Violent Economic Riots Prompt Question: Is Jordan Next in Line for “Arab Spring”?

Riots in Jordan (photo credit: MEMRI)

Could the revolutionary spirit that brought to power the new Islamist regimes in Egypt and Tunisia find a new destination, Jordan, and threaten the Hashemite monarchy of King Abdullah? That possibility became a whole lot more realistic after several days of fiery, violent protests this week in the Middle Eastern nation that has so far been spared the so-called “Arab Spring.”

Add to this the explosion of violence underway in next-door Israel and Gaza and the threat of spillover could make an unstable situation even worse for King Abdullah, who for years has been a force for stability in a volatile region.

Significantly, an estimated 60% of Jordan’s population is made up of Palestinians, who naturally identify with the current struggle of their West Bank and Gaza brethren, while the Muslim Brotherhood is the main opposition force to King Abdullah and the Jordanian government.

Earlier this week, in an effort to avert a financial collapse, the Jordanian government decided to cut fuel subsidies, raising the price of diesel and kerosene by 33 percent, cooking gas by 50 percent and transportation fuel by 15 percent, according to MEMRI, the Middle East Media and Research Institute.

Angry protesters immediately on Tuesday took to the streets in violent, daily, nationwide demonstrations that have not yet let up. The Jordan Times reports:

Security forces clashed with rioters in cities stretching from Irbid to the southern city of Maan late Thursday, renewing violent protests that have led to damaged government buildings, dozens of injuries and one fatality.

According to eyewitnesses, rioters traded gunfire with anti-riot forces in the southern cities of Karak and Tafileh, as hundreds of citizens attempted to torch various public buildings in protest of the government decision to lift fuel subsidies.

Police said they fired teargas and water cannons to disperse the crowds. Elsewhere in Maan, rioters tried to storm police headquarters which security officials call “unprecedented.” One man was killed, scores injured and more than 150 have been arrested.

Reporters on the ground say protesters in Amman chanted:  “Down with the regime,” and “(King) Abdullah, where is the people’s money? You keep on increasing fuel (prices).”

MEMRI adds more detail on the Amman protest with one slogan (highlight added) reflecting an Islamist bent to the demands:

Protestors announced a sit-down strike, carrying signs with slogans such as “The Revolution of the Hungry Has Begun” and “Beware My Hunger and My Rage.” The protestors chanted “Oh, regime of the corrupt, oh regime of the oppressors…”

Also, there were extremely harsh calls against the king. Terming him “Ali Baba with the 40 Thieves,” they shouted, “Oh ‘Abdallah, oh son of Hussein, where did the people’s money go?” and “we are free men, not your slaves” and “we worship Allah and are not your slaves.” They also chanted, “The people want… reform – or else we will complete [the slogan],” that is, if the king enacts reform, the people will not topple the regime – “the people want to topple the regime” having been a standard slogan during Arab Spring protests.

As in other countries in the region, in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood is seizing the opportunity to promote its agenda, calling on King Abdullah to reverse the cabinet decision. MEMRI reports:

In a statement posted on the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s website, the organisation called on the King to issue an “emergency decision rescinding the raise in fuel prices” and the formation of a “national salvation government” comprising various political and social groups from across the Jordanian society.

This as leftists are now calling for a popular intifada (uprising) to counter what they call “organized looting” by the government.

The government insists it had to act to avert a more severe economic crisis and bankruptcy. Prime Minister Abdallah Ensour in a Jordan television interview warned the Muslim Brotherhood not to exploit the price increase to “stir up the street.”

According to a MEMRI translation, Ensour said, the Brotherhood had been inciting against the economic reform for weeks.

Reuters points out that although Jordanians have held “occasional protests inspired by the Arab Spring revolts, demanding democratic reforms and curbs on corruption…[in the past] the gatherings have been peaceful and the security forces did not use weapons.”

Those who took to the streets were for the most part not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, according to wire reports, but if events were to play out like in Egypt, it would not be the first time the Islamist group hijacked a popular movement demanding more democracy and economic reforms.

And like in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s desire for a theocracy is eclipsed by the more extreme demands of the Salafists. Jordan’s Salafiyya-Jihadiyya is supporting the protests and accused the government of “terrorizing and starving the people, and stealing its daily bread,” adding that there is no choice but “to deter and confront the oppressors.”

The Obama administration says the protesters have the right to demonstrate “as long as they do so peacefully.”

State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner says Jordan is an “important strategic partner…We support King Abdullah II’s road map for reform and the aspirations of the Jordanian people to foster a more inclusive political process that will promote security, stability as well as economic development.”