Signal King Hussein Can't Ignore. JORDAN: RIOT AFTERMATH
RIOTS in Jordan which led to the replacement last week of Zaid al-Rifai as prime minister are viewed by Arab and Western analysts here as a serious signal to King Hussein that Jordanians will no longer tolerate authoritarian government and are demanding wider political participation. ``Although it is true to say that there is almost a total consensus in support of the King as the head of the system,'' former minister Jamal Shaer says, ``people have felt over the years that they are completely excluded from the decision-making process.''
A Jordanian official says: ``It is the classic equation of `No taxation without representation.'''
Late last week King Hussein named Zeid Bin Shaker to head an interim government to address the needs of the economy and organize the first general parliamentary elections in 22 years.
Field Marshal Bin Shaker, a distant cousin of the King, had been commander in chief of the armed forces until last year, when the King brought him to the palace as chief of the royal court and adviser on security affairs.
He was the architect of the Army's 1970 war to crush Palestinian guerrillas who had threatened the stability of the state. But as adviser to the King, he sought to establish an atmosphere of reconciliation with Palestinians, and with the critics of the former government's policies on the economy and on freedom of expression.
The new Cabinet will reflect that spirit by drawing in some of those critics, including two well-known economists and representatives of the Palestinian community.
For a brief period in the 1950s, political parties were allowed to offer candidates for parliamentary elections and even formed a short-lived government in 1957.
Otherwise, since its inception in 1921, the country has almost continually been subject to strict emergency and martial laws which ban the formation of political groups and sharply restrict the freedom of expression.
In recent years, more and more Jordanians from all walks of life have been expressing resentment of the increasing curbs on political rights. But it took the severe deterioration of economic conditions to turn frustrated whispers into an outcry for political freedom.
Faced by a decline in Arab financial aid and remittances from Jordanian expatriate workers in the oil-rich Gulf states, which constituted Jordan's major sources of foreign currency, Mr. Rifai banned luxury imports, cut expenditures, and restricted hard-currency transactions.
The last straw proved to be a sudden decision to raise the price of fuel and other basic commodities (except for bread, sugar, and rice).
The increases were part of an economic program required by the International Monetary Fund so Jordan could reschedule its $6.5 billion foreign debt.
Less than 48 hours after the new prices were announced, riots erupted in Ma'an, and soon spread to nearby Karak and Tafila. Afterward it appeared to be drawing close to the capital, reaching the city of Salt, 13 miles to the west. Jordanian security forces, with the help of the Army, were prompt in containing the disturbances.
``There were two significant signals that the palace could not brush aside,'' says a former Jordanian senior minister who asked not to be named.
``The first was that, although the anger was directed at the person of Mr. Rifai, the real issue was a popular rejection of a whole government system that does not allow for the minimum required level for political expression of participation. The second was that it was mainstream Jordanians who were saying that the situation was no longer acceptable,'' he says.
Jordanians of Palestinian descent have so far stayed out of the protest, partly, according to prominent Palestinians, for fear that the blame might be shifted to them.
The outburst in the south came as a surprise to everyone, but a closer look shows that the southern areas, which had in general been more deprived than the capital and the north, were hit the worst by the recent crisis. The majority of the residents of southern areas live either on fixed salaries, or are heavily dependent on the business of transporting goods between the capital and the southern port of Aqaba and Saudi Arabia.
Recent economic studies show that average annual individual income has gone down from $1,800.00 in 1982 to around $900.00 last year.
Jordanian officials and opposition figures say that both the new government and the Jordanian people will have to face the hard reality that the affluent years - the oil-induced economic boom era of the 1970s and early '80s - are over.
``It's a bitter cure that we have to swallow, and therefore any new government will have to face the difficult task of bringing the people to accept this medicine,'' the Jordanian official says. ``But the recent protests have clearly indicated that this would only be possible by broadening the popular participation.''