WED 19 - 6 - 2019
Date: Jun 4, 2018
Source: The Daily Star
Jordanians protest for fifth day over tax hikes
BEIRUT: Thousands of Jordanians took to the streets for a fifth night Sunday to demonstrate against proposed tax hikes, in the biggest anti-government rallies since 2011.

Protesters demand that the government step down, with anger stoked by recent fuel price increases and subsidy cuts.

Western supporters of the kingdom view signs of social unrest with concern. Jordan is a key military ally, including in the fight against Islamic militants.

Ali Ibrahim joined the throngs to protest against the government, which he said wanted to raise prices and taxes to raise funds instead of dealing with corruption. He said that by 10 p.m. roughly 2,000 people could be seen marching around the city’s 4th circle area.

“The government has been raising prices for everything, without improving any of the country’s poor services in return,” he told The Daily Star from Amman via WhatsApp.

Urging King Abdullah II to sack Prime Minister Hani Mulki, protesters waved Jordanian flags and sang anti-government slogans.

Police have been accused of dealing with protesters heavy-handedly since the rallies begun Wednesday, and many fear that they will become more violent as the numbers swell.

“So far protesters have been peaceful, they’re singing chants, but yesterday police used smoke and psychical violence against us,” said another protester at the rally who asked to be kept anonymous for fear of reprisals from her place of work.

Ali Abous, head of an umbrella group for 15 unions and professional group with half a million members, called for a one-day strike Wednesday. Jordan’s senate had convened earlier in the day to discuss “ways of dealing with draft law ... in the interest of all parties,” the official Petra news agency said.

Senate speaker Faisal al-Fayez there was a need for “comprehensive national dialogue” on the law, echoing an earlier call by King Abdullah.

He said the government should “balance economic challenges and pressures with the interests of different social sectors,” but cautioned against violence and called on authorities to bring “troublemakers” to justice.

Since January, Jordan, which suffers from high unemployment and has few natural resources, has seen repeated price rises including on staples such as bread, as well as extra taxes on basic goods.

The price of fuel has risen on five occasions since the beginning of the year, while electricity bills have shot up 55 percent since February.

Last month, the government proposed a new income tax law, yet to be approved by parliament, aimed at raising taxes on employees by at least five percent and on companies by between 20 and 40 percent.

The measures are the latest in a series of economic reforms since Amman secured a $723 million three-year credit line from the International Monetary Fund in 2016.

Protests have gripped the country since Wednesday when hundreds responded to a call by trade unions and flooded the streets of Amman and other cities to protest against the proposed tax hike, and to call for the Prime Minister’s resignation.

According to official estimates, 18.5 percent of the population is unemployed, while 20 percent are on the brink of poverty.

The Economist Intelligence Unit earlier this year ranked Jordan’s capital as one of the most expensive in the Arab world.

“The popular movement ... has surprised the government,” Adel Mahmoud, a Jordanian political analyst, told AFP.

Discontent could “snowball ... triggering a domestic crisis,” he said, adding that he expected protests to continue until demands are met.

Jordan, a key U.S. ally, has largely avoided the unrest witnessed by other countries in the region since the Arab Spring revolts broke out in 2011, although protests did flare late that year after the government cut fuel subsidies.

But the country has long played host to refugees from neighboring Iraq, and according to government figures, more than a million people have fled to Jordan from Syria’s devastating 7-year-old war, further straining its struggling economy. Amman has repeatedly urged international donors to provide extra funds to help it host them.

Mulki Saturday met with trade union representatives who demanded the income tax law be revoked, but they failed to reach an agreement.

The head of Jordan’s federation of unions, Ali Obus, demanded the state “maintain its independence and not bow to IMF demands.”

King Abdullah Saturday called on Parliament to lead a “comprehensive and reasonable national dialogue” on the new tax law. “It would not be fair that the citizen alone bears the burden of financial reforms,” he told officials.

The IMF says the loan aims at slashing Jordan’s public debt from about 94 percent of GDP to 77 percent by 2021, according to its website.

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