Jordanians march against defence laws, rising prices
Hundreds of Jordanians marched in downtown Amman on Friday, in protest of rising prices and defence laws which grant the government extra-constitutional powers.
Protesters started their march after Friday afternoon prayers in front of al-Husseini mosque, chanting “we can live in freedom.” Jordanian security forces reportedly surrounded the area to prevent additional protesters from joining the march.
Protests in Jordan are infrequent, with shrinking civil society and increasing authoritarian measures from the government discouraging demonstrations. However, anger over economic conditions and what is seen as heavy-handed defence laws have prompted a rare instance of public action.
Jordan’s economy was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, contracting by 3 percent in 2020.
Unemployment has grown considerably since the pandemic, reaching almost a quarter of the labour force in 2021, compared to just under 20 percent at the end of 2019. The true rate of unemployment is probably higher, as a significant number of people in Jordan work in the informal sector.
Over half of Jordan’s youth are unemployed, according to the IMF, and the unemployment rate among women is significantly higher than among men, with about a third of the female labour force unemployed.
Notably, Jordan has the third lowest female labour force participation rate in the Middle East, ahead of only Iraq and Yemen.
Syrian refugees in Jordan, of which there are between 660,000 and 1.3 million depending on the estimate, were perhaps most affected by the pandemic. According to an ILO survey, 95 percent of Syrian refugee households in Jordan reported a loss in household income following the outbreak of Covid-19.
The government has taken moves to help alleviate the economic crisis, including increasing the scope of lending programs to small and medium enterprises, and deferring debt repayments. Jordan has also received $900 million in financing from the IMF since the start of 2020.
Still, these policy moves have largely not affected the perception of many Jordanians who see the current downturn as the culmination of years of poor economic conditions.
Aggravating the country’s economic woes is public indignation against the continuation so-called defence laws which were enacted in March 2020. The laws give the prime minister extra-constitutional powers in the case of an emergency, and were adopted to help the government respond to the pandemic more efficiently.
The defence laws enabled Jordan to implement what were dubbed the world’s harshest lockdowns, with residents shut in their homes and being arrested for leaving past curfew. The severe measures helped Jordan avoid any serious Covid-19 outbreaks until July 2020, when an employee of the Syria-Jordan border crossing caught the virus while on the job.
Public opinion was initially behind the government’s tough action, with the then-Health Minister Saad Jaber becoming an overnight celebrity and reportedly receiving numerous marriage proposals.
Sentiment soured, however, as measures dragged on and the government used the defence laws to arrest protesters following a controversial decision to dissolve the country’s Teacher’s Syndicate.
A popular political cartoon at the time showed then-PM Omar Razaz kneeling on the neck of the Jordanian citizen, in a reference to George Floyd’s murder in the United States.
One Jordanian doctor, Mohammed al-Thunbiyat, said that “today the need for defence laws has ended,” and that the “expansion [of powers] was done without need and in exchange for political gains.
Coronavirus cases are once again on the rise in Jordan, with almost 2,400 new COVID cases reported on Friday, compared with 700 cases at the beginning of October. Critics of the defence laws, however, say the pandemic can be handled without the use of defence laws.
"From a realistic point of view, there is no reason to have these defence laws. All these issues can be handled by civil law," Oraib Rantawi, the director of the Amman-based al-Quds Center for Political Studies, told The New Arab.
In 2021, Jordan was downgraded by watchdog Freedom House from “partially free” to “not free.” The country also drew media attention in late October after a coffee seller was arrested for posting on his Facebook page that the wife of PM Bisher Khasawneh receives a salary.
The government later banned media from reporting on the case, as it often does with cases that attract public attention.