The Middle East Channel

What’s (maybe) new in Jordan

King Abdullah of Jordan just appointed his fifth prime minister since the start of the 2011 regional Arab Spring, and a sixth will soon be on the way. Veteran politician Abdullah an-Nsour was appointed to replace outgoing Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh, who served for five months in the wake of the surprise resignation of pro-reform ...


King Abdullah of Jordan just appointed his fifth prime minister since the start of the 2011 regional Arab Spring, and a sixth will soon be on the way. Veteran politician Abdullah an-Nsour was appointed to replace outgoing Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh, who served for five months in the wake of the surprise resignation of pro-reform Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh (who had served for sixth months). New Prime Minister Nsour is charged with a transitional role by overseeing upcoming parliamentary elections, after which another new prime minister will emerge. Jordan’s next elections will most likely be held in December 2012 or January 2013.

Jordanian prime ministers don’t tend to stay in office for lengthy terms, but even by Jordanian standards, the pace of government change these past two years has been rapid. For some Jordanians, this amounts to a fairly weak and all-too-familiar tactic for the monarchy to create the semblance of change, without actually having any. But for others, there is a logic to the succession of governments, each charged with a different task, building on the next stage of reform. 

Nsour is a veteran politician, who has previously been elected to parliament (twice), appointed to the senate (also twice), and served in numerous cabinet posts including minister for foreign affairs, planning, media, trade, and investment. But he also has a reputation as an independent thinker, with some significant credibility as an advocate for democratic reform and as an outspoken critic of corruption in government (a major topic of concern for many Jordanians). His appointment was greeted with cautious optimism and even some surprise, including by me, since many media outlets had reported for weeks that another regime veteran, the more conservative Faisal Fayez, would be the appointee. Nsour was one of the few dissident voices in the recently dissolved parliament, and had opposed the controversial electoral law that he is now charged with implementing.

What happens after these elections, however, might indeed be new. The king has said several times that the next prime minister will be drawn, for the first time, from parliament itself (closer to a true parliamentary system) rather than royally-appointed. The stakes for the coming election, then, are high indeed, because the implication is that the carousel of governments should be over: with a new government preferably serving a full four-year parliamentary term. Yet, as has been the case for many years now, there is considerable disagreement among Jordanians over the nature of the electoral law, the powers of parliament, and whether Jordan is on a path to reform at all. Put another way, some Jordanians feel the wave of the Arab Spring has passed by, while others feel that the moment for change is now.

Both the monarchy and many in the opposition have made the latter argument, albeit to different degrees. I discussed these questions with King Abdullah in May, and in that meeting he argued (as he has in other interviews since, including even on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart) that the Arab Spring has actually been liberating for the regime, allowing it to finally embark on a round or reforms it has long sought over the objections of more entrenched conservative elites. These reforms include a revised electoral law, amendments to the constitution, and the establishment of a constitutional court and an independent electoral commission. Any matters that remain unaddressed, he argued, can be taken up in the next parliament. But for that reason, the king emphasized, opposition forces need to participate in order to help create meaningful reform in Jordan.

Critics, in contrast, counter that the election law remains gerrymandered with unequal districts designed to over-represent rural areas and under-represent urban areas that are more heavily Palestinian and sometimes include deeper bases of Islamist support. They argue further that parliament remains weak, much like the country’s party system, and that the issues of institutional checks, balances, and greater separation of powers remain largely unaddressed. In sum, many in the opposition have called for a more constitutional monarchy, an empowered and more democratic parliament, and an independent judiciary.

The differences are at times especially apparent in the Jordanian streets. On Friday, October 5, Jordanians returned to the streets once again in an Islamist-led protest to "save the nation" and return to reform before it is too late. The Muslim Brotherhood repeatedly claimed that they would bring 50,000 people to the streets in a broad-based (not just Islamist) demonstration reflecting the diversity of Jordan. "Loyalist" groups countered by claiming they would field 200,000 people on the same day, in the same square, at the same time — raising the specter of violence if bultajiyya (political thugs) emerged from within loyalist ranks to attack participants in the reform rally. That scenario was averted when the Public Security Directorate met several times with loyalist organizers and ultimately persuaded them to postpone their counter-demonstration.

By the end of the day, the Islamist-led rally did indeed include many non-Islamists, including dozens of organizations, parties, and popular movements. Their numbers may have reached as high as 15,000, but probably not more. The mistake may simply have been promising any number at all, since this in turn made the numbers the focus of debate, rather than specific reforms. Both sides declared victory, with conservatives jeering the lower-than-predicted turnout, while the Islamists pointed to what are, after all, very large numbers for a demonstration in Jordan. Both have a point, however, and so neither side can really afford to site Friday’s rallies as definitively for or against a particular vision for reform in Jordan. Much of the state-backed media had spent more than a week painting the rally as solely an Islamist affair and questioning its impact on national unity. Underscoring divisions with the Jordanian opposition, multiple key reform groups either chose not to participate or dropped out at the last minute, including professional associations, labor unions, some regional popular movements, and the National Front for Reform, led by former Prime Minister Ahmad Ubaydat.

In many respects, Jordan’s political debates have reached a kind of stalemate, with no implication that this is placid or even stable. Just as many of Jordan’s Islamists routinely over-estimate their level of support, so too do many pro-regime conservatives under-estimate the level of anger and tension underlying Jordanian politics. And these internal political debates take place in the context of other severe challenges to Jordanian stability, including a weakened economy, regional turmoil, border tensions with Syria, and waves of more than 150,000 Syrian refugees in the kingdom. In this difficult context, whether Jordan can succeed in achieving political reform that ensures domestic stability will of course depend on the perceptions of the Jordanian people, and whether reforms are seen as real and therefore as new, rather than the recycling of old ideas, reshuffling governments, and generally playing a new game with an old playbook.

The next stage in Jordan’s battles over reform will be the elections themselves, which will be conducted under a controversial new law that maintains the single-vote per district system (for 108 districts), while adding 15 seats as a quota to guarantee women’s representation, and now 27 more seats for national lists (including but not restricted to political parties). Angry over the election law, the Islamist movement says it will boycott the elections, even as King Abdullah has repeatedly suggested that boycotting at such a critical moment would be a mistake of historic proportions. Many pro-reform Jordanians have also been harshly critical of the election law, yet they are now torn between principle and pragmatism: to participate in the polls or not?

What would be most disappointing to Jordan’s large pro-reform constituency, would be to go through this entire process for more than two years, but end up with a parliament that looks amazingly like all those that have gone before. As many Jordanian reformers having pointed out, the greatest danger would be an electoral outcome that simply institutionalizes polarization and political crisis in the kingdom, rather than providing the means of redress for these same issues. To avoid the former scenario, Jordan’s next elected parliament would have to be more diverse, inclusive, and empowered than any parliament in Jordanian history. That will be a tall order even if the more than two million newly registered voters do participate in the next elections. If participation rates are low or the boycott extends well beyond just the Islamist movement, then polarization with Jordanian politics may continue, but not under the dome of the parliament.

Curtis R. Ryan @Curtisryan1 is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy

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