“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.”
Marwan Mu’asher, a previous foreign minister and press adviser with an admirable reformist mentality has posted a paper in which he examines the last decade of the actions (or lack thereof) of the successive governments under the King. The paper provides a narrative of the events that took place as government after government came into power with political, economic and social reform being their main task, and then failed to deliver. He asks the same question that has been plaguing me for a long time. The same question that a lot of people are surprisingly not asking (or maybe not so surprisingly). With the King´s ideal vision of reform that we so pride ourselves with, how come is it that for the past 12 years, none of his demands that we keep hearing over and over again, are being met?
The following is a not-at-all concise summary of the paper, but I think the following sections are definitely worth a read (particularly the part about the National Agenda) and are a helpful summary of political events of the past decade, regardless of how you choose to interpret them. That being said, the entire paper is a must-read as well, as a summary might not clearly explain the circumstances. The bold parts are the ones that I found rather interesting, and the red parts are my personal commentary. My personal opinion is after the summary.
The Early Years
In his first letter of designation to Prime Minister Abdul Rauf Al-Rawabdeh, the king emphasized the need to enhance national unity, promote democracy, strengthen the judiciary, boost efficiency in the public sector, and strengthen the role of the media in promoting freedom of expression… The focus was largely economic and resulted in some notable achievements…but on the political reform front, few positive developments took place.
Rawabdeh, an experienced but conservative East Bank politician, was widely perceived as biased against Jordanians of Palestinian origin and generally averse to the private sector and media. His feud with a local paper, as well as his inaction on changing a highly controversial and restrictive press and publications law, did not endear him to the press… His resistance to political and economic change, as well as the resignation of three liberal ministers in his government, finally did him in. The king’s call to reform the electoral law was never even touched.
When Rawabdeh was dismissed in June 2000, his government could not point to any significant advancement on political reform. He had reportedly managed to temporarily convince the king that political reform carried major risks for stability if combined with accelerated economic reform.
The Governments of Ali Abu Ragheb, 2000–2003
Ragheb was supposed to be everything that Rawabdeh was not. Although also an East Bank politician, Abu Ragheb was younger and more liberal, both politically and economically. The king not only reiterated his wishes to preserve national unity in his letter of designation, but also entrusted the new government to enact a constitutional provision calling for equality and equal opportunity for citizens, regardless of their origin.
His directives on political reform were even stronger and more than compensated for the previous letter’s lack of specificity… Unfortunately, the directives were not implemented. The government may have embarked on an accelerated path of economic reform, but it continued to waver on the political reforms necessary to ensure the development of a system that could monitor economic activities and curb abuses. In fact, it moved in the exact opposite direction.
Instead of promoting pluralism, democracy, and the formation of political parties, the king—acting on the recommendation of the government and the powerful intelligence services—dismissed the parliament in June 2001. Elections were postponed indefinitely under the pretense of “regional tensions” in the Palestinian territories and later in Iraq. Indeed, elections would not be held again until a full two years later, in June 2003.
Approximately 211 provisional laws were passed during the parliament’s absence, making use of a clause in the constitution that allows laws to be passed by the government in the absence of parliament under pressing circumstances… Contrary to the designation letter’s directives, the government passed laws that further limited press freedom and public demonstrations… Amendments were made to the election law… but on the core amendments necessary to address the king’s directives— formation of political parties and ensuring the equality and representation of Jordanians regardless of their ethnic origin—nothing was done. The new law did not amend the voting system to allow political party representation, and it kept the controversial districting system largely intact—a system designed to keep the number of parliament members of Palestinian origin to a minimum.
The Shift Toward Political Reform: The 2003 Government of Faisal Al-Faiz
The king decided to hold parliamentary elections in June and accelerate the reform process in the hopes of addressing rising political tensions. In October 2003, he replaced the incumbent government with a new one led by Prime Minister Faisal Al Faiz, mandated with both accelerating the pace of political reform and institutionalizing it. Traditional and tribal, Faiz was widely perceived as a “king’s man” who the king hoped would not derail or undermine reform.
In his letter of designation, the king was very specific about the areas of political reform that needed attention.
…Intending to modernize the political process from above, the king’s revitalized efforts and calls for reform fell on deaf ears yet again. The rentier system, firmly entrenched by that time, ensured that no serious political process could succeed without considerable difficulty. On the one hand, the structural flaw in the election law—which the system had no intention of changing—ensured that parliament remained a service-oriented body, subservient to the government and reliant on it for services rendered to member constituencies. It was not a body collectively concerned with major issues, and certainly not political reform.
Government, on the other hand, had an interest in appeasing members of parliament, through the steady provision of services, in order to remain in power. Thus, although the government had a few vocal reformers, the prime minister quickly discovered that advancing political reform would entail difficult confrontations with the country’s political elite, including its intelligence services. Instead, he opted to gradually lower expectations on what could be achieved, rather than engage in any systematic process aimed at developing political life in the country.
Instead of pushing the government’s political reform agenda, Faiz, under pressure from the intelligence services, shifted gears and started talking about “administrative reform” as the top priority during the latter part of the year. Even then, the government found it hard to match its rhetoric with deeds. One particular move that raised a lot of questions was the prime minister’s decision in December to appoint over 30 people—many of whom were relatives or friends of parliament members—to senior government positions and also to replace many university presidents without a vetting process… A cabinet reshuffle in October of that year did little to remedy the situation. In March 2005, the interior minister introduced a government-approved bill to parliament that further reduced political space by regulating the activities of all professional associations. The bill required associations to keep discussions apolitical and called for the creation of a disciplinary structure to penalize those who broke the law. A series of sit-ins and protests by civil society followed and was met with government crackdowns and arrests. This directly contradicted the king’s letter of designation to the government, in which he called for a “democracy based on dialogue and respect of others’ viewpoints.”
When 59 members of parliament signed a petition asking the government to withdraw the law, the government exercised so much pressure that nearly a third of them withdrew their signatures. Several journalists stated that the government had directed newspapers to refrain from publishing news about the upheaval.
The National Agenda, 2005
The political reform process, largely instigated from above, was going nowhere…When the king introduced elements of political reform—such as equality before the law for all Jordanians, more press freedoms, and a modernized election law—such measures were presented without a clear guiding framework, strategy, or timeline. The directives were thus taken by government institutions as being open to their own personal interpretations, and often resulted in either a watered-down version of reform or no reform at all.
….In February 2005, the king offered a new initiative. He entrusted Faiz’s government with drafting “a national agenda that embodies the vision of all of us and specifies
strategic programs and national policies whose realization should be binding to all successive governments.”
In the political field, the agenda proposed a new election law that would gradually build greater parliamentary strength and address structural flaws by adopting a mixed electoral system. It suggested removing all clauses that discriminated against women from Jordanian laws by 2015. It also called for laws that would grant political parties, civil society organizations, and the media the right to operate free from government interference. It also suggested laws that would guarantee judicial independence and competence.
In the economic and social fields, the committee suggested plans that would almost double real per-capita income, reduce unemployment by half, and convert the budget deficit from about 11 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) into a surplus of 1.8 percent by 2017—in essence, moving from a rentier state to a productive and self-sufficient economy. It also included a plan to have all Jordanians medically insured by 2012. (I’m seriously curious as to what this evidently great plan entailed exactly.)
The committee was loosely divided among three groups: traditional elites, who saw themselves as guardians of the state and thus wanted to ensure that the basic pillars of the rentier system were untouched (particularly the election law); economic neo-liberals, who were mostly concerned with liberalizing the economy and whose attitudes toward political reform were lukewarm at best; and political liberals, who desired real changes to the political system. The first and third groups were often at loggerheads, with the second group taking a backseat on political issues.
The determination of the traditional political elite to sabotage this process stemmed from their fear that a merit-based system—emerging from the discussions on political and economic reform—would come at their expense… Faced with immense resistance to change from his traditional constituency, the king continued to voice his frustration.
…The political liberals, on the other hand, were lobbying to introduce a mixed electoral system, whereby each voter would be given two votes: one for a district-based candidate, and the other to a national list that would encourage the emergence of political parties with representation in parliament. The percentage of seats given to party lists versus districts would gradually increase in each election cycle to allow Jordanians to acclimate to such a system, by gradually moving away from tribal-based politics and transitioning to a stronger, party-based parliament.
This new system proposed by political liberals was clearly a major departure from the rentier state discourse that had shrouded domestic politics for decades. The king’s directives aside, the elite were unprepared to relinquish power, however gradually, even if it would mean a better quality of life for all Jordanians. The group thus proceeded to mount a fierce campaign in the press against political liberals, pegging them as economic neoliberals unconcerned with the devastating social effects of economic liberalization.
They also accused liberals of participating in a conspiracy to weaken the Jordanian state, as well as any other charges they felt would resonate with a public already sceptical of state-initiated reform efforts. Armed with support from most of the state’s political and military institutions, the elite once again invoked the argument of stability versus reform and painted the entire plan as premature and dangerous.
The government of Badran, a liberal who strongly voiced his support for the initiative, was replaced the day after the National Agenda document was presented to the king, on November 23, 2005. Finally convinced of the political elite’s argument that the proposed election law was “dangerous and premature”— and not wanting to alienate his traditional constituency—the monarch did not mention the National Agenda effort in his letter of designation to the new prime minister until deep down in the document.
And while the king entrusted the latest government with… reform, the new prime minister, Marouf Bakhit, had no intention of doing so, having been one of the most vocal opponents of this very initiative. Throughout his tenure as prime minister, he merely paid lip service to the effort, while dropping all references to its political aspects from his government’s program. (A rather interesting description of the current prime minister whose main task is political reform. Never mind.)
The completion of the National Agenda draft program coincided with three events that took place within a few short months: the 2005 parliamentary election in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood secured 20 percent of seats; the bombing of three hotels in Jordan on November 9, 2005, by an arm of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which left 60 Jordanians dead; and the 2006 elections in the West Bank and Gaza, in which Hamas won a majority of parliamentary seats.
…And the old guard in Jordan continued to employ these concerns in arguing that the time was not yet ripe for reform—which they framed as a tool that could potentially serve to empower radicals. On the other side, liberals argued that in a pluralistic society, Islamists would have to compete for votes instead of winning street-level support from those who were disenfranchised and disenchanted with the regime but had nowhere else to go in a closed political system. Brought to a standstill by such widely divergent perspectives, the reform engine had lost all of its steam. (the Islamists “bo3bo3” was used then, and will continue to be used if people continue to buy this excuse).
The National Agenda served as the ultimate reform battleground and the old guard had prevailed. The first holistic, inclusive, and measurable reform program in the Arab world was dead on arrival, shelved just as soon as it was completed.
For the next five years, action on reform would be replaced by rhetoric.
I will stop summarizing now, as the image is clear from the past paragraphs. Mu’asher goes on to describe how the National Agenda was bypassed, and the We Are All Jordan initiative was created with “national unity and loyalty” stated as its priorities. He also mentions how Bakhit admitted that the 2007 elections were rigged to exclude the IAF and how after Bakhit, Rifa’i actually made things worse in terms of reform.
Now I am not a political expert, nor will I pretend to be. I’m just a citizen who´s been observing the political happening of the past few years and here´s what I have to say: ENOUGH already. I have had enough. Jordanians have had enough. Being manipulated and lied to so very shamelessly from one government to the next. Of course the vast majority don´t know or have grown completely apathetic and hopeless of the whole reform process, now with a stigma stamped on it after March 24th. I wouldn’t even blame the March 24th opponents with all the disgusting propaganda they were exposed to while the instigators sit on the top savouring the chaos.
I understand that much of the political constituency is resistant to change, but the difference between Jordan and other countries is that everyone here is in favour of the monarchy system, even the opposition. Therefore no political constituency would dare say anything, if the king were to make changes himself rather than delegate them (a strategy which so very clearly failed).
We can’t afford to be apathetic to the reform process any longer. If we’re going to learn anything from the revolts we witnessed from the start of the year it’s this: it can happen anywhere. And if you think it won’t ever happen in Jordan, just take a look at Syria. At some point people will reach the tipping point.
And when they do, it will be too late.
Note: the only positive point in Mu’ashers paper is regarding Jordanian bloggers and independent websites that have established themselves firmly in spite of government efforts to curb them. And to that I say bravo.