Once again, Jordan’s government is left with no other option to solve its accumulated economic woes but through its citizens’ “empty pockets.”
It seems inevitable that the government of Jordan’s strongman Abdullah Ensour will increase prices of domestic, industrial and commercial electricity, paying little attention or no attention at all to the possible risks posed by such a taboo-like decision that has always been avoided by former premiers who had very few options too.
If it were not 100 percent sure of the impossibility of security events that could accompany the new hikes, or at least marginal ones here and there that can be easily controlled, similar to those that erupted when subsidies on fuel products were removed in 2012, the government would never take such a decision.
Public anger prevails
Right after lifting subsidies on fuel derivatives in November 2012, during Ensour’s first premiership, public anger prevailed in the resource-limited kingdom, with thousands of Jordanians taking to the street and raising unprecedented slogans against the leadership, to the point where many observers predicted a new Arab Spring uprising.
But nothing like that happened. Jordan, which was seen at the time as officially joining the “Arab Spring club,” surprisingly restored its calm in just a matter of few days not at all because of the government’s appealing cause but because of Jordanians’ unwillingness to sacrifice the security of their country for the sake of extra dinars.
Again this time, Jordanians are not expected to boil the already-boiling street and would show restraint and reason after electricity prices are increased, deeply out of security concerns, especially with the situation in the neighboring Syria turning into dismaying civil war.
The uneasy Ensour
Before going back to the electricity issue, I have to admit - and many would agree with me – that Ensour is among the most controversial premiers throughout Jordan’s history.
He is disliked yet un-abhorred. He is perceived by many as “hyper- liberal” - at times as ruthless - taking the country to the unknown. He is also seen as daring, cunning and resourceful by many others who see wisdom and reason in the former outspoken MP.
For many opponents of Ensour – probably including myself – it is better not to listen to his explanations of policies because you may get easily convinced.
Now back to the electricity matter. Ensour has been pledging that the decision to increase electricity prices will not go into effect unless fully deliberated and ultimately approved with the Lower House.
The cunning Ensour is fully aware of the sensitivity of the electricity prices and thus seeks the approval of the House representatives though he knows that such a decision is within the executive authority’s absolute jurisdiction.
So much related to the premier’s insistence to go to the House is his deep conviction that the decision is more political rather than economic.
But would it be possible for Ensour, defied boldly by influential MPs unhappy about their exclusion from his “parliamentary government,” to pass the decision? It seems so.
A considerable number of deputies have signed a memorandum recently, threatening to move ahead with a motion of no confidence in Ensour’s government if it fails to expel the Israeli ambassador from Jordan. The memo was withdrawn anyway shortly afterwards.
Presenting the government’s rationale behind increasing the electricity prices, Ensour has been explaining that it is all meant to address the National Electric Power Company’s (NEPCO) annual deficit of around $1.7 billion.
In more than one time and place, Ensour has said that his government will suggest in the House solutions to NEPCO’s deficit and will not take any decision to increase electricity prices until providing MPs with all the facts and figures about the company’s annual losses, which he blamed on the electricity subsidy.
The financial difficulties were increased by the disruption in Egyptian gas supplies as a result of frequent sabotages on the pipeline and then Cairo’s decision to lower quantities sold to Jordan below levels stipulated by a deal signed between the two countries.
Egyptian gas was used to generate 80 per cent of the kingdom’s electricity needs. The alternative has been reliance on the costly fuel oil.
The perplexed Lower House
The newly-elected MPs, who have been trying regain Jordanians’ lost confidence in the capability – actually legitimacy – of consecutives legislatures and the long-held perception of lawmakers as controlled or subjugated by the executive authority, would find themselves hopeless, powerless and perplexed when unable to provide convincing alternatives.
Enough is enough. Let governments rely no longer on Jordanians’ patience and their security concerns to justify decisionsRaed Omari
They may press for adopting a progressive tax system, increasing mining fees, cutting down public expenditures, among others but, economically speaking, such future solutions are not that much rewarding, taking into consideration the urgency of the fiscal dilemma.
They will be definitely torn between approving - or obeying – the government and showing themselves to be champions of the public cause as representatives of the people.
With deputies’ perplexity and Ensour’s determinedness, the situation will be very complicated, turning into a struggle to save the people or save the country, or both.
But Ensour is expected to win as he has nothing to lose, but his adversaries have. In more than one occasion, he made it clear that he seeks no popularity and if it were his aim, he would not take such a risky decision. Plus, he has been in senior positions for decades, culminating his public service with two premiership terms.
However, popularity matters a lot for deputies, at least many of them, who seek re-election.
To sum it up, Ensour knows that deputies have no convincing answers to the NEPCO’s increasing woes - they may provide temporal solutions – and that what makes him unhesitant to consult them. He is also confident of the impossibility – or at least low probability – of any public escalation after the new hikes.
No matter what, Ensour is seemingly determined to increase prices of electricity.
Jordanians in the middle
Between the determined government and the uncertain MPs, there are the financially-troubled and security-concerned Jordanians.
For a considerable period of time, a large segment of Jordanian society has been going through difficult financial circumstances resulting primarily from the lack of vision of consecutive governments and their inability to find a sustainable solution to the country’s economic woes, chiefly the energy dilemma.
For a country like Jordan, among the highest in the world in dependency on foreign energy sources and with no natural resources or very limited resources, investments in solar or wind energy could have helped immensely in addressing the oil dilemma. However, until very recently, no such investments has been made.
Many Jordanians believe that their country has oil and natural gas which is not being used due to political considerations, this is not based in scientific fact, of course, rather gossip and “conspiracy theories.”
Until recently, Jordan’s consecutive governments have never considered building liquefied gas terminals to diversify its natural gas importation and decrease heavy reliance on Egypt as if the population in the largest Arab country will not increase along with energy demand.
Enough is enough. Let governments rely no longer on Jordanians’ patience and their security concerns to justify decisions which are not only the result of political and economic circumstances but have to do more with always resorting to “reaction rather than action.”
Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2