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Middle East

Discontent simmers among East Bank Jordanians

Economic challenges have fuelled small-scale protests, but residents fear potential repercussions of a larger uprising.

Last updated: 03 Jun 2014 09:50
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Many residents of Tafila say they are angry at the town's lack of economic opportunities [Megan O'Toole/Al Jazeera]

Tafila, Jordan - Along the main strip of the south-central Jordanian town of Tafila, a gaping construction pit sits empty and untended. It has been this way for years, residents say, and erosion now threatens the homes that line its edge.

From inside a small shop selling colourful plastic children's toys, worker Ahmed Zorqan gazes towards the pit and laments the town's lack of resources.

"It's hard for a young guy to provide for himself or to get married, get a house, a car. The basic stuff people need, we can't reach," Zorqan tells Al Jazeera, noting street protests have become something of a regular occurrence along the town's modest main strip. "There is a lot of anger, but the people can't do anything."


RELATED: Jordan protesters intensify call for reform


Although Jordan escaped relatively unscathed after the Arab uprisings rippled through the region three years ago, unrest still simmers among East Bank Jordanians in towns and cities such Tafila, Karak and Ma'an, which remain largely neglected. Faced with dwindling subsidies and soaring prices, residents say it has become increasingly challenging to make a living - but after witnessing chaotic uprisings in neighbouring Syria and Egypt, many fear the alternative even more.

Jordan, which has one of the smallest economies in the Middle East, remains heavily reliant on foreign assistance and struggles with chronically high poverty rates, unemployment and inflation. In 2013, unemployment was estimated at 14 percent, while the country's growth rate has fallen from about six percent in 2009 to three percent last year, according to data from the World Bank. While the Jordanian government has implemented some economic relief measures, including hundreds of millions of dollars in social spending to aid the country's poor, it has also controversially cut subsidies; protests erupted in late 2012 after fuel prices spiked. Meanwhile, a massive influx of refugees fleeing Syria's three-year-old civil war has put additional pressure on the country's fragile economy.

[East Bankers are thinking], if we rise up against the king, what's going to happen here? Are we really asking for free, fair and democratic elections? Because there's an awful lot of Palestinians in this country.

Robert Blecher, Acting director of the International Crisis Group

Southern towns and cities such as Ma'an - where the unemployment rate, at more than 20 percent, is the highest in the kingdom - have been hit particularly hard, noted Lamis El Muhtaseb, a political scientist and visiting fellow at the European University Institute who has done extensive research on Jordan's economic and political situation.

"There is a sense that the state is not present any more in the lives of these Jordanians," El Muhtaseb told Al Jazeera, noting the economic downturn, coupled with increased political awareness tied to the 2011 uprisings, have fomented restlessness among East Bankers, or descendants of native Jordanians. "They feel that they're neglected, have always been neglected, and they see others… enjoying many services, luxuries."

The struggling economy has also heightened tensions between East Bankers and Jordanians of Palestinian origin, drawing into sharp focus their conflicting priorities, according to El Muhtaseb.

For decades, Jordanian society has been split, with government jobs effectively reserved for East Bankers and Palestinians dominating the private sector. East Bankers fear Jordan could become an "alternative homeland" for displaced Palestinians, El Muhtaseb said, while Palestinians have criticised the state's employment policies and demanded equal rights.

This schism is one of the reasons that protests calling on King Abdullah to step aside in favour of an elected government have failed to gain any real traction since 2011, said Robert Blecher, acting director of the Middle East and North Africa programme with the International Crisis Group.

"[East Bankers are thinking], if we rise up against the king, what's going to happen here? Are we really asking for free, fair and democratic elections? Because there's an awful lot of Palestinians in this country," Blecher told Al Jazeera.


VIDEO: Jordan protesters voice anger at police


In years past, there has existed an unspoken pact between East Bank Jordanians and the state, Blecher noted: In return for their political loyalty to the Hashemite dynasty, East Bankers would be provided for by the state. "They came to see the state as a welfare state on steroids," he said, noting the king traditionally doled out money to tribal leaders, who would use it for patronage and to build up services and institutions within their regions. "They gave [the king] loyalty and he gave them largesse."

But towards the end of the 20th century, economic difficulties combined with rapid population growth made it difficult for the state to keep its end of the bargain. The result was unpopular cutbacks, and by 2011, a wave of public anger had built up against the king; the Arab-Spring-inspired protests ultimately petered out, but since then, a series of smaller demonstrations have kept public attention on Jordan's economic challenges. The Jordanian government and finance ministry did not respond to Al Jazeera's multiple requests for comment on the matter.

"There are a lot of East Bankers who are very dissatisfied with the government. Are they willing, or do they want to topple that government? By and large the answer is no, they don't. What they want is to restore the status quo ante," Blecher said, noting the primary deterrent to broader action is the fear of creating another Syria or Egypt.

"We're talking about the place where anger meets fear, and that line is very unstable," he said. "Right now, the fear has the upper hand."

El Muhtaseb agreed, noting current conditions will not lead to a mass uprising. According to the Oxford Business Group's latest analysis, while Jordan may struggle to hit its inflation target of 4.2 percent this year as electricity and housing costs rise, the economy will continue a "steady climb" - even with the cost of providing humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees predicted to exceed $3bn.

Still, Larbi Sadiki, a Qatar University associate professor of international relations who specialises in Arab democratisation, maintains it would be "entirely premature to write off Jordan so soon from the map of discontent and the wave of political unrest sweeping the Arab world". The wave of Syrian refugees has disrupted trade and shipments of goods into Jordan, but the situation has also given residents a reality check, sensitising them to the value of social peace and security. It is a "blessing in disguise" for Jordan's rulers, Sadiki said.

"The public cannot be pushed too far where matters of livelihood [are] concerned," Sadiki told Al Jazeera, noting residents will continue to vigorously oppose hikes to the prices of strategic commodities such as bread, flour, gas and electricity. "[Prime Minister Abdullah] Ensour knows that when push comes to shove, he will, like all his predecessors, be the sacrificial lamb. The king cannot be: He will continue to ride out protests, and when need be, he is in a position to pay his way out of trouble by reversing drastic measures such as cancellation of subsidies or handouts to calm things down."


RELATED: Syrians in Jordan divided over vote


Back in Tafila, meanwhile, some residents believe it is simply a matter of time before protests boil over again. "There are no projects, no investors in Tafila to help the situation of the city," said Suhaib Fraheed, who works in a clothing store despite being trained as a mechanical engineer. "It's hard to get employed in Tafila."

Small protests erupt regularly on Fridays in what has been dubbed the "Public Movement", Fraheed told Al Jazeera - and while demonstrators' numbers have dwindled from hundreds to perhaps two dozen, the anger still hangs like a thundercloud above Tafila. There have also been sporadic demonstrations in Ma'an and Karak, among other regions of the country.

"There's still poorness and unemployment and rising prices. If it's still going this way, the people are not going to keep silent," Fraheed said. "They will revolt."

Follow Megan on Twitter: @megan_otoole

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