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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
"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.