More repression, fewer jobs: Jordanians face grim prospects

Updated Thursday October 14, 2021 | 11:05 p.m.

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) – As a poorly paid public school teacher, Khaled Jaber always needed a little helping hand, working as a private tutor and using his car as a taxi to help pay the bills. For unforeseen needs, such as medical expenses, he had to borrow money from relatives.

Somehow, the 44-year-old lost his life, sustained by his love for teaching Arabic in high school and the respect his work has earned him in the community.

But its delicate balance has been upset by the harsh treatment inflicted by the government on tens of thousands of teachers over the past two years. Their union, taking advantage of mass protests and a month-long strike, won a 35% pay rise, only to be dissolved by the government. Thirteen union leaders have been taken to court and each faces a one-year prison sentence pending appeal.

The heightened authoritarianism – noted in Jordan’s downgrading from “partially free” to “not free” this year by the US defense group Freedom House – contrasts with the monarchy’s image of having embraced Western liberal values ​​and to be a reliable ally in a turbulent environment. Region.

In Jaber’s case, the brutal silence of the protests leaves him without respect, while the pay hike has barely made a dent in the price explosion.

Even the right to complain has been taken away, he said.

“Leave me space to talk, go out on the streets and shout, as long as the position is peaceful,” he said, speaking from his small apartment on the outskirts of Amman, as if he were. appealed to the authorities. “Leave me a space to express my distress. “

The crackdown on the expression has contributed to growing unrest in the kingdom.

A multi-year economic slowdown, accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, means more than half of Jordanian youth are now unemployed and the country is increasingly in debt.

Recent revelations that King Abdullah II secretly amassed more than $ 106 million from luxury properties abroad have further undermined public confidence. The news of the offshore acquisitions came just months after the king’s half-brother Prince Hamzah alleged corruption at the highest level, engulfing the generally low-profile royal family in a rare scandal.

Anger at this trifecta of increased repression, worsening economy and perceived corruption is bubbling just below the surface, several activists said. Only the fear of being imprisoned or inadvertently triggering self-destructive chaos, similar to events in Syria, prevents mass protests, they said.

“There is no doubt that this is generating pressure,” said Maisara Malas, 59, an engineer and union activist, of the growing rift between a detached and vibrant elite and the vast majority of Jordanians. “People are getting poorer and the regime in power is getting richer. “

Any hint of instability should worry Jordan’s western allies, primarily the United States, which appreciates the kingdom for its help in the fight against Islamic extremists, its security ties with Israel and its willingness to welcome refugees. .

But the focus of the Biden administration has shifted to the Indo-Pacific, with Middle East policy in maintenance mode and Jordan’s approach seemingly on autopilot, said Seth Binder of Project on Middle. East Democracy, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Compared to ailing Syria or Yemen, US officials are applying to Jordan “that tired trope of an Arab regime that is a moderate regime,” he said. “This misses what is really going on and raises real concerns.”

Jordan is the second largest recipient of US bilateral aid in the region, after Israel. In a 2018 memorandum, the United States assured Jordan that it would receive at least $ 1.3 billion a year for five years. The Congress, where Jordan enjoys bipartisan support, has gone further. In 2021, it allocated $ 1.7 billion, including $ 845 million in direct budget support. For the coming fiscal year, the Biden administration is offering $ 1.3 billion, including $ 490 million in budget support, or money not earmarked for specific programs.

In a report circulated to policymakers in Washington in September, Binder’s group called for stricter conditions to be attached to direct cash transfers, and ultimately their elimination. Aid should be leveraged in a push for economic and political reforms, he said.

“A transfer of money to the government is a privilege that should be reserved for American partners committed to democracy and human rights and not known for their endemic corruption,” the report said.

The State Department said in a response that aid to Jordan was in the direct interests of the national security of the United States, describing the kingdom as an “invaluable ally.” He said the United States carefully monitors its aid programs for Jordan and that the United States regularly engages the Jordanian government on a wide range of issues, including human rights.

Jordanian authorities have rebuffed allegations of corruption. “Every dollar (of aid) provided is counted,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told The Associated Press last week. Direct cash transfers are “recorded in the budget that the government executes and are audited”.

Safadi has also defended the king’s purchase of luxury homes, revealed earlier this month in a massive document leak dubbed the Pandora Papers. Safadi said the monarch used private funds and cited security and privacy needs as the reason for keeping transactions secret.

Former Information Minister Mohammed Momani said he regretted Jordan’s downgrading to “not free,” but argued that the kingdom is still doing better than most countries in the region.

“We know that Jordan is not Sweden, but we also know that we are among the very few countries when it comes to freedom of expression in the Middle East,” he said. “So the situation is not as we expected, but it is not as gloomy as some people might paint it.”

All power in Jordan belongs to the king, who appoints and dismisses governments. Parliament is compliant due to a single vote electoral system which discourages the formation of strong political parties. Abdullah has repeatedly promised to open up the political system, but then withdrew for fear of losing control due to an Islamist push.

After the Prince Hamzah scandal in the spring, the king appointed a committee of experts which now proposes to reserve a third of the seats in the legislative elections of 2024 for political parties. The quota would increase to two-thirds in a decade and eventually reach 100%, said Momani, a member of the committee.

Momani said it was the largest reform attempt in three decades, although the latest ideas have met with little enthusiasm in Jordan, where many view the promises of change with skepticism.

Jaber, the Arabic teacher, is one of those with bleak outlook. He said he expected his four children to be worse off than him, citing high unemployment and rising prices.

“When a student goes to college, he and his family will owe thousands (of dinars). How long does it take to find a job? When can he get married? When will he build a house? he said. “I don’t see that there is a positive or rosy future, as some officials say. Things get worse and more desperate for me and for others.


Associated Press editors Omar Akour in Amman and Matthew V. Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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