On August 13, the Jordanian government lifted its subsidies on wheat. When bread prices immediately doubled, residents of the southern town of Karak demonstrated against the move, calling for a reversal of the policy and the resignation of the prime minister. The protests deteriorated into riots that lasted two days and ended only when the army occupied the town and enforced a strict curfew.

Some 200 people were arrested in connection with the protests. All but about 50 had been released by early October, when the government announced that it was dropping the charges against those remaining in custody. Beginning on the second day of the riots, police targeted and arrested members of various leftist parties. Although the government said that no one will be prosecuted in connection with the riots, officials claimed to have solid evidence that members of the Jordan Arab Social Baath Party incited protest outside the mosque on the first day of the riots. The Baathists denied any role in inciting the riots. Khalil Haddadin, a Baathist member of parliament, said that although some Baath members had indeed taken part in the demonstrations, “Neither our party nor other parties had a role in what happened in the city of Karak.”

The government maintains that it has evidence that Iraq was directly involved in instigating the demonstrations in an attempt to disrupt Jordan’s process of democratic transition. On August 24, Khalid Rashid Muslih, the first secretary to the Iraqi embassy, was denied accreditation by the Jordanian Foreign Ministry and told to leave the country within three days. Government officials said Muslih, who had recently arrived in Amman, was an “Iraqi intelligence officer” who played a role in instigating the riots.

Residents of Karak scoff at the idea of Iraq organizing the protests. They point instead to worsening economic conditions, rising poverty and employment, and failed expectations concerning the economic fruits of the 1994 treaty with Israel. Given that the rioters targeted government buildings such as the Ministry of Education, which had recently raised school fees, the claims of the demonstrators seem plausible. Even if there was outside influence, little encouragement was needed to convince Karak’s residents to protest.

Although the government claims that Iraq and several pro-Iraqi leftist parties were responsible for inciting the demonstrations, the August bread riots represent only the tip of accumulating political and social tensions that have escalated in Jordan over the last few years. Jordan’s International Monetary Fund-sponsored economic reform program has aggravated already poor economic conditions. However, both Jordan’s attempt to repair its relations with Washington and tensions between the government and opposition parties are also key to understanding the demonstrations and the government’s quick and strong-armed response.

Lifting the Subsidies

Jordan’s history of food subsidies began with wheat subsidies in the 1960s. When the Ministry of Supply was created in 1974, it took control of all food subsidies, which were extended that year to include rice and sugar. Milk powder was subsidized in 1980, frozen chicken in 1985. Fodder subsidies were handled by the Cooperative Organization until the early 1990s, when the Ministry of Supply took responsibility. After deciding in 1990 that milk powder and later rice and sugar needed to be rationed, the government introduced a system of food coupons from which only citizens below a certain income threshold could benefit.

By unofficial estimates, in 1995, the government subsidized almost $380 million in food items, including $147 million for wheat products (bread and fodder) alone. [1] Wheat subsidies had recently ballooned due to increases in wheat prices on the international market. According to Prime Minister ‘Abd al-Karim Kabariti, the government budgeted just over $53 million for subsidies. Maintaining the subsidies, he argued, would create a deficit unacceptable to the IMF.

Achieving the minimum goals of the IMF has been a central goal of the Kabariti government. Jordan’s IMF-sponsored economic reform program ends in 1998, by which time Jordan must have implemented certain reforms, one of which is the lifting of subsidies. If it satisfies the IMF, Jordan will become eligible for considerable grants and favorable credit.

By early 1996, all of the requirements of the IMF program had been met except for the lifting of the subsidies. In 1994, the government of ‘Abd al-Salam al-Majali had introduced a 5 percent sales tax; Sharif (now Prince) Zayd bin Shakir’s government doubled that tax and ended the economic boycott of Israel. Kabariti was left with the lifting of the subsidies. In the months preceding the move, the government launched a campaign to educate Jordanians as to the necessity of the measure and to encourage them to reduce what many saw as wastefulness. The country must endure some economic hardship now, Kabariti argued, in order to move toward economic recovery. To demonstrate that the government was doing its part, it announced cuts in its own spending.

Wheat subsidies were lifted on August 13, immediately affecting the prices of all three grades of bread: standard, medium, and superior quality (made from local flour, a mix of local and imported flour, and imported flour, respectively). Prices rose from 12, 17 and 21 cents per kilogram to 25, 31 and 35 cents, respectively.

To offset the economic burden of the lifted subsidies, the government created a subsidy of $1.80 per person per month to be paid directly to the head of each eligible household. For example, a family of six can receive the new subsidy if it has a total income of less than $700 per month. F.or civil servants, the payment was added to paychecks; others could receive the subsidy from any bank.

The day after lifting the subsidies, the first reaction came from the international donor community: An IMF donor meeting in Paris promised more than $1 billion to finance economic projects over the next three years, and Japan began negotiating a $90 million soft loan to finance Jordan’s budget deficit. Domestically, the first few days passed without incident. Officials claimed that they did not expect a repeat of the 1989 protests that rocked the southern city of Ma‘an, following the lifting of petrol subsidies. Unlike then, they argued, Jordan now enjoys a measure of political freedom that allows political expression as an alternative to violent demonstrations. On the third day following the measure, however, the government learned that its efforts to deflate its opposition and to prepare Jordanians for the price increases had not been entirely successful.

Weekend in Karak

After the Friday noon prayer on August 16, more than 1,000 residents of Karak, a town of 25,000 located 55 miles south of Amman, began demonstrating against the lifting of the wheat subsidies. Police used tear gas in an effort to dispel the protesters, who had begun to throw rocks at government buildings. Some demonstrators built roadblocks with barrels and large rocks, while others set fire to several buildings. Crowds chanted “Long live the King, down with Kabariti.” Kabariti is unpopular for pushing forward the IMF economic reform program despite strong opposition in the elected lower house of Parliament.

The immediate response from King Hussein was to condemn the demonstrations as being foreign-orchestrated and to promise to use “an iron fist” against the perpetrators. The king then terminated the extraordinary session of the elected lower house of Parliament. Palace officials insisted that the king had not suspended the parliament, but had simply postponed the session now set to reconvene its next regular session until mid-November, a month late, in order to allow for “a calming of the situation.”

The demonstrations quickly spread to other towns. Protesters in al-Tafila, 30 miles south of Karak, also chanted anti-government slogans and threw rocks until they were dispersed by police patrols and tear gas. In Ma‘an, 60 miles south of Karak and the site of the 1989 riots, more than 300 demonstrators were dispersed similarly. Residents of Hayy al-Tafayla, a neighborhood not far from the Wahdat refugee camp in East Amman, were forced to end a peaceful march when police appeared in full riot gear. Soldiers were positioned outside of Karak, Mazar (ten miles south of Karak), Ma‘an, and al-Tafila, as well as around the refugee camps.

The next day, in a move that even some military officers considered extreme, two dozen armored military vehicles, several helicopters and dozens of troop transporters entered Karak. Demonstrators retreated from the streets but continued to throw stones at soldiers from balconies and roofs. When the streets were clear, the king visited the several hundred soldiers in Karak and gave a short speech that was broadcast on state television. Wearing a military uniform (the king is the supreme commander of the army), he said he was “pained and saddened” by the violence, but equally determined to crush the protest. Soon after his return to Amman, however, new clashes broke out.

The curfew put on Karak on Saturday evening, August 17, was, the next morning, extended indefinitely. Residents were permitted briefly to leave their homes in the morning to buy necessary goods; thereafter, none were not permitted on the streets and all public gatherings were banned. The curfew was not lifted until the army quit Karak on August 25, when the government was confident that the unrest was over.

Toward Democracy?

The August events in Jordan must be seen in the context of broader political changes underway in Jordan. In some ways, the outburst was reminiscent of the riots sparked in Ma‘an in 1989, when the government of Zayd Rifa‘i raised the prices of fuel as part of a newly reached agreement with the IMF to reform the Jordanian economy.

After initially threatening to clamp down on those demonstrations, the king decided to move in the direction of limited political liberalization. Rifa‘i was asked to resign, signaling the beginning a national dialogue that culminated in the signing of the national charter. Effectively a social contract between the palace and the major political trends in the country, the charter allowed for the legalization of political parties and in return the opposition agreed to work within the confines of the Hashemite monarchy.

At the core of the rising discontent is the high political and economic price that Jordan has had to pay to rejoin the pro-Western orbit in the post-Gulf war era. The king’s refusal to join the US-led coalition against Iraq gained him popular support within Jordan, prompting the opposition historically opposed to Western political influence to back his leadership. Jordan quickly felt the repercussions of its pro-Iraqi stance. Foreign aid was cut and the port of ‘Aqaba was blockaded by US-led frigates to prevent supplies from reaching Iraq via the Iraqi-Jordanian border. Although the interceptions were aimed at enforcing UN sanctions against Iraq, the policy inflicted heavy damage on the Jordanian economy.

The administrations of George Bush, and later Bill Clinton, insisted on two demands “to rehabilitate Jordan.” First, the king must sign a peace treaty with Israel, prior to the latter’s agreement to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories. Second, Jordan must assist in efforts to topple Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

Initially, the king insisted that Israel first implement UN Security Council Resolution 242, and he refused to interfere in Iraqi affairs. But the king was repeatedly snubbed by the Saudis and Kuwaitis, who made it extremely difficult for Jordanian land trade to pass into Saudi territory and for Jordanians to work in the Gulf.

With the 1993 Oslo accords, the palace realized that the PLO’s unilateral agreement might force other parties to accept Israeli and American terms. At a meeting with Jordanian journalists in September 1993, Crown Prince Hasan presented a gloomy assessment of the Oslo deal, reiterating that no agreements should be reached with Israel prior to an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the Occupied Territories.

Less than two weeks later, the King surprised many of his ministers by announcing that Jordan’s survival depended on securing Western interests. In an historic decision, he stated that Jordan could free itself from the tension that has strained its political system and economy through full peace with Israel. The move was perhaps the culmination of a strategy of rapprochement that began just one year after the Gulf war, when the king hired a group of American lawyers and former diplomats to lobby Washington on Jordan’s behalf. At home, pressure to comply with Washington’s wishes was creating strain among the king’s aides and ministers. Some felt that Jordan should not base its fate on an alliance with the United States and Israel. Others, including a new generation of politicians that had emerged since 1989, felt that Jordan should not be constrained by what it considered “unattainable Arab nationalist dreams.” This latter group gained strength among Jordanians disappointed that the PLO had compromised Palestinian rights.

In 1994, under the government of ‘Abd al-Salam al-Majali, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel. The government proclaimed a new era of economic prosperity, avoiding reference to the political implications of the treaty. At the same time, the king continued to rebuild Jordan’s relations with Washington, giving the appearance that the government and the palace were not in tune regarding policy toward Iraq and peace with Israel. Many ministers refused to meet with their Israeli counterparts and were critical of the fast rate of normalization and the growing official intolerance of dissent. Minister of State for Prime Ministerial Affairs Ibrahim ‘Izz al-Din resigned in the summer of 1995 over precisely these two issues. Bin Shakir refused to implicate himself in statements concerning Jordan’s intervention in Iraq, even after the king granted asylum to Saddam’s sons-in-law in July 1995. The one exception to this cautious position was Kabariti, then foreign minister, whose statements closely reflected palace positions.

With Kabariti’s appointment as prime minister in February 1996, the king ended the conflict between the palace and the government. Discontent and opposition mounted as Kabariti aggressively implemented Jordan’s new policies. The promise of political openness and power sharing with the parliament was wearing thin, and Kabariti forged ahead toward solidifying Jordan’s position as a reliable US ally, ignoring the strong opposition voiced by the elected members of Parliament.

Exploiting the Riots

It is within this political climate — characterized by decreased dialogue between the elected parliament and the palace, by the king’s commitment toward rapprochement with Washington and the isolation of Iraq, by increasing economic hardships, and by concern over the rapidly concluded peace with Israel — that the August bread riots must be understood. When the demonstrations turned violent, the government sought to lay blame outside of Jordan and thereby downplay the extent of domestic dissent. Iraq proved a convenient target. The king was able to placate opposition to the CIA-backed anti-Iraqi groups that recently emerged in Amman and to demonstrate Jordan’s new commitment to US interests. The idea that Iraq was behind the riots did not seem unreasonable. Many of the opposition leaders in Karak were educated in Iraq and were members of the Baathist party. Instead of addressing the real political problems, the king used the riots as a pretext to cancel the extraordinary session of the elected parliament and to arrest and harass political activists and journalists.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the riots is the government’s exploitation of the situation to further foreign policy goals and crack down on certain opposition parties. The speed with which the session of Parliament was suspended supports the claim made by opposition parties that the government is less than committed to continuing democratization. Even some of the king’s former aides are concerned that the government is closing all vents to dissent, a move that may compound the effect of the economic hardship and create fertile soil for instability.


[1] Jordan Times, August 14, 1996.

How to cite this article:

Lamis Andoni, Jillian Schwedler "Bread Riots in Jordan," Middle East Report 201 (Winter 1996).

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