“People would rather be cold and hungry than cold, hungry and scared,” a Jordanian said to me the other day.
She was explaining why protests here have calmed notably since last week’s riots and calls for regime change. Those throwing stones and chanting “Down with the regime” frightened off many others who were simply angered at economic hardships and policies they see as unfair.
At a protest on Sunday organised by a major trade union in Amman, some people dropped out when they heard a few calls for complete regime change.
In a country who’s borders include Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq, it’s easy for outsiders to see protests on the television and presume they are inspired by the Arab Spring. And for those protesters who refused to condone the violence last week, such calls only distract from the real domestic issues that they want addressed.
Last Tuesday, the government announced it was lifting subsidies on fuel and cooking gas, sparking the recent wave of outrage. Cooking gas cylinders will now cost around $15 rather than $10, and general fuel prices rises will likely increase the price of food and transport.
This may be a new development, but the outrage felt by poorer Jordanians is not. People have been taking to the streets of cities across the country for several years now in anger at food prices which don’t match any changes in income. The cost of living here is astonishingly high. Housing, fuel and food bills are crippling for millions of families who feel financially they are moving backwards every year.
In many small grocery stores, the food was almost as pricey as in a modern supermarket in London or Paris, yet the customers earn a fraction of a Western wage. Financial life for most people here simply doesn’t add up.
But then neither do the government’s figures. Lifting subsidies on essentials is the last thing any administration wants to do when popular uprisings are sweeping around their borders. The country’s spiraling budget deficit however means it has been forced to accept a $2bn loan from the International Monetary Fund – and that money comes with conditions. In short, Jordan must impose austerity measures.
So King Abdullah and his semi-democratic government have been forced to risk instability for economic survival. That tightrope will be all the trickier to maneuver as long as the country’s opposition parties are able to capitalise on growing anger. Calls for political reform are being led by the Muslim Brotherhood and their political representatives, the Islamic Action Front Party. They stop short of calling for out and out regime change, but are using it as a tool.
“When the people reach such a point, we must ask why are they saying that want rid of the regime?” said Salem Falahat, the head of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood at a press conference yesterday.