June 8, 2018 / 9:17 AM / 2 months ago

'This is why we protest': Jordan family struggles in tough economy

AMMAN (Reuters) - Bayan Samara’s children often asked her why she could not buy them new clothes or toys. So the Jordanian teacher took them to a rally in the capital.

“It breaks my heart,” she said in her living room in Amman. “So we help them understand that these are tough times, because we have a government that includes ‘bad guys’, like my son says.”

Samara, 30, and her husband Ahmad are struggling to keep their family afloat in Jordan’s sluggish economy.

Along with thousands of young people and families, they have hit the streets in a rare wave of protests that led the prime minister to resign on Monday.

In the past two years, steep price hikes forced the couple to move their children into lower quality public schools and to slash their health insurance. Together, they barely make enough to cover housing loans and daily expenses for their son and two daughters, ages 6 to 8, Samara said.

They blame a build-up of economic policies and tax reforms, which have sparked the biggest protests in years in Jordan, a U.S. ally that has mostly escaped the turmoil that is rocking much of the region.

Public anger has grown since the end of bread subsidies and a rise in the general sales tax this year under an IMF plan to cut the Arab nation’s $37 billion debt.

“I’m worried that despite all this hope, things will stay exactly the same,” Samara said. “People are under pressure. There’s a feeling of defeat in the family.”

“At the end of the day, we had to make do with the reality,” she added. “This is why we protest, for a better future for our children, for us.”

Ahmad Samara and Bayan Samara pose with their children at their home in Amman, Jordan, June 7, 2018. Picture taken June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

“AFRAID OF CHANGE”

The government has said it needs funds for public services and says the reforms would reduce social disparities. Critics accuse it of squandering public money, on top of imposing policies that hit the poor and squeeze the middle class.

“My dream was to build myself in this country that I love,” said Ahmad, who sells vending machines but whose business is plagued by bribery and low demand.

After staying in Saudi Arabia for years, he came home to Amman to launch his own business and live closer to relatives. Now, he fears having to go abroad again.

Jordan’s King Abdullah urged broad talks over taxes this week after replacing his premier to defuse public frustration.

The king appointed Omar al-Razzaz, a former World Bank economist, who said on Thursday he would drop a planned income tax law - a main demand of the demonstrators.

Some protests have dwindled since then as people welcomed the move and said they would wait to see if the new cabinet would help stop price hikes.

But for others, like Ahmad and his wife, the root of their troubles will not go away without deeper, democratic change in government, they say.

“There is some optimisim...but this is about the approach in running the country,” Ahmad said. “(Razzaz) alone can not change this even though he is a very competent man.”

He said they did not want the upheaval that the 2011 uprisings triggered in other Arab countries, but only sought to pressure the new government to make better decisions.

At a late night rally near the Cabinet office this week, hundreds of people around Ahmad waved flags and chanted: “Bread, freedom, social justice.”

“I brought my children with me so they will know there is a possibility for change,” he said. “I don’t want them to be afraid of change.”

Slideshow (10 Images)

Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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