The Arab Spring has engulfed the Middle East, and Jordan is no exception. Since January last year, protests have gripped a country less known for trouble than its neighbors. Although Jordan shares many grievances with Tunisia and Egypt, its political constitution differs from those of presidential republics. Jordan is a monarchy with a constitution, and the vexing question of whether it is or should strive to be a constitutional monarchy has defined the national debate.
In the early stage of the protests, the situation in Jordan mirrored those of other countries. Dire economic conditions were the backdrop against which protests broke out throughout the country, and the atmosphere of resentment lent itself to political demands which, while not new, had never been expressed collectively in the preceding decade of half-hearted reforms. The escalation of protests led to the resignation of not one, but two successive prime ministers hastily appointed by King Hussein. These sacrifices, however, did not placate the masses, and attention shifted towards the king, who held the real strings of power.
Even today, King Hussein commands respect as heir to the Hashemite Dynasty, which has been one of the more liberal regimes in the Middle East. As such, the king has been able to play a moderating role without overriding the protestors’ momentum. Yet many people have rejected the idea of top-down reform administered by the king, fashionable in the past decade. Ordinary people, including the king’s traditional supporters, are now more receptive to the idea of curtailing the power of the throne. Change now requires the king to give up his grip on the country, for democratization is not only seen as the goal of the protests but the process through which the country’s problems need to be solved.
The organized protests in January of 2011 marked the beginnings of the popular reform movement in Jordan. Since the early days of the protests, which attracted more than 3,000 people in the capital city of Amman alone, the protestors have taken to the streets without any sign of relenting. The chants and banners employed in these protests air the grievances shared by a broad segment of the population, but the stage of the protests is more revealing of their demands. The streets where the protests have came alive give testimony to the economic degradation that has come to define life in Jordan and the Middle East at large. It is no surprise that the rallying calls of the protestors (“O people of Jordan revolt against poverty and hunger,” to give one example) have resonated most strongly in the backwaters of Jordanian society, that is, the streets in depressed economic areas where the stories of the unemployed, poor, and disenfranchised are lived out daily. While political demands loom large at the protests, the economic plight of the nation has provided the immediate grounds for revolting against the government. Current figures shed light on Jordan’s economic woes. A quarter of the population lives in poverty. Unemployment hovers above twelve percent according to official figures, but is estimated to be as high as thirty percent. Joblessness among youth, who constitute thirty percent of the population, is creating a resentful and dispirited generation. The country’s finances are in shambles. Jordan faces a record deficit of US$2 billion this year and foreign debt of US$11 billion, equivalent to sixty percent of its GDP. Meanwhile, the cost of living marches upwards, with consumers facing soaring commodity prices. Tunisia and Egypt, which quickly succumbed to revolution, faced similarly poor economic conditions.
Jordan’s economy has long stood on shaky economic foundations. The so-called “peace dividend” from Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel, which was supposed to put the country on a path to economic growth, turned out to be an illusion. Restructuring of the economy took place haltingly through the nineties under the supervision of the IMF and the World Bank. Despite making notable improvements, the reforms of the most recent decade failed to convincingly solve poverty, unemployment, public debt, and high dependency on foreign aid. The socioeconomic challenges discussed years before the protests were carried over into the present.
The protests that began in January reflect popular discontent with the country’s economic problems. On one level, the profound dissatisfaction with the country’s economy gave birth to a general atmosphere of resentment; the protestors demanded not only economic changes, but change in its most sweeping form directed at all defects in society, including illiberal and anti-democratic institutions.
The inclusion of political demands in the protests, however, was not only the product of the general climate. A connection between economic and political problems was forged in the popular conception. The people directed their anger towards none other than the government, holding officials accountable for mismanaging the economy and failing to tackle corruption. The resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai, who enacted many unpopular policies, became the objective of early protests. The government, unelected by the people and based on undemocratic rule, had failed to solve the fundamental problems of the country’s economy, and so economic grievances became inextricably linked to long-standing criticism of the country’s political institutions.
Above the Fray
The people demanded change, and King Hussein was quick to provide it. As the January protests showed no signs of abating, the king sacked Prime Minister Rifai. In his place, the king installed Marouf Bakhit and named Jordan’s ninth cabinet in eleven years. Fast forward to October, Bakhit was out the door and replaced with Awn Khasawneh, a prominent jurist who served on the International Court of Justice.
It is a testament to the strength of the Hashemite Dynasty that King Hussein has emerged by and large unscathed from the months of protests. While the fortunes of prime ministers have proven to be as variable as the weather, the king seems to have succeeded in standing above the fray. He appeared twice so far as the deus ex machina, removing incompetent leaders according to the wishes of the people. He suffered a lapse of judgment on his initial intervention. Bakhit, the king’s first replacement in the wake of the protests, had served as prime minister from 2005 to 2007. He was accused of overseeing the rigged parliamentary election of 2007, which promptly brought about his first resignation that year and indirectly his second. Even though the people continue to venerate their sovereign, King Hussein’s complicity in the current political structure has not been lost on the minds of the protestors. The king of Jordan is not a figurehead who steps in only during times of trouble. He handpicks the prime minister and until recently the cabinet. He appoints all forty members of the upper house of the National Assembly, which can shoot down any legislation from the lower house. He exercises the power to dissolve parliament and fire the prime minister, passes laws by royal decree, and trumpets the country’s policies in international settings including the World Economic Forum where he makes regular appearances. As such, Jordan’s poor economic record is as much his record as it is that of the officials whom he appointed. The protests on the street are as much an indictment against his leadership as they are against the prime ministers who bore the immediate brunt of the people’s anger.
The king who intervenes to remove prime ministers is therefore less a benevolent lord, who obligingly steps in to right a wrong, than a politician immersed in the country’s affairs, and one who dissociates himself from problems for which he is partly responsible when the time of reckoning approaches. He flies off to that sanctified perch above the fray, a sanctity, it should not be forgotten, that is enforced as much by laws against criticism of the king as the genuine admiration people have towards the sovereign. All the while, his loyal officials take the fall, making sacrifices in the service of the king, so that he can reign another day.
Many commentators have noted the people are calling for the downfall of the “government” (hukouma) rather than the “regime” (nizam). Yet this distinction, taken in its English meaning, does not seem to fully capture the political issues at stake. The protestors are not just demanding that the government, i.e. the executive, be replaced. If this were all that the people wanted, they would be falling for the king’s strategy of deflecting resentment towards the prime minister who, while responsible for the country’s stalled economic and political reforms, is not the only obstacle to democracy. The protestors are also challenging the way in which the government is chosen, which raises deeper question about the political order of the country. Instead of a cabinet handpicked by the king that dominates over a hamstrung legislature, a government drawn from a parliamentary majority born of free and fair elections would have legitimate mandate to rule the country.
Thus, the real demand of the protest movement is something more than the downfall of the government and less than the downfall of the regime. Although no serious opposition group in Jordan is trying to abolish the monarchy, the protestors want to abolish royal prerogatives and restore power to the people. A constitutional monarchy similar to the British model seems to be the best outcome. It is to the disadvantage of the protestors that the “downfall of the regime” has come to mean abolition of the monarchy, for their political demands strike at the fundamental relationship between the people and the sovereign. In this latter sense, it is indeed nizam not hukouma that captures what is wrong about the country’s politics in the eyes of the protestors. Caught in these ambiguities, the protestors appear less to be defining the terms of the debate than being defined by the political language of that country.
The Lost Decade
Did it have come to this? Was there no chance for political and economic reform before the 2011 protests? The raft of government initiatives floated in the decade before the protests show that King Hussein and his advisors had long entertained the idea of top-down reform. Ever since assuming the throne, King Hussein rolled out one program after another, addressing the economic and political problems of the country. The aims of these programs were sensitive to people’s needs, but the authors of these programs equally stressed the importance of implementing reforms in a steady and deliberate fashion. This conservative approach to reform meant that the king had a role in politics as the shepherd leading the way to democratic pastures while protecting the flock against violent change manufactured by Islamist opposition forces. At the time, when economic conditions were not as dire as they are today, this argument held more currency among the people.
The promises of reform came to virtually nothing. The Jordan-First Initiative (2002), the National Agenda (2005), and the We Are All Jordan Initiative (2006) presented elaborate plans for the future, but none made significant changes to the country’s political and economic structures. Marwan Muasher of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes, “Instead of holistically addressing all needed areas of reform, reform programs were instead reduced to ad-hoc initiatives that did not add up to any serious and structural changes in government systems.”
If anything, the country appears to have taken a step backwards. In 1992, Jordan had received the highest ever marks for an Arab country, scoring three on political rights and three on civil liberties in Freedom House’s yearly assessment. In 2011, Freedom House classified Jordan as “not free,” downgrading its scores to six on political rights and five on civil liberties. Opposition parties, namely, members of the Islamist Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, are tied down by laws that impose various restrictions on what party members can do. Freedom of expression is limited, with ninety-four percent of journalists reporting that they practice self-censorship. The state monitors what goes on in mosques, trade unions, and non-governmental organizations, and requires each to seek its permission before engaging in substantive activities. Security forces have been efficient at enforcing these and other controls.
While protestors expect nothing less than comprehensive reform, changes to the election law are most pressing. Jordan is one of three countries in the world that use the single non-transferable vote (SNTV), the other two being Afghanistan and Vanuatu. Under SNTV, a voter can choose only one candidate in a multi-seat district. This system is known to discourage the formation of political parties and favor candidates with strong tribal connections. In addition, districts are drawn and apportioned in such a way that rural and tribal areas have disproportionate weight.
Even though elections in the past have been called “free and transparent” by monitors, it is a stretch to call Jordan a genuine democracy. Because of the odd voting system, the lower house of the National Assembly is unrepresentative of the population and filled mostly with pro-government delegates, who rubber stamp legislation. Even if the lower house were to become more representative and willing to govern on its own, it would soon find that its power to initiate legislation is limited under the current constitution. While checks on democratic will are necessary, the fundamental issue is that the people do not have a serious shot at governing through their representatives in the first place. In one branch, the unelected prime minister appointed by the king is not directly accountable to the people. In another branch, too many restrictions tie down the lower house before it can even start to govern.
Jordan’s rulers had over ten years to reform the country’s political institutions and meet the people’s demands. In the interest of stable transition, they asked for support and the people acquiesced. When revolutionary fervor grew in proportion to deteriorating economic conditions, the record of the past decade was put on trial, and people were reminded of something they knew all along, which is that the country’s economic and political reforms had made no progress. The people had expressed desire for reform in one form or another during the past decade, but what distinguishes the protests today from those earlier expressions is the sweeping nature of their demands. In addition to winning back foundational freedoms of speech, assembly, and expression, the people want election laws that fairly represent the political and ideological spectrum of the country and an elected government answerable to the people.
The Road Ahead
In the summer last year, as protestors sustained their momentum and unrest spread to southern towns in Jordan, the king, realizing that sacking the prime minister was not enough, publicly stated that Jordan would transition to an elected government in a televised address, although he did not offer a specific timetable. He reappeared a few days later to say that the process could take “at least two to three years.”
It is questionable as to whether the king can continue to set the pace of reform. The time when the people took what the king said at face value has passed. A confluence of events has altered the terms of dialogue between the people and the sovereign. A revolutionary spirit sweeping the Middle East and sharply deteriorating economic conditions have exposed the seeds of discontent.
The people who have taken to the streets come from different backgrounds and may have different priorities. But for the first time a large swath of the population has put up a united front. The traditional division between Jordanians of Palestinian origin and East Bankers has less meaning than it once did. It was once thought East Bankers would not sign up on the “power to the people” agenda, fearing that political reform would empower the Palestinian electorate at their expense.
The situation looks different today. In a troubling signal to the king, who could always rely on East Bankers’ support, protests have broken out in rural communities with equal ferocity. Although East Bankers may dislike the idea of giving up the political advantage that they have enjoyed under an electoral system that heavily favors rural districts, they are now more resentful of a government which has failed to improve the economy, than they are wary of Palestinian resurgence. This resentment and desire for change override tribal differences and, if anything, highlight common interests in a new order based on freedom and prosperity. Economic trends further militate against delaying reforms any longer. The deep structural problems in the economy will not go away anytime soon, even if the United States and Saudi Arabia pour aid into the country, as has been the case. As long as economic conditions remain dire, the momentum of the protests will not die out. Pressure on the existing political order will continue. One side will have to give way, and it is probable that those who are pushed up against a wall of economic degradation will not be the first to buckle.
At the moment, the protest movement is keeping up pressure on the government. Jordan has not witnessed the level of violence seen in other Arab countries, but a full-blown revolution with blood coursing through the streets is not the only way in which the democratic will expresses itself and creates the momentum for change. Even though deference to the monarch has moderated the tone of the protests, this element of stability has not derailed the protest movement, which has brought down two prime ministers and forced the king to promise to hand power over to an elected government. Some say that promises are made to be broken, but this is a promise made to a larger, more united segment of the population that is more conscious of its power, more incensed by persisting economic problems, and more engaged by the ideal of liberal democracy. The possibility of reform is greater than ever, but whether it is enough to enact change in the short term is a question that only the people of Jordan and their leaders can answer.
Staff Writer Younghoon Moon