Jordan’s truckers struggle to get by, sparking protests, violence

The deaths of four police officers highlight the issue of fuel protests, but Jordan’s problems are much deeper.

Friends and relatives carry the coffin of Captain Ghaith Al-Rahahleh, a Jordanian police officer who was killed in a shootout during his funeral in Amman, Jordan, Monday, Dec. 19, 2022.
Friends and relatives carry the coffin of Captain Ghaith Al-Rahahleh, a Jordanian police officer who was killed in a shootout, during his funeral in Amman, Jordan, on Monday, December 19, 2022. [Raad Adayleh/AP Photo]

The outbreak of protests and strikes in Jordan, and some cases of accompanying violence have shed light on the worsening economic situation in the country.

Protests against a rise in fuel prices have waned in intensity, but have not yet died out, still occurring sporadically in Jordan’s southern governorates — the epicentre of the recent anti-government events.

On December 15 a senior police officer was killed in the southern city of Maan during clashes with demonstrators, and three police officers were killed on Monday during a raid on the hideout of the suspected killer.

Truck and public transport drivers began striking two weeks ago. Some of the protests have flared into riots, which have spread throughout the kingdom, reaching the capital Amman over the weekend. Public property was set alight, state buildings vandalised, and main highways closed because of tyres that were set on fire.

“It was expected that it would reach this point. There are many signs and symptoms of frustration and anger,” Jordanian political analyst Amer Sabaileh told Al Jazeera. “It shows that people are fed up, that people are seriously suffering.”

Local media outlets have reported that most of the drivers appear to have ended their strike, following indications from local officials that fuel prices would be reduced next month. The government has also agreed to raise the minimum transport fees to coincide with the increase in diesel prices – which have nearly doubled over the past year.

But some drivers, particularly in the southern city of Maan, have continued to strike. Among their grievances is the arrest of the city’s former mayor, Majid al-Sharari, after he left a protest site.

The government has cracked down on the demonstrations, particularly following the deaths in Maan, and has deployed anti-riot police throughout the country and fired tear gas to disperse crowds. Authorities have so far arrested 44 people involved with the protests.

The social media platform Tik Tok has also been banned, due to what Jordan’s Cybercrime Unit said was the presence of videos “spreading false news and information”.

The government’s intense crackdown “might function when it’s something related to political demands, but here people are really suffering,” Sabaileh said. “You don’t solve the problem this way,” he added. “It’s becoming bigger, more rooted, and it’s affecting all Jordanians.”

Diesel prices double

The increase in fuel prices in the winter season when there is less agricultural produce to transport means that many truck drivers are already out of pocket.  This is a harsh blow to Jordan’s “crumbling” transportation sector, said Khalid Shatnawi, aged 46, a truck driver for nearly 16 years and spokesman for the Jordanian Truck Drivers and Owners Association.

Shatnawi, who has five children, told Al Jazeera that his salary cannot cover all his expenses. “By the end of the month, I’m in debt.”

Shatnawi said that his 22-year-old son had to stop going to university for two years because the family was unable to afford his tuition fees. As the truck driver gets paid per trip, he says he has to “constantly keep travelling” just to catch up with his expenses.

The price of diesel, used by large trucks and buses, has been increasing in Jordan steadily over the past year. One litre of diesel now sells for 0.895 Jordanian dinars ($1.26), up from just 0.500 dinars ($0.70) last January.

The government says it has already paid more than 500 million dinars ($700m) to cap fuel price hikes this year and cannot do much more if it wants to avoid breaching a deal it has with the International Monetary Fund.

“Any small change in diesel prices directly affects our profits,” said Essam al-Toura, 38, who runs Asalat Alaris Transportation Services, a trucking company in Jordan.

Al-Toura told Al Jazeera that the company now pays double the amount it paid for diesel six months ago. He noted that with the current prices, diesel costs take up about 58 per cent of the total operational costs.

“At the end of the day we pay out of our own pockets to cover our losses,” al-Toura said, noting that the diesel price hikes have put his business in a “very critical situation”.

Serial protests

The recent protests over fuel are not the first for Jordan. While a rise in prices often stokes demonstrations people have generally been aggrieved about government inefficiency.

“The fuel [price] is the trigger,” said Sabaileh, the political analyst. “In such moments, it opens a lot of doors. You cannot talk about fuel prices without talking about public policies, governments, and legitimacy.”

Polling shows widespread mistrust towards Jordan’s political system. A 2021 poll, conducted by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions and the International Republican Institute (IRI), found that the majority of Jordanians thought the country was headed in the wrong direction and governed in the interests of a minority.

Over recent years, authorities have increasingly persecuted and harassed citizens engaged in acts of peaceful protest or political dissent, according to a 2022 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.

And with the COVID-19 pandemic fallout and the repercussions of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Jordan faces considerably higher inflation and an unemployment rate that reached 22.8 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

Sabaileh noted that the unhappiness with Jordan’s political elite was even included in letters from the families of the deceased police officers.

For example, according to Jordan’s Roya News, the statement from the family of Corporal Ibrahim Atef Al-Shaqarin, who died in Monday’s raid, said the deaths were a “reflection of the mishandling by successive governments in Jordan”.

Commenting on the government agreement reached with the truck drivers, Shantawi said that “there were only promises”, referencing the “pages” of demands the association still has unanswered.

“Nothing has changed for us,” he stated.

Source: Al Jazeera