Amman: Protests erupted in Jordan’s capital Amman and provincial towns after the government cut fuel subsidies in a move to secure a $2 billion IMF loan but which sent fuel prices soaring.
More than 1,000 people spilled into the streets in the capital Amman late on Tuesday and smaller protests erupted in several provincial towns after Islamist and tribal opposition groups said they would demonstrate.
Protesters blamed Jordan’s problems on King Abdullah II, who has the final say in all civic matters. They also demanded the resignation of the prime minister, a top aide of the king. They chanted against the king and the powerful intelligence forces in slogans that personally target the monarch and were unheard of before the wave of Arab Spring-inspired protests hit the kingdom early last year.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour’s announcement on state TV cited a need to offset $5 billion in state losses from a rising fuel bill.
“Freedom, freedom, down with Abdullah,” young men chanted at the main Dakhiliyah square in the heart of Amman as angry crowds denounced the widely expected price hikes.
At least two Jordanian policemen were seriously injured when they were shot by demonstrators in Irbid protesting the government’s decision to lift subsidies on fuel, the Middle East News Agency reported, without saying how it obtained the information.
The news sparked protests in the capital, Amman, and at least 12 other cities across Jordan.
“Revolution, revolution, it is a popular revolution,” chanted about 2,000 protesters in an impromptu demonstration at a main Amman square, housing the Interior Ministry and other vital government departments.
The protesters - affiliated with Muslim, Arab nationalist, Marxist, Communist and youth opposition groups - also targeted Abdullah in a rare public display against the monarch. Criticizing the king in public is forbidden in Jordan and is punishable by up to three years in jail.
“Freedom is from God, in spite of you, Abdullah,” they shouted.
Hours later, about two dozen protesters tried to take down a street portrait of the king hung on a billboard, but riot police encircled it, preventing the protesters from reaching it.
Authorities bolstered security across the country that is a crossroads in the Middle East, bordering Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, the West Bank and Israel.
But unlike pro-democracy Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations in neighbouring countries that have turned violent, Jordan has not recorded a single death in nearly two years of peaceful protests.
Elsewhere in the country, scattered protests went off peacefully but a petrol station was burnt by angry youths in the country’s second largest northern city of Irbid.
The move announced by the cabinet and which takes effect after midnight is the first major rise in petrol prices since street protests early last year, inspired by the wave of Arab unrest, pushed Jordanian authorities to expand social spending and freeze major fuel price hikes.
The price rises range from more than 50 per cent for bottled gas used for cooking, 33 per cent for diesel and kerosene for transport and heating and 14 percent on lower grade petrol.
The government, mindful of public fury that exploded into street clashes in the depressed south of the country after price hikes in 1989 and 1996, had been reluctant to raise fuel prices.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour warned the mainstream Islamist opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest political party, against exploiting the price rises to agitate. He also said that the price hikes were unavoidable.
“If the move was delayed we would have faced a catastrophe and insolvency,” he said in an interview with state television.
Most of the tribal and Islamist opposition has demanded faster reforms but does not seek the toppling of King Abdullah.
He is seen as an arbiter among competing tribes and a unifying force in a population divided between native Jordanians and a majority of citizens of Palestinian origin.
The budget deficit is forecast to rise to $3.5 billion this year, Ensour added, without saying how much would be saved by cutting the subsidies. Jordan had been spending $2.3 billion annually on subsidies, almost a quarter of its annual budget.
“The fiscal situation of the kingdom had been heavily impacted by the Arab Spring,” Ensour said.
The bombing of a pipeline bringing Egyptian gas has forced Jordan to switch to costlier fuels for power generation and Saudi Arabia declined this year to repeat its payment of a $1.4 billion cash injection to stop the economy heading to the brink of collapse.
Jordan hopes the subsidy cuts will show its commitment to fiscal consolidation and win support from the International Monetary Fund, Western and Arab aid, and help it to tap capital markets in a Eurobond issue.
Economists have said Jordan’s ability to maintain a costly subsidy system and a bloated state bureaucracy, whose salaries consume the bulk of state expenditure, was increasingly untenable in the absence of large foreign capital inflows or infusions of foreign aid.