AMMAN — Dozens were arrested and several injured across Jordan on Wednesday as nationwide riots over rising fuel prices entered their second day.
According to security sources, 20 citizens were arrested and dozens of public buildings were vandalised in the wake of a series of violent protests stretching from the northern city of Irbid to the southern portcity of Aqaba over a government decision on Tuesday to lift fuel subsidies.
What marked the most violent day in Jordan since the launch of the Arab Spring began with a series of clashes between security services and protesters across the southern region after a series of riots erupted shortly following noon prayers.
According to the Public Security Department, (PSD) police forces resorted to tear gas to disperse dozens of citizens in Tafileh, Shobak, Maan and Aqaba after rioters attempted to storm government buildings and target police vehicles.
Rioters fired live rounds at police squadrons in the central city of Madaba, 30km southwest of Amman, according to the PSD, while protesters set fire to a police kiosk and stormed the central police station in the central city of Theeban, the birthplace of Jordan’s 23-month-old protest movement.
A hotbed of Wednesday’s violence was in Karak, 170 kilometres south of Amman, where dozens of rioters set fire to the governorate’s headquarters, a bank, several school buses and other public vehicles throughout the day.
According to eyewitnesses, Karak protesters also exchanged fire with security personnel, who resorted to tear gas to repel multiple attempts to attack various government buildings.
In the city of Maan, 250 kilometres south of the capital, one police officer suffered multiple bullet wounds after a group of rioters armed with automatic rifles stormed the governorate headquarters, according to the PSD.
The police officer was airlifted to the King Hussein Medical Centre in Amman, where he was listed in “stable” condition, according to security sources.
Protesters also clashed with security forces in the cities of Irbid, Salt, Zarqa, Ruseifa and the Jordan Valley as hundreds took to the streets to call for the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour.
During a sit-in at the Interior Ministry Circle in Amman on Wednesday, 50 Islamists called for the government’s resignation.
At the evening rally, participants criticised the government’s economic policies that lead to “rising prices”, chanting “they raise the price of fuel while laughing at the poor”.
Activists also warned of future protests, chanting “regime listen, listen, the Jordanian people will not back down”.
In contrast to the pro-reform protests that have hit Jordan since the Arab Spring, activists and eyewitnesses say the bulk of the fuel riots have been spontaneous gatherings of apolitical “mobs” with no links to political or social groups.
“We are seeing hundreds of people in the streets today we have never seen before in two years of protests,” said Muath Btoush of the Karak Popular Movement, which issued a statement urging citizens to refrain from violent protests.
“Unfortunately, the issue of fuel prices has become something greater than the protest movement itself; we cannot control the anger in the streets,” Btoush said.
Popular movements, grass-roots coalitions of pro-reform activists, say they attempted to curb the violence across the country and are set to suspend protests for Thursday in order to “defuse” tensions across the country.
“We warned the government several times that raising prices will set the streets ablaze,” said Saed Ouran of the Free Tafileh Movement, which distanced itself from the riots.
“What we are seeing right now is not protests, but anarchy. Let’s just hope we haven’t passed the point of no return,” Ouran added.
Meanwhile, several community leaders in Amman urged the demonstrators to express their opinion democratically and in a civilised manner. They asked the demonstrators not to cause any damage to property and public buildings, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported.
They said the Kingdom “needs us to take a unified stand against those who want to tamper with its stability, unity and security”.
In a related development, Jordan Valley leaders met on Wednesday and signed a 100-person petition in support of the government decision.
The day of violence brought traffic to a halt in several regions across the country as rioters closed several major highways with burning tyres and targeted police patrols with rocks, blocking major roadways leading to Karak, Mafraq, Maan, Jerash, Ajloun, Zarqa, Madaba, Irbid and the Dead Sea.
Gendarmerie Forces were deployed across the country in order to disperse the protesters and reopen the roadways to traffic, according to the PSD.
Also Wednesday, dozens of service taxis blocked off all roads leading to the east Amman neighbourhood of Jabal Taj for one hour in protest over the measure, which led to a spike ranging between 15 and 53 per cent in fuel prices.
A heavy security presence across the capital also led to stalled traffic, with police intermittently closing off sections of downtown Amman, the Sports City Circle and the Interior Ministry Circle to traffic in response to the protests.
Opposition parties, professional associations and protest groups across the political spectrum have suspended planned demonstrations for Thursday in light of Wednesday’s violence, but have vowed to go ahead with weekly demonstrations on Friday.
Nationwide riots over fuel prices erupted less than an hour after the government’s decision Tuesday evening, which led to a rise in cooking gas cylinder and octane-90 fuel prices.
The largest of Tuesday’s protests, a sit-in near the Interior Ministry Circle in Amman, ended at dawn after the Gendarmerie Forces attempted to disperse protesters to reopen the circle, a vital junction connecting Amman to the northern governorates.
In a PSD press statement issued on Wednesday, officials said Tuesday’s riots resulted in damages to government buildings across the country, including a police station in Irbid, a civil court in Karak and Military Consumer Corporation warehouses in Salt.
The vandalism also left dozens of public vehicles, traffic lights and public utilities such as water pumps destroyed, according to the PSD.
Meanwhile, three Gendarmerie personnel were injured in Salt as rioters targeted warehouses and property belonging to the National Electric Power Company, according to the PSD.
The government has defended Tuesday’s decision, which aims to trim JD800 million in fuel subsidies that have added to widening budget deficit officials warn may tip the country into a “financial crisis”.
In a bid to alleviate the burden of the price rise on citizens, the government unveiled earlier this week an initiative to provide low-income citizens with JD70 in direct annual financial assistance, a proposal protesters rejected as “an insult”.
The lifting of fuel subsidies is to be the first in a series of controversial austerity measures, with the government currently considering a 5 per cent electricity price rise to trim the state’s JD1.2 billion annual energy subsidies.