The Price of Pita & Stability in Jordan
February 8, 2018
The Jordanian government’s decision to raise the price of commodities and well as taxes, sparked a wave of peaceful public protests on February 2nd in different cities in Jordan.
The major trigger for the demonstrations is the rise in the price of bread. The common bread in Jordan – known by the name pita – has two types – traditional Pita (known as Taboon Pita or Fatir) and Small Pita (known as Ghif) The price of Taboon Pita increased by almost 100%, and it is now almost sixty-cents a piece, while the price of Small Pita increased by 67%, and it is now almost fifty-cents a piece. About ten-million pita are sold in Jordan every day.
The Jordanian government provides low income families an annual subsidy of 38 USD a year to purchase bread and also subsidize the price of imported wheat. These subsidies, estimated to be 300 million dollars a year, are an increasing burden on Jordan’s weak economy.
To try and relieve its economic distress, Jordan took a loan of 723,000,000 USD from the World Bank in 2017. The loan was conditional upon the Jordanian government cutting its expenses. One solution was to decrease or eliminate certain subsidies. According one report, cutting bread subsidies could save the Jordanian government, 100,000,000 USD a year.
The increase in the price of bread took place in conjunction with Jordan King ‘Abdullah’s 56th birthday which was on January 30th. The timing is likely not a coincidence. ‘Abdullah is admired by vast sectors in Jordan – and therefore, his birthday is a day of celebration and unity for Jordanians. In fact, in conjunction with his birthday, Jordanian media platforms widely covered what is described as a “spontaneous campaign” of young Jordanians celebrating the King’s birthday by giving gifts and sweets to families that have children born on the same date as the King. It is possible, that the campaign and its timing is aimed to increase sentiments of unity and solidarity, and therefore “soften” the public outcry in response to the rise in the price of bread. This policy has proved itself wise and useful in previous episodes of unrest and tension in Jordan (read for example my article “Long Live the (Wise) King” ~ February 2011).
An interesting aspect of the protest to date, is the fact that leftist factors – such as the Jordanian Communist and Socialist parties – are leading the protests, while Islamic factors – such as the Muslim Brotherhood movement, seem absent. The silence of the Muslim Brotherhood is likely attributed to the crisis of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.
When Muhammad Morsi’s short-lived rule in Egypt ended in July 2013, it created a domino effect thwarting the Muslim Brotherhood’s momentum throughout the region. This crisis caused tension within Muslim Brotherhood branches throughout the Muslim world, as inner power struggles ensued over the path, identity and direction of the Sunni world’s largest movement.
In Jordan, that crisis resulted in a split within the Muslim Brotherhood in March 2015.
The split – similar to the split within Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and in other parts of the Muslim world – was between the segment of the movement that wanted to continue to adhere to the strict ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and the pragmatic factors within the Muslim Brotherhood on the other side.
The political party of the original Muslim Brotherhood movement in Jordan is called “The Islamic Action Front” (Jabhat al-‘amal al-Islami). Committed to the Muslim Brotherhood dogmatic ideology, The Islamic Action Front vocally criticizes the government – and is therefore, restricted by the government. For example, in September 2017 the Jordanian authorities closed the party’s office in the city of Irbid.
The group which split from the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan in 2015 is called the “National Coalition for Reform” (Al-Tahaluf al-Watani Li’lislah) led by ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zneibat, the former Secretary General of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan who was ousted by the Muslim Brotherhood. Similar to its mother movement (the MB), the National Coalition for Reform’s vision is that Jordan will be guided by Islamic law (Shari’ah) – but argues that this ideal needs to be subdued to political pragmatism. For example, the willingness to accept the concept of independent statehood in which the source of legislation and rules are not exclusively according to or guided by, Shari’ah law. Thus, the National Coalition for Reform has distanced itself from the dogmatic ideology of its mother movement, and therefore, its political pragmatism has received the blessing of the Jordanian government. In recent elections to Jordan’s municipalities which took place in August 2017, the National Coalition made significant political achievements – they increased their numbers of delegates in some municipalities, including in some major cities such as Zarka and ‘Amman. In addition, three National Coalition candidates, out of six, won mayoral elections – including in the city of Zarka – known to be a political stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is therefore possible, that the National Coalition for Reform wants to keep a low profile in the current protests because it does not want to find itself on a collision track with the government.
It is likely that the calm, restrained nature of the public protest reflects the joint interests of the government, as well as political parties across the spectrum in Jordan, to avoid a deterioration. In that context, one should note that the Jordanian police attending the protests are unarmed – this reflects the Jordanian government’s policy to allow the public to vent and to express their discontent, while and at the same time being sure to contain the demonstrations. It also should be noted that on February 7th the King left for official visits in the UAE and in Pakistan, signaling his confidence that the protests do not present a threat to his throne.
It is likely that the public protest will continue, yet it will not spin out of control.
Jordan’s vibrant parliamentary system – representing broad sectors of society; the variety of platforms, non-governmental organizations, and other institutions which are mechanisms for political and social action; the freedom of expression; the admiration of the King; and the external support from Arab Gulf states, the United States, and international financial and humanitarian organizations, all provide a solid framework to enable the Jordanian government to address Jordan’s economic challenges in a constructive way.
Thus, in my prediction, the stability of Jordan is not in jeopardy in the foreseeable future.