Middle East

Spring of Reforms for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Jordanian King Abdullah II.

The massive wave of protests throughout the Middle East this spring set off the wind of political and economic reforms, and has engulfed most of the states of North Africa and the Middle East, with spreading effects into countries like Jordan.Jordan is a moderate country strategically located in the heart of the Arab world governed under the political system of constitutional monarchy.

The kingdom has been motivated by the momentous events in Tunisia and Egypt, which inspired protests on Jordanian soil demanding economic reforms that would put an end to rising prices, unemployment and poverty. The major differentiation of the Jordanian events from those in the rest of the Arab countries is that protesters asked for reform of the current system, not its abolition.

The immediate response of Jordanian King Abdullah II bin al-Husseinwas the dismissing of the previous government, and the designation of a $169 million plan meant to reduce price increases and unemployment. The wave of protests, however, evolved with demands focusing on the reform of the political system, most prominently the enacting of a new elections law, and the provision of more civil rights and freedoms.

Jordan has responded instantly to the regional wind of reforms based on its immense experience as a country that has launched during the last decade a number of political and economic reform initiatives. These initiatives faced a major setback due to regional events that impacted directly the national interests of the kingdom. Most prominent were the 2003 American military campaign against Iraq, the 2005 parliamentary elections in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood secured 20 percent of the seats, the November 2005 bombing of three hotels in Jordan by an armed wing of al Qaeda based in Iraq that killed 60 Jordanian nationals, the 2006 elections in the West Bank and Gaza where Hamas won the majority of parliamentary seats, and the 2007 Hamas takeover of the Gaza strip.

Additionally, reform initiatives were impeded by the reality of demographics of an estimated East Banker minority. The Jordanian-Palestinian "split" in the country has arisen as a result of the forced migration of Palestinians who fled to Jordan, acquired nationality and citizenship, and now constitute about half of the population. Palestinian fears that reforms could potentially lead to the stripping of their rights, as well as Jordanian worries that any reform process may lead to the political empowerment of Palestinians who may attempt to create an alternative Palestinian homeland in Jordan, presented a major setback to last decade's reform initiatives. In other words, for a significant segment of the Jordanian society, political reforms and democratization equals Palestinization. However, this is an illusion. In reality, the two peoples can easily remain united in the struggle for a political system based on justice, freedom, equal opportunities and individual rights. In a system that restores power to the masses while maintaining Jordanian and Palestinian identities and dealing intelligently with the political reality, Jordan's people can be united.

Jordan envisioned becoming a model of democracy, but the manifestation of major regional events led to the delay of the reform process that resulted in successive weak parliaments, and an erosion of public trust in state institutions. Notably, in the pre-Iraq war period, the kingdom initiated the Jordan First (Al Urdun Awlan) campaign, which attempted to articulate a comprehensive vision of economic and political reforms. The initiative provided the formation of a national committee to deal with different economic and political issues and debated five distinct themes, namely the possibility of establishing a constitutional court, the introduction of a parliamentary quota for women; the enactment of anti-corruption measures; the drafting of a new political parties law with the aim of ending the state of fragmentation among political parties; and the setting of rules to cover relations between civil society, professional organizations and the state. While the final document claimed that the initiative would represent a new social contract that would redefine the relationship between the citizen and the state, the committee was not really inclusive, and in the end, the only recommendation that was adopted was the six-seat parliamentary quota for women.

Equally significant reform initiative was the 2005 Jordanian National Agenda, a blueprint for political, economic and social reforms that envisioned approaching the reform process in a holistic, rather than a piecemeal, way. The committee of the National Agenda consisted of representatives from political parties including the Muslim Brotherhood, the parliament, civil society, women activists, the media, the government and the private sectors, and reached recommendations in three interdependent areas, namely the economic and social policies, basic rights and freedoms, and state infrastructure. In the field of political reforms, the National Agenda proposed new laws to open up elections and prevent discrimination against women. In July 2006, the government of Prime Minister Maarouf Bakhit assembled a forum of 700 participants over a two-day period to address the political, economic and social challenges facing the country. Capitalizing on the findings of the National Agenda, participants produced the "We Are All Jordan" document. The document was a clear attempt at political reform and selected a list of 15 priorities. The major three were loyalty and nationalism, sovereignty of the state and the protection of national interests, and national security. The Bakhit government undoubtedly showed significant legislative initiative. Specifically, in November 2006, it passed an anti-corruption law that established an anti-corruption committee with broad powers. The law notably included in its definition of corruption actions related to nepotism (wasta).

Coming to today's situation, the Arab Spring urged the Jordanian leadership to take speedy and practical steps to unleash a deep political reform process that will reflect Jordan's vision of comprehensive reform, modernization and development. Upon this urgency, the Jordanian government recently endorsed the formation of the National Dialogue Committee, comprising of ministers, representatives of political parties, professional associations, the economic sector, civil society organisations, and youth and women's societies, and tasked it with opening extended dialogues with all citizens to arrive at a consensus over legislation governing political reform, including the elections and the political parties laws. The goal of the committee is to draft a democratic elections law that achieves a qualitative leap in parliamentary work and revisits the Political Parties Law to strengthen political pluralism and partisan life, in a manner that will enable effective political powers to participate in democratic drive and decision making. A three-month deadline is set for the members of the committee to make the necessary amendments and suggest the roadmap to reform.

Concurrently at this critical time, a promise of economic gains was extended to Jordan by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to join the organization. Relatively poor and facing high unemployment and yawning budget deficits, Jordan could benefit from concessional prices for oil and gas, better access for its citizens to work in the Gulf, and financial assistance. Jordan, run by a pro-Western, Sunni Muslim monarchy, some 750 miles from the Gulf, has a per-capita GDP of $5,300, while, by comparison, Saudi Arabia GDP per capita is $24,200.

Massive protests in two of its member states urged the GCC to agree to provide Oman and Bahrain $10 billion each over a decade in order to meet protesters' demands for higher living standards. This reality has created a precedence that Jordan may be looking for similar assistance. Enriched by climbing oil prices, the Gulf monarchies have been able to respond to their internal wave of protests with generous aid programs for their already-wealthy populations. Saudi Arabia alone has committed to spending $125 billion, but in Jordan, the king has no alternative other than to increase deficit spending to cover the cost of handouts at a time when the kingdom's economy is suffering under the weight of slow growth and higher global prices for food and energy. It is no secret that repeated interruptions in the pipeline delivering Egyptian natural gas to Jordan has forced the kingdom to ration electricity and increase its import bill. Therefore, the accession of energy-poor Jordan to the ranks of the predominantly oil-rich bloc of Gulf nations could offer an avenue for financial support for the kingdom, while the political symbiosis in the Gulf club is the latest reflection of how the widespread protests in the Arab nations are reshaping the political landscape of the volatile Middle East.

It is thus within this context that Jordan responded instantly to the Arab Spring by solidifying alliances and by establishing mechanisms that aim to create a new spark of reforms that can be translated into realities on the ground and provide a blueprint for a better future, not only for its own people, but for the people of the entire region.

Antonia Dimou is head of the Middle East and Persian Gulf Unit, Institute for Security and Defence Analyses based in Athens, Greece, and an sssociate at the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, Amman, Jordan. Her views can be accessed at: http://www. antoniadimou.blogspot.com.

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