Update 1: Protesters Rally Against “Theatrial Plays” on Reform

**Update**More protests were held on Friday, March 15th in Amman. There were two rallies on Friday: an Islamist rally in downtown Amman with about 1000 participants and a leftist rally that attracted about 200 in Ashrafiye. The protests in Amman focused on both political and economic griefances. They criticized Prime Minister Ensour’s economic policies for seeking to raise prices, and called for his resignation. The protests also focused on the issue of corruption, as demonstrators chanted “We demand freedom from corruption.” The dissolution of parliament was another demand, and this may indicate that some of the demonstrators may have been affiliated with parties or movements supporting the boycott in January, including the Islamic Action Front. Protesters said they would hold a sit-in on the airport road beginning March 21st to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the March 24th rally that was broken up by security forces. Protests were not convinced to Amman alone, as rallies were also held elsewhere including in Irbid, Tafileh, Kafak, and Maan.

These protests and their persistence around Jordan indicate the sentiment that reform measures have been inadequate is widely held. To try and dismiss protests such as these as organized by parties such as the Islamic Action Front seeking to gain power misses the point entirely. If a group of people gathers to demonstrate they do so because of their grievances, not their party affiliation. These demands – for electoral reform, for an end to corruption, and against higher prices are widely held, even if watching events in nearby countries such as Syria, Egypt, or Tunisia may have made some Jordanians wary of similar events happening in Jordan. The higher turnout in January’s election over the previous one is perhaps best interpreted as a desire for a different type of change from that in other regional states, not an endorsement of the status quo. If the regime does not need these calls then future protests, and greater frustration with the political process are inevitable.

**Original Post**Another large protest attended by hundreds of people was held in Amman on Friday in front of the Al-Husseini Mosque. There was a diverse crowd or participants including Islamists, youth movements, and other reformists, and the rally used the slogan “Crisis of Governance, Not Governments.” The protesters chanted that the regime was not genuine in implementing reform efforts, saying that it was engaged in a “mere theatrical play.” They also called for reforms to the electoral law and for amending the constitution. There were also criticisms made of the government’s efforts to free Khaled Natour, who was detained in Saudi Arabia about two months ago. He had taken part in protests outside of the Saudi Embassy in Jordan against the crackdown in Bahrain.

The criticism that the regime’s reforms are a “mere theatrical play” have a significant amount of validity when one examines issues such as, for example, corruption. Perhaps the definition of a theatrical play is something that puts on a spectacle but is not actually real, or in this case not actually achieving change. In Amman Criminal Court right now, Walid Kurdi, former Chairman of the Jordan Phosphate Mining Company  (and husband of Princess Basma, aunt of King Abdullah) is on trial for corruption. He was indicted on January 2nd, and his assets have been seized. Witnesses have been called, evidence has been examined, and charges have been made that outline Kurdi’s alleged conduct, including involvement in overpriced shipping contracts signed shortly after the company’s privatization with a firm that he controlled along with his relatives. Putting an uncle of the King on trial for corruption is intended make it seem as though change is happening, and that no one is above the law.

There is, however, a problem: Kurdi left Jordan on a flight to London January 6, 2012 and has not returned since then. There’s a major corruption trial being held, but the defendant is missing. He is thought by some sources to still be in the UK, but the government has not filed an Interpol arrest warrant, and little progress if any seems to have been made on his extradition to face the charges.

If there were an example of a theatrical play on the issue of corruption, Kurdi’s trial would be one. This issue is just one example of how reform measures often seem to be oriented more towards making it appear action is being taken rather than taking the difficult measures needed to bring about change. This is true not just on corruption but on other issues as well such as elections, where improvements in process have been made but the electoral law remains unfair. This is why protests such as this continue to happen. People do not feel that the political process is capable of bring about substantive change.

Vote Buying and the Role of MPs in a Democracy

Recently Ahmed Safadi, a former Member of Parliament who is currently contesting the election in the Amman third district was ordered detained on the allegation of vote-buying. Allegedly, he was illegally in possession of voter identification cards.

There have also been other instances of candidates being arrested during the campaign, including Mohammed Khushman, the Secretary General of the Jordanian National Union Party. Khushman was alleged to have pledged that voters in Salt would receive financial assistance in return for their support for him during the campaign, and also pledged that a local club would receive renovation in the event that he was elected to parliament. Jordan Times also reports that there will likely be more candidates who are arrested for participation in other “vote buying” activities.

According to the regime’s narrative, arrests like this are intended to curb the power of “political money” in the upcoming elections. Without addressing the allegations, which are quite possibly true, it is important to recognize some issues with both the Jordanian political process in general and these recent arrests in particular.

First, we must recognize that the regime itself has engaged in “vote-buying” activities through its manipulation of the electoral process, which continues to this day in the form of malapportioned electoral districts that frequently vary greatly in population size. During the campaign, the allegations against Khushman (who was, it should be noted, running on a national list rather than in a local district) were that he pledged that voters in Salt would receive financial assistance if he were elected, and that a local club would be renovated. In making these promises, he is pledging that as an MP his supporters will receive benefits for being connected to him. This is not uncommon in Jordan historically, as MPs have frequently been selected based on affinities and connections that can include tribal, family, or personal ties. Voters support these candidates due to their ability to most effectively provide patronage. In a parliament with relatively little power, this was seen as the most effective role that an MP could play. When the regime created malapportioned electoral districts, it was doing the same thing, providing the residents of the smaller districts privileged access to the resources of the state, and thus engaging in a form of vote buying on its own. It is worth noting that the present electoral law does nothing to change this, as it merely increases the number of MPs and adds 27 seats that will be elected via a national list.

Second, it can hardly be said that the decisions about who gets arrested in Jordan are made in an impartial or just manner. With widespread corruption, the state could pick and choose which of the guilty parties are to be prosecuted and which are not. The decisions of this type do not necessarily have to come from King Abdullah or senior regime officials, but rather could come from rivals seeking to prevent a candidate from being elected. This allegation was made by Ghassan Savadi, the brother and campaign manager for Ahmed Safadi, and whether or not it is true in this instance (and there is a good chance that it’s not) it is entirely possible that either the regime or rival candidates could corrupt the judicial process for their own political ends. Corrupt candidates and officials must face prosecution, but they must be prosecuted by independent prosecutors and tried in independent courts.

None of this is to say that those arrested were not guilty, but rather, the regime is prosecuting candidates for making pledges of financial or other support when its own hands on this issue are hardly clean. Arrests – even if they happen to be of the guilty – do nothing to change the reality that it is the system itself that must change.

Will Bassem Awadallah Finally be Charged for Corruption?

Bassem Awadallah corruption

Jordan Times has reported that a corruption case will be announced within the next week. Could it involve Bassem Awadallah? I have heard from multiple people that he may finally be charged with corruption. The notorious former planning minister has been accused for years of stealing millions from the government.

It is worth noting that Bassem Awadallah’s father was close to the late King Hussein and Bassem is also close to King Abdullah. These rumors that Awadallah will be prosecuted come as the people have demanded that corruption in Jordan come to an end. First King Abdullah arrested Dahabi and now potentially Bassem Awadallah in an attempt to alleviate the concerns of the people regarding corruption at the highest levels of the regime.

This is not the first time that it has been said that Awadallah would be prosecuted. Indeed, reports of corruption and other indiscretions have surrounded Awadallah for some time. In March 2012, a committee investigating the privatization of the national phosphate company recommended prosecuting Bassem Awadallah along with former Prime Minister Mahrouf Bakhit, but no action was taken against him.

His personal life has also been the subject of much negative scrutiny. His home in Jordan, which is said to be valued at $4 million is one of the nation’s largest but he does not even live in it. He was reported to have severely beaten his wife of four months in 2009, leading her to file for divorce. When his mother died he held a funeral that was one of the largest in Jordan. There have also been incidents involving members of his family, including his father.

What is important to realize here is that prosecuting individuals, whether they are Mohammed Dahabi, Bassem Awadallah, or others makes little difference if the fundamental political culture remains the same. Otherwise things like this could become yet more attempts by the regime to make it appears that reform is happening while in fact nothing is going on.

The Case of Former Jordanian Intelligence Chief Mohammad Dahabi

Mohammad Dahabi, who headed the General Intelligence Department from 2005 to 2008 was convicted today of all the charges he was facing, which included embezzlement, money laundering, and exploiting public office. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, forefeiture of JD 23 million ($32.5 million) in assets, in addition to fines totalling JD21 million ($29.7 million). He and his lawyers are said to have expected a different verdict – or at least a more lenient sentence – and plan to appeal.

At a first glance, this case seems like a positive development. According to Al-Jazeera Dahabi was close to King Abdullah and was a powerful – and feared – security official.  He stood accused of accepting payments from Iraqi businessmen for money laundering activities, and for granting citizenship to Iraqis in return for bribes. The investigation also noted that his net worth quadrupled during the time he was serving as intelligence chief. Upon hearing about this case, citizens in Amman were said to be happy with the decision as a powerful former official was held accountable. For a government that is trying to demonstrate that it is reforming – and fighting corruption – this is the message it wanted people to believe. According to the government’s narrative, he was a corrupt official who was convicted, and this proves that the government is serious about reform.

However, upon closer examination there are many troubling facts in this case. It is important to remember that just because someone is guilty of the charges (and I have every reason to assume he’s guilty) does not rule out the possibility of them being singled out and made a scapegoat, perhaps because they fell out of favor? The regime also likely saw the opportunity to achieve two objectives at once by both dealing with a former official who had fallen out of favor while at the same time appearing to be serious about reform while actually continuing to stall. For the regime, this was a win-win.

First of all – as critics have argued – how likely is it that Dahabi acted alone or that this was an isolated incident? In order to assume that this was an isolated incident one must believe, against all rationality, that Dahabi – while GID head  - personally accepted JD23 million in bribes without anyone else finding out. That’s implausible. It’s more likely that he assumed that as head of the GID (and someone who could likely have someone arrested with a single phone call) he would never be held accountable for it. Other corrupt officials likely aslo engaged in similar ventures to profit at the state’s expense. If someone knew about it they were either complicit or afraid of his retaliation if they came forward. And that – notwithstanding Dahabi’s crimes – is the real issue. The larger problem is with a system where someone can steal with the presumption of impunity, where if someone had come forward it was possible – indeed likely – that they would be arrested and Dahabi would have retained his position unscathed.

There’s another issue here as well – if other officials engage in corruption, why was Dahabi singled out specifically? Was it because of the amount of money he had accepted in bribes and embezzled, or is there something else here? As mentioned above, Dahabi was close to King Abdullah. Could he have fallen out of favor with the King – or other powerful officials – and only then was he prosecuted for his crimes?

As intelligence chief, he may also have been in a position to know about the actions of other corrupt officials, and might have at some point disclosed information about them. In a political environment that is changing rapidly, such a worry would likely have crossed the minds of those who arranged his downfall.

The government is also taking other steps on the issue of corruption, but until they address the fundamentally undemocratic way that Jordan is governed it is impossible to believe that they are serious about reform. Right now, the government is backing a new law (to be considered by the next parliament after the elections) that is targeted at “illicit fortunes.” This draft legislation would impose disclosure requirements for financial gains by senior government officials and military officers, as well as others including judges and diplomats. It also establishes an anti-corruption department at the Ministry of Justice, as well as a new panel to review complaints about corruption and investigate allegations. On the surface, it sounds good.

However, there’s one major issue – with much of the opposition boycotting the January 23rd election the next parliament is likely to be dominated (like the previous one) by supporters and allies of the King. Sure, he has said parliament will elect the next PM, but if it’s one of his allies the change will be only cosmetic, and the justice minister tasked with overseeing the anti-corruption department will owe his position to a PM allied with the King, chosen by a parliament that much of the public considers illegitimate. Until the fundamentally undemocratic elements of the way Jordan is governed are changed such steps will represent nothing more than cosmetic measures so that it appears as though things are changing.