Dozens of Jordanians protested at the country’s prime ministry on Thursday against economic policies and corruption as part of a growing new, leaderless youth protest movement.
Some 400 young Jordanians braved torrential rain, flooded streets and high winds to gather in front of Jordan’s prime ministry building to protest the recently-passed income tax law and what they described as the government’s “corrupt economic policies.”
“Government of thieves,” protesters chanted outside the building in the capital, Amman. “Shame, shame on those who see and hear and do nothing.”
“They removed a doctor and gave us a doctor,” protesters said of the recent change of prime ministers, both PhD holders, “we want action and not words.
The protest is the third demonstration in the last week against the government’s austerity measures and the passage of a new income tax law, which was narrowly approved by the nation’s parliament in November after igniting nationwide protests last June.
Although turnout for the protests has been modest, numbering in the few hundreds, the movement has gained support on social media, with tens of thousands of Jordanians expressing “interest” or pledging to go to the demos.
Despite dominating discussions and social media; no-one in Jordan knows precisely who the organisers are.
Unlike June’s protests against the income tax law, which was led by Jordanian unions and brought down the government of former premier Hani Mulki, not a single political party or civil society group has endorsed or officially taken part in this week’s protests.
In fact, most groups across the political spectrum have gone to great lengths to distance themselves from the new protest movement.
The professional associations council, a grouping of two-dozen unions and the largest civil society group in Jordan which led June’s demonstrations, has denied having any involvement in the recent protests.
In a statement issued after the first demonstration last Friday, it stressed that the unions have called for no protests, adding that they “still do not know the identity of those who called for these protests.”
The General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions and the Civil Alliance Party also denied taking part, while the Nidaa Party accused protest organisers of being “suspicious individuals taking advantage of economic conditions to incite sedition in the homeland.”
“We are young men and women, educated, politically aware and unemployed,” said Talal Naimat, 33, who came the way from Maan, 200 km south of the capital, to take part in the protest. “We demand social justice, democracy, equality and equal opportunities for all.”
Protesters say one of the driving factors of their discontent is unemployment, which according to official statistics stands at 18.6 percent nationwide. Youth unemployment is estimated to be over 30 percent.
“The political parties and professional associations are, quite frankly, trash, they don’t represent us or care about our futures,” said Mohammed, a 23-year-old university graduate who has spent over a year unsuccessfully searching for work.
“You can see that by their votes to approve the income tax law and successive economic policies that has put Jordan in debt and has not created employment or services.”
Experts say the new protest movement, which appears to be slowly gaining steam, is the result of a failure of political parties and unions to represent young Jordanians’ concerns.
“The leaders of this protest movement are unknowns, but clearly these organisers are a group of youths full of energy and they feel strongly about economic issues and corruption,” says Fares Braizat, analyst and chairman of the Amman-based NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions.
The protests are partly over the recently-passed income tax law, which sparked nationwide protests when the government first introduced the legislation in June and after amendments was narrowly passed by parliament in a 54-50 vote on November 18.
The new income tax set the income exemption threshold at JD20,000 (Dh103000) per household- compared to JD18,000 in the earlier draft of the law. Under the new law, by 2020, the tax exemption threshold for annual household incomes will drop to JD18,000. Previously, Jordanian households were tax exempt for up to JD24,000.
The law allows for JD2,000 Value Added Tax exemption on medical costs and university tuition per family, compared to JD1,000 in the previous iteration. Prior to the law, Jordanian households were granted a JD4,000 VAT exemption for health and educational costs.
The law sets a 14 percent income tax for the industrial sector, 35% income tax for banking, and 24 percent for telecom, energy, mining, insurance and other firms- the same rates under the previous law, despite calls from activists and citizens for the government to increase the tax on banks and telecom giants instead.
The government has insisted that the law, implemented as part of a conditional $723 million loan from the IMF, is critical for the government to narrow its $750 million budget and reign in a debt hovering around 95% of GDP.
Despite minor amendments introduced by MPs to lessen the immediate impact of the tax on middle-class Jordanians, few citizens say they are happy.
But the recent protests are over issues far greater than the income tax. Protesters have been chanting about corruption, a decade-and-a-half-old privatisation program they claim sold of the country’s assets to enrich the elite, rising inequality, and unemployment.
“The income tax law has become a pretext to let out all this dissatisfaction and disappointment,” Braizat says. “It was like removing a lid.”
Adding to the protests is growing frustration with prime minister Omar Razzaz, whose pledge to take a different approach to governing and transparency was met with enthusiasm by Jordanians after his appointment in June.
Razzaz has been a visibly active prime minister, staging surprise visits at public hospitals and schools which citizens say are offering below-standard services, listening to the suggestions of young Jordanians and issuing directives to enhance public transport and health services.
Yet the forcing through of the income tax law, rising prices of basic goods and a failure to bring a series of corruption cases before the courts, have led many to sour on the premier.
In July, just days after Razzaz’s appointment, 55 percent of Jordanian citizens said they believed the country was moving in the right direction, according to a public opinion survey by the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. In October, the same survey revealed that 30 percent of citizens believed the country was moving in the right direction- a 25-point drop in three months.
Meanwhile, the percentage of Jordanians who expressed faith Razzaz could fulfil his responsibilities dropped from 69 percent to 49 percent during the same period.
Yet while united on economic concerns, when it comes to politics, protesters are splintered. While many on Thursday called for greater democracy and elected governments, among the protesters there are groups that want to empower the King further or keep the political system as is, but push for greater transparency and accountability.
“We are not against any person; we are not against Razzaz and we are not against the King,” said Khalil a 38-year-old government worker who came from Tafilah, 180 km south of Amman. “We are simply against the economic policies that have not changed no matter who comes and goes.”
If organisers remained focused on the tangible issues citizens’ care about and that unites Jordanians of different political stripes such as the economy and corruption, experts say the movement can gain momentum.
“If these activists focus on issues and not people, they will gain support,” Braizat says. “But if they go after personalities and after the king, then this movement will collapse and go away.”