The European Union has just released a positive ‘ENP Country Progress Report’ on Jordan, praising the Kingdom’s substantial progress in areas related to political reform, governance, and transparency. According to the EU Ambassador to Jordan Patrick Renault, Jordan is on the right track. The EU is far from alone in presenting the small Hashemite Kingdom as one of the few success-stories in the recent years’ efforts in democracy-promotion in the Middle East. In a discussion about democratic reforms in the so-called ‘moderate Sunni Arab’ states Condoleezza Rice stated that "Jordan is making really great strides in its political evolution." When Barack Obama had a one-to-one dinner with King Abdallah II during his presidential campaign, the story goes that he was so impressed with the visionary and reform-eager young Hashemite ruler that he told him: "Your Majesty, we need to clone you."
But how then to explain that the most recent annual report from Freedom House actually downgraded Jordan to ‘not free’? Indeed, by some measures Jordan is today less free than in 1989, when its much-claimed democratic transition began. This does not, however, mean that Jordan’s ‘transition to nowhere’ should be framed as an example of ‘failure of democratization.’ Instead, Jordan should be seen as an example of a ‘liberalizing autocracy’: always appearing as being in the midst of a promising reform process, but still always an autocracy. Those in real power are not accountable to their citizens and they do not aim to give up or even share their power. They are only following Lampedusa’s old advice that "if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." Such liberalizing autocracies should not be perceived as being a transitory state on the road toward democracy, but rather as a distinct and quite resilient kind of authoritarian regime.
Liberalization in such autocracies typically focuses on areas of special concern to international audiences which do not touch the heart of power. One of these areas is the field of civil-society, to which democracy-promoters have assigned much attention due to the role of NGOs in the Eastern European democratic transition. The King has several times emphasized the importance of a dynamic civil-society and has called on his fellow Jordanians to get involved in the more than 2,000 NGOs. However, this ‘civil-society promoting’ policy is supplemented by a number of subtle techniques which ensure that NGOs will not turn into a significant political force. These include the ‘Law of Societies’, which states that NGOs must obtain licenses from the authorities and are moreover not allowed to be political or to ‘contradict with the public order’. It also provides authorities with supervisory power over budgets and authority to reject foreign funding. If the deliberately vaguely-stated requirements are not fulfilled, it is possible to dissolve an NGO or put it under administration. This has been the case with Islamic Charity Center Society, which is one of the largest NGOs in Jordan. The board of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated health and education charity was replaced by the Ministry of Social Development in 2006 based on quite unclear charges about economic irregularities and violations of the bylaws, but the members have so far not been brought to trial. Finally, so-called Royal NGOs, wealthy associations sponsored by members of the royal family, make up nearly 60 percent of Jordan’s civil society, crowding out more independent NGOs.
The highly praised economic liberalizations initiated by the King similarly seem to have little to do with democratization. Rather, they represent a ‘market first, democracy later…maybe’ depoliticization of the public sphere. Selective economic liberalizations have primarily given rise to crony capitalists more concerned about business than democracy. Moreover, anti-corruption campaigns have also been rather selective while independent critics have paid a heavy price for bringing attention to stories about corruption within the elite. When two former Parliamentarians did so, they were convicted for harming Jordan’s international reputation and imprisoned. Subsequently they were pardoned by the gracious King, but due to the prison-sentences they had — very conveniently — lost their eligibility to the parliament and the right to form NGOs.
What about the rule of law? Jordan is no arbitrary oriental despotism, but a constitutional monarchy. The powers of the King are defined by the constitution and the citizens are entitled with basic rights. However, the constitution is not only written by but also for the regime. Thus, the King is given extensive powers without being accountable and a nominal recognition of fundamental civil liberties is often balanced by various exceptions. The King has famously stated that the ‘sky is the limit’ when it comes to the level of freedom of expression, which is also protected by the constitution. In reality, there are ‘red lines’ regarding criticism of the King, the royal court, ‘friendly nations’, or statements that may hurt Jordan’s international reputation. Similarly, while Jordan can boast about being the first Arab country with a freedom of information act, the law makes it possible to withhold information concerning ‘national security’ and due to a very broad interpretation of what this means, critics complain that it has become even more difficult for journalists and citizens to get access.
A reflection of how it often makes more sense speaking of ‘rule by law’ than ‘rule of law’ is the Jordanian election system. On the one hand, Jordan has since 1989 — with a few exceptions — regularly held both local and parliamentary-elections, which from the perspective of democracy-spotters is a promising sign of a democratic transition. While being (almost) spared for simple fraud, these elections have on the other hand been regulated by means of a highly controversial election law. Due to the voting-procedure and the distribution of constituencies, the elections are accused of favoring ‘independent’ candidates over political parties, rural tribal areas over more regime-critical urban ones and Transjordanians over the Palestinian part of the Jordanian population. Recently, a new election law has been presented. Despite of official statements that it will "ensure fairness and transparency" in the 2010 election, the new election law falls short of recommendations made by a coalition of Jordanian NGOs and parties and some go as far as to describe it as a "declaration of the death of the Kingdom’s political reform efforts."
Although the parliament, according to the King, is "a main pillar of political work in Jordan" and it nominally constitutes the legislative power, it does not hold any political significance and it is marked by surprisingly little political debate. Real politics takes place in the royal court, whereas the parliament is primarily an instrument for the distribution of patronage among loyal supporters of the regime. Thus, 80 percent of Jordanians think that their MPs primarily serve their own financial interests and only 4 percent state that the primary function of the parliament is to legislate and to check the government. If this ‘main pillar of political work’ becomes too much of an obstacle to the passing of what the regime considers important legislation, the parliament is suspended by the King and the country is then ruled by means of ‘temporary laws’, which often become permanent. This was the case between 2001 and 2003 and since November, 2009 Jordan has once again been without a parliament.
As real power and politics are situated in the royal court, the role of the government is primarily to implement decisions taken elsewhere. Usually the prime minister and his team are reshuffled once a year as part of a never-ending elite-circulation, where members of the elite revolve between the royal court, the government and the parliament. In this way, the emergence of alternative basis of power with own client-networks is avoided. Their loyalty is at the same time maintained as they remain within the inner-circles with the privileges this implies.
Seen through this lens, it is less puzzling that two decades of reforms have been a ‘transition to nowhere’. It also becomes clear why Jordan is not an example of a ‘failure of democratization’: democratization was never the real intention, so nothing has failed. Rather, the Jordanian story should be grasped as the ‘success of (a particular upgraded form of) authoritarianism’. The Hashemite regime has managed not only to stay firmly seated without any significant opposition, but Jordan has also been successful in leaving the impression among international donors, including the EU Commission and the US president apparently, that the country is on the ‘right track’ toward democracy. Except for smaller episodes of local riots, where police-posts for instance are burned down, this ‘transition to nowhere’ has — so far at least — not lead to larger social unrest.
This ‘success’ does however come at a price. It has given rise to a political culture marked by political apathy, widespread cynicism to the official reform-lingo and a disillusion about the possibility of making changes through the official political institutions. The weakening and fragmentation of the Muslim Brotherhood has not strengthened secular political forces as an alternative. Instead, it might have fuelled a Wahhabi-salafist current. Against this background, it is natural to question if Jordan is on the right track and whether King Abdallah II as a Middle Eastern Lampedusa really constitutes such a role-model for the region.
Morten Valbjørn is an Assistant Professor at the department of political science at Aarhus University, and is co-editing a forthcoming special issue of Middle East Critique on ‘post-democratization’ in the study of Middle East politics (vol. 19/3).