Jordan searches for answers to Arab Spring demands

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Boy at Amman protest calling for reform - April 2011Image source, AFP
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Protests calling for reform have been largely peaceful in Jordan

King Abdullah of Jordan has managed to dampen down protests demanding reform and regime change as the Arab Spring revolts have erupted in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and across North Africa.

But political analysts are sceptical about whether Jordan will be able to realise the changes demanded by street protesters since January.

Jordanian demonstrators are calling for the election of the prime minister by popular vote, want to see corruption seriously tackled and unemployment - which tops 13% - alleviated.

Protests here have been smaller and mainly peaceful, with no calls for the king to be removed.

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Awn al-Khasawneh is the latest in a long line of prime ministers

The king has responded by establishing a national dialogue committee tasked with amending the constitution to give the public greater political say.

Last week, the absolute monarch also unveiled a new system to select future cabinets. Starting next year he will involve parliament in forming cabinets until prime ministers can be popularly elected.

The king also wants to see Jordan's 33 political parties merge into political groupings such as left, right and centre from which a prime minister can emerge. He has said this process could take up to three years.


But independent analyst Labib Kamhawi called this tinkering with the system as a "waste of time".

"There is no need to establish such a mechanism. Parliamentary governments are well-defined," he said.

"The problem lies in the system which prohibits political parties from taking their lawful share in parliament by manipulating the process itself by rigging elections."

Political observers and members of the opposition, including the powerful Islamic Action Front (IAF), allege that widespread election fraud took place during the last two parliamentary elections.

The IAF, which is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, said they were deprived of votes in the 2007 elections and boycotted the 2010 polls as a result.

Mr Kamhawi and other analysts such as University of Jordan international relations professor Hassan Barari accuse Jordan's all-pervasive security services, special interest groups and members of the ruling elite of undermining the drive for reform in the country.

"The ruling elite, by this I mean the bureaucracy, corrupt politicians and businessmen, have no interest in giving people genuine reforms," Mr Barari said.

"The king has realised that the status quo is untenable and swift moves to contain the street are needed. That's why he started constitutional amendments, some political reforms and firing the weakest government in a decade."

Another prime minister

On 17 October, the unpopular Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit stepped down a day after 70 out of 120 parliamentarians called for him to go. A tough ex-army general, Mr Bakhit was viewed as incapable of enacting needed reforms and his time in office had been tainted by charges of corruption.

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King Abdullah may be facing the most serious and sustained challenge to his rule

The king appointed the respected jurist and former deputy of the Hague-based International Court of Justice, Awn al-Khasawneh, as the third prime minister to take the job since protests broke out in January.

Mr Khasawneh's government is the tenth since Abdullah ascended the throne in 1999. This turnover is pretty much traditional in Jordan. The king's father, King Hussein, also changed cabinets about every eight months during his reign.

Mr Barari of the University of Jordan said the king cannot keep prime ministers in office for a longer time because people in the street would "explode". The prime ministers deflect criticism and work as a "buffer", while the monarch is viewed as responding to people's demands for change.

Observers also criticised some of the king's past choices for the post and said the endless cycle of cabinet reshuffles should be broken.

"Parliament should select a prime minister and cabinet. A government should be the outcome of political balances within parliament," said Mr Barari.

"A good electoral law and no state interference in elections are required. Let the people decide who their representatives are. Parliament will then appoint the prime minister," he added.

'No more rigging'

Prime Minister Khasawneh has announced that "there will be no more rigged elections" in Jordan. "The country will not tolerate any more manipulation in any future elections."

How will this be accomplished? He said the government will set up an independent organisation to oversee municipal and parliamentary elections. But the fact that the government is once again involved would seem to undermine the independence of the monitoring group.

Shadi Hamid and Courtney Freer of the Brookings Center in Doha called the king's tactic of replacing his prime ministers as a means to "demonstrate his seriousness about change".

But they also said the Jordanian monarchy has a "long history of pledging reform yet failing to deliver, beginning in 1989 with an initially promising but soon aborted democratic experiment".

King Abdullah recently urged parliamentarians to devise a political parties' law and amend a controversial election bill, which Islamist and other opposition claim has provided pro-monarchy landslide victories and produced weak parliaments.

While these measures are necessary to the political reform process, Mr Kamhawi still faults the powers that be with delays to realising true democratic transformation in Jordan.

"At the end of the day, it boils down to what compromise the king is willing to live with. It seems to be that we have not yet reached that point," he said.

And Shadi Hamid and Courtney Freer argue that while King Abdullah is often seen to be above the political fray he, "like all dominant monarchs, is at least partly responsible for the stagnation of political reform in Jordan".

For the first time in decades, youth, Islamist and leftist opposition protesters are challenging the monarchy's grip on power. Analysts are warning that although deference to the king persists, it may not last forever.