Discontent in the Middle East

Jordan, like Egypt, faces protests, poverty

Stephen Beard Feb 8, 2011
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Discontent in the Middle East

Jordan, like Egypt, faces protests, poverty

Stephen Beard Feb 8, 2011
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Cairo once again today. It’s the biggest reminder so far that the government’s offers of reform aren’t enough.

The protests against poverty and corruption and economic disadvantage that started in Tunisia are spreading — to Jordan most recently, even though King Abdullah has fired the cabinet and promised changes. Marketplace’s Stephen Beard is in Amman, the capital city. Hello Stephen.

Stephen Beard: Hello Kai.

Ryssdal: What’s the sense you get when you’re out and about on the streets of Amman?

Beard: Well, on the surface it seems very calm. There have been a lot of protests here, but none of them have been violent. There was a protest here, in fact, today outside the Egyptian embassy and the chanting sounded almost gentlemanly.

This was a group of engineers, lawyers, and doctors, and other professional types calling for Mubarak to step down in Egypt. But although it was a pretty low-key affair, one of the people taking part — 38-year-old translator Rifat Oday — claims that most Jordanians identify very strongly, very keenly with the protesters in Egypt.

Rifat Oday: Both countries suffer from a lot of corruption. Both countries suffer from severe unemployment. A lot of people live below the poverty line in both countries. And there is no real democracy, either here or in Egypt.

Ryssdal: Well they want Mubarak out in Egypt, that much is clear, Stephen. But what do the Jordanian protesters want at home? Do they want the king, King Abdullah, out?

Beard: No, they don’t. The king is actually very popular here. Many people want him to stay. They just want him to become more democratic and give up some of his control over the government and parliament. They want him to stamp out corruption, too. He’s widely seen as the only one who can hold this country together and this is a very important interest for the U.S. The U.S. has poured $ billion worth of aid into this country over the past decade in order to hold it together. This is one of only two Arab countries that have signed a peace treaty with Israel. And as economist Yusuf Masour points out, this is a vital Western ally.

Yusuf Masour: We are friendly to the West. We are like this oasis of stability in a hot region. It is a country you don’t want to radicalize.

Ryssdal: It sound vaguely, not threatening Stephen, but dire. Make the regional case for me, the regional economic case.

Beard: Well this is an absolutely critical region for the U.S. because this is where most of the world’s exported oil comes from. So it is critical that a vital friend and ally, like Jordan, doesn’t turn into the next Iran. It’s highly unlikely this will happen. It’s even unlikely this will happen in Egypt, but that is the fear in the back of most people’s minds. This if the fourth poorest country in the Arab world, Jordan, on a per capita basis — 26 percent unemployment among the youth. The fear is that if there is serious unrest here, social cohesion could break down, Jordan could turn hostile, and the west would have lost a very important friend.

Ryssdal: Marketplace’s Stephen Beard on the ground in Amman, Jordan, for us this week. Stephen, thank you.

Beard: OK Kai.

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