Story by Hillary O’Rourke
In early May, youth demonstrators lined the streets in the city of Madaba with signs and slogans calling for the government to provide more job opportunities. Identifying as the Al Azaydeh – or youth – movement, they were protesting unemployment, an issue so pressing here that some say it threatens to thwart Jordan’s status as a modern country.
Unemployment has always been a problem in Jordan, but the country’s youth have recently experienced a skyrocketing increase in joblessness, making the total unemployment rate among them about 40 percent. The loss has been so acute that Jordan’s youth have taken their complaints to the streets in the form of protests and pamphlets.
Hamza Budiri, a 26-year-old electrical engineer from Amman, hasn’t been able to find a job for two years. “I’m unemployed. The construction sector fell in the last economic crisis so there aren’t many jobs out there for me,” said the activist. “I’ve been involved since the Tunisian revolts” – which took place in 2010. “I take part in the weekly demonstrations. I’ve been doing this for more than a year and I can’t find a job.”
The economy in Jordan is suffering with a budget deficit approaching $4 billion for 2012. This directly impacts many economic sectors, including construction and electricity, which are already hurt from recession due to economic crises abroad.
Salah Allouzi, professor of sociology at the University of Jordan, said that unemployment has increased over the years not only because of the stumbling economy but also due to other factors including lack of educational career guidance, poor wages and working conditions, and a gap between many of the job seekers’ skills and what employers are looking for.
“Youth unemployment has been severely impacted over the years,” he said. “In terms of numbers, the (Jordanian) population is mostly youth so these youth movements are very important.”
Nearly 41 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 39 were unemployed in Jordan in 2011, according to a survey released last year by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan Department of Statistics. That number is significantly higher than the 33 percent recorded as unemployed in 2003.
The Al Azaydeh group, based in Madaba – which is a city 18 miles south of Amman – is only one of many efforts protesting the government in Jordan. But Al Azaydeh’s primary objective, unlike some of the other groups organizing, is to fight for more jobs for the young specifically.
Activist Budiri said the youth are doing this through weekly protests, forming secular youth movements, creating unions and protesting corruption by declaring the names of allegedly corrupt officials on signs they carry on the streets.
Sayel Hawawsha, a professor of science and technology at the Applied Science University in Amman, explains that because the Al Azaydeh movement is focusing on unemployment, it won’t be fading away any time soon.
He points to the protest staged just a few weeks ago in Madaba – calling on Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh to provide more job opportunities – as an example of what needs to be done to keep the movement alive.
Hawawsha, on the other hand, believes more needs to be done than a few protests on the streets. Organizers need to be committed, consistent, vocal with the media, and unmoved by bribes or offers to specific effective individuals designed to shut them up. If activists continue protesting and stick to their cause, though, the government will have to address the demands at some point, he said.
“The government is going to deal with it either directly or indirectly by luring people in from the movements and appointing them in the government,” Hawawsha said. “The government may absorb [these ideas] because of this or it could revert to other solutions, like spreading disputes in the government to disperse their efforts.”
Both Hawawsha and Budiri said corruption is at the heart of the disintegrating workforce.
“We have no money because there is a lot of corruption,” Budiri said. He was speaking from the site of an impromptu meeting with some of his comrades. Seven members of similar movements including The Jordanian Social Liberation Party and the Secular Youth Alliance gathered with him near a bench against an unlit wall outside a café in Paris Circle near downtown. They were headed next to the house of one of the participants to plot their next move.
“The king pays people to be loyal to him,” said Budiri, fearless. It is almost unheard of here to criticize the king, who is seen as separate from the lawmakers who constitute the government that protesters are railing against. “We spend a lot of money on the army. We have the best army but there’s no real need,” he said.
But to make their messages clear, Al Azaydeh and other movements like it must unify their voices to be heard, experts say. The people themselves, too, must get behind the movement.
“Al Azaydeh hasn’t had a very big impact yet. It’s still in its early stages, but I believe there will be an impact in the future,” said Hawawsha. “They need to keep protesting if they are to make a change… It just takes some time.”