By Suleiman al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) – Several thousand Jordanians protested on Friday over soaring food prices and the erosion of living conditions, blaming corruption spawned by free-market reforms for the plight of the country’s poor.
Islamists, left wing and trade unions activists marched through the old downtown of the city chanting “The government is eating our flesh … O Samir (Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai), you have slaughtered us with high prices. You have left us broke.”
The 5,000-strong march was largest so far after several smaller protests last week, inspired by Tunisia, to try to force authorities to roll back austerity steps such as higher taxes imposed to repair public finances that have been severely strained by the global financial crisis.
Hundreds of members of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, chanted: “O people of Jordan revolt against poverty and hunger,” “The government must leave” and “No to theft of the country.”
Many Jordanians hold successive governments responsible for a prolonged recession and rising public debt that hit a record $15 billion (9 billion pounds) this year in one of the Arab world’s smaller economies that is heavily dependent on foreign aid.
“Successive governments have sought to compensate for the rising debt caused by corruption from the pockets of people,” Abdul Hadi Falahat, head of the powerful opposition dominated professional unions told crowds in the event.
“These policies have led to the impoverishment of Jordanians and widespread corruption and the squandering of public funds,” said Falahat, whose 130,000 members belong to 14 professional unions, including doctors and engineers.
Rifai, under fire from an enraged public over high food prices, announced wage increases on Thursday to civil servants and the military in an apparent attempt to calm the protests.
Rifai also pledged no new taxes this year to cushion ordinary Jordanians from the rising cost of living — a burden on the already cash strapped budget, whose deficit is expected to reach $1.4 billion (875.6 million pounds) this year.
The government already allocates hundreds of millions of dinars to various subsidies, from food to water and electricity, as a safety net against rising global food and energy costs in a country almost entirely dependent on imports.
And just days after the unrest in Tunis and Algeria over soaring prices and unemployment, Jordan hastily announced a $225 million (140 million pounds) package of cuts in the prices of several fuels and staple products, including sugar and rice sold in government run outlets.
In another policy reversal, the government promised to open jobs in some state sectors to ease unemployment after an earlier freeze on hiring to cut waste within a bloated public sector, where salaries eat up the bulk of an $8.8 billion (5.5 billion pounds) budget.
“We want solutions that go to the root of problems not piecemeal measures. The outcome of unbridled free market reforms and privatisation has been poverty and widening disparity in wealth and deepening frustrations,” said Amjad Majali, a deputy from the southern city of Karak, who attended the march.
(Editing by Alison Williams)