Slow reform raises questions about Jordan’s stability
AMMAN - Jordan dodged “Arab spring” uprisings and remained a relatively safe haven in a turbulent region but the country’s lagging pace of political reforms poses a challenge to the kingdom’s domestic stability.
While authorities insist that the reform drive is carefully crafted to avert the type of upheaval that shook other Arab countries, analysts say the process maintained the political status quo, dashing hope for tangible change.
Jordan has endorsed new laws on election, decentralisation and political parties, amended the constitution and created a constitutional court, as well as anti-corruption and independent electoral commissions.
Also, a mechanism has been introduced under which King Abdullah II consults with parliament before naming prime ministers, a step he promised would lead to the legislature electing prime ministers as the monarch takes the backseat in running the daily affairs of state.
Analysts welcome some of the laws and reforms but say such steps failed to meet democratic expectations. They say the reforms were designed to gag Jordanian opposition, appease the West and reinforce authorities’ grip on power.
As Amman grapples with the economic, social and security effects of the war in Syria, which has led more than 600,000 refugees to flee to Jordan, officials argue that such implications bunker efforts to speed up and introduce more reforms.
Parliament is toothless and some say this is unlikely to change. Rights groups report curtailment of free expression and persecution of activists, dissidents and journalists. Freedom House in 2015 ranked Jordan “not free”, rating it 6 in political rights, with 7 the lowest score.
“The modest reforms Jordan has come up with can be viewed as good steps in general, but in reality they did not touch the core problem. They are cosmetic,” political analyst Oraib al-Rantawi, who heads the Amman-based al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, said.
“The state does not believe that genuine domestic reforms will strengthen the home front against the growing threats of next-door militant groups, such as the Islamic State (ISIS), as well as the radicalisation of youths in Jordan.”
Frustrated with poverty and unemployment — World Bank 2015 figures put youth unemployment at 28.8% — dozens of young Muslim Jordanians have joined ISIS or formed militant underground cells. Jordanian authorities recently rounded up dozens of suspected jihadists as an investigation continues into an ISIS plot to destabilise the kingdom.
For Amman, ISIS is an enemy with Jordanian blood on its hands, having burned alive in a cage a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot in January 2015 after his plane was downed over Syria. ISIS controls parts of Syria to the north and Iraq to the east. Other militant groups, such as al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, operate in Syria close to the Jordanian border.
“Jordanian decision makers are not convinced of transforming the country into a modern democratic state due to geostrategic and internal factors, and most important, a bloated foreign policy,” said researcher and political analyst Mohammad Abu Rumman.
Many complain that the reforms are shaped by foreign policy and security calculations, leading to some sort of “a restricted or limited democracy”.
“Any reform plans are carefully devised in a way that will not affect the political and security establishments. There are mixed messages on reform; the state restricts freedoms and violates human rights when necessary, while at the same time represents itself as reformist,” Abu Rumman said.
Jordan says its reform is an ongoing process. “Reforms in Jordan are not limited to a specific phase. They constitute an integral part of the state’s democratic drive,” said Information Minister Mohammed Momani. “Jordan will continue to promote responsible freedoms, which seeks the engagement of citizens in modernisation efforts.”
Abu Rumman and Rantawi agreed that Jordanian decision makers view deep reforms as a threat.
“They believe reform would create grave risks. Jordan belongs to the Arab conservative camp, which wants to sustain the status quo and prevent change threatening it,” said Abu Rumman.
For Rantawi, Jordan “has missed several reform opportunities, focusing on security issues, including the borders, and ignoring domestic stability, much-needed reforms, the bad economy and other problems.”
“The general climate in the country does not indicate that we are going to see serious and genuine reform and democratisation,” he said.
With public debt expected to reach $32 billion (83.6% of gross domestic product) and the effects of hosting Syrian refugees, Jordan continues to rely on foreign aid to support its finances.
“Parliament is weak and there is too much power in too few hands in Jordan. The security establishment’s influence is growing,” said political analyst and columnist Labib Kamhawi.
“The state has swallowed demands for genuine reforms and reproduced them in line with its own interest, regardless of what people really want. This sums up the whole thing.”