“I know how much Jordanians have endured; this is their true mettle. We are working day and night to overcome this difficult situation,” – HM King Abdullah II.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Jordanian mettle this week. I’ve been thinking of a word that could best describe a Jordanian in the face of adversity. That tremendous ability to take on hardship with a furrowed brow and clenched teeth, swallowing misfortune like a bitter pill. That aptitude for bearing one catastrophe after the other, one year after another.
Years of bad economic policy and poor planning. Years of price hikes; years of wages not increasing. Years of one corruption story after another that collectively don’t even scratch the surface of the economic bleeding over the past two decades. Years of joblessness, compounded by a generation that graduated during the Arab Spring when their country’s leader called the Arab Spring an “opportunity” for change, who now sit idle in their 20’s.
Years of seeing the gap between rich and poor widen, manifesting in the glaring contrasts of West Ammani bubbles and the rest of the country. Years of an incestuous marriage between the political and economic spheres; years of ministers, members of parliament, and officials making money from their positions of power, living off stipends for ‘services rendered’. Years of retirement packages for people who served the country for six months and are bestowed with the lifelong honorable of “your excellency”; years of putting the social security retirements of those who served for decades in fiscal jeopardy. Years of playing favorites with government tenders. Years of this polluted environment being tolerated – because if all the right people got their cut, the conditions were worth defending.
Years of scapegoating; blaming political organizations, blaming refugees, blaming foreign governments, blaming the myriad of unstable elements in our orbit that serve as effective distractions. Years of pointing at everything except for the truth: that a system has long been established to benefit the few at the expense of everyone else. Everyone who doesn’t come from a well-connected family, with well-established business and/or political ties; the kind of connections that can bend or break laws in a single phone call. Just years of economic and social marginalization. Years of watching the governing elite get richer and wondering: where did that come from?
Years of hanging on to the last remnants of trust and faith in national institutions. Years of having to perform a trapeze act at the mercy of the State’s ability to provide the minimal social safety net below; and years of watching the State cut the net’s strings one by one. Years of unaccountable public land sales. Years of shady business deals.
Years of promises made; years of promises broken. Years of being told to sit down and be quiet. Years of being told we don’t want to end up like Iraq. Years of being told we don’t want to end up like Syria. And even though we don’t, there’s only so much a human being can take before they break. There’s an elastic limit for even the most resilient of Jordanians, whose very national identity is rooted in a history of surviving hardship. Every population has its breaking point and we may have just arrived at our destination.
To be cautiously optimistic, let’s call it a tipping point.
Yes, these protests are unlike any other, and for the obvious reasons. First, these are economically motivated political protests, and economic forces hit across the social spectrum, uniting people beyond ideology. This naturally makes it more difficult for the State to pursue conventional divide-and-conquer strategies of pitting people against one another based on origins, allegiances, loyalties, affiliations, etc. Which is not to say the strategy is no longer viable (it really comes down to buying enough time; picking enough moments), its just harder when the economic realities are breathing life into the protests. And made even harder when those protests include mass worker strikes. Because there’s a time when the operation of the machine does become so odious that you can’t even passively take part in it.
Second, there is a collective issue to fight against and it has universal appeal. The end goals might not be unified (perhaps yet or never), but at least demanding the appointment of an emergency government to solve a specific economic crisis beats sitting at the Interior circle and waiting for democracy demands to be met. People are more adept at fighting against something (e.g. tax hikes) than for something (e.g. political change), but if left long enough to simmer, the former can quickly evolve into the latter.
Third, and perhaps even more significantly, what remains of Jordan’s middle class is screaming out in an unprecedented way.
After years of being discouraged with the status quo but forgoing public action for the sake of stability, security, or fears (both political and personal) – we seem to have finally arrived at the precise number that pushes the middle class into the red – operating not only at a loss, but like their government and much of their countrymen, facing crippling debt. Their voices, while mostly absent and greatly needed, have likely made all the difference in this pivotal moment. For once, a unified front is being put up and an iron foot is being firmly put down, and the impact of this moment will stand out in this chapter of our history. For once, every Jordanian is speaking in unison and the moment’s defining word includes: no.
Ma3nash. We have nothing left to give.
Whether it’s this tax hike, or others – whether it’s the economic policies that got us here, or a status quo that has our economy on a collision course – the people are simply fed up. With all of it; with everything that has stayed the same, and everything that refuses to change. Fed up with being used and played like pawns. Fed up with being lied to. Fed up with a system that hasn’t been working for them. Fed up with the lack of transparency. Fed up with being pushed around, with laws and policies being shoved down their throats. Fed up with being silent. And all the while, the State has confused patience with compliance.
The resentment is both palpable and understandable. Asking the average Jordanian to cover for this economic mess we’ve been put in is a tall order.
As has been argued by many (and with good reason), the State isn’t utilizing these taxes to cover a world-class public education system or universal health care system, or free college, or comprehensive national and local public transportation systems, or even consistently efficient public sector services. The King has said as much himself. And yet despite having a consistently – as a recent Jordan Times editorial put it – compassionate monarch, nothing has changed. At least not for the better.
How many Jordanians can honestly say they find it easier to put food on the table today than over a decade ago? How many Jordanians can say they now live in a society that is healthier, wealthier, better educated, mobile, justly governed, and has more equal access to economic opportunities than they did over a decade ago? And how many can say the State has significantly tightened its own belt when it comes to spending? When was the last time we saw an official taking a bus to work instead of filling up their SUV’s gas tank with government vouchers? Why does it sometimes feel like the governing class believes they live in a wealthy Gulf state?
Yes, there’s the bare minimal spending required to keep services in a functioning condition, but nothing that has dramatically improved the standard of living. Where the State is good at spending is on itself; from a payroll that covers over 40% of the employed population, to the militarization of the security apparatus, the expensive State cars, the lavish events, the pomp and circumstance. And this is just the on-the-books bad expenditure – we haven’t even gotten to the money that flows beneath tables and between offshore accounts.
But while public perceptions are now boiling over, and the rage is justifiable, there remains the ugly reality to deal with: the State, practically speaking, is broke.
So what happens now?
Many scenarios have the potential to play out – these protests could be leveraged to make an appeal to foreign donors; the IMF may renegotiate; the government manages to find the money elsewhere, and on and on. Speculating which scenario unfolds is futile exercise. But it might be helpful to at least examine the most common denominator: the fact that prices are going to rise, no matter what. Whether it’s this tax hike, or something else – Jordan is inevitably going to become more expensive in order to satisfy the demands of its creditors.
And that’s the best-case scenario for the State: within a year’s time, relative calm will have been restored on the streets and everyone is simply living in an increasingly expensive country.
The purchasing power that comes with that monthly salary is going to deteriorate. Grocery bags will be lighter, account balances drastically lower, and bank loans with punishing interest will drive people further in debt.
The country won’t be the healthiest environment to set up a business, nor grow one. Our skilled labor will look to migrate – to the loss of the country’s progress but to the benefit of a State that relies on foreign remittances.
For the middle class, school tuition will be costlier; a visit to the doctor will too. And between a scarcity in decent paying jobs and employers that are about to get a whole lot pickier with the hiring process, sustaining that decent standard of living is going to be taxing.
Moreover, if the State does nothing to leverage this moment to drastically and genuinely change the course we’re on, tensions between the governed and the governing will inevitably grow, erupting more frequently and more violently. And this is just what the doctor ordered for Jordanians: increased levels of stress, frustration, and aggression. It might be in the everyday occurrence of increased crime rates, or fist fights at traffic lights, or facing off with police at protests. Whatever shape or form it takes, an increasingly heavily armed populace and an increasingly heavily armed security apparatus simply increase the probability of violence in any situation. Let alone a situation in which they are compelled to face off with each other, despite their mutual economic suffering.
And it’s this last point that’s most concerning to me.
Because the best-case scenario for the State – a setting where calm has been restored to an overwhelmingly expensive country – is just that: the best-case scenario. A scenario that comes down to buying time, because at the end of the day, this is the currency the State trades in. It has a tendency to move the goal posts, but in the process also delaying the inevitable, and rendering it all the much more volatile down the line. Those distributing water today can just as easily be shooting rubber bullets, and the differentiating line can easily become blurred in moments of public panic, anger, apprehension, resentment, or fear.
There are simply too many situations in which violence can erupt and flick the dominos into motion. Yes, Jordan has survived tremendous political odds in the past, but this is shaky ground on which to argue from. The economic factors and realities at play today are simply unprecedented – domestically, regionally and globally. And the situation is made more complicated with a population that is both hungry and well-armed, and a State with a well-armed security apparatus prepared to defend the status quo it relies on – this battle for survival will not be without the blurring of lines between these camps, without its skirmishes, without the rush to contain, without its fatalities.
Whether we like it or not, this is the course we’ve charted. From the myriad of issues conspiring to corrupt our reason, this is where things are headed, save for divine intervention. And that typically demands sacrifice. Turning this boat around demands all-hands-on-deck if a peaceful transition out of this storm is to prevail in the end.
So maybe there’s a better scenario. Maybe this is the kind of tipping point that compels radical structural changes on the State’s part, if only out of the necessity for survival. Maybe this is that critical moment where the State takes serious stock of how it does business, what kind of business it condones, and whether any of it is accountable to the people its supposed to be serving. Maybe this is that moment where they hire competent, accountable people to bring us back from the economic brink, and dismantle an entire system of beneficiaries within its folds. Maybe this is that moment when the State’s actions end up restoring faith in our institutions. Maybe the time of saying the right thing is over, and the time for doing the right has arrived.
It won’t be easy. The State will have to endure a “difficult situation”. But it will surely test their mettle as these years have tested ours.