Democracy on the Horizon: How the Arab Spring Is Unfolding in Jordan

Article excerpt

The Arab Spring has engulfed the Middle East, and Jordan is no exception. Since January last year, protests have gripped a country less known for trouble than its neighbors. Although Jordan shares many grievances with Tunisia and Egypt, its political constitution differs from those of presidential republics. Jordan is a monarchy with a constitution, and the vexing question of whether it is or should strive to be a constitutional monarchy has defined the national debate.

In the early stage of the protests, the situation in Jordan mirrored those f other countries. Dire economic conditions were the backdrop against which protests broke out throughout the country, and the atmosphere of resentment lent itself to political demands which, while not new, had never been expressed collectively in the preceding decade of half-hearted reforms. The escalation of protests led to the resignation of not one, but two successive prime ministers hastily appointed by King Hussein. These sacrifices, however, did not placate the masses, and attention shifted towards the king, who held the real strings of power.

Even today, King Hussein commands respect as heir to the Hashemite Dynasty, which has been one of the more liberal regimes in the Middle East. As such, the king has been able to play a moderating role without: overriding the protestors' momentum. Yet many people have rejected the idea of top-down reform administered by the king, fashionable in the past decade. Ordinary people, including the king's traditional supporters, are now more receptive to the idea of curtailing the power of the throne. Change now requires the king to give up his grip on the country, for democratization is not only seen as the goal of the protests but the process through which the country's problems need to be solved.

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Economic Woes

The organized protests in January of 2011 marked the beginnings of the popular reform movement in Jordan. Since the early days of the protests, which attracted more than 3,000 people in the capital city of Amman alone, the protestors have taken to the streets without any sign of relenting. The chants and banners employed in these protests air the grievances shared by a broad segment of the population, but the stage of the protests is more revealing of their demands. The streets where the protests have came alive give testimony to the economic degradation that has come to define life in Jordan and the Middle East at large. It is no surprise that the rallying calls of the protestors ("O people of Jordan revolt against poverty and hunger" to give one example) have resonated most strongly in the backwaters of Jordanian society, that is, the streets in depressed economic areas where the stories of the unemployed, poor, and disenfranchised at lived out daily. While political demands loom large at the protests, the economic plight of the nation has provided the immediate grounds for revolting against the government.

Current figures shed light on Jordan's economic woes. A quarter of the population lives in poverty. Unemployment hovers above twelve percent according to official figures, hut is estimated to be as high as thirty' percent. Joblessness among youth, who constitute thirty percent of the population, is creating a resentful and dispirited generation. The country's finances are in shambles. Jordan faces a record deficit of US$2 billion this year and foreign debt of US$11 billion, equivalent to sixty percent of its GDP. Meanwhile, the cost of living marches upwards, with consumers facing soaring commodity prices. Tunisia and Egypt; which quickly succumbed to revolution, faced similarly poor economic conditions.

Jordan's economy has long stood on shaky economic foundations. The so-called "peace dividend" from Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel, which was supposed to put the country on a path to economic growth, turned out to be an illusion. Restructuring of the economy took place haltingly through the nineties under the supervision of the IMF and the World Bank. …

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