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.

Budget Debate Shows Parliament’s Institutional Challenges

King Abdullah gave a speech on Sunday at the Mutah University Graduation. During this speech, one of the subjects that he discussed was domestic politics. He asserted that he wanted Jordan to develop an advanced parliamentary system, a goal which he said would take place over “successive parliamentary cycles.” Furthermore, he claimed that such a system would be “based on a parliamentary, partisan, and programme-based majority in tandem with a parliamentary minority that serves as constructive opposition and shadow government in the Lower House.” He says that he wants this to take place over several electoral cycles, but it is clear after the first few months of the new parliament that he was incorrect in his speech to criticize people who were skeptical about the success of recent political reforms.

But the way that Jordan’s parliament has handled the one of the most important recent political debates—the budget that just passed the lower house of parliament—shows that parliament has not conducted itself in a way indicative of progress. While the primary responsibility for this lack of progress is with the government, critics of its policies bear their share of responsibility as well.

During the debate, only 129 out of 150 MPs participated at the beginning and out of those 129, 37 of them withdrew. It must be noted that 47 MPs signed a memo that said that said the vote was rigged, and a few of them said that the Speaker, had rigged the vote. The leader of the Free Promise Bloc Amjad Majali tried to convince other MPs to withdraw. The end result was that the budget passed with 68 MPs voting in favor of it and 18 voting against it, which means that less than half of the lower house of parliament voted for Jordan’s temporary budget. The events during the debate have made few look good – the government was accused of heavy-handed tactics while its opponents on this vote mostly decided to accuse the Speaker of vote-rigging.

In an advanced parliamentary system this would not be what happened. The government, which would likely consist mostly of MPs, would propose the budget, and the opposition (or at least the largest opposition parties) would be organized into a shadow government (including a leader of the opposition) would potentially present a shadow budget, and the vote would be a key test of Ensour’s government, with the Prime Minister potentially having to resign if the vote was unsuccessful. The government and opposition would also consist of defined political groups or parties. As things stand now, the government engaged in what its opponents say was heavy-handed maneuvering to push it through while the opposition walked out. It is clear from this experience that the fundamental flaws in Jordan’s parliamentary system remain. Although there are steps to improve the system, King Abdullah has not been proactive enough in avoiding this crucial issues.

Reporters Without Borders Releases Open Letter to King Abdullah

Reporters Without Borders today released an open letter to King Abdullah criticizing the regime’s decision to block access to 300 news websites on June 3rd that the regime said were operating without proper registration. The letter points out many of the flaws in the law, including the fact that news publications require a government license to operate, as well as other restrictions that place websites and their operators at risk of prosecution for comments that are posted on their sites or for editorials that differ from the government’s positions. The text of the letter is as follows:

His Majesty King Abdullah II
The Royal Palace
Amman, Jordan
Paris, 11 June 2013

Subject: Blocking of news websites

Your Majesty,

Reporters Without Borders, an international organization that defends freedom of information, would like to share with you its deep concern about your decision to block access to nearly 300 news websites on 2 June.

A September 2012 royal decree promulgating amendments to the press and publications law was widely criticized by Jordanian civil society. Many journalists and human rights organizations condemned and still condemn the new law’s imposition of draconian restrictions on freedom of information, especially online media, which are now required to obtain a licence from the government in order to continue operating (http://fr.rsf.org/jordanie-nouvelle…).

Furthermore, some of the new law’s provisions regulating the work of news websites leave a permanent threat hanging over journalists whose editorial line is at variance with the government’s.

Reporters Without Borders pointed out at the time that this new law violated international standards on freedom of information, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which the Kingdom of Jordan has adhered without reservation), article 19 of which covers freedom of opinion and expression.

The blocking of 300 websites, a serious violation of freedom of information and a breach of your reform promises, has confirmed our worst fears.

Reporters Without Borders urges you to restore access to the websites currently blocked within Jordan, and to rescind the recent press law’s repressive provisions, so that it guarantees freedom of information.

I thank you in advance for the attention you give to our requests.

Sincerely,
Christophe Deloire
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general

What would a buffer zone mean for Syria and Jordan?

The conflict in Syria, which has had such a massive and devastating impact on Jordan moreso than perhaps any other country except Syria itself, appears that it is entering a new phase.

There are many current indications that the US and its allies are preparing some type of intervention. The US is leaving warplanes and missile batteries in Jordan at the request of the Jordanian regime, which could be used to enforce either a no fly zone or a more limited buffer zone, though the Obama administration has not yet made any public decisions about this yet. A recent report indicated that one potential option under consideration by the Obama administration is for a limited no fly zone along the border that would extend approximately 40 km into Syria, and would be enforced by aircraft operating from within Jordan. These pilots would be able to enter Syrian airspace in self-defense if they were fired upon or encountered advancing planes, although US air-to-air missiles have a sufficiently long range to make that scenario potentially unnecessary.

Interestingly, the publicly stated positions of the Jordanian government are not necessarily in line with these news reports. Jordan Times quotes a government spokesman, Mohammad Momani, as saying that the Jordanian government opposes international military action in Syria. In a speech on Sunday at a graduation at Mutah University, King Abdullah said that the crisis imposed “some harsh realities” on Jordan but said that Jordan has a moral responsibility to help those affected by the conflict, and that he favored a political solution. He also said that “the first and ultimate goal has been to protect Jordan and Jordanian’s’ interests.”

How should comments by the government spokesman and King Abdullah be examined alongside the media reports that Jordan has given approval to the use of its territory to enforce a no-fly zone along the border? Is this another example of the regime telling one thing to foreign diplomats and officials and another to the Jordanian people? That is probably part of it, but there is also something else – what these proposals may signal is that the Jordanian regime believes that it cannot continue to admit large numbers of refugees from Syria for much longer due to the strain that they are causing and wants to establish a buffer zone along the border so that it does not have to do that anymore. This would be in line with a recent Al-Monitor article that says that Jordan has closed border crossings with Syria and that there are large numbers of refugees who are stranded along the Syrian side.

The article says that large numbers of refugees are waiting in the Daraa region border villages of Naseeb, Tell Shihab, and Heit, and that a large number of refugees were waiting in Tell Shihab. In the event that a no-fly zone were implemented that extended 40km from the border between Jordan and Syria, this area would be within the no-fly zone, so the Jordanian regime might then say that it no longer needs to admit the refugees because they are within a buffer zone inside Syria, where rebel forces would also be provided with training. What this means is that upon closer examination the proposal for a “no-fly zone” may be as much about taking the pressure off of Jordan. The regime’s denial that it supports intervention in Syria can be understood in the context of not wanting to appear subordinate to the United States, due to the fact that there are some within Jordan who would object to a major presence of American forces.

The problem with this proposal, if one puts aside potential objections to American foreign policy, is that it carries all the negative elements of American intervention while also being inadequate to change the balance of power inside Syria, as the regime has gotten the upper hand recently. It is in many ways not a decision to intervene so much as a decision to preserve the status quo in a modified way for a longer period of time, even though for refugees in the potential buffer zone life may be worse than it is within Jordan.

As Regime Cracks Down on the Press, Could Parliament Intervene?

A key element in a democratic system is that there are multiple centers of power, each of which is able under certain circumstances to limit the powers of the institutions. These institutional checks must be real, and must be immune to being overridden except in the most extreme of circumstances. In turn, those who are members of these institutions, such as parliament or the judiciary must exercise their duties responsibly to prevent both repression and obstructionism. In Jordan, recent events have given parliament a chance to demonstrate its institutional strength by exercising a check on the executive branch’s power. This opportunity comes as MPs have shown their objections to a new press law that has led the government to block numerous news websites, a list of which can be found here.

This is an opportunity for parliament as an institution to assert itself in a way that can move the reform process forward, but only if MPs take this opportunity. The government has indicated that it is amenable to a chance in the law, but this stance may be intended to stave off reform rather than to encourage it. Still, if the government is on record as supporting a change then it would be unlikely to oppose it should a change actually go through, because it would be politically almost impossible for it to change its position on this issue, which presents an opening that parliament can seize if it so desires.

The parliament needs to demonstrate its strength by reforming this press law in such a way that the government would find it politically impossible to object to it. It could start with several of the most problematic provisions – such as holding the owners of websites accountable for comments, and requiring comments to be about the same topic as the article, as well as eliminating requirements that news sites have a lead editor who is a member of the JPA. The bill would have to be passed in the Chamber of Deputies by a significant margin, which would make the Senate, and the regime, think twice about attempting to block it.

This is a crucial test for parliament as an institution – there have been clear objections raised to this press law, but and it is up for parliament to act to ensure that it fulfills its role of both legislating and acting as a body that can provide oversight against regime abuses. Only with parliament taking its proper role—with real power, not merely words describing how it has been reformed—can the political reform process move forward in a real way.

Does the Jordanian/Russian Arms Factory Signify Something Deeper

On Thursday, King Abdullah attended the opening of the ADARA Equipment and Defence Systems Company’s (JRESCO) factory in Amman. What was significant about this ceremony was that there was someone else present as well: Russian Ambassador Alexander Kalugin. The factory is part of a joint venture with Russia to produce the Nashab RPG-32, which Jordan Times reports is superior to the RPGs that are currently used by the Jordanian armed forces, and a statement said that the new RPG “is highly efficient in penetrating armoured vehicles and destroy bunkers.” Russia is, of course, providing weapons to the Syrian regime as well during the civil war, meaning that Jordan is manufacturing weapons as part of a joint venture with Russia even as Russia contributes to the conflict that is causing refugees to spill over into Jordan.

What does this mean? Is it simply an economic arrangement or does it signify something deeper regarding Jordan’s relations with the Russia and the United States? What is interesting about this arrangement in particular is that a 2012 poll by Pew indicated that apart from Japan, Jordanians had the most negative opinion of Russia in the world, with 70 percent viewing Russia negatively. These attitudes are not short-term, as the percentage of Jordanians who viewed Russia negatively was 49 percent in 2007, 58 percent in 2009, 58 percent in 2010, 63 percent in 2011, before rising to 70 percent in 2012. While polling data is not yet available for 2013 it would not be difficult to imagine that the conflict in Syria has caused the opinions to become even more negative.

What is the reason for this joint venture? Is it purely a business transaction or is it something more? Is it perhaps a way of reaching out to Russia to signify that Jordan should not be thought of as a US satellite by Moscow even though it has traditionally been a US ally in the region? Is it a way of gaining more leverage with the United States by hinting that it could turn to Russia as an alternative (despite the implausibility of allying with a country that is viewed so unfavorably by the Jordanian people)? Is it good public relations to have this factory opening the same week as a delegation from the US congress visited Jordan and met with Prime Minister Ensour? Was this just a coincidence or was it thought through? If it was it seems as though Jordan has little to gain from it. Is it perhaps a way of seeking aid from another resource-rich country?

In the end, only time will tell what this means for the future of Jordanian relations with Russia and the United States and whether this is part of a broader trend. It is, however, an interesting development in a region affected by a conflict in Syria in which Russia’s involvement has been critical in sustaining the Assad regime.