Tuesday, June 21, 2011

JORDAN: Abdullah’s Survival Strategy

By William Fisher

Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his new government appear to be racing the clock to begin enacting political and economic reforms before the largely peaceful street demonstrations turn ugly.

Whether his proposed reforms will be seen by the people as going far enough, and whether he can light a fire under his government to actually begin implementing the first serious reforms – these are the key questions that remain to be seen.

The recommendations were produced by a 52-member National Dialogue Committee. They include proposing an increase in the number of seats in Parliament from 120 to 130, call for an independent panel of retired judges appointed by royal decree to oversee elections, instead of the Interior Ministry, and a new draft law to make it easier to form political parties and encouraging participation by women.

Some of the reforms proposed by the King are not new – some are a decade old -- and may thus be easier to implement. But most of these were ignored in the past by the government elites who actually make things happen. Their delay has been a source of frustration for the young King.

Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian Foreign Minister, has commented on this phenomenon. He asks: “Could reform efforts have taken a different course in Jordan? In a country where the king has broad powers over all branches of government, his expressed frustration over the struggling reform efforts begs the question of why the status quo remains intact.”

He continues: “This decade-long process, initiated by the King, has
been largely ignored by an ossified layer of elites seeking to protect their own interests. The clear discrepancy between the king’s directives to the seven prime ministers he had entrusted to form governments in his twelve years of power—and the actual record of reform completed by these respective governments—points to a structural problem that is all too often ignored.”

“These elites have become recalcitrant, self-appointed guardians of the state who believe they alone should decide how the country ought to evolve. They have no qualms about opposing the directives of the leaders or systems that created them in the first place if those leaders are seen as adopting policies that threaten their interests,” he charges, adding:

“An examination of the political reforms conducted by successive governments in Jordan over the last decade suggests that, in most cases, the king’s directives were ignored, diluted, and, at times, directly opposed. This does not imply that the objectives of this class and the monarch were always in contradiction, but suggests that the rentier system has, over time and through entrenchment, created monsters who will only acquiesce as long as the system perpetuates the old policy of favors.”

So Abdullah has now responded by firing the entire government and appointing replacements he hopes with be more sympathetic to the reforms he has already proposed and others that will certainly be forthcoming.

The King charged Marouf Al Bakhit, an ex-army general and former prime minister, with forming a new government. Marwan Muasher says his major task is “to take speedy practical and tangible steps to unleash a real political reform process that reflects [Jordan’s] vision of comprehensive reform, modernization and development.”

King Abdullah has he was committed to pushing ahead with democratic reforms, but believed street pressure for change was a recipe for chaos. Again and again, he has admonished would-be street demonstrators that outpourings of this kind are likely to hinder rather than speed the pace of reform.

The monarch, speaking in a televised speech marking his 12 years as ruler and ninety years since the state’s creation, said he backed a new electoral law proposed by a government-appointed panel that would allow for a cabinet to be elected by a parliamentary majority rather than being chosen by him.

"We hope these recommendations ensure a modern electoral law that leads to a parliament that is representative of all Jordanians," he said.

Parliaments are currently elected under laws that ensure a pliant pro-government assembly composed of tribal loyalists.

The Islamist-led opposition has expressed disappointment over the limited nature of the reforms proposed by the committee that they boycotted and which came after weeks of street protests earlier this year calling for political changes, Reuters reported.

Vis a vis Parliament, the proposals unveiled thus far amount to tinkering around the edges. But if “fix Parliament” is not high on Abdullah’s “to do” list, many of his proposals will have minimal effect—and probably won’t placate those inclined toward demonstrations. The parliamentary proposals the King put forward would preserve a gross under-representation of Jordan’s cities. The reason is that Jordan’s major cities are where Palestinians and members of the Muslim Brotherhood live. The King’s formula would aim to preserve the strength of rural, sparsely populated tribal areas, where his support is strong.

Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it well when she told us, “What King Abdullah has proposed are reforms to the electoral system and laws, which will go part of the distance toward satisfying demands on those specific issue. But there is nothing so far on the issue underlying lack of faith in politics: the fact that the elected parliament has little real power.”

An even stronger note of skepticism comes from Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University. He told us, “Obviously I'm highly suspicious of autocrats making promises about reform. Autocrats usually don't put themselves out of business.”

This is the situation King Abdullah faces, as expressed in the U.S. State Department’s annual Human Rights report:

“The government respected human rights in some areas, but its overall record continued to reflect problems. The government restricted citizens' right to change their government, and the electoral law led to significant under-representation of urban areas and citizens of Palestinian origin in the Chamber of Deputies. Domestic and international NGOs reported cases of arbitrary deprivation of life, torture, poor prison conditions, impunity, arbitrary arrest and denial of due process through administrative detention, prolonged detention, and external interference in judicial decisions. Citizens continued to describe infringements on their privacy rights. Restrictive legislation and regulations limited freedom of speech and press, and government interference in the media and threats of fines and detention led to self-censorship, according to journalists and human rights organizations. The government also continued to restrict freedoms of assembly and association. Religious activists and opposition political party members reported a decline in government harassment; however, legal and societal discrimination remained a problem for women, religious minorities, converts from Islam, and some persons of Palestinian origin. Local human rights organizations reported widespread violence against women and children. The government restricted labor rights, and local and international human rights organizations reported high levels of abuse of foreign domestic workers.”

It would seem that King Abdullah and his government have a long and difficult road ahead.

This article was originally published in Prism Magazine.