Jordan’s political elite warn of more protests if reforms are ignored

Jordanians are pinning high hopes on the Omar Razzaz government, but failure to meet expectations could trigger wider public protests.

al-monitor Jordan's Prime Minister Omar Razzaz speaks during a news conference, Amman, Jordan, June 19, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.

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jordanian government, jordanian economy, hani al-mulki, unemployment, poverty, protests in jordan, reforms, taxes

Jun 29, 2018

Jordan’s political elite have one main question on their minds: Will newly appointed Prime Minister Omar Razzaz be allowed to carry out his promise to strike a new social contract between citizens and the state?

There are mounting concerns that the so-called deep state has failed to take in the lessons of the May 30 popular protests that succeeded in bringing down the government of Hani al-Mulki a week later. What tens of thousands of protesters were calling for was not limited to annulling the income tax draft law that was sent to parliament or sacking the government for overburdening citizens with taxes, but a complete and substantial change in running the affairs of the state. This is what the likes of former Prime Minister Taher al-Masri and former Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher have underlined separately recently.

Masri delivered a lecture on June 26 at Jordan’s World Affairs Council in which he warned that the challenge the state is facing today is to carry out belated genuine and comprehensive political, economic, administrative and social reforms. He said that changing the path and restructuring society on a civil basis is now part of the popular call. Masri added that had the state carried out these reforms in the past slowly and gradually, Jordanians would be better off today and stronger in facing local and regional challenges.

For his part, Muasher wrote an article that was published on the Carnegie Middle East Center website on June 7 in which he stated: “The main lesson the Jordanian state should learn from the current crisis is bigger than the issue of the draft income tax law — important though it is — or the rising price of fuel. There is a crisis of trust between the state and the citizen that myself and others have been writing about for years. This has reached the stage where society no longer accepts that the state manage affairs through traditional means.”

He further added, “Changes to the government will mean little unless they are accompanied by a clear political will from the state to carry out a comprehensive review of the current approach to governing the country.”

King Abdullah’s letter of designation to Razzaz on June 5 called on him to launch “a comprehensive national awakening [renaissance]” and to carry out reforms with the aim of “delineating the relationship between citizens and the state through a clear social contract that identifies rights and duties.” Reference to a social contract raised hopes that the new prime minister was given the mandate to change the course of running the state and that the political will needed to do so was now available.

For his part, Razzaz told Jordan’s Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission on June 24 that the king had asked the government to carry out a clear plan aimed for a “comprehensive national renaissance,” stressing this project needs restoring trust between citizens and institutions of society and government, work transparently and openly, and launch dialogue in all subsequent decisions and procedures, according to the official news agency, Petra.

Razzaz, who holds a Ph.D. in planning with a minor in economics from Harvard University and a postdoctorate from the Harvard Law School, is seen as a reformer and a man with an economic vision. Among the immediate challenges his government faces are confronting an 18% unemployment rate in a country where one-third of its citizens are under the poverty line. Moreover, he has to deal with a government debt equivalent to 95% of the country’s gross domestic product and a national debt of almost $40 billion.

Razzaz outlined his economic vision in a 2012 paper written in Arabic for the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, which was updated and translated into English and presented to the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs in 2013 under the title “The Treacherous Path Towards a New Arab Social Contract.” In the paper, he presents his view on the transformation from a “rentier state” into a “productive” nation, writing that it required a “new social contract” between the rulers and the ruled, within the framework of a sustainable civil state that employs its citizens’ potentials and grants them their rights and freedom.

Razzaz has yet to present his government’s program to the lower house of parliament — which will convene later in July — and accordingly seek a vote of confidence. On June 26, Razzaz said the government’s program will set the foundations for a long-term comprehensive national renaissance.

But it is doubtful that Razzaz and his 28-member team, which includes 15 ministers from the previous Cabinet, will be able to meet the high expectations that have been built. Dealing with Jordan’s immediate economic problems will consume most of the time and resources, and while Razzaz has overturned some of the previous government’s unpopular decisions, such as recalling the income tax law draft from the lower house, he will still have to comply with the agreement that the kingdom had struck with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2016 and which forced Mulki’s government to adopt these decisions.

Economist Husam Ayesh told Al-Monitor that Razzaz has taken some small steps to downsize the government and reduce public spending, but he said these steps are not enough. “The big question is how he will deal with the IMF’s conditions while promising to relaunch the economy,” he said. “Fixing what previous governments had damaged will take years, and we will not see immediate, positive results,” Ayesh added.

Economic analyst Fahmi Katkout, who writes for Al-Ghad daily, told Al-Monitor that he believes the government will have a hard time coming up with a clear economic strategy that will kick-start the economy. “The government has taken an immediate decision to cut 150 million Jordanian dinars [$211 million] in running costs, but the 2018 state budget allowed for an increase of 750 million Jordanian dinars ($1 billion). So, in reality, it had done little to manage its expenses,” he said.

“But what worries me more is that the government has talked little about political reforms, although this is the true way to deal with economic and social problems. We need to have free and open elections so that we can have true representatives in parliament,” Katkout said.

Head of the Jerusalem Center for Political Studies in Amman Oraib Rantawi agreed that political reforms should take priority over anything else. He told Al-Monitor that Jordanians are pinning high hopes on the Razzaz government, but failure to meet expectations could trigger wider public protests. He said that Gulf aid to Jordan, estimated at $3 billion in cash and investments, will do little to “get us out of the bottleneck.”

“The Gulf aid should not make us complacent and allow the government to go back to implementing failed policies and ignoring true reforms,” Rantawi said. “What we need is a new social contract that will alter the way governments are formed and deputies are elected to parliament. Cosmetic changes will simply not work this time,” he said.

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