Jordanian protests blame the government, not the king

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Jordan has had 12 prime ministers since King Abdullah came to the throne in 1999. Their average survival time in office is one year and seven months but the current prime minister, Hani al-Mulki, has fared rather better. Last week he passed the two-year mark though his future is now uncertain; a general strike on Wednesday has been followed by three consecutive days of street protests calling for the government’s resignation.

The immediate cause of the protests is a draft tax law aimed at increasing government revenue by 300m dinars ($421m) a year. The plan — instigated by the International Monetary Fund — includes tougher penalties for tax evaders, steep tax rises for businesses, smaller rises for individuals and an increase in the number of people who have to pay income tax.

Reuters explains:

“The tax proposals are part of IMF-driven austerity measures that have included hikes in the general sales tax this year and the abolition of subsidies on bread, a staple of the poor.

“The IMF measures are part of a three-year plan to generate revenue that aims to cut the Arab nation’s $37 billion debt, that is equivalent to 95 percent of gross domestic product.”

“The government says it needs the funds to finance public services and says tax reforms reduce social disparities by placing a heavier burden on high earners and have left lower paid state workers relatively unscathed.

“Protesters say the measures will hurt the poor and accuse politicians of squandering public funds and corruption.”

On Thursday, in a move which further inflamed the situation, the government announced increases in electricity and fuel prices (said to be a result of rising oil prices). In a familiar good-cop-bad-cop act, King Abdullah then intervened, over-ruling his government and ordering a temporary freeze. Actions like that help to maintain the illusion that government and the monarchy are somehow separate — though it’s hard to imagine the government would have increased fuel prices off its own bat without first getting clearance from the palace.

The result is that the demonstrations, at least so far, have been directed against the government rather than the monarchy — which is the way the Jordanian system is designed. This also explains why King Abdullah has had so many changes of prime minister. In an article for The Atlantic a few years ago, Shadi Hamid described how it works:

“The Jordanian monarchy appears to use its government to provide a buffer between the king and the public. The government provides useful scapegoats when things go awry.

“In a way, this benefits both the rulers and ruled alike. The public can let out steam and call for the downfall of the government (hukuma) rather than the regime (nizam). The regime listens and replaces the government. The regime stays intact, offering the illusion of change with little of the substance.”

Originally published at al-bab.com.

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: www.al-bab.com. Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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