Jordan’s Civil Society Comes of Age

It seems most people—including many Jordanians—have failed to realize how wonderful the past few weeks here in Jordan have been

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse June 20, 2018

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) June 20th, 2018 (republished in slightly edited form on the English version of Al Bawaba News on June 20th, 2018, and by The Muslim Times on June 20th)

AFP/Getty Images

AMMAN — Recent protests have led some analysts to characterize Jordan as weak and going through destabilization. Instead, Jordan has pretty much schooled the entire Middle East (and, indeed, many other places) on protests, civic engagement, and how government can and should respond to both. Rather than produce fear and apprehension in the eyes of analysts and other observers, Jordan and Jordanians have rightfully earned a tremendous amount of respect, whether or not those that should show this respect realize this.

Longstanding Grievances Flowing Together

Something remarkable has happened—is happening—in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in the past few weeks. The small but relatively very stable country has seen a confluence of several trends and grievances that have spilled over—erupted would be rather too strong—into a flowering of national protest.

One long-running trend in for Jordan is that it has been a dumping ground for refugees from various regional conflicts for years now (really decades, but especially of late). The majority of today’s Jordanians are Palestinian refugees from the wars with Israel and those refugees’ descendants. A decade ago, Jordan was hosting from around 700,000, perhaps as many as a million, Iraqi refugees. Today, there are some 1.4 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, including informal, unregistered refugees, comprising roughly 20 percent of the small Kingdom’s total population. The Syrian refugee influx, in particular, has had serious negative economic consequences for Jordan, especially in terms of soaring rent increasesfood price increases, and increased youth unemployment, with Syrian refugees costing Jordan some six percent of its GDP, or about one-quarter of Jordan’s yearly governmental revenue, roughly $2.5 billion a year according to a 2016 World Bank report.

Many Jordanians see the conflicts driving these refugees to Jordan as being driven and orchestrated by the U.S. (conspiratorially, so much so that, after four years in Jordan, I have yet to hear a Jordanian that blames the American people, whom they usually see as pawns being manipulated by elites, and many do not even blame Trump, Obama, Bush, or other past presidents, seeing them as puppets of a mysterious international cabal) and Saudi Arabia.

With recent Saudi comments and moves indicating an informal alliance of common interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel, many in Jordan (especially Palestinian) see the Saudis as selling out to Israel, and feelings towards Saudi Arabia in Jordan are far from warm.

Indeed, there is a perception among many Arabs that there is an emerging U.S.-Israeli-Saudi axis that is throwing the Palestinians under the proverbial bus. And it was in this context that Donald Trump threw more gas onto the fire when he announced in early December, 2017, that he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, breaking decades of official U.S. neutrality on the subject (both Israelis and Palestinians claims Jerusalem as their capital) and prejudicing the Israeli side in any future negotiations. After the first Friday noon prayers (the Muslim equivalent of Christian Sunday mass) at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem (Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina) after Trump’s announcement, worshippers, of course, vented anger at Israel and the U.S., but were also very vocal in blaming Saudi Arabia, too, for seeming to at least tacitly support the U.S. decision behind the scenes. Saudi Arabia is also a driving force behind the rebellion against Assad, particularly in its support of Sunni rebel militias challenging his rule, and yet, Saudi Arabia has not taken in a single official Syrian refugee, content to let Jordan and others shoulder that burden despite the Saudis intense involvement in Syria.

That same Friday, this led to massive (but peaceful) protests in Amman, witnessed by yours truly

Protests were hardly limited to Jerusalem, Amman, or Jordan.

In particular, protests have been organized mainly by Hamas in Gaza—under an Israeli semi-siege for over a decade—since late March, protests in which many thousands of Palestinians have approached, and even rushed, Gaza’s militarized border manned by Israel. While the vast majority of these protesters, including women and children, have not been armed, many have still thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops, as well as rolled burning tires towards them and sent kites with burning material attached over Gaza’s border with Israel in an attempt to start fires on the Israeli side. No Israeli soldiers have been killed or wounded by these actions, but Israeli gunfire against the protesters have killed over 120 Palestinians and wounded another 3,800 more in actions much of the rest of the world calls disproportionate.

Many Jordanians, even those not of Palestinian descent, feel an intense emotional connection to their fellow Arabs—often kin—living across the Jordan river under some form of Israeli control. Thus, is has been very difficult these past few months for them to accept Trump’s decision and to witness the violence from the Israeli army in Gaza meted out on the protesters.

The bloodiest day was the day of the official move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, a day in which at least 58 people were killed and several thousand more injured.

The move was officially made on May 14th of this year, on the Western calendar reckoning of Israeli’s Independence Day, in this case the 70th anniversary the end of the British Mandate and the declaration of Israel as a state, an event Palestinians remember as al-Nabka, the Catastrophe, in which some 700,000 Arab Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes during a conflict in which the Jewish state of Israel was established on most of British Mandate Palestine, an area which had been majority Arab for many centuries. The embassy move in 2018 came just two days before the holy month of Ramadan began, a month of intense day-long fasting, reflection, and spirituality. But with this Ramadan coming right after U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the bloody Gaza protests, and the relocation of America’s embassy to disputed Jerusalem, from a Palestinian-centered standpoint (a view shared by an overwhelming majority of Jordanians, whether they have Palestinian blood in them or not), this was a Ramadan with all too much that was unpleasant left to linger in the minds of Jordanians as they engaged in deep reflection.

Tone-Deaf Policies Lead to a Chorus of Protests

In the months leading up to this, there was another form of violence occupying the minds of Jordanians besides the violence in Gaza: the assault of steady price increases throughout 2018. The year began in January with a series of tax increases in January, first increasing sales tax and taxes on a range of goods, including cigarettes (extremely popular in Jordan: Jordan has the 8th-highest smoking rate in the world), with the first major decrease in bread subsidies since 1996 announced shortly after, leading to the main staple bread in Jordan going up in price by 60%. The move sparked unrest back in 1996, and the deeply unpopular moves to start this year were also met with some protests. Early in 2018, Jordanians in general were estimated to have to increase spending by 10-15 percent just to maintain their current living standards after these changes.

A least a proposed tax increase on medicines that month was canceled after over half of the parliament voiced disapproval, though.

But more pain was to come.

While in February, Jordan raised the minimum wage, a tax increase was levied that month on non-essential goods and the government also raised taxes on cigarettes again and on widely-consumed soft drinks and telecom services, including mobile phone plans and credit used by virtually everyone. There were further increases in electricity in March (sparking some protests) and also in April, and in In May, it was more increases, a minor one in fuel and an over 13 percent increase in electricity costs.

While in these months, the increases in electricity excluded households that consumed lower amounts of electricity, that exemption was absent for an announced whopping 23.5 percent increase in electricity prices for June that was also accompanied by a smaller fuel price increase.

The series of price increases and proposed tax increases were in part a result of an agreement made between the International Monetary Foundation (IMF) and the Jordanian government. Despite a lot of ignorance and conspiracy theories about what the IMF is and what it does, it is not simply a tool of U.S. control and “neoliberal” “imperialism” designed to keep countries like Jordan poor and weak, though, as with so many things in this region, it is easy to understand why such misperceptions and conspiracy theories flourish. In reality, the IMF is a global financial institution that is part of the United Nations group of institutions and is somewhat economically proportionately dominated by the wealthiest nations with the biggest economies and that contribute the most to the IMF’s fund. The U.S., as the largest contributor and world’s largest economy, has by far the largest voting share (less than 17 percent) in the IMF, and, to be sure, it wields a lot of influence in the institution beyond that voting share, but the point to recognize here is that the IMF is a broad international financial institution that generally reflects the collective will of the world’s largest economies, and if they decide to provide financial assistance to other countries, like any loaner, they have a right to attach conditions to those nations who want their money. At the same time, the agreement for a $723 million IMF loan between Jordan and the IMF—reached back in 2016—seems to have clearly overestimated Jordan’s capability to enact reforms at the desired pace and significantly underestimated the continuing problems posed by the refugee crisis and other maladies plaguing Jordan, and that should have been clear to both sides when the agreement was made.

Even before June’s price increases were announced, on May 22nd, a major proposed income tax law overhaul designed to keep pace with agreed-to IMF reforms was approved by the Cabinet, to be sent to and debated by the parliament. This tax law would have greatly increased the corporate tax rates, empowered tax collection capabilities to deal with tax evasion, and doubled the income tax base (only 4 percent of Jordanians currently pay income tax).

By May 30th, Jordanian civil society had organized a massive general strike of the professional middle class: doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, pharmacists, journalists, and others, along with some of the key related professional organizations and unions. Other Jordanians, in particular youth, joined the protests. 

A tone-deaf government then announced the aforementioned June major price hikes the following day, the day before Friday prayers and during Ramadan, no less, when fasting and reflective moods would only contribute to the agitation felt by the new policy proposals after many months of steady increases. In fact, one could not think of a much worse time than on a Thursday during Ramadan, the day before main Friday noon prayers—the traditional time to go through with major protests in the Muslim world—and coming so soon after the Jerusalem-Gaza drama that affected so many Jordanians so deeply on an emotional level.

These Jordanians may not have been able to stop violence in Gaza or reverse Trump’s Jerusalem decision, but they were not going to look at these latest government tax increases and price hikes with the same spirit of frustrated (if rage-filled) resignation. Unlike Donald Trump and Israel, Jordanians would expect their government to listen, and they would be sure to make sure their government heard their voices loud and clear.

The same day as the announcement, and just one day after the civil-society-orchestrated general strike against the tax law, a far more spontaneous series of mass protests broke out throughout Jordan against the utility price increases specifically and in general against the overall price/tax increases. As noted, the timing all but guaranteed mass protests on Friday, after noon prayers. Seeing the mass public outcry, later that day King Abdullah II froze the just-announced price hikes, responding swiftly to what was clearly widespread public pushback against them.

Yet the protests did not diminish, not Friday night, not throughout the weekend. If anything, they grew and intensified around the country. No one-off temporary freeze on price hikes would suffice: the people were focused wanted an indication of deeper change, also taking up the cause of the earlier civil society protests against the changes to the income tax law; if anything, the two seemingly separate protests had clearly merged into one nation-wide movement.

These were the most intense protests in Jordan focused on domestic policy since the 2011-2012 “hirak” protests over a range of issues that were concurrent with the heyday of the Arab Spring, then fluctuating between price (especially gas) increases and tribal and Islamist issues, peaking in early 2011 and late 2012, with a few notable flare-ups in violence that were still ultimately minimal, especially considering the regional context.

Arab Spring 2.0?

Unlike the wider Arab Spring protests, despite some exceptions the overwhelming focus of the 2011-2012 protests were not overthrowing the government but on calling for action on specific policies. Those protests were more sporadic and less representative of the overall population that the recent protests that just took place, which had a very unified, mass-participatory character that transcended what happened before even as Jordanian protesters and civil society organizations built upon what happened back then.

In fact, Jordanians in the past few weeks seemed largely committed to avoiding the mistakes of the larger Arab Spring with these latest protests, almost as if they had studied them in detail and took away specific lessons of what not to do, making clear their peaceful intentions and enthusiastically waving abundant Jordanian flags. The same could be said of both government leaders and security forces. If 2011-2012 could really be seen as a major emergence of civil society, even a birth (or rebirth?) of it in Jordan, then 2018 can be said to be Jordanian civil society’s coming of age, perhaps even an Arab Spring 2.0 that can avoid much of the tragedy of the first iteration.

As the 2018 protests continued into the following week, on Monday the King sacked Prime Minister Hani Mulki, who had stood by seeing the bill through to a parliamentary debate and had thus drawn the ire of protesters. But still the protests continued.  So the King appointed reform-minded, liberally-inclined Omar Razzaz as the new prime minister, who had been a supporter of civil society and had also held a significant position at the World Bank and was thus poised to be able to balance the competing interests in question. Yet still the protests continued, and for several days, until Razzaz promised to withdraw the income tax law. He promised dialogue and an unprecedented, robust engagement with civil society. The King himself directed that such an approach be undertaken, too, so it seems clear that Razzaz will have support from the highest levels of the Jordanian system.

It truly seems as if the people and civil society have won: by all indications since Razzaz took over, the government will take into account input from the people and civil society, especially on reforming the tax law, and it seems highly unlikely that the same attempted price hikes will be tried again to that degree anytime soon, as the people made clear they were able to organize quickly and sustain their pressure if only cosmetic adjustments were made. Thus, after the eighth day of what were almost entirely peaceful protests, after it was announced the tax law changes would be tabled, the protests basically ended on Thursday, June 7th, one of their epicenters in Amman’s Fourth Circle near the Prime Ministry with a far smaller group of young people celebrating their achievement that evening, replacing the protesting crowds of earlier, far tenser nights.

In fact, things seem to be coming together nicely for Jordan: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait just pledged some $2.5 billion in aid to Jordan, the EU has indicated that it will keep supporting Jordan economically, and Jordan has indicated it will push the IMF for a slowdown in the reform plan. Together, these three things could really alleviate the strain of the increasing economic burdens on Jordan’s weary population.

It is probably safe to say that, when the civil society-organized strike began on Wednesday, May 30th, that nobody imagined that things would be where they are now. In a region—heck, a world—starved of positive political developments and hope, this series of events in underappreciated Jordan is nothing short of remarkable.


A Model the Cynics and Extremists Can’t Easily Dismiss

In the end, Jordan—its people, its civil society, its security forces, its government, and the King—all faced a series of challenges in the past week and then some; all overall conducted themselves in a deliberative, focused, organized, respectful, restrained way. The preceding adjectives are basically impossible use if you are trying to describe the angry hordes of protesters and activists, both right and left, that seem to monopolize protest scenes in the West and many other places of late, as well as both traditional and social media and can, therefore and unfortunately, be more effectively described as ineffective mobs content to do what satisfies their emotional needs as opposed to doing anything that might even be remotely described as helping to bring about effective change. 

This was not a group of radicals hijacking a disciplined civil society movement, as has happened far too often in history.

This was no amorphous Occupy rabble, no Tea Party mob, no Women’s March asserting their collective identity as a gender against a misogynistic president but not having any overwhelmingly clear aims.

This was not a Tahrir Square crowd vaguely demanding unspecified massive change or a whole new government, and this was certainly not a mass of Palestinians calling for a total reversal of the entire status quo.

No, this was a disciplined, focused, restrained coming together of civil society, the middle class, and the working class. 

It was the population of Jordan speaking out more or less in one clear voice, about clear specific desires on specific issues.

And this is a model the whole world can learn from, as much of it seems to have forgotten that this is how change happens: incrementally, with discipline, organization, patience, and non-violence.


As opposed to weapons, Molotov cocktails, or rocks, protesters chanted peaceful slogans and even handed refreshments to security forces, and the security forces returned the favor. Only very small numbers on either side were looking for trouble: the rest were looking to make a difference and/or keep things peaceful. There was respect all around here in Jordan over the past few weeks, between protesters and security forces, between the people and government, between civil society and both the people and the government.


That’s right: tiny little Jordan has just schooled the world as how to mount an effective protest movement that leverages civil society to bring about meaningful change, bringing the people and the government closer together in their positions on specific policies.

What is remarkable is that so few people either here in Jordan or in the international media seem to understand what has happened, and how urgently this needs to be celebrated and respected and—most importantly—copied.

In the end, a reformer who is perfect for this moment now leads Jordan’s parliament, the two major problems—the tax law amendments and the price hikes that were the focus of protesters—will not proceed as originally planned, civil society showed it is now truly a force to be reckoned with in Jordanian politics, the government showed its people and the world it is ready to listen and respond to the people, and the people showed all would-be protesters how to get the job done.

If you’re Jordanian, you can hold your head up high after a truly special week in Jordan’s history. And if you’re not Jordanian, swivel that head to pay attention to Jordan, and be sure to take notes.

See a related article by the same author in Venture Magzine: Relief and Development: Ending the Zero-Sum Myth

© 2018 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

Brian E. Frydenborg in an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area currently based in Amman, Jordan. The views expressed here necessarily represent only his own, not necessarily the views of any organization with which he has been, or is currently, associated. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981

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