KARAK, Jordan (Reuters) - Food price protests sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East reached Jordan on Friday, when hundreds of protesters chanted slogans against Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai in the southern city of Karak.
The peaceful protest was held despite hastily announced government measures to curb commodity and fuel prices. Similar demonstrations were held in three other towns and cities across the country, witnesses said.
“We are protesting the policies of the government — high prices and repeated taxation that made the Jordanian people revolt,” Tawfiq al-Batoush, a former head of Karak municipality, told Reuters at the protest outside Karak’s Al Omari mosque.
Three days ago, after riots in Algeria and Tunisia over high prices, unemployment and falling living standards, Jordan announced a $225 million (141 million pounds) package of cuts in the prices of some types of fuel and of staple products including sugar and rice.
Other Arab countries have taken similar steps. Libya abolished taxes and customs duties on food products and Morocco offered compensation to importers of soft milling wheat to keep supplies stable after a surge in grain prices.
“The government measures were window dressing,” said Dergham Halassa, one of the organisers of the Karak protest. “...In the Arab context we are all the same. We are all living under repressive rulers.”
Around 300 to 400 protesters joined the demonstration outside Karak’s al Omari mosque and witnesses reported similar numbers in the capital Amman and the northern town of Irbid, while about 200 people protested in the Dhiban, south of Amman.
All the protests were organised by a group of small leftist and Baathist parties. Jordan’s more powerful Islamist opposition was not involved but plans a sit-in in front of the parliament building on Sunday.
Khaled al-Majali said the Karak demonstration was aimed at government economic policies which “decimated the middle class and are impoverishing people.”
Disaffection in Karak, a desert town about 100 km (60 miles) south of Amman, reflects a broader anger in rural districts which feel they have missed out as investment poured into the capital in recent years.
Jordan’s economic downturn has also weakened the state’s ability to create jobs in a public sector that traditionally absorbed poor tribesmen in rural and Bedouin areas.
“We are calling for the departure of Samir Rifai’s government and a government of national unity, not a government of Amman corporations,” Majali said.
Jordan’s budget deficit hit a record $2 billion in 2009, 9 percent of GDP, as public finances came under strain after the global downturn. The deficit is expected to narrow to 5 percent of GDP this year as tough spending cuts take effect.
The kingdom had experienced civil unrest in the past over fuel price hikes and attempts to end bread subsidies. The government has already allocated 170 million dinars in the 2011 budget to subsidise bread, on which many poor in the country of 7 million people depend, officials said.
Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Tim Pearce