Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jordan and the Arab Spring

By William Fisher

Did the Arab Spring ever come to Jordan?

Yes, but it would be hard to know that from America’s mainstream media.
With just a few notable exceptions, Jordan has been sacrificed to coverage of much sexier stories in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, even tiny Bahrain.

Yet the Arab Spring, now morphed into summer, is alive and well in Jordan.
It’s just not as noisy.

To be sure, there have been demonstrations and people have been killed by the security forces. But Jordan’s demonstrations haven’t been nearly as widespread or vocal as those in, for example, Tahrir Square. The Tahrir-type demonstrations have been kept to a minimum, a situation facilitated by a combination of police action and the efforts of King Abdullah II to stay ahead of the curve.

The King’s efforts began with a dismissal of his government and its replacement with officials he hoped the demonstrators would find more acceptable.

Another of the loudest demands from the demonstrators was for an amended constitution. Now the committee appointed by the King to amend the Constitution has unveiled its work, and it is being greeted by some as a huge leap toward democracy and by others as a useless piece of cosmetics that will not facilitate any major changes in the country’s political life.

Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, served as Jordan’s foreign minister (2002–2004), and deputy prime minister (2004–2005), and played a central role in developing the Arab Peace Initiative and the Middle East Road Map. He says about the new draft Constitutional amendments:

“To be sure, many of the amendments address demands long put forth by reform groups and the general public.”

He outlines a half dozen of the major amendments proposed:

· The establishment of a constitutional court to monitor the constitutionality of laws and regulations. The court replaces a high tribunal for the interpretation of such laws that was headed by the speaker of the Senate and widely considered less than totally independent.
· The establishment of an independent commission to oversee elections instead of the Ministry of Interior that has previously been in charge of the electoral process. All electoral contestations will be referred to the judiciary instead of parliament.
· The enhancement of civil liberties, including the criminalization of any infringement on rights and public freedoms or on the sanctity of Jordanians’ private life; prohibition of torture in any form; and a declaration that all forms of communication between citizens shall be treated as secret and not subject to censorship, suspension, or confiscation except by judicial order.
· The limitation of the government’s ability to issue temporary laws during the absence of parliament, a practice that governments exercised at will in the past.
· The limitation of the State Security Court’s jurisdiction to cases of high treason, espionage, and terrorism, with citizens being otherwise tried in civilian courts; this includes ministers, who were previously tried by a parliamentary high tribunal.
· The limitation of the government’s ability to dissolve parliament without having to resign itself.

Muasher writes, “The proper way to read the amendments and decipher their significance is to understand the wider context. Do they constitute a first step in a much larger roadmap toward total separation of the legislative, judicial, and executive powers? Will they redistribute these powers (strengthening the first two and diluting the third)? Or do they represent the end of the road for Jordan’s political reform process? A clear answer to the questions helps pass judgment on the measures in a more objective and less ideological manner.”

Muasher points out, however, that the amendments “stopped short of several other measures. Other than limiting the king’s ability to indefinitely postpone elections, his powers have been left intact.”

For example, he says, “even though it would be difficult to change the practice immediately without party-based parliaments, the king still appoints and dismisses the prime minister and the upper house of parliament.”

He adds: “The constitutional committee also debated adding gender to the list of categories of laws that are forbidden to discriminate against, but it opted to keep gender off of the list for religious and political reasons. Finally, the role of the security services in the political affairs of the country was limited through some amendments, but hardly curbed completely.”

He concludes that ”the amendments are an important first step and the fact that they will go through the constitutional process in only a few weeks is positive. This indicates that the constitution will witness its first major en masse overhaul since it was adopted in 1952.”

Another Middle East expert agrees that the amendments are an important first step. But Samer Shehata, professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University, points out that “there is no serious fundamental change to the electoral system. And the upper house is still thoroughly non-elected, appointed by the king. I don't know the specifics of the security sector reform (Muasher says it's minimal) but many will tell you the security forces are the ones really running the country.”

He concludes: “I'm still extremely skeptical. These reforms are not the major, structural, transformative reforms necessary to move Jordan from a authoritarian state (with a facade democratic process) to a constitutional monarchy.”

Whether the King intends to follow through to build on this encouraging first step is unclear. But he will have little choice if he seeks a Jordan that becomes a peaceful democracy-Middle-East-style, prepared to improve the lives of ordinary Jordanians and play a larger and more constructive role in the Israel-Palestine dispute.