(MENAFN - Jordan Times) From merchants to youth activists, popular opposition in Jordan is rising to hikes in electricity prices, which, they claim, are threatening to cost more than fils and dinars.
When the government approved new electricity tariffs passing an average 9 per cent increase to consumers earlier this month in order to cope with rising electricity generation costs, the move received a subdued response from citizens.
With the new prices days away from going into effect, activists and traders are gearing efforts to oppose a tariff structure they claim places an unfair burden on citizens.
Amidst calls for the government to reverse the decision, the Popular Youth Movement launched a protest campaign.
It urges citizens to refuse to pay their electricity bills for the month of April to protest the new prices and pressure the government to find sources to meet the growing energy bill other than citizens' pocket books.
"If the regime recovered public funds stolen through corruption or seized privatised companies it could easily find the funds," claimed Abdullah Mahadeedn, a Popular Youth Movement activist and campaign organiser.
Traders are also threatening cross-sector work stoppages over the amended tariffs and there are growing signs that what started out as a policy issue is quickly being escalated to a political controversy.
At the centre of the emerging controversy over electricity prices is precisely which segments of society will be footing the bulk of the Kingdom's growing national energy bill.
The Electricity Regulatory Commission (ERC) and the National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) have announced a gradual pricing system they insist is designed to ensure that only the largest consumers carry the bulk of increased costs.
The new system features gradual increases for households and traders that consume more than 600 and 1,200 kilowatt hours per month respectively, a structure officials claim exempts 92 per cent of citizens and 89 per cent of commercial outlets from any rises in their monthly bills, figures activists reject as "inaccurate".
"Nowadays you can't even find a convenience store that uses less than 1,200 kilowatt hours per month," said Nael Kabariti, president of the Jordan Chamber of Commerce.
The Jordan Chamber of Commerce estimates that in contrast to officials' claims, 85 per cent of traders will face higher electricity bills under the proposed structure, placing an additional burden on a sector hard hit by the Kingdom's economic downturn and passing on price increases as high as 15 per cent to consumers.
Traders claim that the pricing structure unfairly targets the commercial sector, arguing that with the majority of outlets operating a minimum of 12 hours a day and unable to scale back on electricity use as households.
Activists claim that the ERC's projections rely on "selective" and outdated data and consumption trends, before energy-costly appliances such as electric heaters became everyday household items across the country, warning that many citizens are likely to face an unwelcome surprise when their electricity bill arrives next month.
"Even in the governorates you can't find households that use less than 600 kilowatt hours a month. These claims are false and are an attempt by the government to give a positive image of the price rise," said Saed Ouran of the Free Tafileh Movement.
Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Qutaiba Abu Qura admitted that officials may have "miscalculated" in their initial pricing projections.
"Like any administrative decision there may have to be further adjustments for unforeseen factors that may affect citizens' energy bills," Abu Qura said.
In the face of growing opposition from citizens anxiously eyeing their electricity metres and pocketbooks, Abu Qura preached "patience".
"Citizens should wait for next month's electricity bill before deciding whether the new tariffs are just or not," Abu Qura said.
"Only once they compare multiple bills before and after the price change will they be able to judge."
Abu Qura stressed that energy officials are working to secure alternative energy sources ranging from Qatari liquid gas to natural gas from Iraq, in order to prevent an emerging energy crisis in Jordan, which relies on energy imports for 98 per cent of its electricity generation needs.
Despite the rise from pressure in the streets, energy officials refused to back down from their stance that citizens should carry part of the burden of a rising national energy bill due to the unreliability of Egyptian gas supplies, which, according to Abu Qura, have yet to resume since a January attack that marked the 12th act of sabotage on the Kingdom's main energy source in less than a year.
With increased reliance on international fuel and heavy oil, prices are expected to widen NEPCO's budget deficit to JD1.7 billion this year.
Jordanian energy officials described popular calls for lowering electricity prices as "unrealistic".
"Even if Egyptian gas supplies return to last year's levels we are looking at an over JD1 billion deficit, and this is a cost all citizens must face," said NEPCO Director Ghaleb Maabreh.
The highly charged debate over electricity prices is expected to go from the streets to Parliament today, with lawmakers to convene to discuss measures to soften the economic impact of the amended tariffs.
According to MP Jamal Gammo, head of the Lower House Energy Committee, authorities face limited options, noting that the alternative energy sources required to alleviate the Kingdom's energy woes are years, rather than days away.
"We need to increase reliability on alternative energy and local resources, but this takes time," Gammo said.
Traders say time is precisely what decision makers lack, urging parliamentary intervention to "suspend" the amended electricity tariffs, threatening escalating measures starting with a "massive" protest in front of the Lower House next week.
"If authorities are prepared for a rise in electricity prices, they should be prepared for a rise in anger," said Kabariti.