Concessions fail to halt protests in Jordan

Civil unrest is gathering pace in Jordan as King Abdullah II’s concessions fail to appease the crowds that form almost weekly on the streets of Amman and other cities. Published in MEED, 7 November 2012

Jordanians are used to putting their clocks back by an hour on the last Friday in October as the seasons change and the days get shorter. This year, though, the clocks stood still, after the government made a surprise decision to cancel the usual switch from summer time to winter time.

It is tempting to see it as a metaphor for the country as a whole. Both politically and economically, Jordan is at a standstill and it is hard to have any confidence that things will improve quickly.

On the political front, there has been plenty of talk of reform and some important changes have been made over the past year. A Constitutional Court was established to ensure new laws accorded with the constitution and an Independent Elections Commission was established to oversee the conduct of future polls. But there have been steps backwards as well as forwards, such as the recent amendments to the Press and Publications Law, which require websites to be officially licensed and which appear designed to suppress rather than promote free speech.

IMF bailout for Jordan

In economic terms, the situation is, if anything, even worse. The government has had to turn to the Washington-headquartered IMF this year to bail it out with $2bn in aid, as the cost of its fuel imports has risen. The burden of caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria adds another dimension to the pressures the government is facing.

At the same time, unemployment remains high, at about 13 per cent, and corruption is widely seen as a critical issue. According to the London-based Capital Economics, Jordan is expected to be among the slowest growing economies in the region this year, with gross domestic product rising by just 2 per cent.

It is the economic issues that underpin the ongoing protest movement, known as herak. The reforms that have been introduced have not been enough to appease the crowds that form on the streets of Amman and other cities almost every Friday. Whether King Abdullah II will be willing to offer greater concessions is now the central question for the country.

At the moment, it appears unlikely that he will. In a speech to a group of 3,000 public figures in Amman on 23 October, the king called on the opposition to channel their efforts through the ballot box when the next parliamentary elections are held in January. He also called for people to be patient with the efforts of the Anti-Corruption Commission to tackle graft. More surprisingly, the king directly addressed those calling for the regime to be overthrown.

“Let us speak frankly today about some slogans raised by a limited number of protesters: ‘overthrow the regime’. It is regrettable that some very limited number of the herak protesters have raised this slogan,” he told the assembled dignitaries. “Every individual in this society is part of the regime. If the intention behind these slogans was to undermine the Hashemite umbrella of this country, then let me be absolutely clear: governing for us Hashemites was never at any point a gain that we sought, but rather a responsibility, a duty and a sacrifice … I will continue true to this path. Being king to me is not a gain I seek, it is a responsibility.”

It was an unusually frank speech and the first time the king had directly dealt with calls for regime change, at least in public. But, increasingly, people are looking for concrete measures rather than political rhetoric.

Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies in Amman, was one of the people invited to the Royal Court to hear the speech.

Regime change

“For the first time he addressed this issue [of calls for regime change],” he says. “I totally agree with him that it’s a minority, who are calling for regime change in Jordan. It is not a majority. It is not the mainstream yet and I want to underline this; ‘yet’.

“We are in a very rapidly changing moment in the Middle East. In many countries, people have said we want dignity and freedom and a few months later they ended up toppling the regime. This is the story of the Arab Spring. It started in every country with very small demands that became very big demands. Who knows how things will change and when Jordanians will shift from economic, social and political reform slogans to bigger slogans.”

Jordan has been caught in the middle of the Arab Uprisings. With Egypt to the southwest and Syria to the north, it has seen at close hand both the violence of a regime that wants to cling to power and the optimism that greets a revolution. Those two elements have been both a spur to protests in Jordan and a check on it. No one wants to see the events of Syria visited upon the streets of Amman, Zarqa or Irbid, but many would like to see something of the Egyptian experience.

In response, the authorities have toed a careful line between allowing public protests with a frequency that is unusual for the region, but stopping short of any fundamental changes to the structure of power. The protests have been seen as a form of safety valve for the regime, allowing protesters to have their say without critically endangering the wider system. But if authorities hoped that the protests might eventually run out of steam, they will have been disappointed. On 5 October, a ‘Save the Homeland’ rally was one of the largest of the past two years, attracting an estimated 12-15,000 people to downtown Amman.

In the past, King Abdullah has tried to deflect public criticism by sacrificing his prime minister. Since coming to the throne in February 1999 he has appointed 11 prime ministers, and their longevity in office has been declining sharply in recent years.

Jordan’s changing government

Last year, there were three different holders of the office and there have been as many this year too. The most recent change came when Fayez Tarawneh, who was appointed in April, resigned in October, to be replaced by Abdullah Ensour.

In the letter of appointment that King Abdullah sent to Ensour on 10 October, he offered a familiar message, laying out the need for reforms across the spectrum of political, economic and social policy. The problem in the past, however, has not been the willingness of prime ministers to push through fundamental reforms; it has been the unwillingness of the king to approve them. That much was clear in September when the king ordered the government to reverse its reforms of fuel subsidies in the face of large public protests.

Parliament too has been a victim of political expediency and has yet to serve a full four-year term under King Abdullah. After the 15th parliament was dissolved in November 2009, it was a year before elections were held. The parliament elected in November 2010 was itself dissolved less than two years later, in October this year.

“In terms of political progress and constitutional reforms, there hasn’t been enough,” says Eiman Elnaiem, Middle East & North Africa programme officer at the London-based group Electoral Reform International Services. “There’s still an evident imbalance of power. The king still has a lot of power. He can veto legislation, he can appoint the prime minister. A short-term dissolution of parliament and hiring a new prime minister is not evidence of any progress. The country is not moving backwards but it’s not going forward either. It’s not progressing in terms of meeting the needs of the people.”

The public appear to be increasingly unimpressed. New elections are due to be held on 23 January, under a recently revised voting system. This gives 27 seats in the lower house, the House of Representatives, to candidates from a national list, with the remaining 107 seats filled by candidates chosen in 45 electoral districts around the country.

Critics say the new system continues to favour groups loyal to the regime and most people are expected to vote along tribal lines, as they have in the past. Many opposition groups are boycotting the poll in protest at what they see as an unfair system, including the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing which is led by Hamza Mansour.

“The major problem of the electoral system is the representative gap,” says Al-Rantawi. “In some places, it is 7,000 voters with one seat. In other areas it is 70,000 voters for one seat. It is a very big gap. Having the election under this law, with opposition groups boycotting it, we will end up with elections being part of the problem instead of being part of the solution. We will end up with a parliament, which will be copied and pasted from previous parliaments. This is not the desired outcome of the reform process we’ve been talking about for years.

“We will end up with a majority of MPs elected on a tribal basis, not on a political basis. They are not representing any political or intellectual trends, they are representing their families, their tribes and their neighbourhoods.

“We need political parties with economic and political platforms. We want to see parliamentary government with an opposition in parliament, on a political basis, on a policy programme or ideological basis, but not on a tribal or family basis.”

Registered voters

The Independent Elections Commission announced on 17 October that 2,281,606 people had registered to vote of a possible 3.7 million that were eligible. According to the Jordan Times, less than 50 per cent of eligible voters in the capital bothered to register.

How much longer the stuttering political reform process can continue before other events overtake it remains to be seen, but the strategy adopted by the king looks increasingly ill-suited to the needs and demands of the country.

He may also be guilty of some wishful thinking in his approach. In his 10 October letter to Ensour, King Abdullah referred to the Jordanian uprisings, but he referred to it in the past tense. “History and national memory will record that the Jordanian Spring was civilised, characterised by a high sense of responsibility and awareness, and a model of peacefulness,” he wrote.

Unfortunately for the king, the process in Jordan is still very much in the present rather than the past. He is not quite fighting for the survival of the Hashemite monarchy, but the day when that might happen looks to be moving closer rather than further away.