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.

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 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.

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.

Jordan and the United States Under Obama: A Complex Alliance

King Abdullah and President Obama appeared at a news conference following their meeting on Friday. The King welcomed Obama to Jordan and mentioned the subjects they discussed in their meeting, which included Syria and the influx of refugees, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, political reform, and , and thanked the United States for its continued support which he said “has allowed us to get Jordan where we are today,” and discussed the reform measures that the government has introduced, and said Jordan could be an example of peaceful reform. He said “This is the Jordanian moment.  What we’re seeing is the third way in the Middle East — we are seeing that the Arab Spring is behind us; we in Jordan are looking now at the Arab Summer for us all, which means that we all have to roll our sleeves”

President Obama reciprocated the King’s praise, saying that “Jordan is an invaluable ally. It is a great friend,” Obama praised King Abdullah and and said that the reform process in Jordan  and said that the United States was committed to Jordan’s security, including from the dangers of a spillover from the conflict in Syria. He pledged to seek support for $200 million in additional budget support from congress in addition to loan guarantees, with this aid intended to help with economic reform and offset the impact of the conflict in Syria and the influx of refugees. He praised the reform process and said that the economic reforms were necessary and that Jordan had an opportunity to be an example of peaceful change.

King Abdullah and President Obama had much praise for each other at the press conference, and Jordan-US relations are indeed strong, but the relationship is much more complex than this. Obama alluded to this when he said that “Our cooperation on Syria is an example of how the partnership between the United States and Jordan improves the lives not only of the Jordanian people, but peoples across the region.” What Obama meant was that Jordan’s actions in keeping its borders open have produced benefits for other states in the region. However, these benefits – to others – have come at a substantial cost to Jordan that has not always been reciprocated. Even now, President Obama alone does not have the ability to provide the additional $200 million in budget support to Jordan, as he actually said that he would work with congress to provide it. Given the recent history of American politics that is not necessarily a sure thing. Meanwhile, the expenses that Jordan is incurring are happening right now.

Jordan has done a lot for numerous other states in the region, and the hosting of refugees from Syria is only the most recent thing, and yet the promises that have been made to Jordan in return have not always been met. This is not to say that the $200 million in assistance or the loan guarantees will not be provided, but it is important to note that it is not a certainty, and it is worth noting that most of the money totalling $1.5 billion pledged at a conference in Kuwait in January has not materialized. Pledged assistance from several of the Gulf states has also been late in arriving.

It is important, in the future, to ensure that Jordan’s reliance on aid is reduced even as it is needed at present for the short term. This would ensure that the present situation – in which Jordan does things for others in the region and elsewhere that are very costly – and for which it is not supported to the degree that it should be, despite the expenses and difficulties it has encountered on the issue of Syria and numerous other issues that have emerged in recent years.

King Abdullah’s Post-Interview Damage Control Begins

Image by Troy Carter (@CarterTroy)

Image by Troy Carter (@CarterTroy)

The damage control effort following King Abdullah’s interview with The Atlantic has begun. Today, the Turkish Foreign Ministry sought clarification regarding comments King Abdullah was said to have made regarding Prime Minister Erdogan. In the interview, King Abdullah said “I see a Muslim Brotherhood crescent developing in Egypt and Turkey.” Regarding Prime Minister Erdogan, King Abdullah said that “Erdogan once stated that democracy for him is a bus ride…Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.” He also compared Erdogan to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, saying “Instead of the Turkish model, taking six or seven years, [instead of] being an Erdoğan, Morsi wanted to do it overnight” He also had more critical comments to say about Morsi, saying that “There is no depth there” and gave the example of Morsi’s attitude towards reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. The interview also contained criticism of King Abdullah’s family, who he said behaved more like royalty the further they were from the throne (and said he would punish them sometimes to send a message), the Islamic Action Front (who he said wants to overthrow the government), the National Current Party headed by conservative and loyalist former Speaker Abdul Hadi al-Majali (which he said lacks a political platform), and the GID, which he criticized as well, as well as an anecdote about Bashar al-Assad being unfamiliar with jet lag, as well as comments about his relatively strong relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

From a PR standpoint it was a disaster. After Turkish diplomats complained about his comments regarding Ergogan, the regime has moved into full damage control mode. King Abdullah posted on his facebook page that the interview was “inaccurate and dishonest.” Jordanian officials have said they will give a “public general explanation” regarding the interview. What could such an explanation entail? Either King Abdullah made these remarks about the leaders of neigboring or nearby countries such as Egypt or Turkey or he did not. Either Jeffrey Goldberg is a fabricator (which would require a substantial amount of evidence to back up) or perhasp, as might be more likely, King Abdullah thought his comments were off the record. Even if this is the case it overlooks a larger point – even if King Abdullah did not expect these comments to be published, they were still what he said and still what he thought.

There is a larger danger here, not just for King Abdullah but for any leader who speaks off the record in a manner that is substantially different from when they are on the record. What do these comments achieve? They hurt Jordan’s relations with several countries and caused potential internal strife without achieving any gains. Turkey, like Jordan, borders Syria and is heavily involved in addressing the conflict in that country. Egypt is a major supplier of gas to Jordan, and yet both of those countries are not likely to take kindly to these comments. The damage control has begun.

What is clear from this interview is this: even if some of the things that King Abdullah said are arguably true, they should not have been said by someone who has stated he aspires to be a constitutional monarch. It is also, regardless, imprudent to damage Jordan’s relations with states in the region and damage its diplomatic position without any corresponding gains.