Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, was rocked Wednesday by a second day of protests that uncharacteristically targeted the king after the government raised fuel prices in a desperate act to reduce a massive budget deficit.
Hundreds of Jordanians poured into the streets in several cities across the Western-backed kingdom, chanting slogans against King Abdullah II. By Wednesday night, residents of Amman reported that the streets of the Jordanian capital were unusually empty.
Manal Omar, a Middle East specialist with the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace, said she has encountered angry and frustrated Jordanians as she traveled across the country over the past week.
“The conversations I’ve had reminded me of the conversations I had in Tunisia. People are saying that their living conditions are unbearable, and there is a sense that there is no movement toward reform. That is where the anger is coming from,” Ms. Omar said from Amman in a Skype interview with The Washington Times.
“They definitely put blame at the feet of the king, but they are not saying, ‘We hate the system.’”
Leila Hilal, director of the Middle East task force at the New America Foundation in Washington, said, “In Jordan, there is unprecedented criticism of the king among his traditional constituents.”
“They are very dissatisfied with the king, but there is not an intention, a desire or even a call among these protesting groups for toppling the monarchy.”
King Abdullah is a close friend of the U.S. and has honored a 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Palestinian refugees and their descendants make up almost half of Jordan’s population of 6 million.
Some Jordanians say they want a transformation to a constitutional monarchy with a more powerful parliament. However, that is an idea that has received little support.
Jordan has dodged the violent wave of Arab Spring protests that erupted two years ago and toppled rulers in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. Jordanians rarely have protested against their Western-backed king.
The protests this week are a culmination of long-standing tensions in Jordan over the slow pace of reforms.
“After the Arab Spring, the Jordanian monarchy promised to undertake certain reforms, and those reforms have moved very slowly, and, in fact, have completely stalled of late,” Ms. Hilal said.
“There is a lot of impatience with the government … people are feeling immense economic strain, lack of adequate political representation, concern about corruption, and they are acting out,” she added.
Demonstrations last erupted in September when the government tried to raise the price of gas and diesel fuel.
King Abdullah promptly reversed that decision.
However, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour on Tuesday announced on state TV that fuel subsidies would be lifted. The decision pushed up the prices of cooking and heating gas by 54 percent.
The decision was expected, and most Jordanians had spent the past week bracing for the news.
Mr. Ensour said fuel subsidies should have been lifted two years ago. According to the state-run Petra news agency, Mr. Ensour said the government didn’t act “because of the political circumstances,” a thinly veiled reference to the Arab Spring.
Mr. Ensour said delaying this week’s decision to raise prices would have led to a “catastrophe and insolvency.” The decision is driven by a need to reduce a large budget deficit and meet conditions to secure a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Jordanians are also angry about a government retirement plan for parliamentarians, which they say has contributed to the deficit.
“Jordanians say, ‘If you can raise fuel [prices], why can’t you eliminate this kind of retirement plan?’” Ms. Omar said. “People would like to see those in the upper levels getting hit as much as people on the ground.”
King Abdullah has fired two prime ministers in the past two years in a bid to calm protests and show he is serious about reforms. In his nearly 13-year rule, he has changed Cabinets eight times. In October, he dissolved the parliament and called early elections.
On Wednesday, about 2,000 protesters hurled rocks at shops in the southern city of Karak, forcing owners to close, according to shopkeeper Mohammad Matarneh, 38, the Associated Press reported.
“Down, down with you, Abdullah,” they chanted. “Get out and leave us alone.”
Police spokesman Mohammad Khatib said 24 protesters accused of attacking riot police in Tuesday’s violence were arrested in Amman. At least 14 people were injured, including 10 police who were hit by rocks, according to a police statement.
Police also reported $1.4 million in damage, including shattered shop windows, burned police cars and other vehicles and damage to government offices, the AP added.
The Hashemite kingdom has been put under further strain by the 20-month-old civil war raging across its northern border in Syria. The conflict has created more than a quarter of a million refugees, who have poured into Jordan, as well as Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was traveling in Australia on Wednesday, announced that the United States will provide $30 million in humanitarian assistance to feed people in Syria as well as the refugees.