditional vested interests of the Jordanian state. Many will remember that the king’s reaction to the Arab Spring protests were similarly positive in terms of promising change—but the outcome was widely regarded as disappointing.

The protestors last week were keen to show they didn’t belong to any political party but rather represented the poor and the middle class. The protestors went out of their way to show the police and army there that they were standing up for them as well.

In truth, Jordan’s government became complacent, while society watched in horror at events in Syria, Egypt and Iraq. Those in charge believed that external chaos would dampen down domestic public resentment at continued economic squeeze. But there has been an awakening. At the protests, a young woman held up a sign that read: “Please don’t use fear and say we don’t want Jordan to be like Syria. We want our country to be like Singapore.”