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Jordan's protests could be the second wave of an 'Arab Spring'

Recent protests sweeping the country amid record fuel prices and national debt could signal another revolution, as much of the Middle East faces an unprecedented economic crisis
Jordanian security forces deploy armoured vehicles in the southern city of Maan on 16 December 2022, hours after a senior police officer was shot dead in riots during a strike against rising fuel prices (AFP)

Jordan is witnessing escalating popular protests whose violent turn has ushered in an important, sensitive, and dangerous period in the country's history.

What is happening in Jordan may not be a passing wave of protest, but rather a prelude to a wave of anger that may sweep the region

But what is happening in Jordan cannot be isolated from current conditions and growing tensions in the entire region, signalling what may be a prelude to a second wave of the Arab Spring.

The latest wave of demonstrations in Jordan began with the announcement of truck drivers on strike, in which other public transport workers soon participated, to protest against the rise of fuel prices.

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The drivers say the rise in fuel prices has eroded their income, especially since most of them are not salaried employees but rent the vehicles from their original owners. The rise in fuel prices has led to significant financial losses in their earnings as independent contractors.

A 'dangerous' juncture

The protests constitute one of the most dangerous junctures in the history of Jordan, as the southern cities that are witnessing this wave of anger are the same which witnessed the "April Uprising" in 1989

That forced the late King Hussein bin Talal to "democratise" and hold free, democratic elections in November of that year, which ended with the opposition Muslim Brotherhood party taking control over a third of the parliament.

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Southern Jordan itself had witnessed the "Bread Uprising" in 1996, which ended with the government's reversal of its decision to raise the price of bread, a basic commodity for the population.

Then King Hussein dismissed the government in order to calm the angry street.

The current protests pose a greater threat to the government than previous unrest, as the crisis has expanded from a labour strike to popular protests and calls for a general strike, to which many in the southern cities quickly responded and closed the doors of their shops and disrupted their work.

As a result, supply chains in Jordan are threatened due to roads being cut off between the port of Aqaba and northern and central cities - including the capital - the most populous region in the country.

It should be noted that the port of Aqaba is located in the far south, and is the only port in the country, and the main outlet for goods entering Jordan.

funeral Jordan
Jordanian military personnel attend the funeral of a senior police officer killed during protests against rising fuel prices in the southern city of Jerash on 16 December 2022 (AFP)

Highest prices in history

Fuel prices in Jordan have been recorded as the highest in the country's history, and the government justifies this by claiming they are linked to global market rates, which jumped in part due to the Russia-Ukraine war.

Jordanians, however, no longer believe these justifications because prices continue to rise without falling, unlike the movement of global oil prices.

In parallel with rising prices and high unemployment rates, the government's public debt is at a record level and the deficit in the trade balance continues to grow

For example, in March 2022, the price of a barrel of oil (Brent) on the world markets was between $100 and $110, and Jordanians were buying a litre of gasoline at a price of 0.74 dinars ($1.04), while in December, after the price of a barrel of oil fell to between $75 and $80, Jordanians were buying a litre of gasoline at a price of 0.92 dinars ($1.30).

These figures mean that while world oil prices have fallen by up to 30 percent, the Jordanian government has raised fuel prices for its citizens by about 25 percent.

This has given a wide impression among people in Jordan that the government is making significant financial gains from the hydrocarbon trade, after having subsidised this commodity just a few years ago and providing it to people at less than its real cost in order to protect them from poverty.

Of course, the crisis that Jordan is experiencing is not limited to rising fuel prices, but the kingdom is going through a suffocating economic crisis as a result of the extreme measures taken by authorities to confront the Covid-19 pandemic, which included imposing a comprehensive curfew and forcibly preventing residents from leaving their homes, in addition to imposing travel restrictions and closing airports, borders, as well as many businesses and commercial establishments.

The crisis was also deepened by the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, which has raised the prices of oil, gas, wheat and grain.

As a result of the general economic crisis, the unemployment rate has risen sharply in Jordan, where it currently stands at 22.6 percent. It continues close to 50 percent among young people in the prime of their working lives, meaning that one out of two young people cannot find a job or a source of income. Unemployment and poverty rates are rising in the southern cities, reaching unprecedented levels, which explains the concentration of protests in those areas.

In parallel with rising prices and high unemployment rates, the government's public debt is at a record level and the deficit in the trade balance continues to grow. As a result, the country has needed more foreign currency to finance its basic needs and has, in turn, imposed higher government taxes to provide the financial revenues needed by the state.

Jordan's public debt currently stands at approximately $47bn, constituting 106 percent of its GDP - the highest level in the country's history, and it is planned that 14 percent of its 2023 budget will go towards covering debt servicing and fulfilling obligations due during the year.

In the first seven months of this year, the deficit in the trade balance increased by 34.1 percent and amounted to $8.32bn.

A regional crisis

There is a crisis in Jordan that has led to the explosion of the current wave of anger, but the most important element is that these same conditions exist in more than one place in the region, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, which are suffering from the same economic crises, and also suffer from high unemployment, poverty, indebtedness and high prices, which means that more than one country in the Arab region is a candidate for new tensions and protests.

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In Egypt, public debt has tripled over the past ten years, and by March 2022, it had reached $155.7bn - an increase of $23bn in just one year. The Egyptian pound suffered further depreciation, which has led to a "price frenzy" and an increase in poverty rates as people's purchasing power is eroded.

Tunisia does not look any better off with the deterioration of its economic data, whether related to unemployment, high costs, rising poverty or public debt, which has increased the state of grumbling and criticism despite the regime's attempt to tighten control and its grip on security.

The bottom line is that what is happening in Jordan may not be a passing wave of protest, but rather a prelude to a wave of anger that may sweep the region.

It may yet expand to a second wave of the "Arab Spring" that began in Tunisia in early 2011, displaying a widespread popular desire in the Arab world for change, and leading to the fall of four Arab regimes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Mohammad Ayesh is an Arab journalist currently based in London
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