Jordanian civil society secured a big victory when protests led to the resignation of the country's prime minister and the repeal of a controversial tax code. The real question is whether Jordanians can sustain the momentum for genuine reforms.
Jordan’s recent tax protests garnered international media coverage, with some even comparing it to the so-called Arab Spring. However, the realities differ greatly – for one, there were no calls to overthrow the monarchy, juts calls to repeal a new tax code.
To understand the context of these protests it is imperative to understand Jordan’s current economic climate. The nation is currently making payments to the International Monetary Fund and as such have been slowly introducing austerity measures, such as doubling the price of bread earlier this year. The population remained relatively silent for the first half of 2018 with geopolitics taking precedence over domestic affairs.
However, when the government introduced a tax code that increased specific tax rates in addition to generally broadening the tax base—meaning that those with lower income would now be subject to taxation—it did not sit well. Couple this with an increase in fuel and electricity costs as the government removed subsidies, and unrest was almost inevitable.
The real recipe for disaster is that a comfortable majority of Jordan’s population is struggling to get by, and the moves struck a nerve in a long suppressed population. Jordan has one of the highest living costs in the region but its average monthly income is only $637 as of April last year.
Former PM Hani al Mulki attempted to explain that as the government were in negotiations with the IMF, these austerity measures were essential to comply with their requirements.
The protests kicked off as a nationwide strike and more than thirty unions joined in the call. In one city, Salt, protesters occupied a space close to the city’s grand mosque a month before the call for strikes. It’s important to understand that this was largely a youth-based and initiated movement. One earlier campaign from September 2017, “Ma’nash” or “We Don’t Have” gained a sizeable following on Facebook.
One of the founders of the earlier campaigns, Ibrahim Najjar, works at an international NGO based in Amman. He explains to me how the campaign moved alongside the changes the government were making; as such when there were no announcements, no calls to action were made. However, once the new tax code was presented, campaigns like Ma’nash were ready to mobilise. This may have been the key to its success—a clear list of demands—that were later met. First order, change the cabinet and second, repeal the economic changes.
In response to the populations growing anger, King Abdullah repealed the new tax laws and price hikes, unsurprisingly replaced the prime minister, and cited the importance of national dialogue to solve this burning issue.
However, many remain skeptical – this tactic has been used in recent history to handle austerity protests in the country from as recently as the late 90s with no substantial long-term changes.
Nonetheless, protests are being considered a success with the prime ministry now occupied by the former Minister for Education, Omar Razzaz. In addition, in his first act in office, he withdrew the tax code. On 20 June, Razzaz announced that instead of the general population bearing the brunt of austerity measures, he aims to cut public spending by close to $200 million.
Najjar highlights, however, that there is one genuine key success to this story – the involvement of youth in the political sphere. As this protest was not controlled by tribal heads or political parties, usually spaces that exclude youth from decision-making processes, the Jordanian youth found their voice and it was clearly heard.
Despite multiple projects by both government and international agencies, political participation in Jordan—particularly amongst the youth—is low. Najjar says, that he, nor the rest of the government, has seen such keen and sharp engagement. He explains that this encourages not only participation but discussion within youth circles. He hopes that this will revitalise the political sphere. A feat that has never been achieve by ministries, NGOs, schools, or any other sector that has attempted it.
There are high hopes for current PM Omar Razzaz, with his progressive work at the Ministry of Education, it would appear he may be the missing link needed to steer the country in a younger, more engaged direction. The battle now will be attempting to keep some of the older tribal chiefs, parliamentarians, and ministries, on the same page.
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