What political reforms can be expected from this parliamentary session?

On November 3rd, King Abdullah gave the speech from the Throne to open the current session of the Jordanian parliament. This speech opened what is the first ordinary session of parliament, as the session that was held following the elections was actually an extraordinary session.

His speech reiterated the government’s stated goal of providing for a gradual development of parliamentary government over a series of successive elections. In his speech he mentioned that the ideal type of parliamentary government would have not only a government but also an official opposition, both of which would be organized from parties that have defined platforms. He also called for the further development of political parties, partly by altering the way that parliamentary blocs operate, as under the current system MPs are free to switch parliamentary blocs whenever they choose to do so.

The Syrian refugee crisis was also mentioned in the speech from the throne, but it was on balance positive to see discussion of proposed reforms continuing even as that crisis continues. The King praised the armed forces in their role in handling the crisis, although Jordan has recently encountered criticism for allegedly deporting refugees seeking to enter from Syria. However, the Syria crisis, with its terrible humanitarian implications as well as the stress that it has placed on Jordan, seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

For this reason, it is good to see a focus on political reform – or even a continued mention of political reform – because this is a fundamental issue that cannot be overridden by a crisis forever. However, there are two issues that need to be mentioned. First – the regime has been discussing political reform for a long time, but reforms have not always gone forward. Indeed, the entire parliamentary process was suspended from 2001 to 2003, as it was prior to 1989. Before discussing why suspending political reform during a crisis is a bad long-term plan, it is important to note that these crises are not simply manufactured by the regime to justify delays in political reform. From 2001 to 2003 there were indeed challenges such as the second intifada and the beginning of the Iraq war, which led to a refugee exodus that continues to affect the demographics of Jordan today. The challenges then, as now, existed. It is also worth noting that Jordan is not alone in suspending parliamentary elections during times of crisis. Lebanon delayed its parliamentary elections this year amidst the conflict in Syria, in a decision that was understandable although not without controversy.

However, just because these challenges and crises occur does not mean that they merit suspending the political reform process. Passing legislation is a cumbersome and difficult process that requires many compromises, and implementing it is always a challenge as well. If the process itself is delayed by a crisis, then it will have to be restarted afterwards, and this means that further delays are inevitable. It is also possible that another crisis would occur, or the current one would continue. The point is that waiting to implement political reform at an ideal time may mean a lengthy wait for ideal circumstances that may never arise. There are actually a number of steps that could be taken now which could be implemented at the beginning of the next parliament, and if implemented would show that the regime’s pledges to implement reform have belatedly become more serious. These could include adding seats to underrepresented areas, as well as increasing the number of seats that are chosen by proportional representation.

Perhaps more challenging is the issue of parties – it is true that Jordan lacks coherent political parties in many cases, and it is also important to recognize that for a long time the regime had worked to discourage their development. A policy and an electoral system designed to be focused on distribution of largesse rather than on legislation is impossible to instantly overcome. Indeed, it could perhaps be argued that the development of political parties is something that cannot be legislated, it has to come from a change in behavior.

Political reform, if deeply embedded, will be able to survive a crisis of this type, and one of the end goals of any reform process is to ensure that the process itself need not be suspended during times of difficulty. This, fundamentally, is one of the challenges that Jordan faces during the current parliamentary session.

Could Jordan’s Courts Dissolve Parliament?

The events in Syria have attracted a substantial amount of attention, but it is also important not to overlook other issues as well, such as a recent court ruling in Jordan that could result in new elections being held. It could also continue a potentially troubling precedent of judicial decisions that have dissolved elected houses of the legislature in more than one country.

The Jordanian Constitutional Court has said that it is reviewing the electoral law under which the elections were held in January after a lower court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. When asked about the issue a Spokesman said only that there has not been a decision that would dissolve the lower house of parliament so far, but implicitly left open the possibility that the Constitutional Court could make such a decision in the future. The court is required to issue a decision on this challenge to the electoral law within the next 30 days.

If the Constitutional Court were to rule that parliament was elected incorrectly, the decision would be the first of its kind in Jordan since the elected parliament was restored in November 1989, despite numerous revisions to the electoral law since then. However, it would not be the first time that a judicial decision has dissolved parliament in an Arab country. In June 2012 the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the lower house of the Egyptian parliament had been incorrectly elected and needed to be dissolved. The judges who issued that decision had been appointed under Mubarak, and the decision was seen by some as part of an effort to prevent Islamists from assuming power, but the actual result of the decision was rather different. What actually happened was that Mohamed Morsi won the July 2012 Presidential election held one month later and became President without a properly elected parliament (even one controlled by his party) to provide a check on his powers. Could this have led ultimately to the events which precipitated Morsi’s ouster? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But it is still important to recognize the fact that this decision and the lack of an elected parliament played a role in Morsi’s decision to try to take additional power for himself after he was elected.

Similar events have happened more than once in Kuwait as well, as a decision by their constitutional court ruled in 2012 that the parliament elected in February 2012 (and dominated by the opposition) was incorrected elected, and was thus dissolved. Then the Emir issued a decree changing the electoral law, and another election was held (and boycotted by the opposition) in December 2012, and the Constitutional Court overturned that election as well later on, which required yet another election this year.

Regardless of how one feels about the electoral law, giving the judiciary the authority to dissolve parliament with a court ruling is a poor precedent to set, and is probably not likely to provide the result that those challenging the electoral law have hoped for. It could even provide a way for the regime to dissolve a parliament that it was unhappy with in the future. It is true that the electoral system under which the elections were held in January was flawed, but it is also important to seek reform through means other than those which could have future unintended consequences.

Are Syrian Children Being Denied Entry into Jordan?

According to a recent statement by Amnesty International, many of the refugees who have been recently waiting to cross the border from Syria into Jordan are families with young children who are fleeing the ongoing conflict. One of the examples that was discussed in the same Ammon News article is the case of Amina, who was told to return in a month with her six children. This is despite the fact that the conflict has prevented them from being able to return to their home village of Dera’a al-Hera, forcing them to live out on the road and forage for food. There were also reports of other families with young children who were being forced to turn back when they attempted to enter Jordan.

In an ongoing conflict such as this one, denial of entry into a neighboring country can mean a literal death sentence for many refugees. Said Boumedouha, the director of Amnesty International’s Middle Eastern division said that Jordan (and other neighboring countries) have an obligation not to deny entry to refugees. He also said that it is also important for other countries to provide aid to states like Jordan which are affected so heavily by the conflict. These reports of Syrians who can provide evidence of their citizenship in Syria represent a new and much less welcoming attitude to refugees who are escaping a desparate situation. Regardless of one’s belief about the effects of the conflict on Jordanian infrastructure, few would dispute the fact that it is immoral to deny children the chance to escape from a violent conflict. A report from December 2012 (which is admittedly several months old) say that a majority of the refugees in Jordan may be children. Many of these children have resorted to attempting to sell goods to other refugees for a little bit of income to provide for necessities.

It is true that the presence of the refugees has provided a strain on Jordan’s economy and infrastructure at a most unfortunate time. It is also true that the situation in the region as a whole compounds the difficulties to a large degree. Particularly stressful for many communities is the influx of refugees who are settling in urban areas rather than living in refugee camps, which makes aid more difficult to deliver. Another way that the conflict has stressed Jordan’s infrastructure is through the impact of lost trade revenue with Syria, prompting the economic collapse of communities that used to depend on trade with Jordan’s northern neighbor. When this economic collapse is coupled with an influx of refugees it is not surprising that a degree of resentment would develop among some Jordanians towards the refugees who have become unwitting symbols of the difficulties that the conflict is causing in Jordan. This resentment is not surprising but it is also unfair to direct it at the refugees or to blame them for the situation that the conflict has caused for Jordanians.

The decision to turn away child refugees is deplorable, but admitting more refugees when the pace of aid is unclear is indeed going to further strain Jordan’s resources. Families with young children must be allowed to escape the conflict, but more recognition is required of the strains on Jordan and indeed other neighboring states that the conflict in Syria has caused. Perhaps the real issue is not really the presence of refugees themselves but rather the fact that most of the parties supporting either side in this conflict are participating for real or perceived strategic advantage, while shifting most of the harm of the conflict onto neighboring states such as Jordan.

Is King Abdullah worried about being overthrown?

King Abdullah is said to have told US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and US Senator Lindsey Graham (a Republican from South Carolina) that he is afraid of being overthrown. This was revealed at a hearing of the US Senate Armed Services Committee at which Graham and Dempsey had an exchange in which they said they had both met with King Abdullah, who is said to be very concerned of being overthrown due to demographic changes in Jordan. He is said to have told Graham in 2012 that Syrian refugees may destabilize Jordan and cause his ouster, and when Graham asked Dempsey about it, Dempsey shared a similar concern.

Last year, as mentioned above, King Abdullah is said to have believed that demographic changes caused by the presence of Syrian refugees may be a potential cause of his overthrow. He is said to have told Graham that there would be one million Syrian refugees in Jordan and that this would pose a grave risk to the regime. As things stand now, the numbers of refugees who are present in Jordan is not completely clear. A recent report indicates that there are approximately 450,000 in Jordan presently, although this may be a low estimate. One important fact to remember is that while most of the refugees are in the Zaatari refugee camp, there are undoubtedly other refugees who are dispersed among Jordanian cities. Other reports indicate that the number of refugees in Jordan may be much higher, at about 800,000 in total. It is also true that Jordan is in poor financial shape and that it is ill-placed to cope with this influx of refugees who are fleeing from the conflict in Syria to the north.

This is, of course, not the first time that Jordan has faced a large influx of refugees who are fleeing a conflict that is taking place in a neighboring country. During the Iraq war hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Jordan although the exact number is hard to determine.

What are we to make of these comments that King Abdullah is said to have made about the potential of being overthrown? Perhaps it is genuine fear – the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees who are attempting to leave a conflict zone with no end in sight certainly has the potential to have a destabilizing effect. However, there may be something else at play here – an attempt by the regime to seek additional aid from the United States to address the costs of hosting these refugees. Perhaps both are involved. Only time will tell.

It is too early to tell what to make of King Abdullah’s comments about his potential overthrow, but what is clear is that the conflict in Syria has the potential to spread far beyond Syria’s borders. If it continues as it is now for an indefinite period it is impossible to predict the effects that it will have on the region and especially on neighboring countries, Jordan included.

The Kuwaiti Election and Its Aftermath

On Tuesday, the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, announced that all those who were jailed for insulting him would receive a pardon. The fact that this comes so quickly after an election indicates that it might be part of a strategy by the regime to reduce tensions. The pardon announcement includes one name and one group of people that are conspicuous for their absence – Musallam al-Barrak is not included, and neither are those who participated in the storming of parliament. The announcement was made in a speech in which the Emir said that he was issuing the pardon on the occasion of the final ten days of the month of Ramadan.

Barrak’s lawyer said that the reason is because there has been no final verdict in his case. It also appears not to apply to those who are facing pending charges – and in Kuwait, insulting the Emir is subject to a potential five year prison sentence.

The fact that these pardons come in the wake of an election is very interesting, and telling. In this most recent election there were slight gains by liberals, but many of the major opposition factions decided to boycott. The regime’s decision to pardon many of the defendants (but not Barrak) may be an attempt to divide the opposition’s supporters from the political figures who play a leading role in the movement. In the election, Shi’ite MPs won eight seats which is a major drop from 17 seats in the previous parliament. Three liberals were elected compared with zero before (the last election for the now-annulled parliament was boycotted) and, Sunni Islamists increased their total to seven seats after winning five previously.

The major change was that major tribes which boycotted last time decided to participate, as well as some liberal voters, boosting the turnout to 52.5 percent. There were several tribes that participated this time but did not do so the last time, including the Awazem, the Mutair, and the Rashaida, although their electoral success was relatively limited prompting some observers to argue that the recent electoral system places the largest tribes at a disadvantage. One interesting element about the tribal vote was that there were several smaller tribes that gained seats at the expense of their larger counterparts.

This election appears to over little in terms of a long term settlement of Kuwait’s political crisis. 26 out of 50 MPs are new compared to the previous parliament, but the Prime Minister was just reappointed by the Emir. What remains to be seen is if this election ushers in a phase of tenuous stability and if this is enough to enable the country to achieve the economic diversification that it desperately needs to reduce the impact of swings in the price of oil and other petroleum products.

The Meaning Behind King Abdullah’s Visit to Egypt

On Saturday, July 20, King Abdullah became the first Arab Head of State to visit Egypt since the military ousted former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3 following major protests. This was not just a simple meeting between two heads of state – there were numerous high-ranking officials on both the Egyptian and Jordanian sides who participated. King Abdullah was met at the Cairo Airport by Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem Bablawi, and he met with Interim Egyptian President Aldi Mansour at Ittihadiyah palace, the official residence of the Egyptian President. Meetings also involved Egyptian Defense Minister General Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, as well as Vice President for Foreign Relations Mohamed ElBaradei.

King Abdullah said that Jordan supported the decisions of the Egyptian people and wanted to improve relations, and called for reconciliation among Egypt’s political factions. They also discussed regional issues including the Syria conflict and the recent agreement to resume peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. They also said that the Egyptian-Jordanian Higher Committee would meet again as soon as possible.

The visit was undoubtedly intended to show support for the new Egyptian government, and King Abdullah likes sees an ally in the new regime. He had publicly criticized Morsi in an interview in The Atlantic, and Egypt’s gas supplies had been interrupted several times during Morsi’s tenure. It reached an extent that King Abdullah considered taking action against the Egyptian workers who were currently living in Jordan. It is also worth noting that the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood affiliate condemned the overthrow of Morsi as a coup led by the United States.

King Abdullah may view the Egyptian regime as facing a similar situation to his regime and views this as an opportunity to form an alliance of common interests. In this context, this visit should be seen as relating as much to cooperation on the domestic situations facing the two countries as it is to the broader situation in the region.

What does Nasser Judeh’s meeting with the Interim Egyptian President mean?

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh met with Aldy Mansour, the Interim Egyptian President on Sunday in Cairo. According to Ammon News, Judeh said that he hoped Egypt would keep playing the role that it has played in the region internationally. Judeh also told Mansour that Jordan sought closer relations with Egypt, which was reciprocated by Mansour who said that he valued King Abdullah’s attempts to to conduct regional diplomacy aimed at bringing about peace. The article also mentions other topics they discussed including the crisis in Syria, as well as Judeh’s meeting with the Secretary General.

What does this mean? Was this an introductory meeting between Judeh and Mansour as the Jordanian regime attempted to gauge how Jordan would be affected by the political developments in Egypt? Or it it something more? Perhaps it is a mission intended to signify Jordan’s support for the military’s removal of former President Mohamed Morsi, although the Jordanian regime wanted to avoid stating this specifically. There are indeed some reports that Jordan was “relieved” by the downfall of Morsi but this should be taken with a grain of salt – this article does not quote regime officials but only analysts (though we should note the regime’s actions against the Islamic Action Front). Another obvious reason for this meeting is that Jordan considers its relationship to be extremely important, particularly because of the Jordanian economy’s reliance on frequently interrupted exports of Egyptian gas. About a week ago an attack on the pipeline in Sinai interrupted supplies once again.

Ultimately, the overthrow of former President Morsi may spur the hopes of many within the Jordanian regime who view it as a form of vindication of their resistance against reform. By taking action against the Islamic Action Front they perceive themselves as having taken steps to prevent events such as those in Egypt from happening in Jordan.

However, there is also another lesson to be learned from Morsi’s downfall. He was seen as incompetent, authoritarian, and unwilling to bow to demands of protesters due to the fear of being seen as weak. Much of the anger was no doubt due to the fact that he promised that he would govern differently and then failed to deliver on it. This lesson about Morsi’s removal may be less comfortable to loyalists – that he was removed for pledging reform and than failing to deliver.

Does Lebanon’s violence show what could happen in Jordan?

The last two days have seen clashes in Sidon between the followers of a radical cleric, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and the Lebanese military, with the cleric taking shelter in his mosque with hundreds of followers, and 16 Lebanese soldiers killed in the clashes. The Lebanese military stormed his mosque but he was nowhere to be seen, although perhaps 30 of his followers were reported killed.

What does this incident mean for Jordan? On the surface, relatively little, because it was a local incident in Lebanon, with a cleric who gained popularity through a series of provocative stunts including repeated calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah, and culminating in attacks on the Lebanese army last week. However, when the incident is examined as a spillover from the conflict in Syria the situation becomes slightly more complicated. Certainly the specific grievances that were articulated are unique to Lebanon, as are the sectarian tensions due to that country’s demographic makeup.

However, there are two factors that show that similar types of violence may have the potential to erupt in Jordan. The first is the fact that Jordan has undoubtedly been the country most affected by the conflict in Syria except for Syria itself. The second is that Jordan itself has had recent outbreaks of violence. An article in Al-Monitor that was written following tribal violence in the city of Karak on a university campus shows that such violence is becoming more common, with 80 fights at universities in 2012 compared to just 31 two years earlier. Logic would dictate that if someone was willing to engage in armed violence related to tribal disputes the potential exists for violence to erupt over other issues such as the conflict in Syria. Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict is showing itself as intractable as ever as the Syrian Foreign Minister said that the regime was not going to Geneva to hand over power to the opposition but to agree to national unity government, which many in the opposition appear highly unlikely to accept.

In this context, it seems much less implausible that even if the conflict in Syria does not actually spill over across the border there might still be violence triggered by the issues relating to that conflict. Make no mistake – the conflicts relating to Syria can spill across international borders even if the actual fighting itself does not.

Lower House Speaker Downplays Electoral Reform as Priority

Lower House Speaker Saad Hayel Srour downplayed the importance of electoral reform as a priority following comments by Prime Minister Ensour that the government was considering introducing an electoral reform law. According to Ammon News, on Sunday, Srour told parliament that because the next elections were more than three years away there was no urgency to move forward with electoral reform, and said other issues should be considered first.

Srour’s comments indicate two things – first, that the current parliament is expected to last the full four years, despite flaws in the electoral process used to elect it, and second, that electoral reform is likely to be shelved, at least for the time being. It is true that most of the attention is focused on other things such as the conflict in Syria, but it is important not to let this crisis, serious as it is, become an excuse by those who oppose implementing future reforms to delay them indefinitely.

Regardless of when it happens, the next round of electoral reform may be more politically contentious than previous ones. Not least is the fact that the areas that are likely to suffer in terms of their parliamentary representation are areas where unrest has recently occurred. Karak, for example, has 10 seats under the current electoral law when proportionally it should have 3, but this overrepresentation has not prevented it from being the site of protests and even violent incidents. Additionally, there is the question of how to encourage political party lists in the competition for the seats elected by proportional representation, as well as dialogue with groups that did not participate in the previous elections. These issues are best addressed sooner rather than later because they are likely to be contentious when the moment to consider electoral reform finally arrives.

Political Prospects for Kuwait’s Next Election

On Sunday, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the Emir’s decree that reduced the number of votes for each citizen from four to one. However, it also dissolved the National Assembly elected in December 2010 on a technicality, and because it ruled that a decree that the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, issued setting up a National Election Commission violated Kuwait’s constitution. New elections to replace the dissolved parliament must be held by August under Article 107 of Kuwait’s constitution.

Although it dissolved the loyalist-dominated parliament elected in December, the regime’s officials seemed mostly pleased with the ruling. General Mahmoud Al-Dousari, Interior Ministry Undersecretary for Major Security Affairs said that protests following the ruling would not be permitted, even in Erada Square where they had previously been allowed, claiming that the ruling of the court was final and Kuwait’s citizens accepted it. The Chairman of the National Electoral Committee itself was supportive of the ruling, despite the fact that the court eliminated his job, and he noted that a new decree would need to be issued regarding municipal elections that were to be held on July 6th. The Emir gave a speech in support of the ruling and urged citizens to accept it.

The opposition’s reaction was mostly negative, although the National Democratic Alliance, an alliance of liberal opposition groups announced it would take part in the elections that must be held by August. Other opposition groups reiterated their intention to boycott the upcoming elections if they are held under the one-vote decree. Twenty-four former MPs met at the office of former National Assembly Speaker Ahmed Al-Saadoun, at which they criticized the decision and announced they would boycott the upcoming elections. However, the regime may be calculating that turnout will rise among liberals who decide to participate as well as tribes which vote after boycotting the previous election. Recently the Emir has made attempts to reach out to Kuwait’s tribes, which were a major source of support for the opposition. Prior to the ruling the leader of the Awazem tribe (Kuwait’s largest) spoke against opposition demands and urged Kuwait’s citizens to attend a dinner in honor of the Emir.

The regime appears to be seeking a scenario in which increased tribal participation would boost turnout, and discredit opposition leaders who boycotted the elections. It could then continue with its strategy of targeting individual supporters of the opposition for prosecution (for example, jailing Twitter users accused of insulting the Emir). It may then in the future hope to placate (and to some degree co-opt) opposition leaders to further enhance its arguments for legitimacy.

The problem is that while in the short term such tactics may well be successful, they also risk eroding the regime’s legitimacy even further. Without this legitimacy, there is a major risk of having the already pervasive economic arrangement (in which oil revenues are used to provide benefits and subsidized state employment to citizens) become even more critical for the regime to sustain itself in power, and even more difficult to change even though in the long term it almost certainly has to.