The Challenge of Political Reform: Jordanian Democratisation and Regional Instability
Middle East Briefing N°10
8 Oct 2003
Navigating the treacherous shoals of the Iraq conflict with a steady hand, Jordan appears to have emerged unscathed from the turbulent months just past. The Hashemite Kingdom adjusted its rhetoric to fit the public mood while backing U.S. policy in Iraq and in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, managed to overcome its principal weaknesses and now faces the post-war world with renewed confidence and authority.
With a small economy that is particularly vulnerable to regional crises, its precarious demographic realities and limited public participation in government, it could have been otherwise. Continuing economic hardships (despite a steady growth in GNP), the two-year suspension of parliament that lasted until July 2003, restrictions on a handful of basic freedoms and anger at regional developments have caused discontent and prevented public sentiment from being expressed through established channels. Angry demonstrations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq in March and April 2003 had to be held closely in check. To relieve pent-up pressures at war’s end, King Abdullah II announced parliamentary elections, brought home economic rewards for Jordan’s close alliance with Washington and raised the country’s diplomatic posture on the peace process. Most importantly, he made a strong pledge to institute domestic reform, asserting the need for “a society that empowers its people, and offers opportunity to all … an inclusive, democratic civil society, one that provides real hope”.
Nevertheless, the regime’s Achilles heel is the feeble bond of trust between most citizens and the state. Meaningful relationships are based primarily on family or tribal loyalties, with religion also an important social glue. The state, however, is largely absent from these relations, being broadly perceived as non-transparent, unresponsive and unaccountable. This extends from the omnipotent security services, through the police, to civil servants protecting the state’s interests at all corners of the bureaucracy. Curbs on freedoms of expression and association have discouraged peaceful dissent outside the narrow limits of parliamentary debate and the political discourse of small political parties, a moderate and acquiescent Islamist movement and disparate civil society groupings.
Events in the southern town of Ma’an in November 2002, in which six persons were killed, underscored the danger of failing to address the absence of trust between local population and local authorities – and the state more generally. Because most of the circumstances in Ma’an were not unique, such events stand a fair chance of being replicated elsewhere in the Kingdom. One possible catalyst is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict across the Jordan River, another the unsettled – and, to Jordanians, unsettling – situation eastward in Iraq. Both crises, ladled out graphically on television screens, together with mounting economic difficulties have in the past triggered outbursts of fury and are likely to do so again. The absence of institutionalised channels through which to express and address these emotions may shake the government.
There is no indication that the Jordanian polity is about to become unstuck. Most Jordanian analysts consider the country to be stable, pointing to the regime’s management of the most recent regional crisis as evidence. But even the Jordanian political elite is asking itself how to manage the next crisis peacefully as long as the bond between state and individual remains fragile, and discontent continues to bubble directly beneath the surface.
Some hold that democratic reforms would threaten stability as long as regional crises remain unresolved, sparking unrest among a population that nurtures a close affinity with its Arab brethren in surrounding nations. Others argue that opening up the political system is the only way to ensure Jordan’s security in the long run and that the regime must improve trust between citizen and authority before frustrations rise to undermine the state. All, though, argue that any democratisation has to be a tightly managed process, lest passions and interests be unleashed that will spin out of control and take the Kingdom on an unpredictable and dangerous path.
Jordanians have begun to chart a careful middle course reflected in the recommendations of the Jordan First Committee in December 2002, the June 2003 establishment of the National Centre for Human Rights and the report on Ma’an issued by the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in September 2003. These recommendations should now be expanded, receive unequivocal regime encouragement, and themselves give rise to new measures. They include:
Bolstering the reform process. Reform is most widely called for in several areas. Many of those interviewed by ICG emphasised the importance of making the electoral process more reflective of the country’s demographic makeup and/or improving the representation of national political parties. Independent international election observers would go a long way toward enhancing the credibility of future elections. An equally important measure would be to expand media freedoms by revising the 1999 Press and Publications Law, especially as it concerns government licensing and censorship practices, restrictions on who may practice journalism, prohibitive minimum-capital requirements for newspapers and limitations on funding for research centres. Jordanians also suggested the establishment of a Constitutional Court as a practical step to lend greater credibility to the legislative process.
Strengthening civic institutions. Popular participation in political life must extend to civic institutions, including political parties. As a critical first step, the government should loosen controls over their internal functioning and financing. Ultimately, it should strengthen civil society, promote independent voices and allow for genuine and constructive opposition.
Addressing the issues raised by the violence in Ma’an. Following King Abdullah’s explicit recognition that measures ought to be taken to benefit the people there and prevent further violence, the government took some modest steps toward improving relations between authorities and the population and delivering economic services. It should go further by modernising and standardising law enforcement nation-wide, including adopting a fresh approach to citizen-police relations, and developing essential infrastructure in Ma’an and towns suffering similar economic conditions, including by expanding technical training for young people and embarking on serious efforts to increase private sector investment.
Amman/Brussels, 8 October 2003