Amman (AFP) – From doctors to lawyers, teachers and architects, when angry Jordanians stood up to the government over austerity measures and the rising cost of living, the struggling middle class was at the forefront.
In some of the biggest economic protests to shake the resource-poor kingdom in years, several thousand demonstrators flooded the streets each night for a week calling for the withdrawal of an IMF-backed income tax bill.
“In other countries, protest movements like this may seem ordinary, but in Jordan publicly opposing power is a true act of bravery,” said Rahme Jaafar, who did not miss a single demonstration.
The 24-year-old business administration graduate works for an NGO but does odd jobs on the side to get by.
She will forgo the traditional big party when she soon marries and hopes to move with her future husband into a small apartment in a working-class district in northern Amman.
“It doesn’t matter — we didn’t want to start our life together in debt,” she said.
Her fiance Mohammed Hassan, 23, works 12 hours a day as a chef in a restaurant but his salary is not enough to make ends meet.
“During the weekends I give diving or climbing lessons,” he said.
“Jordan’s youth have enormous ability, but our dreams are crushed and we’re pushed to emigrate.”
– ‘Work is scarce’ –
Jordan has seen repeated price rises including for staples such as bread, deepening economic gloom in the arid, landlocked country blighted by a jobless rate of 18.5 percent.
Around 70 percent of the population is aged under 30.
The income tax bill that stoked public anger was the latest in a series of austerity measures to cut national debt since Amman secured a $723-million loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2016.
While Jordan’s poor suffer the most, the middle class is also facing growing hardship.
Doctors, lawyers and teachers were in the vanguard of a general strike held last week in parallel with the demonstrations.
The social unrest led to the resignation of the prime minister and the withdrawal of the tax bill in a victory for demonstrators, but the debt-laden country still faces major challenges.
Majd Jabali had to stop studying and start working to provide for his family after his father’s business collapsed in 2012.
“I did all kinds of odd jobs and for a few years I’ve been a driver for foreign tourists but in the low season work is scarce,” the 29-year-old said.
He rents a car to work 14 hours a day as an Uber driver in Amman.
After the rental cost, he takes home about 15 dinars ($21) each evening, a pittance in a city ranked the Arab world’s most expensive in terms of cost of living in a recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
He doesn’t think about the future much anymore.
“My priority now is to provide for my parents and siblings.”
– ‘Empty pockets’ –
Mohammed Khalil Tahbub, who is in his 60s, has seen the property company that he created more than two decades ago wither in the harsh economic climate.
“The real estate sector has experienced a marked recession in recent years. Since 2014 I’ve been selling almost nothing,” he told AFP as he toured one of his apartments for sale.
Only two of 10 apartments have sold in the building aimed at low-income households that he built in 2016, even though “we offer knockdown prices among the cheapest in the capital,” he said.
“People have nothing left in their pockets and the banks are no longer giving out loans.
“When citizens can no longer afford basic necessities, how can they hope to buy an apartment?” said Tahbub, who took part in two general strikes this month called by trade unions.
Maysun al-Khuraysat, an architect, also joined in the strikes because “it’s not normal that taxes are so high” with hardly anything to show for it in education, health or transportation.
The mother-of-two in her 30s started her own business a year ago but is finding it tough, especially because of what she called the “excessive” tax burden.
“When I started a family with my husband we had all kinds of dreams. Today all that’s been put on hold,” she said.