Analysis

For the Jordanians, Taxes Were Only the Spark That Ignited the Protest

The king's decision to drop the unpopular prime minister was an attempt to appease the protesters. But this time, the ouster alone won't be enough

Protesters gather for a demonstration outside the prime minister's office in Amman, June 6, 2018.
Raad Adayleh/AP

Hashem’s falafel eatery in central Amman is an international fixture. It features in every guidebook or food website on Jordan as a “falafel dream” or the “best falafel in the Middle East.” Its two branches serve steaming-hot falafel, a plate of hummus with lots of olive oil and lemon juice, and maybe fava beans. And don’t forget the light and supple pita, the small plate of spicy mashed chili peppers and a few sliced vegetables.

Cutlery only goes to those who insist; the pita does its job well. The chairs are uncomfortable, the tables wobble, the napkins are made of thick paper, and you hope the intense heat is enough to broil the microbes. One helping serves a hungry falafel fan for hours, sometimes for an entire day.

“I eat at Hashem’s at least twice a week,” said Taha Sunukrut, a Jordanian originally from Hebron who works at a bank in Amman, when I visited the city two months ago. “For many people this is their only meal of the day.”

This past Wednesday he told me he wasn’t working. “We’re on strike today until 2 o’clock. I might take the kids out; they’re on strike too. Everyone is striking – teachers, doctors, engineers. On Tuesday night there were many demonstrations and the streets aren’t quiet today either,” he said.

“People are in despair. Maybe it’s good that they demonstrate a bit and let off steam that has accumulated over the years. It didn’t start with the new budget or tax law; things have been in the pits for years. It only needed a spark.”

Protesters demonstrate against an income tax bill near the prime minister's office in Amman, June 6, 2018.
Bloomberg

This week the king dropped his unpopular prime minister, Hani Mulki, or as it was put, the king “accepted his resignation,” replacing him with Omar Razzaz, the education minister in the outgoing government. Razzaz has a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard and a graduate degree from MIT. He’s a serious person and a talented economist who was appointed due to his skills, as well as his tight relations with the king.

This appointment hasn’t assuaged the heads of the labor unions, who declared a strike while spearheading opposition to the tax law. Their leader, Ali al-Abous, heads the Professional Unions Association and is the president of the doctors’ union. He tried to give the government a one-week extension until a new government was formed, before the protests escalated, but his proposal was rejected by labor union chiefs

“Razzaz’s appointment is dismissive of the protest,” said someone at the gathering. “It’s unseemly that the new prime minister comes from the government we’re trying to get rid of. No member of the outgoing government should serve in the new one.”

Blame the prime minister

The changing of the cabinet and the dissolving of parliament are two of the demands made by the protest leaders, and the first one seems the easiest one to implement, as shown by the king’s appointment of Razzaz. The question is whether this move, the likes of which were seen countless times during King Hussein's reign, and no less since his son took over 19 years ago, will encourage the demonstrators to go home.

Protesters are seen gathered in front of the Labour Union offices in Amman, Jordan, June 6, 2018.
\ MUHAMMAD HAMED/ REUTERS

A notable member of parliament, Amjad Hazaa al-Majali, the son of a legendary prime minister who was assassinated in 1960, published a caustic letter Wednesday. He said the demonstrations weren’t only because of the new tax law, which reduces the first level of taxable income to $11,000 a year while raising corporate tax to 40 percent.

“The demonstrations are an expression of the public’s rejection of a dominant foreign group that doesn’t believe in true ties and in the idea of nationhood, because these have no significance for it other than as opportunities to obtain influence and full control of the reins of power .... This group has shattered all the achievements of the nation that were made by this nation’s giants in the past,” he wrote.

According to Majali, the “foreign group” is made up of the “new liberals” who run the state as if it were a business, with everything subject to haggling. In the end, this “curbs parliament’s power and harms the standing of the prime minister and the state.”

In his letter, Majali presents 12 demands including the removal of these “new liberals” and an all-out war against corruption. This would include the return of money that was allegedly stolen from the state, the strengthening of parliament, and the establishment of a country of institutions, not elites.

Majali doesn’t mention King Abdullah by name, but any criticism of the government and its members is criticism of the king who appoints them. But while Majali, who belongs to an elitist family himself, wails against the “new liberals,” he’s actually decrying the loss of power and status of the old elites who closed deals among themselves while robbing the public coffers and putting up walls against the technocrats.

Jordanian protesters shout "bread" in front of the Labour Union offices in Amman, Jordan Wednesday, June 6, 2018. "Corruption equals hunger," is written in Arabic on loaves of bread.
Raad Adayleh/AP

Majali is right when he says that the public protest is directed not only at new taxes and the increased costs of 165 products. Another reason is the fallout from the war in Syria, which has brought in almost a million refugees, in addition to the thousands who remained after the Iraq War.

The Syrian refugee problem

This isn’t just an economic problem in which Jordan’s taxpayers are helping fund the refugees. Apartment rents have risen substantially, sometimes doubling, due to competition with Syrian renters. Jordanians are the first to be fired when a cheaper Syrian shows up for a job.

The crisis that forced the government to toughen its economic plan isn’t disconnected form Jordan’s foreign policy. Jordan had to ask for a $723 million loan from the International Monetary Fund after Saudi Arabia announced that it wouldn’t renew its age package.

In 2015, Jordan received Saudi aid to the tune of $473 million. This was reduced in 2017 to $165 million. This year Jordan was to receive $250 million, but it never arrived.

The reason is the two countries’ strong disagreement over relations with Qatar. The Saudis demanded that Jordan join the boycott of Qatar imposed last year by several Gulf states. Jordan initially agreed to reduce ties with Qatar, though not all of them. Ultimately it restored full relations.

Saudi pressure doesn’t go over well in Jordan, especially after Saudi Arabia announced that it wanted to revoke Jordan’s custodianship over the holy sites in Jerusalem, in contrast to the agreement reached in the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty.

The Saudis said their position hadn’t changed and they considered East Jerusalem to be Palestine’s capital, but they didn’t mention Jordan’s custodianship at the city’s holy sites. In the past, the Saudis asked Jordan to attack the Assad regime as part of the Arab coalition, and to join Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen. But Jordan rejected the request to attack in Syria.

This week, many days after the protests erupted in Jordan, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman phoned King Abdullah to express his support. It’s unclear whether he committed any financial aid, and if so, under what conditions. Jordan angers the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, another important Jordanian donor, by not joining the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood. But the Brotherhood is a legitimate political party in Jordan, one that takes part in elections. Outlawing it as in Egypt and Saudi Arabia could spark a political insurrection that would be hard to suppress.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been silent during the current Jordanian demonstrations; the labor unions warned it against dragging the protest into the ideological and religious realms. Israel isn’t mentioned in the Jordanian and wider Arab media as a factor fomenting the demonstrations, but the peace agreement was brought to parliament three months ago, possibly becoming a contentious issue before October.

That month, Jordan has to declare whether it will renew clauses in the peace agreement on Israel’s leasing of Jordanian land in the Arava region. The lease expires in 2019, a quarter-century after the signing of the peace treaty, and Jordanian legislators are increasingly calling for letting the lease expire and returning those lands to Jordan.

Will King Abdullah manage to overcome the current crisis as well, after extricating his kingdom from the danger of an Arab Spring-style revolution? As long as the protest revolves around specific issues like the tax law and dismissing the government, the king has done what’s needed. He has changed the government and asked the new prime minister to “re-examine” the tax law. Wage rises are also a well-known method that could calm things down.

Also, it will definitely help if the Saudis release several hundred million dollars and the Americans agree to give more grants. Unclear is whether the demonstrations will go further than demands for political reforms that include a transition to a constitutional monarchy that would reduce the king’s power.