Saturday, April 9, 2011

Change Without Revolution: Jordan's Missed Opportunity?

Guest author: Andrew Spath

The makings of a revolution are not in Jordan. Opposition is divided, the monarchy maintains widespread support as an institution, and reformists are directing grievances against Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit, who succeeded Samir Rifa’i after the king dissolved the cabinet in February, and his new government. In general, the reform activists are appealing to King Abdullah II to expedite responses to their demands, not calling for his ouster.

Despite a lack of full consensus among the opposition, demands generally include a new and representative election law to replace the law drafted last May and used in the November 2010 elections; dissolution of parliament; a new election, based on a new law, to replace parliament; stronger parliamentary power relative to the executive; greater freedoms of speech, assembly, and press; and major strides against corruption and profiteering among government officials.

But opposition is highly fragmented, and the divisions and disagreements among the opposition are hurting their overall cause. In an attempt to bring the formal opposition parties to join a national dialogue on reforms, King Abdullah established the National Dialogue Committee (NDC) in March under the patronage of the president of the Senate, Taher Masri. The Islamist movement, particularly the Islamic Action Front (IAF), is calling for PM Bakhit to resign and for the NDC to be under the patronage of the King himself, making him the reference point for demands and reforms. Parties among the leftists and pan-Arabist opposition are more willing to wait for the government’s response to the suggestions of the National Dialogue Committee in the coming months, as are the centrist parties like the National Constitutional Party (NCP).

These blocs of formal opposition not only differ in respect to their on the prime minister and his cabinet, but also on the character of a new election law. There is a shared call for abolishing the one-person, one-vote system, but the Islamists support for party list elections worries the less-established centrist and leftist parties. The formal opposition blocs also diverge on their views of the kingship, with calls for reduced executive powers of varying degrees. The king currently appoints the prime minister by royal decree, and many opposition groups want to revoke those powers and give them to the parliament. Resulting from these disagreements and others, formal opposition parties have postponed holding the Friday protests that have become regular in the last two months.

There seems to be little movement among the informal opposition this weekend as well. Successive episodes of reformist mobilization in the form of street protests and sit-ins turned violent at the antagonistic countermobilization of anti-reformists. Two Fridays ago, a demonstration led by Jordanian youth called March 24 Shabab (March 24 Youth) populated Gamal Abdel Nasser Square outside the Interior Ministry in Amman. After 30 hours of populating the square in peaceful protest, anti-reformist protesters and the introduction of the darak (riot police) escalated the situation to a violent attack against the reformists leaving two dead. The protests and subsequent clashes may have taken a temporary toll on the efforts of the constituent youth associations, exposing disagreements among the constituent groups. Last Friday, two prominent factions of the March 24 Shabab Movement did not participate in the sit-in at Ras al-Ain in downtown Amman. Jayeen (We Are Coming) officially withdrew from the March 24 Shabab Movement, and Wihda (the youth of the Democratic Popular Unity Party) did not withdraw but decided not to attend as a result of disorganization.

There is a real window of opportunity here, in the wake of violent events and amidst a temporary recess in the mass street demonstrations of previous weeks, for positive government intervention. The Jordanian government has a chance to exhibit a real commitment to political and economic reforms before potential escalation.

Pessimism abounds, however, as previous opportunities have been largely squandered. Last May, for example, seven months after King Abdullah II dissolved the parliament (for a second time since he took power in 1999) amidst allegations of corruption and inefficacy, the government’s new electoral law – marketed to be a significant step toward political fairness and transparency – was a major disappointed among reformists and opposition groups hoping for fairer representation. Patience among pro-democracy advocates is wearing thin after successive iterations of what Jillian Schwedler identified as the cycle that stagnates Jordanian politics: “new elections law, new parliament, stalemate on economic reforms, dissolution of parliament, flood of temporary laws, repeat.”

The Jordanian government would be mistaken to think that the protests will be placated by small economic measures or shuffling cabinet positions. Since January, the government has increased salaries and pensions for public employees and the military, increased subsidies on fuels and staple foods, drafted a law creating a teachers union, replaced a cabinet and prime minister, established the National Dialogue Committee, and recommitted publicly to continued economic and political reforms without specification. King Abdullah stated last week that he personally guaranteed the changes suggested by the National Dialogue Committee and the potential for constitutional amendments, but only time will tell the seriousness with which he is willing to do so and whether he is willing to cede some of his own power in the process.

Taking a short-term view, these are positive developments. But while these efforts are surely welcomed and constructive, the protesters and reformists have been calling for significant structural changes in Jordan’s politics and comprehensive freedoms. King Abdullah, and King Hussein before him, have pulled short-term levers to pacify dissent on numerous occasions, only to disappoint on long-term, transformational political reforms.

Seizing the opportunity is all the more important in the face of serious threats to stability. Reinforcing social cleavages in Jordan make for a tension-filled political situation, especially during a period in which society is increasingly mobilized and politicized. Despite significant internal diversity, Jordanian social cleavages include a division between East Bank Transjordanians and Jordanians of Palestinian origin. But the divisions are reified in other identifiable ways. East Bank Jordanians constitute the influential tribes in Jordan, maintaining “tribal culture” through traditional networks, while the Palestinian Jordanians, partly as a function of historical uprootedness, rely primarily on the immediate family. The East Bank Jordanians hold the highest positions in the military and security apparatus and are heavy in public sector employment, while the Palestinian Jordanians dominate the private sector. Recent and impending economic reforms therefore exacerbate these divergent identities and create tension among these social groups. As does Jordan’s relationship with Israel and its policies and positions on Palestinian and Israeli peace.

Recent protests exemplify these troubling signs of division. Naseem Tarawneh provides a revealing first-hand account and analysis of the social divide playing out during recent weeks of protest and social activity. She describes the way that public discourse turned away from politics and economics and possibilities for reform, and instead slowly became dominated by the issue of loyalty, pitting the “loyalist” anti-reformists against the reformers who were painted as the traitorous Islamist Palestinians. These divisions are not only manifest on the street but online. Tarawneh points to facebook groups for “Pure Jordanians” for “100% Jordanians only,” and the “[s]eemingly endless calls in support of all the ‘brave Jordanians’ who ‘cleansed’ the Interior Circle from the ‘insurgents’, the ‘Islamists’ and the ‘Palestinians.’”

Calls for, and affirmations of, national unity are ubiquitous in Jordanian political discourse. The government has established major initiatives in recent years for the purpose of creating a sense of national unity with the “Jordan First” and “We Are All Jordan” campaigns. It is clear to anyone who has lived in Jordan or follows the politics of the country that these campaigns have failed to achieve their purpose.

Guest author: Andrew Spath

Empty promises and weak responses to reformist demands will maintain an ever-risky status quo. While it may be impossible to bridge the social divide in the country, significant liberal reforms are the only means to create a sense of fairness in the system and satisfy political demands. King Abdullah has the opportunity to truly champion these reforms, satisfy some of the key demands of the reformists without risking his own position, and prevent an uptick in social unrest. We will find out after the NDC’s suggestions and the government’s decisions on implementation whether the regime will continue tweaking the system incrementally or re-energize a now stagnant process of liberalization.

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