AMMAN Nov 14 Facing the spectre of bankruptcy,
the Jordanian government lifted fuel subsidies to avert economic
collapse. But the Western-backed kingdom now risks instability
after long averting the Arab Spring unrest that shook its
The sweeping subsidies decision, which took effect on
Wednesday after repeated delays, sparked scattered protests
across the kingdom. Skirmishes broke out in the heart of the
capital when anti-riot police dispersed hundreds of angry young
men who occupied a major traffic intersection.
Price hikes caused by cuts in subsidies for fuel and food
staples were one of the main grievances last year in the Arab
Spring protests across North Africa and the Middle East.
Jordan's government, mindful of public fury that exploded
into street clashes in the depressed south of the country after
price hikes in 1989 and 1996, had been reluctant to raise fuel
But a higher energy bill after the disruption of cheap gas
supplies from Egypt and a steep drop in foreign grants have
brought the aid-dependent kingdom to the brink of economic
disaster. Mounting budget deficits reached $3 billion, or 11
percent of GDP.
Saudi Arabia, which provided a last-minute $1.4 billion cash
handout to keep Jordan afloat last year, was unwilling to repeat
the gesture, officials say, adding to pressure to act fast.
"If we the delay this further we would have faced a
catastrophe and insolvency," Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said
in a televised address to the nation.
"We should have made this decision two years ago but
successive governments could not do it for political reasons."
Ensour said slashing subsidies and instead channelling money
to poor households was crucial to winning donor support and
International Monetary Fund financing. He did not give figures
on how much the decision would save.
A staunch U.S. ally with the longest border with Israel,
Jordan has so far been spared the large-scale unrest of other
Arab countries. The coming days will be crucial in testing
whether that relative calm can continue.
Jordanian demonstrators have held sporadic protests over the
past two years, demanding democratic reforms and curbs on
corruption, but these have been peaceful and the security forces
have not used arms. Although demonstrators sometimes chant
against King Abdullah, few are thought to sincerely want to
topple the monarchy.
"The protest movement does not want to change the regime and
does not threaten the regime as much as it demands basic and
fundamental changes in the way the regime is run," said Marwan
al-Muasher, a leading liberal Jordanian politician and vice
president of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The monarchy is widely seen as a guarantor of stability,
balancing the interests of powerful tribes native to the east of
the Jordan river with those of the majority of citizens, who are
of Palestinian origin.
"There is no alternative in Jordan to the Hashemite monarchy
and even if there are voices that call for the downfall of the
regime it is not representative, because Jordan's tribes and all
parties agree the Hashemite regime is a safety valve despite the
difficult circumstances," said Ghazi Rababa, a political science
Nevertheless, forces pushing for reform in Jordan complain
of resistance from an entrenched old guard composed of
bureaucrats and members of influential tribes eager to preserve
privileges and influence within the state.
During two years of protests, poor demonstrators in outlying
provincial areas populated by native Jordanian tribes were
motivated mainly by economic grievances and a sense the state
was abandoning them.
In urban areas, by contrast, the mainstream Muslim
Brotherhood, the country's most effective political opposition,
was seeking broader political reforms, a sign in part of the
desire of the Palestinian majority for a greater voice.
A costly subsidy system and a large bureaucracy whose
salaries consume the bulk of state expenditure were increasingly
untenable in the absence of large foreign capital inflows or
infusions of foreign aid.
The price rises could boost the popularity of the Islamist
opposition, emboldened by the successes of its ideological kin
in Egypt and Tunisia. Islamists are already calling for protests
in the next few days. They have never sounded more confident.
"The level of discontent is unprecedented in the history of
Jordan," said Zaki Bani Rusheid, deputy head of the Muslim
Brotherhood. "The Jordanian people are expressing their natural
right to oppose this reckless move. If events develop then the
responsibility is on those who created this problem."