Jordan calm for now but new storms loom

 

Amman, Jordan

Jordan had seen scores of anti-government protests, but nothing like this: For three straight nights last week, mobs angered over rising fuel prices rampaged through a half-dozen cities, torching cars and police stations and rekindling fears that one of America's closest Arab allies in the Middle East was foundering.

Then, almost as suddenly, the storm appeared to pass. Weekend demonstrations in Amman drew smaller crowds, and by Monday, officials were quietly celebrating signs of normality after the worst unrest here in 15 years.

"It will be hot for a while," said a senior security official, insisting on anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments of the uprising's trajectory. "But we see things calming down, gradually."

Just how calm, and for how long, remains to be seen. A week after the disturbances began, new protests are flaring up daily in the Jordanian capital, though most have been orderly, with participants numbering in the low hundreds. Government officials, meanwhile, are bracing for more economic turmoil in the coming weeks as they grapple with rising joblessness and a record budget deficit expected to surpass 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

Yet Western and Jordanian officials alike expressed confidence this week that Jordan's government had successfully weathered the most serious challenge to its survival since the start of the Arab Spring movement nearly two years ago. With the protests seemingly contained for now, Jordanian officials were fielding new offers of aid from Persian Gulf states while handing out cash payments to ease the pain of price increases among the poor and working class.

"Once these protests are behind us, it will still be a difficult year ahead," Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said in an interview. "The one thing I can tell you is this: In the '40s, '50s and '60s, whenever bad things happened in the region, people would question Jordan's stability. But they're all gone, and we're still here."

The government's decision to cut fuel subsidies on Nov. 13 sent tens of thousands into the streets across Jordan, triggering violent clashes as well as unprecedented calls for the overthrow of King Abdullah II, the country's popular monarch. Rioting Jordanians set fire to government buildings, and some fired guns at police in melees that left one protester dead and wounded scores of people, including more than 50 police officers.

Yet ardor for revolution faded — temporarily, at least — as the country's main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, distanced itself from demands to end the monarchy. Jordanian officials have accused the religious group of attempting to leverage public furor over price increases into a broader uprising.

"We are against calls for regime change," said Hamzah Mansour, leader of the Brotherhood's political arm, which toned down its rhetoric against the government after protests turned unexpectedly violent last week. "We have called, and always will call, for regime reform and democratic reforms."

Jordanian officials and many independent observers attributed the easing tensions to the country's security forces, which they say acted with restraint in tolerating peaceful protests while keeping violence from spreading. They also cited the government's decision to make quick cash payments to millions of poorer Jordanians affected by the subsidy cuts. By Tuesday, more than a million people in this country of 6 million had applied online for cash compensation of about $600, according to a government statement.

The widespread violence also appears to have shocked many ordinary Jordanians, including many who support the demonstrators' calls for political reform. Judeh, the foreign minister, described last week's violence as an aberration, out of character with what he described as a Jordanian tradition for tolerance and evolutionary change.

"We don't loot; we don't burn tires," Judeh said. "We've set a fantastic example, especially over the last two years responding to the Arab Spring, with peaceful demonstrations, freedom of expression, and in the way the security services responded."

Judeh acknowledged a "feeling of anger" that underlay the protests. "It is an economic thing, but it will contain itself," he said. "People will realize in the long term that what the government did was for the people's benefit."

Yet, amid the sighs of relief in Amman were new warnings about the formidable challenges facing Jordan, which has long been regarded as a pillar of stability in the Middle East as one of only two Arab countries with diplomatic ties to Israel. The cuts in fuel subsidies that triggered the protests were among several emergency measures intended to stop the country's fiscal hemorrhaging.

The resource-poor kingdom has struggled for years with inadequate supplies of energy and water, and its economy has been pummeled by the global economic downturn as well as a massive influx of refugees from neighboring Syria. Disruptions in the delivery of cheap natural gas from Egypt have forced the government to purchase costly alternative fuels at a cost of $4 billion over the past two years. The government has sought help from the International Monetary Fund and from wealthier Arab countries, but officials have warned of further economic austerity in the months to come, including cuts in government programs and jobs.

"Economic indicators were alarming, the situation was dangerous and there were projections that it would be impossible to navigate the ship in safe waters," Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour told reporters last week, explaining the reason for subsidy cuts that raised prices for some fuel products by more than 50 percent. He cited plummeting foreign reserves and a yawning budget gap as factors behind the "painful" and "irreversible" decision on price supports.

The Obama administration has praised Jordan for committing itself to difficult economic and political reforms, while acknowledging that the road ahead may be bumpy. Other than additional support for Syrian refugees, there have been no pledges of significant new aid for Amman from the United States, which is grappling with its own economic crisis.

"This is a set of reforms that need to be undertaken," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said of Jordan's austerity measures. "It's not easy. It's never easy. It's not easy in the European context; it's not easy in the American context when we have to make adjustments to deal with our fiscal situation."

King Abdullah has implemented constitutional and electoral reforms leading to parliamentary elections in January, and the country has launched a series of programs to reduce its near-total dependence on foreign oil and gas. But with solutions still years away, the concern in both Washington and Amman is whether Jordanians will run out of patience before the improvements are in place.

Despite the relative calm this week, Jordanian observers said the riots had exposed a deep-rooted public dissatisfaction with the Jordanian political establishment. Adding to the anger over price increases, they say, is a growing resentment over official corruption, as ordinary citizens believe they are footing the bill for government cronyism.

"The crisis is no longer an economic issue or a security issue, but a political issue that strikes to the core of citizens' grievances and lack of trust in the state," said Maher Abu Tayer, political observer and columnist for Jordan's daily newspaper ad-Dustour. While the economic crisis is real, the government lacks credibility when it raises prices at a time when "most of the public believes officials are stealing millions from the treasury," Abu Tayer said.

Jordanian officials also note what some see as a shift in the target of public anger. Until last week, protesters rarely criticized Jordan's monarch for the country's political and economic ills. But demonstrators in recent days have called for the king's ouster, and some burned his portrait. In an Amman rally by labor and professional associations on Monday, protesters compared the monarch to ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and urged him to "return to the Hijaz," a reference to the Hashemite monarchy's Saudi Arabian lineage.

Still, protest organizers acknowledged that they do not expect to see downtown Amman transformed into Cairo's Tahrir Square anytime soon. Even at their height, the demonstrations in the capital last week drew only a few thousand people, a far cry from the massive uprisings that toppled governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Likewise, most political parties also have distanced themselves from calls for regime change, urging instead democratic reforms that keep the Hashemite monarchy in place, said Abu Tayer, the newspaper columnist.

"You simply cannot compare the current crisis in Jordan to the uprisings in Egypt or Tunisia," he said.

But he added: "That doesn't mean that the danger isn't there."

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