Page last updated at 16:37 GMT, Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Tunisia political turmoil inspires Jordan protesters

Watch Tim Whewell's film from Jordan in full

By Tim Whewell
BBC Newsnight, Jordan

Retired colonel Mohammed al-Btoush is not a natural rebel. For nearly two decades he served loyally in the Jordanian armed forces.

He is a fierce patriot and supporter of the Hashemite monarchy.

He never expected to be involved in politics. But now he is part of a committee of retired officers that is publicly urging Jordan's rulers to make urgent reforms - before it is too late.

Female protester in Jordan
We are very proud of what Tunisians did in their country and we wish to do the same here in Jordan
Jordanian protester

The former generals and colonels were worried even before the popular uprising that drove the Tunisian president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, from power earlier this month.

Now they fear a similar revolt in Jordan.

"This spark is started," he says. "We cannot control this spark. It is like a gas cylinder, a bomb. If you keep pressurising it, it will burst. So we don't know what will happen in the future. But we are worried for our country, for our leadership."

Jordan, with its population of just six million, its well-respected monarchy and comparatively wide range of political and social freedoms, has long been seen as one of the most stable of Arab states.

But the last two weeks have shown that the Tunisian revolution, which has sent shock waves right across the Arab world, has had an impact here too.

Widespread poverty

Many of the economic problems that drove Tunisians onto the streets are also felt by Jordanians. Unemployment is officially about 14%, but some estimates put it closer to 30%.

Prices have been rising fast, and the capital, Amman, is said to be the most expensive city in the Arab world - though one in four Jordanians lives below the official poverty line.

Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Jordan
Jordan's Islamists have historically avoided challenges to the monarchy

As the Tunisian uprising gathered pace, the Jordanian government announced a $169m (£107m) package of price subsidies.

But that was not enough to prevent thousands of people marching through the streets of Amman and other towns on 14 January, and again a week later.

They called for the resignation of Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai, a further lowering of prices and an end to high-level corruption.

But the demand for political reform of Jordan's "managed democracy" was not far below the surface.

"We are very proud of what Tunisians did in their country and we wish to do the same here in Jordan. Because we want to feel that we are free," one woman demonstrator told us.

The protests were good natured. The police even handed out bottles of water to demonstrators. But the political stakes were raised with the involvement in last Friday's march of the Islamic Action Front, representing the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful organised opposition group in the country.

Monarchy targeted

Jordan's Islamists have in the past usually avoided direct challenges to the monarchy. But since the Tunisian revolution, they have demanded that Jordan's government should be elected and not appointed, as now, by the king.

Defaced poster of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
Many are asking whether Tunisia's unrest will trigger a domino effect

"He should respect the rights of his people," Brotherhood member Nawaf Obaidat said.

"We do not want to overthrow the king, but we want everything to go in the right way."

The scale of the discontent in Jordan is apparent in Karak, an ancient Crusader town in the desert south of Amman.

It is a stronghold of Arab tribes traditionally loyal to the monarchy, who provide much of the backbone of the intelligence services and armed forces.

But it is also home to several of the retired officers who wrote the unprecedented open letter against the government, including Colonel al-Btoush.

And while their concern is to prevent a popular explosion, others are more openly angry.

The traditional leader of one village outside the town, Sheikh Musleh Muhammad Omar Adaileh, told us that three of his nine university-educated children had no work at all, while others were unable to get jobs to fit their qualifications, working instead for example as truck drivers.

Speaking of Jordan's elite, he said: "Their children have jobs, because they have millions, they have companies, while we don't have anything."

Call for respect

Concern about corruption has increased in recent years as many of Jordan's main utilities and industries - potash, cement, and others - have been privatised.

But, as in Tunisia, the greatest anger seems to be provoked by the perceived arrogance of the ruling class towards ordinary people.

"We want dignity," says Mustafa Rawashdeh, a former headmaster in Karak who was sacked for trying to form a teachers' union.

"When someone cannot express their opinion, when he is not treated as a real partner in society, then where is his dignity?"

But Jordan's Deputy Prime Minister Ayman al-Safadi told us: "You have economic pain, which we are trying to address, and you have political groups jumping on that and trying to serve their own political agendas. Jordan is a free country and people have a right to protest."

Referring to Col al-Btoush's committee, he said: "They are a group not exceeding 300 out of 150,000 retired officers who certainly do not share their views. People are free to speak, but do they represent society?"

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