Jordan aims to avoid unrest with dialogue on sweeping reforms

There is an ever-present worry in Jordan that, if dialogue fails now, a public that has so far asked only for reform of the regime could start thinking of revolution.

By , Correspondent

Throughout two months of surprising upheaval, the feeling that a wave of democratic change was sweeping their region has galvanized Arab publics. Here in Jordan, beginning in January, thousands took to the streets, asking not for a revolution but for substantial democratic and economic reforms.

For the first time in years, there was a sense of optimism that those reforms would come.

Hopes dimmed, however, as the push for reforms stalled and governments in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria used military force to suppress protests. But last night, after weeks of stonewalling, the regime gave in to the opposition's demand for a more robust national dialogue that could reshape parts of the Constitution.

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Although the Islamic Action Front, Jordan's largest political party, is boycotting the dialogue, saying the concessions don't go far enough, analysts say the renewed dialogue is a pivotal moment. There is an ever-present, if seldom spoken, worry that if it fails now a public that has so far asked only for reform could start thinking of revolution.

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"I think ... we will change the structure of the regime, to make it more democratic," says Mohammad Aburumman, a Jordanian political analyst. "It will avoid the revolutionary scenarios in Tunisia and Egypt, but give us the outputs of those scenarios."

What the opposition wants

Reforms have been slow coming since Feb. 2, when major street protests spurred King Abdullah II to sack his government and install a new prime minister, Maarouf al-Bakhit, on orders to make serious political and economic reforms. Mr. Bakhit announced in late February that the government would commission an independent national dialogue on reform. But as details emerged, it became clear that many of the demands expressed by the street were not going to be put on the table.

Despite deep social and economic divides, Jordan's opposition leaders have been remarkably unified. They wanted changes to Jordan's election law, which over-represents tribal areas and shortchanges urban centers. They also wanted modifications to laws that place severe restrictions on the press, public gatherings, and political parties. Most important, they wanted democracy.

"It is a hope for all Jordanians: to be part of the decision-making in the country," Nimer al-Assaf, deputy general secretary of the Islamic Action Front, told the Monitor last month.

The Constitution grants King Abdullah virtually absolute power: he appoints judges, the cabinet of ministers, and half the legislature; he can dissolve the national assembly or the cabinet at any time, delay elections indefinitely, and enact laws without the consent of the legislature. Achieving any semblance of a democratic government would require numerous constitutional amendments, which must also be approved by the king.

"The executive branch of government has occupied a wide spectrum of activities at the expense of the legislative and the judiciary," explains Jordanian attorney Anis Kassim.

Skepticism over current reforms

Many Jordanians, including Mr. Kassim, have been suspicious of the government's current reform push from the start. In recent decades, Jordan has seen numerous dialogue committees, charters, and even a massive reform blueprint called the National Agenda, all of which were quietly abandoned by the government.

Kassim calls the latest national dialogue "a sponge" to soak up the anger of the Jordanian street. "I think the government designed it that way."

The fear is that this committee's recommendations will evaporate, especially since it was initially only given a mandate to create a new elections law and political parties law. The Islamists refused to join because the government declined to meet demands for broader reforms. After the committee's first meeting, on March 19, leftists also threatened to walk out.

"It's not just the left," says Mr. Aburumman, the political analyst, who is a member of the committee. "I think most of the people on the committee hope for something more."

Government concedes to committee demands

Yesterday, the day set for the walkout, committee leader Taher Masri presented a new draft agenda that included discussion of constitutional amendments affecting the entire political and parliamentary system, not just elections.

"The government was refusing to include the political system in the amendments," says Mr. Masri, who is the head of Jordan's Senate and one of the country's most universally respected political figures. "I overruled the government veto."

"We are our own masters. … We are independent, and I want to prove it," he says.

The Islamists, however, still feel the concessions are not clear. Mr. Assaf says the Islamic Action Front was asked to rejoin the dialogue on Tuesday, but that what was being offered might be only a superficial change in the committee's mission.

"It could be one constitutional amendment, it could be 10, it does not really specify anything," he says. "It's just trying to get us to participate in this committee, to give it some value, and then they do what they like. The time for that has passed."

Few in Jordan want to speculate about what will happen if the opposition's demands are not met, including opposition leaders themselves.

"We will keep on asking for reforms," says Assaf. "We will not give up, and if they don't want to do it, that's up to them. We advise the government to carry out what the king has told them to do."

Even the opposition seems wary of upsetting Jordan's stability. Tuesday's compromise has forestalled that day, and allowed dialogue to continue. And though January's optimism is gone, many say there is still momentum in the Jordanian political sphere that will be hard to resist.

"The region is in turmoil," says Masri, who heads the dialogue committee. "The Arab street – and we are an important part of that – is eager to change a lot of things. We cannot ignore that. Things have changed, and regimes have aged, and we need to be ahead of the wave."

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