AMMAN — Jordanians staged scattered protests and work stoppages on Wednesday, a day after hikes in fuel prices triggered rioting in several cities and rekindled fears of deepening unrest in this strategically vital U.S. ally.
At least 14 people were reported injured in clashes overnight as protesters set fire to cars and gas stations and damaged at least one government building in a provincial town. The disturbances were the worst in Jordan since the start of the Arab Spring movement nearly two years ago.
The demonstrations began within hours after the government announced that it was rolling back subsidies for several fuel products, from gasoline to the propane used by Jordanians for heating their homes and cooking, a move that sent prices soaring by 15 to 33 percent. Some protesters chanted slogans calling for the ouster of King Abdullah II, an unusual occurrence in a country whose monarch traditionally has enjoyed widespread support.
Security officials blamed the unrest in part on the country’s Muslim Brotherhood, accusing leaders of the religious movement of cynically exploiting discontent over higher prices.
“This was not spontaneous,” said a government security official, insisting on anonymity in discussing internal assessments about the protests. “The Muslim Brother had a plan and they were well-organized. For them, it is a gift from heaven.”
The subsidy rollback was the latest in a long series of economic shocks to Jordan, a resource-poor country that has suffered from both higher global petroleum prices and multiple supply disruptions since the start of Arab Spring. Jordan has long subsidized fuel costs for ordinary citizens, but government officials and private analysts say the practice was no longer sustainable, given Amman’s multibillion-dollar budget deficit.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour, in an interview Tuesday with Jordanian television, described the country’s financial situation as “very critical,” adding that subsidies should have been slashed years ago. He announced a new program to provide additional compensation to poorer Jordanians to help them cope with higher fuel costs.
“My duties towards the country have forced me to lift the subsidy in order to avoid a financial crisis,” he explained.
His appeals appeared to have scant effect. Within hours after the announcement of subsidy cuts, protests broke out in Amman, the capital, as well as provincial cities Karak, Maan and Irbil, where throngs of demonstrators blocked traffic and chanted slogans. Violence broke out in several locations as protesters set fires to buildings and property and, in at least one instance, sought to tear down a large portrait of the king. Among the 14 injured were 10 police officers, according to security officials and news reports.
In Amman, the streets were largely calm Wednesday after police dispersed a small group of demonstrators in front of the Interior Ministry building. Small protests were reported in several Jordanian towns on Wednesday, and unions for teachers and taxi drivers ordered their members to stay home in a general work stoppage.
Law-enforcement officials said they expected the protests to peak Friday, as organizers were calling for mass demonstrations following Friday prayer services. They predicted a gradual return to calm after that, despite a vow by some protesters to continue until the subsidy decision is reversed.
Jordan, a close ally to the United States and one of only two Arab states to sign peace accords with Israel, has been largely spared the kind of upheaval that has shaken countries throughout the Middle East since last 2011. Despite worsening economic conditions and discontent over official corruption, many ordinary Jordanians appear to prefer their country’s relative stability over the chaos and violence that have swept Egypt and Syria, their neighbors to the south and north. But a small but persistent band of protesters have been holding weekly rallies complaining of official corruption and the slow pace of political reform, and Oct. 5, a crowd said to number in the tens of thousands marched through central Amman in the largest showing by opposition forces to date. That protest ended peacefully, though supporters said the size of the demonstration suggested deepening discontent among Jordanians.
Government officials in interviews acknowledged the toll of rising prices on the national mood, but noted that protests have been mild compared to anti-austerity demonstrations in several European countries this week. But they also acknowledged that the unrest had presented an opening to Islamists who would like to see the country’s pro-Western government overturned.
“They [the Islamists] are exploiting a sensitive issue,” the government security official said, “and they are managing to convince some people.”