As protests persist, Jordan’s king backs reforms but won’t nix tax hike

As protests persist, Jordan’s king backs reforms but won’t nix tax hike

Abdullah says leaders must find solution ‘away from traditional approach,’ but avoids specifics, as protesters return to streets even after PM sacked

Jordanian protesters shout slogans and raise a national flag during a demonstration outside the Prime Minister's office in the capital Amman early Monday, June 4, 2018. (AP/Raad Adayleh)
Jordanian protesters shout slogans and raise a national flag during a demonstration outside the Prime Minister's office in the capital Amman early Monday, June 4, 2018. (AP/Raad Adayleh)

Jordan’s monarch said Monday he backed reforms, but stopped short of supporting demands to scrap a tax bill that has sent protesters into the streets and threatened to destabilize the kingdom.

The comments by King Abdullah II came hours after he accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Hani Mulki and as crowds gathered near Mulki’s office for the fifth straight evening of protests against the tax bill and the recent price hikes.

Mass protests have taken place across Jordan against a planned tax increase, the latest in a series of economic reforms sought by the International Monetary Fund to get the rising public debt under control. The government has also raised prices for bread, electricity and fuel.

Many Jordanians feel they are being squeezed financially by a government they perceive as corrupt and aloof, and say they are not getting services for the taxes they are asked to pay.

Protesters raise their hands and wave flags near members of the gendarmerie and security forces during a demonstration outside the prime minister’s office in the capital Amman late on June 3, 2018.

In meetings with Jordanian newspaper editors and journalists later Monday, Abdullah promised reforms, saying the country must meet its challenges “away from the traditional approach,” but did not give specifics.

Abdullah is the ultimate decision-maker on policy, but he has also positioned himself as a unifying force above the political fray. He has frequently reshuffled or disbanded governments as a way of quieting criticism.

His response to the current crisis fit that pattern.

Jordanian King Abdullah II (L) and Prime Minister Hani Al-Mulki attend an official lunch meeting at the Royal Palace in Amman on May 1, 2018. (AFP/Khalil MAZRAAWI)

In his comments Monday, he expressed sympathy for the protesters and the hardships faced by ordinary Jordanians, while criticizing the outgoing government, saying it had failed to explain the tax bill to citizens.

In a series of tweets, he blamed Jordan’s precarious financial situation on destabilization in neighboring Syria, which has led to an influx of refugees and more defense spending on border security, as well as shifting market conditions.

“The regional situation surrounding #Jordan, the closure of traditional markets for Jordan’s exports, and the high cost of securing our borders have been and still are the main reasons for the difficult economic conditions we are facing,” a message posted to his account read.

“The world has fallen short; international aid to #Jordan has dropped despite the burden we shoulder to host Syrian refugees. Jordan is dealing with unanticipated economic and regional changes. No plan could have mitigated these challenges quickly and effectively,” it added.

Jordan is a staunch military and political ally of the West in a turbulent region, and any threat to the kingdom’s stability is viewed with concern, particularly by neighboring Israel and by the US.

Yoav Gallant, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top-level security cabinet and retired general, told foreign journalists in a news conference Monday that it’s in Israel’s interest “that stability will go back to Jordan as soon as possible.”

It’s not clear if the departure of the business-friendly Mulki will be enough to defuse growing public anger.

Protest organizer Ali Abous said a one-day strike set for Wednesday would still take place, despite the Cabinet changes.

“We want to change the path, not the individuals,” said Abous, who heads an umbrella group for 15 unions and professional associations with half a million members.

Hatem Jarrar, a lawyer, said the resignation of Mulki is a “victory for the Jordanian people who demanded to topple the government,” adding that protesters would keep pressing demands for rescinding the tax bill.

The recent protests were largely spontaneous, drawing many young people and members of the middle class, rather than being organized by traditional opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a show of non-violence, protesters raised their hands in the air as they were being pushed away from the prime minister’s office by helmeted riot police.

Demonstrators confront anti-riot policemen as they protest against against a proposed income tax draft law in front of the Prime Minister’s office in Amman, late on June 1, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / STRINGER)

Protest organizers have urged the king to cancel the tax plan, saying it disproportionately targets the poor and the middle class. The king has indicated he’s willing to make concessions, saying earlier this week that Jordan’s citizens cannot be expected to bear the entire burden of economic reform.

Jordan’s government is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to carry out economic reforms and austerity measures to rein in growing public debt.

The kingdom has experienced an economic downturn in part because of prolonged conflict in neighboring Syria and Iraq, and a large influx of refugees several years ago. The official unemployment rate has risen above 18 percent, and it’s believed to be double that among young Jordanians.

Abdullah became king in 1999, taking over from his late father, Hussein, and has weathered a series of political crises. During the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, he promised political reforms, but instead tightened his rule after the outbreak of violent conflicts in the region, including in Syria.

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