Tunisia Revolts And The View From Jordan

It may go without saying that in the past 48 hours, a great number of Jordanians have been glued to their television screens, watching Al Jazeera detail the fall of the Tunisian regime, the assumed exile of its leader, and the rise of the youth voice in the streets of Tunis. The view from Jordan has been interesting. It seems people range from those who are truly engaged by these events, some who have even been inspired by them, and then those who are completely aloof if not downright oblivious to what’s happening. The meghreb region has always been somewhat disconnected from the Levant, and had the same events happened in, say, Syria, or even Egypt, Jordanians would likely be paying a lot more attention. But that geography, and social disconnect has always maintained a bit of a gap between the different players in the Middle East. To some extent, the same can be said of the Gulf region. This may explain why Jordanians went from cheering for their national team’s win against Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup on Thursday night, and then marched in a show of anger at their living conditions on Friday morning. That kind of contrast is typical of the Jordanian street, and more so with Tunisia being so far away.

With that in mind, local commentary, be it in newspaper columns or amongst the general street, has largely focused on mirroring events in Tunisia to what’s happening in Jordan. To a larger extent, there is general query as to whether Tunisia will inspire a domino effect in the region, specifically with regimes that seem ripe to fall, such as Egypt’s. It is safe to assume that the Jordanian state has been watching Tunisian events closely and taking careful measures to help curb the likelihood of similar protests taking place in Jordan. Despite their denials that the two have anything to do with each other, these measures are quite obvious attempts at quelling potential violent eruptions within the Kingdom. The initial rise in prices one week (including fuel), and the subsequent lowering of those prices – a move that I don’t recall the state having ever made in the past 15 years or more – is an early indication that there is concern. The $169 million subsidy package that was recently announced is another indication of concern. The message the government has been sending out is quite clear, and ranges from “we’re doing all we can” to “look, we’ve done quite a lot”.

As various Jordanian organizations launched a few nationwide protests to demonstrate their anger on Friday 14th, those that showed up seem to be much lower than what was reported. However, one thing is for sure, those that showed up were simply put, fed up with their living situations. While the government has accused some of being opportunists, they have perhaps already lost sight of the fact that most of those protesting care little about the opportunists and more about the opportunity. Just like their brethren in Tunisia, the feeling of economic discontent is ripe in Jordan. From high unemployment, high inflation and a record deficit of $2 billion (or roughly 10% of the country’s GDP), things are simply not great. Winter represents a season where fuel prices go up, and those struggling to heat their homes or cook food get hurt the most. This represents the majority of Jordanians. More protests, specifically those that will be lead by political parties that include the Islamic Action Front and various labor unions and associations are scheduled for Sunday, taking place outside the Parliament building.

The events in Tunisia have been officially linked to events in Jordan by the people as protesters outside the Tunisian embassy are calling for Prime Minister Rifai’s resignation. We are likely to see more of that linkage in the next few days if such protests continue.

What is perhaps most interesting to me is that the government’s solution has been as unoriginal as it gets, if not simply put, typical. Creating even larger subsidy packages to reduce prices is like putting a band-aid over a bullet wound. This attempt to remedy long-term problems with short-run solutions is quite folly, and a demonstration of how the state seems to be quickly losing touch with either the people or the economic situation in general, and probably both. Such “solutions” include increased hiring of more barely-educated employees, in various parts of the public sector, which is already over burdened with personnel. Subsidy packages will likely come back to haunt us in the near future, inflicting even greater economic damage. Who will pay for it? Social security? Increased taxes? More USAID?

The state is currently facing a crucial catch-22 in its history, a situation that has been created in recent years from uninspired economic policies to a lack of genuine political and social reform. After years of attempting to reign in any attempts for true democratic reform on the political level, a struggling economy has emerged. Today, Jordan, and perhaps much of the Arab world is learning one important lesson from Tunisia: the call for political change from the domestic constituency is unlikely to happen in the region unless the economy gets bad, real, real, bad. Governments can take away, censor or control various freedoms, including the right to a free press or the right to an elected government, and people are unlikely to be moved enough to demand widespread change. That’s just the political reality of it; people can’t afford to make such demands. But if you put a man’s livelihood at stake, if their financial situation is in dire straits, then they’ll be forced to react.

Will the events in Tunisia cause a similar situation to unfold in Jordan?

Probably not. While parallels, such as those mentioned above, can be easily drawn throughout much of the Arab world where the majority of the population is struggling to make ends meet, the paradigm is quite different. Both the economic, political and social situations are completely different when it comes to these two countries. Jordanians will likely be inspired enough by Tunisia to engage in the vocalization of their financial despair, even to the extent of calling on the typical toppling of the Rifai government (or whatever government is in play). But they will, for the most part, avoid widespread violence, or calls for a complete overhaul of the system.

With that in mind, the likely outcome in Jordan is an ongoing system of cutbacks by the government, in an attempt to quench people’s anger. The worst case scenario for the state will be replacing Samir Rifai’s government with yet another government. There is no doubt that this option is always on the table as such governments are designed to be scapegoats for domestic issues, and are easily replaceable. However, having made several dramatic changes in the government this past year, I do not think the state or palace is in any rush to push that button just yet, an option that will send even greater signs of political instability in the Kingdom. To say nothing of the fact that the state has officially run out of turns when it comes to making guarantees to the people that a new entity is going to herald in new changes. That card has been played to death this past year and it will be difficult to convince Jordanians that yet another cabinet will be any different.

Moreover, these events, coupled with the Lower House’s decision to give a quick and unprecedented vote of confidence (111 out of 119) in the government a few weeks back, have gone far in demonstrating the extent to which Parliament has quickly lost all credibility from the people as an elected body. Those that gave their vote of confidence to the current Rifai government will inevitably be seen as having either been co-opted by the state from the get-go, and/or as having no leverage or credibility amongst their constituency, some of whom are already calling for the dissolution of Parliament, nearly two months after it was just voted in. An increase in criticism of the Rifai government by parliamentarians will likely happen as members struggle to regain some political credibility. Calls for another confidence vote seem to be in the making as well, with certain members revoking article 54 of the constitution. But that is unlikely to make a difference to the people protesting who will see it largely as an attempt by members to retain their seats in Parliament and avoid going down with the sinking ship.

Suffice to say, what happens next on the Jordanian street is going to be very, very interesting.

p.s. for those interested in live coverage of events in Jordan and want to partake in some real-time constructive dialog, I recommend following the hashtag #ReformJO on Twitter.

26 thoughts on “Tunisia Revolts And The View From Jordan

  1. Can the regime afford another Awadallah like episode..By that I mean providing support to an unpopular figure? I don’t think so. The disconnect is already wide so from the perspective of the regime,I believe, there is a need for a “makromeh” and an “interference” at the level of sacking the government.

    Other options include(those are less likely to happen due to the apathy at the top):Actually delivering on promises and taking radical actions to make the street believe again and to rebuild the trust. People can’t simply see the lavish lives that the regime live and not compare that to their miserable lives and the massive debt of the country. Even if there is no embezzlement or nepotism at the top level, perception remains reality. The regime has to be completely transparent. Lay it all out. Show the money. Hold those who gambled with our present and future accountable. Take moral responsibility for the failures of the past and stop boasting about meaningless achievements. Balance the power structure. Take moral stands…..

    In other words: LEAD not simply rule.

  2. @Mohanned: I agree with you that supporting another unpopular figure will not be taken lightly by the masses, and one can expect to see an increased in commentary comparing Rifai to Awadallah, whether those comparisons be true, real, or not. That’s just the way that cookie will crumble. the growing disconnect is interesting to me, especially in the information age where the average person seems much more in tune with how the “other” is living. no longer can the state filter out the sort of visualized information that is now out there in newspapers, the internet and on satellite tv (heck, even cell phones).

    so yes, i agree with your conclusion, there is a need now for some radical actions to be taken in order to ensure long-term stability, instead of short run gains.

  3. Nas, you say: Will the events in Tunisia cause a similar situation to unfold in Jordan?…….. But they will, for the most part, avoid widespread violence, or calls for a complete overhaul of the system.

    Why so?

  4.  @T: I think there are many answers to that question and they involve a much more thorough examination of the social and political paradigms in the Kingdom that make up the factors as to why the situation I illustrated is more probable than the opposite. Suffice to say, the one thing many of those factors have in common is that the country, like many other countries, consists of a network where everything is connected to everything, and it is very difficult to destroy those ties with ease – or, in other words, the destruction of those ties by the involved various players is a giant leap for them. From political parties to civil society, to activists to the media to the government – almost everything is connected in one way or another to and by the state. Everyone has something at stake in the status quo which is why it is fairly difficult to make dramatic paradigm shifts in Jordan without disrupting that status quo.

    With that in mind, I think most Jordanians who are looking for positive change in this country are looking more towards “evolution” as opposed to “revolution”.

    @Dave: thanks for the comment.

  5. الدرس التاريخي الذي لقنه الشعب العربي التونسي وخصوصا الباعة المتجولين مثل البطل الشاب بائع الخظروات والفاكه محمد بوعزيزي الذي أطلق شرارة الحرية الأوله لتحرير الشعب التونسي من طغاته وعصابات المافيه كما وصفها دبلوماسي أمريكي في تسريبات ويكيليكس، تداعيات خلع هدا الجلااد وعصابته البائدة تمثل درساً يجب أن يحتدى به وتكراره في جميع الدول العربية وأولها الأردن، الحالة السياسيه والاجتماعية في تونس ما قبل خلع المجرم زيد العابدين تتشابه مع كل ما حصل ويحصل في البلدان العربية، أخواني وأخواتي أنها البداية وليست النهاية

  6. Thank you for a well-written and balanced editorial. You agreed with Mohannad that we need radical measures to correct the economic situation. That is EXACTLY what Al Rifai government has been trying to do! The Gov brought down the budget deficit and the national debt that has been accumulated by consecutive Governments who were after doing the popular thing and didnt give a damn about letting others deal with the problem later. Al Rifai Government actually took responsibility and said from the start that they will not do the popular thing but rather the right thing. So they cut back on government spending and they actively dealt with corruption and were working in accordance to a clear plan that is tied to key performance indicators, a budget and a time frame. The plan for the first time ever is published on the website for anyone interested to follow and question!
    I realise that I sound like the Government’s press officer but I am not and I have no personal interest what so ever in Al Rifai’s Government. I am just a Jordanian citizen and I am really angry at what is happening! Just like everyone else I too am affected by the price rises, as everyone else in the entire world. We all had to make adjustments in our life to cope. And I too – like many others – do what I can to give back to people who are not as fortunate as I am.
    I felt optimistic that at least we now have a Government that is working closely with all the powers that be to set things right. But right from day one Al Rifai has been fought and criticized in such an unprecedented way! The ignorance of the people who chant for the downfall of the government and in the same breath wish for Saddam!!!
    How are we going to fix anything if we go back to the government being the patriarch and subsidizing everything employing hundreds of thousands while begging for money from who ever is feeling charitable! Fixing the economy, especially with these prevailing world conditions will result in price rises but it will also mean that the government will have the money that it needs to help the people that need it. To build the hospitals and the schools that are needed.
    Al Rifai, in my opinion, was the ideal person for this task for several reasons. But one hand cannot clap.

  7. @A7LAM: Thanks for the comment.

    I think it goes without saying that we – and this goes for everyone – need to be careful when it comes to analyzing what lies behind the voice of the people, and not simply depend on the superficiality of slogans being chanted in the street. What people have been demanding for the past several years – emphasis on years – is change. This was demanded long before Rifai, and will continue long after. I would safely argue that when people call for Rifai’s resignation, they are simply playing in to the same political game they’ve been taught to play by the state and the status quo – that is, using Rifai as, at best, a metaphor, and at worse, a scapegoat.

    So there’s no need to rush to the defense of the Prime Minister (they have a whole department for that), as I assure you this is not about one man, but about a status quo. Some hope that such a status quo can be affected by a resignation, others are probably garnered with significantly greater insights and are simply voicing their discontent to the highest ceiling they feel is allowed them in this country, i.e. calling on the resignation of a Prime Minister.

    Jordanians are more aware than you give them credit for.

    Lastly, I should say that the status quo did not emerge over night, on Rifai’s watch. It has been building for a long time and the average person has not seen any significant changes to their well being. All they’ve seen is the introduction of one government after the other, with each promising significant change over the next but none sticking around long enough to either fulfill those changes, or to even bother making the attempt. Rifai’s government is no different as the reality of the situation is that it hasn’t been around long enough (to say nothing of being incredibly unstable) to prove itself.

    Only history will judge the Rifai government’s accomplishments as it is too soon to tell if it will yield any significant change.

    But you have to realize, none of this – and I mean absolutely none of this matters to an average Jordanian who has been growing hungrier for a few years now, and continues to be hungry today.

    Promises will not change that person’s situation.

  8. When I need to catch up with “Jordanian affairs”, I come around here and I never fail to find very interesting editorials. Thank you.

  9. In 2004 the budget deficit was 200 million JDs and at the end of the reign of the Dhahbi government it reached 1.5 billion JDs. This happened exactly after the IMF removed its monitoring of the structural reform programme, thus opening the door for corruption and lavish expenditures by the government, supported by the deputies who wanted to hire more and more of their voters. Link this to the huge rise of the prices of real estates and land and you get a bubble economy that everyone have enjoyed. The current government managed to reduce the deficit to 1.0 billion despite the international financial crises but is facing the consequences of years of huge spending without checks and balances. It is easy and maybe enjoyable for the majority of our hopeless political activists to blame Rifai but only a handful of them will think of alternative policies. What we need in Jordan now are smart brains and not strong vocal cords.

  10. to Batir Wardam

    you nailed it. but the reality is that the damage is done, the goverment has no choice but to keep issuing treasury bonds. cannot lower the deficit to at least sub JOD500 million. its going to get worse if unfunded liabilities increase.

    ps the stuff you just said is only understood by 1% of the population 😀

  11. The elephant in the room, that everyone is understandably avoiding talking about, is why replacing the government is not going to change anything substantial. The real power lies above the government and above the parliament. It may take several years, but unless real change takes place, someone will find himself in Bin Ali’s shoes one day! This may sound radical or unrealistic, but who in Tunisia thought months ago that their dictator could be ousted just like that?

  12. the economic (or socio-economic) situation is similar in all Arab countries, in Gulf states it is somehow different, there are more petrodollars, but in fact people there are just “bribed” to stay quite and kept busy with rediculous stuff, fancy cars and other toys, etc…
    The Tunisian people are now ready to establish a free and democratic society, but are other Arab countries?.. I hope the Tunisians will succeed, I can imagine some powers will interfere to prevent free democracy to be established in Arab countries. If it works in Tunisia, it may lead to the (hopefully peaceful) change badly needed in other countries …

  13. riskability ,”Jordan and Egypt is rising up to the era chahhange ” WHAT IS THAT? Jordan is rising, where do you live riskability?, Mars? Jordan’s unemployment in is more than 25%, external debt are over 6 billion, ya right Jordan is “rising” you are only fooling yourself.

  14. You know what? We Arabs are such staunch advocates of anarchy – while it is very tempting to romanticize what’s happening in Tunisia, the fact that a lot of people on the street do want the same to happen in their countries does scare me. This is not something like the French revolution, where egalitarian values were soon inacted, and the revolution helped France get up on its feet – I liken this more to post-9/11 Iraq.

    I have friends there who told me it was a nightmare living in Tunisia – albeit on many fronts, it was a very functional state that supported womens’ rights, had somewhat liberal values – nevertheless it was an authoritarian regime. I believe that our government (and dare I say, monarchy) can do a lot better for Jordan – I know this isn’t the place or time to zero in on that – but seeing the violene in Iraq really worries me: Are we really ready for an overnight fully-fledged democracy? I am in full support of democracy, but I cannot see any political party or leadership that can fill in the political void that a “revolution” might cause. Plus, I’m sorry, but I cannot trust a fellow Jordanian with my jacket or watch, let alone the country –

    I am just trying to approach this logically. Yes, it was exciting at first to see this on TV – it would be great to see the same happen across the region, but only when we have people who are ready and capable to run it. We hardly have decent parliament members, let alone leadership that is better than what we already have.

  15. Though many features are common between Tunisia and JordanL both positive, economic growth, and negative the two situations are hardly comparable when it comes to popular upheavals and implications and outputs therefrom.
    Jordam lays in the grips of regional stalemate situation that preempts any radical changes while the situation in Tunisia is relatively unencumbered with regional balance parameters.
    Historically the Jordanian regime has shown greater attention to the public mood and effected the necessary, though usually the minimal, changes that would contain it.
    That has been an outstanding feature of the late King Hussein mode of power yielding,,,,,,remains to be seen how the Present King, Abdullah II,will steer the ship of state!

  16. Tunis can be much more of a “model” to ,say, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt,Libya and , strangely and asymmetrically enough , possibly Lebanon.
    All Gulf Arab states are immune from the Tunis syndrome for their own respective reasons : with some (Kuwait,UAE,Qatar) the native public, overwhelmingly upper middle class, can be bought outright with hard cash, for others (Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) the multidimensional complexities of their internal situations and the regional situation makes it a practical, realpolitik, impossibility.
    For the rest ( the Yemen, the Sudan,Palestine and Iraq) the upheavals are already there and the question is how things will evolve .
    A comprehensive run down will have to include the umbilically connected Syria and Lebanon and that would , for Syria, open an other Iraqi type Pandora’s box

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