Loyalty and poverty: Jordan’s uprising stagnates

Despite nearly two months of protests, King Abdullah’s regime is clinging to the promise, but not ye

Overlooking Amman's concrete skyline is the Citadel, where lie the silent remains of Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad structures. The murmur of Jordan's ancient and chequered history resonates round these crumbling edifices, reminding the country that even the greatest powers can topple into the sun-baked dust.

Jordan is not at breaking point yet, but of all the protests sweeping across the Middle East, those in Jordan have been going on for the longest. Indeed, marches through Amman's windy streets began on 14 January and show no sign of ceasing even now, in mid-March, due to the slow adoption of reforms.

Jordan's is an interesting case, because it is one of just two monarchies in the region which has experienced sustained protests (the other country being Bahrain). Conversely, it is also one of the highest-scoring Arab nations on the Economist Intelligence Unit's 2010 Democracy Index, with a rating of 3.74 – more than the seemingly stable regimes of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Unsurprisingly, then, the roots of the Jordanian protests are to be found more in relation to economic justice than the problems of authoritarian rule. That is not to say there is not a problem with authoritarian rule in Jordan; it is more that the way the monarchy is viewed tends to ignore its role in relation to national troubles.

Poverty, unemployment and food prices are all high in Jordan, and despite its Social Productivity Programme, which has apparently reduced the poverty level from 30 to 14 per cent of the population over the past decade, the people remain unsatisfied.

Open arms to the free market

Since Jordan gained independence in 1946, the economy has rarely enjoyed sustained periods of stability, continuously fluctuating between growth and stagnation, largely as a result of the direct and indirect effects of regional conflicts such as the Six Day War and the Gulf war.

As a result, in 1999, when King Abdullah II took the throne after the death of his father, King Hussein I, he began a policy of free-market economic reforms designed to change Jordan's fortunes.

These had a degree of success, resulting in Jordan becoming the fourth most economically free nation in the Arab world, with a score of 68.9 on the 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, and increased growth, due largely to privatisation of industry and foreign investment. Indeed, between 2006 and 2009, Jordan had sustained economic growth of an impressive 6 per cent, roughly, each year. Nonetheless, it also has a massive debt to deal with, whose outlook was recently downgraded by Moody's to "negative".

Though Jordan boasts some successes on paper, it also suffers from widespread poverty, unemployment and a lack of adequate purchasing power. Many officials believe that the respectable growth rate in 2010 of 3.4 per cent (the lower figure was a result of the global financial crisis) indicates sound economic policies, but as we have learned in the UK, growth doesn't necessarily create fair distributions of wealth.

That levels of inequality in Jordan, according to the UN Gini Index, were at a modest 0.38 in 2009, says more about how poverty is equally distributed across the country than anything else. It is no surprise then, that though Jordan has strong growth and burgeoning free-market activity, its gross national income per capita is only $3,740, and even lower when measured using the Atlas method, at $1,525.17.

The cause of and potential solution to this economic injustice lies ultimately with King Abdullah, who has executive authority over most parliamentary decisions.

However, instead of calling for his resignation, most protesters (though some called for constitutional reform to cede the king's powers to parliament) demanded that the government be removed, attributing the economic problems to the cabinet rather than the king. This is certainly due in part to the taboo in Jordan of criticising the monarchy, and the heavy penalties incurred for doing so.

Children of the Prophet

Still, there are remarkably many billboards featuring Abdullah, and posters of him plastered on windows and walls across the country, making it reasonably clear that loyalty to and trust in the monarchy springs also from deep historical attachments.

For example, the royal family's important role in winning independence from the Ottoman empire via Sharif Hussein Bin Ali – Abdullah's great-great-grandfather – is an important factor in maintaining loyalty to the regime. Furthermore, that the al-Hashimis are supposedly descendants of the Prophet Muhammad is another critical reason for glorification of the monarchy. The Hashemite royalty therefore have legitimacy on both an Arab nationalist and an Islamic level.

On 1 February, in an attempt to placate the crowds, Abdullah sacked the government, including the prime minister, Samir al-Rifa'i. He then personally chose the new prime minister, Marouf Bakhit, a former army general who had held the position before, and set him the task of forming a new cabinet. Suffice to say, this move was undemocratic and purely procedural.

More constructively, the king also cut fuel taxes, implemented basic food subsidies and increased the monthly salary of public-sector employees by 20 Jordanian dinars (roughly $30). These reforms have been accepted by the people, but clearly the endemic poverty in Jordan is the result of more deep-set structural factors in its neoliberal economic policy, entrenched by the elite loyal to the king and, indeed, by the king himself.

The new government narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in the lower house on 3 March, and a majority of members signed a memorandum demanding that the executive present a substantive programme of reforms for the end of the month. If it does not deliver, the government could be dissolved again.

It is doubtful, though, that we will see any significant regime change in Jordan - nationalist and religious ties are too strong. Indeed, despite continued protests, mostly spurred on by the Islamist opposition, it is likely the king will continue using his revered position to maintain the status quo.

Liam McLaughlin is a freelance journalist who has also written for Prospect and the Huffington Post. He tweets irregularly @LiamMc108.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.