from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Postcard From Amman

November 14, 2012 10:07 am (EST)

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AMMAN - Demonstrations broke out in many parts of Jordan last night after the government announced the reduction of energy subsidies. Demonstrations are not new--there have been regular demonstrations in Jordan since the advent of the Arab uprisings.  What was new was the fusion of economic discontent, anger at perceived government corruption, and the calls in some quarters for regime change.

This is not the first time the government has suspended the subsidies—it did so several months ago but backed down after popular protest. But with energy and fuel accounting for more than 30 percent of the government’s budget, continued subsidies were judged by the government as unsustainable. The choice they faced was a milder glide path towards lifting price supports now, or more severe cost cutting measures later. That the country is faced with the challenge of hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees has only further taxed the already cash-strapped government’s capacities.

The tragedy of Jordan’s current energy crisis is that it could so easily be rectified. If, for example, Egypt were to deliver gas to Jordan in accordance with their agreement, the Jordanian government would not need to lift fuel subsidies. A large chunk of the government’s subsidies would become unnecessary. The disruption of the pipeline is only part of the problem. The other is the diversion of gas earmarked for export to domestic purposes. In this conspiracy laden region, some suspect the Morsi government of at best shedding no tears for Jordan’s instability, or at worst trying to help foment it.

Another remedy would be for the neighboring Gulf states to offer greater assistance. In 2003, when Jordan faced major oil disruptions due to the Iraq war, Saudi Arabia offered Jordan concessionary oil to help it weather the storm. Today, such assistance is lacking.

However we got here, the reality is that the Jordanian regime now faces a significant political as well as economic challenge. To date, the Hashemites, like a number of monarchies, have been able to deflect popular discontent onto the government. Thus, King Abdullah has sacked four prime ministers in the past year alone. But this tool becomes increasingly ineffective with each successive government change.

To get in front of this, Jordan will hold new parliamentary elections on January 23, 2013. This election is being shepherded by Abdelelah al-Khatib, the venerated Jordanian civil servant and former foreign minister who most recently served as the United Nations special envoy to Libya. Few doubt that under his stewardship, the elections will be free and fair. The challenge the regime faces, however, is that the leading opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has decided to boycott the elections, preferring the street to the ballot box. Hence, convincing economically strapped Jordanians that the January vote is the best vehicle for precipitating genuine change is item number one.

Jordanians look to Syria to the north and Egypt to the south and are not yet convinced that revolution is the path for them. Still, their economic grievances are genuine and their frustration at the slow pace of reform is real. Now that Jordanians have taken to the streets, the government must handle the demonstrations delicately and avoid violence at all costs. The danger is government mishandling could be exploited by those who seek to use the street rather than the ballot box as the means towards addressing their political grievances.

The immediate period ahead is sure to be tumultuous. Whether or not the current crisis is but yet another bump within a circumscribed political environment overseen by the Hashemite rulers, or if this is indeed a more significant challenge to the entire system will become clearer this Friday when protests are sure to erupt in earnest.

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