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Jordan's young protesters say they learned from Arab Spring mistakes

shift in thought

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, activists in the region have struggled to find a sustainable model for pressuring their governments. In Jordan, protesters decry partisanship and say they've only just begun to fight.

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Protesters play music and sing during a late-night protest in Amman, Jordan, June 5.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

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The men and women protesting in Jordan’s streets every night are brimming with energy and idealism.

They are young, politically aware, adamantly nonpartisan, and convinced that they are fortified with a wisdom that they say is their greatest strength: hindsight from the failures of the Arab Spring.

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But do they have the sophistication and endurance to effect real change in this politically conservative and economically stretched Middle Eastern kingdom?

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What began as a short strike over income taxes last week has evolved into a nationwide protest movement in Jordan. On Monday the protesters scored their first victory: the resignation of Prime Minister Hani Mulki.

But as activists gathered late Monday after breaking the Ramadan fast in Amman and across the country for the fifth straight night, hours after the Mr. Mulki’s ouster, they said they are only just beginning.

Like the young people who protested for democracy and greater freedoms in 2011, these protesters are young, knowledgable, unemployed and under-employed, but that is where the comparisons end.

These new protesters, who were pushed to the streets by a proposed income tax law that would raise income tax by 5 percent on individuals and 20 to 40 percent on companies, are by and large independent: most are not affiliated with any political group. Protesters have so far avoided political language or controversial demands that may divide Jordanians.

Instead of being led by septuagenarian heads of traditional political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or the Communist Party, activists and organizers are in their mid-20s to early-30s. The old guard, they say, is not welcome.  

“This is a Jordanian movement for the core causes that affect all Jordanians: taxes, unemployment, and corruption,” says Mohammed Hussein, a 26-year-old protester at the Prime Ministry Saturday night. “We do not want a group to hijack this movement for their own agendas.”

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Preserving unity

Activists say they are aware of recent history. They say Arab Spring movements were hijacked by Islamist-led opposition groups, quickly polarizing societies along Islamist/secular and nationalist/opposition lines.  

Protesters in the streets over the last four days have not called for social justice, freedom, political reforms, “regime” reforms, or any structural changes to the political system – the talking points of opposition parties and overused phrases that have little currency now among young people.

Seasoned activists who do favor such changes say the time is not ripe and are keeping their thoughts to themselves to preserve unity.

Instead, the protesters have focused their demands solely on the economy: sacking the prime minister and reversing austerity measures that saw taxes imposed on goods ranging from lentils to pharmaceuticals, and fuel prices raised five times in five months.

“When we talk about reform and freedoms, it divided people because everyone had their own view and interpretation,” says Noor Freij, 30, a protester who took part in Jordan’s Arab Spring demonstrations. “But today when we talk about something concrete – such as taxes, corruption cases, and prices – we are united.

“We will not risk this unity this time,” he says.

“These are younger, educated, middle-class people who have been commenting on what is happening on social media now translating this online protest into a physical protest,” says Musa Shteiwi, analyst and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.

Analysts say the absence of political parties is part of a wider rejection by young Jordanians of traditional parties and ideologies.

“This generation has become disenchanted with both the politics from traditional parties and policies implemented by the government,” Mr. Shteiwi says. “This is refreshing for Jordan.”

A protester holds up a Jordanian national flag in Amman, June 4, 2018. Women have taken a far more visible part in the current protests than they did during the Arab Spring.
Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

Like many of his generation, Ahmed Sadeq, a 29-year-old entrepreneur with impeccable English, vented his criticisms of the government and issued his calls for change online, on Facebook and WhatsApp, as he saw government policies harming his business.

Mr. Sadeq spent two years working in carpentry in New Mexico before he decided to return to his homeland to open up a kitchen renovation store in Amman last year. Less than six months after opening his shop, the government raised taxes on goods across the board. Increased fuel prices doubled his transportation costs. In April, his orders dropped to zero.

On Friday, when he heard that people were demonstrating, he decided to protest for the first time in his life.

“We are not here to play politics, we are here because we can’t bear it anymore and we demand solutions,” Sadeq says. “The economic conditions are affecting Jordanians of every background and social status – that is what unifies us, and that is what we are here to change.”

The absence of opposition political parties or divisive language has even had an impact on interaction between protesters and security forces.

Social media outlets have been awash with photos of Jordanians shaking the hands of anti-riot police, offering them food and water, and even breaking for a pre-dawn sohour meal together before Ramadan’s day-long fast began.

In a festive atmosphere, young Jordanians chanted, danced, and sang. Some played the lute-like oud, while others blew into vuvuzelas and led soccer-match chants with a Jordanian twist. Protesters have come in many shapes: young men with their hair in buns and ankle-length pants, Harley-Davidson-jacketed young men, young women in designer jeans and overalls, and others in traditional abayas and hijabs.

“Corrupt, we are coming for you,” they chanted. “The Jordanian people are not cowards.”

King urged to 'clean house'

Rather than calling on King Abdullah II to cede powers or reform governance – a demand that would be viewed by tribes and the establishment as a threat to their influence – many protesters are actually calling on the monarch to intervene and “clean house”: appoint a new government, dissolve parliament, and enact emergency decrees to freeze austerity measures.

“King Abdullah, where are you? They are stealing our country before our very eyes,” protesters chanted Sunday, the night before the monarch sacked Mulki.

On Tuesday, the king replied indirectly in his letter appointing Omar Razzaz as prime minister. Abdullah tasked the government with reviewing the tax system, removing “unjust” taxes, achieving “balance” of incomes for upper- and working-class Jordanians, and stimulating growth and job creation.

Yet late Tuesday, with no concrete steps yet to reverse the taxes, protesters indicated on social media that they were set to go back to the streets.

While the Arab Spring protests in Jordan were male-dominated, Jordan’s 2018 protests have been more inclusive, with women often leading chants and demonstrations in line with the more liberal attitudes of Jordanian Millennials.  

In 2011, when male-dominated political parties and tribes led demonstrations, Islamists made their women followers march in the very back, while in the outlying governorates, women were barred from marching.

“If women were allowed to play a greater role in the Arab Spring, we would have succeeded and not be facing these issues today,” says Alaa al Qadi, 25, holding up her two-year-old daughter wrapped in a Jordanian flag at the protest late Monday.

'Let's go see what's going on'

The inclusion of young women of all backgrounds has had another effect: encouraging more cautious Jordanians to see the protests as safe spaces to express their views.

A common phrase around the table as families in Amman eat the nightly iftar meal to break the fast this Ramadan is “Let’s go see what’s going on at the circle”– a reference to the Prime Ministry protest near a traffic roundabout. Families with toddlers and groups of young women take strolls to the protest after breaking the fast and having coffee – an unimaginable sight in Jordan a few short years ago.

The question remains what young Jordanians will do with their newfound influence. Protesters vow to remain in the streets until the proposed income tax law is rescinded, recent taxes are frozen, and a rubber-stamp parliament dissolved. But solutions are few and far between.

Under a $723 million credit-line agreement with the International Monetary Fund, Jordan must lower its debt ratio from 95 percent of GDP currently to 77 percent by 2021. Even with the millions of dollars of aid Jordan receives from the US and European countries, the country faces an annual budget deficit of $750 million and is saddled with a bloated public sector that employs more than 55 percent of the workforce.

The very taxes that have raised demonstrators’ ire are forecast to generate $760 million of badly needed government revenue.

Even if Mr. Razzaz, the incoming prime minister, can offer a more inclusive approach to decisionmaking to convince the protesters to go home, longtime observers and officials say young Jordanians have now emerged as a political force – ready and waiting to hold the government to account at a moment’s notice.

“The most important consequence from the past few days is that the Jordanian people have discovered their true potential,” says Nabil Sharif, a Jordanian political analyst and former government minister.

“They have found out that they can change things, that they do have power, and that they will remain a force on the ground to be respected,” he says.