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Friday, 28 June, 2002, 18:33 GMT 19:33 UK
Hunger-strike dissident vows to fight on
Rooftop view of Jordan
Unemployment levels in Jordan are high
Jordan's first woman MP has been freed from prison after a 29 day hunger strike to protest about higher car insurance fees which, she says, hurt the country's poorest people. She spoke to BBC News Online.

When Toujan Al-Faisal was freed by royal pardon, she had lost 12 kilos (1 st 12 lb) in less than a month, but she was determined to walk out of hospital on her daughter's arm.

Half the taxi-drivers are almost unemployed

Toujan Al-Faisal

"I refused a wheelchair because I don't like the look, the attitude of weakness," she says.

How did the apparently mundane issue of vehicle insurance lead to an 18-month jail term for slandering the state?

Ms Al-Faisal says she was championing the cause of impoverished taxi-drivers against Jordan's commercial elite.

High profile critic

Her outspokenness has long made her a controversial figure in Jordan.

Toujan Faisal
Toujan Al-Faisal before her hunger strike

A feminist and anti-corruption campaigner, Ms Al-Faisal, was the first woman elected to Jordan's parliament in 1993, though she lost her seat four years later in 1997.

She was imprisoned in mid-May after the state security court ruled she had published "lies that hurt the state's integrity and honour".

The case centred on an open letter to the King in which she accused the government of corruption over a decision to double the cost of the cheapest, compulsory level of car insurance.

The details of her allegations centred on the business interests of Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb and his family.

'Still guilty'

The chief judge said her language and comments had "exceeded the boundaries of acceptable criticism".

Tourism is an important industry

King Abdullah II's decision to pardon her after protests by civil rights groups does not wipe out her conviction, says Omar Nahar, a spokesman for the Jordanian Embassy in London.

"The lady was sentenced and instead of just serving the whole term his majesty saw fit that she should not serve the full term.

"She did receive a fair trial as far as the Jordanian law is concerned," he says.

"They should be cancelling the verdict because it was wrong right from the beginning," says Ms Al-Faisal.

Desperate drivers

Her campaign has raised issues about the poverty reduction strategies set out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

King Abdullah
King Abdullah is seen as a reformer

About 15% of Jordan's five million people are unemployed, according to official figures, but most commentators agree the real level of joblessness could be closer to 30%.

It is difficult to determine the exact number because many people do only casual work.

Ms Al-Faisal points out that it is people such as these who have to taken to driving taxis: "Half the taxi-drivers are almost unemployed. It is the poorest sector."

And she says it includes tens of thousands of families who are affected by the higher car insurance.

Growth strategies

Nonetheless, Jordan has become a success story in the eyes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. In 2000, it gained entry to the World Trade Organisation.

Over the last four years, Jordan has raised almost $1bn (0.65bn) by selling off stakes in state firms to foreign investors to meet fiscal efficiency targets set out by the IMF.

The deals with major French and US firms covered telecoms, cement, water and railways.

Even in the US, they support some sectors and they have social insurance which we don't have

Toujan Al-Faisal

Jordan's government has used the revenues to cut subsidies to inefficient state enterprises, rationalise the budget, raise taxes and increase foreign exchange reserves.

Some analysts think the government has overspent on construction projects, building homes for the military and paying off foreign debt.

"They should have invested these revenues in projects aimed at creating jobs and reducing unemployment," said Jordan University economics professor Munir Hamarneh in an interview with Agence France Presse last summer.

The IMF wants Jordan to balance the budget "and you could do it other ways," says Ms Faisal, who favours more small scale development projects.


She also believes aid for the poorest Jordanians deserves more attention: "Even in the US, they support some sectors and they have social insurance which we don't have."

Rapidly rising tensions between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank could dampen economic recovery in neighbouring Jordan.

Jordan's finance minister, Michel Marto, said last September that friction between the two sides was hampering growth rates, which have topped 3% for three years.

"We are doing well despite the Intifada but the Intifada has cost Jordan over 1% easily," he said.

Ms Al-Faisal continues to believe corruption is costing Jordan "billions" of dollars and should be tackled: "One of the basic demands of the IMF and World Bank is transparency and stopping corruption".

She plans to run for parliament again. "I feel my country is sinking and I'm not going to leave the world leaving my country in this condition to my children and grandchildren and the children of Jordan."

See also:

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