Reform and rumblings in Jordan

The Hashemite Kingdom has weathered the past year of regional political upheaval surprisingly well. But the resignation of the prime minister is a reminder of unmet demands for change.

By , Staff writer

Jordanian Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh stepped down from his post yesterday amid a controversy about a proposed new election law that has roiled the kingdom, with supporters of the old way of doing things squaring off against those demanding a move towards democracy.

Mr. Khasawneh, a long time adviser to Jordan's royal family, who helped negotiate the country's peace deal with Israel in 1994, was appointed to his post last October in an attempt to mollify growing street protests demanding an opening of the political system.

The election law he's been working on was intended to deliver that opening. But he's been hemmed in on two sides: one, by tribal leaders close to the court and the security services worried that it would end up delivering power into the hands of Jordan's opposition. And two, by the opposition, which has complained loudly that the new law doesn't go far enough.

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The law has stalled. And now Khasawneh, who reached out to Islamist politicians, started corruption investigations against high officials, and promised a fairer election law soon after taking office, is gone.

Marc Lynch wrote of Khasawneh's resignation that "the last straw, it appears, was the disappointing new election law which failed to respond to long-standing complaints by political activists, parties, and outside analysts... The sudden resignation of the respected jurist should draw renewed attention to Jordan's political stability – and raise important questions about its willingness and ability to reform."

Curtis Ryan, a political scientist at Appalachian State and author of two books on modern Jordanian politics, wrote an in-depth piece in Foreign Policy about the reform wrangling in the country before Khasawneh resigned. He points to splits between Jordan's Palestinian and East Bank communities (the East Bankers, the "native" Jordanians, are over-represented in the current parliament thanks to existing electoral rules), lawmakers that have appeared mostly interested in preserving their own privilege, and anger from Islamists that the new rules are being designed to limit their possible power.

As much debate as the new law has triggered amongst Jordan's many pro-reform constituencies, political opposition in Jordan has taken a major turn in the last few years by moving beyond just the perennial new electoral law debates. The electoral law matters, to be sure. But opposition forces have rallied over a diverse set of demands that may seem disparate or even muddled to less democratically minded forces in the kingdom, but in actuality represent a fairly clear program. Pro-democracy and pro-reform activists in parliament have at various times called for more checks and balances between the legislature and executive authority (often arguing for a more constitutional monarchy), a more independent judiciary, the release of activists jailed in demonstrations, a reduced role for the (secret police) in daily life, and an end to corrupt governmental and business practices in the context of the country's longstanding economic privatization program.

The stakes are high regarding all these issues -- and of course regarding the electoral law as well -- since the new rules will set the stage for new elections and a new parliament, and opposition forces hope (for the first time in modern Jordanian history) to see future governments drawn from parliamentary majorities, rather than by royal appointment.

Ryan and others point out that if accommodations aren't made, there are risks ahead for Jordan, with a population that was riveted by the uprising in nearby Egypt and now watching in horror the war in Syria, with refugees from that conflict already streaming into their country.

The fast, wrenching change that descended on Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya last year, sparked the ongoing Syrian civil war, and led to the current hostile and occasionally bloody standoff between Bahrain's rulers and its people, may seem to have come out of nowhere. But the one thing these different countries – and other Arab nations that have not been touched as much by turmoil – have in common is that they failed at the trick of opening up enough to head off eventual disaster while still retaining control.

That trick is what is usually meant when the word "reform" is tossed about. Bend, before you break. Create political institutions that give a dissatisfied populace a voice in the system before they take to the streets. It may be later than you think.

Egypt is a case in point. For over a decade, US officials in first the Bush administration and later Obama's, consistently told Hosni Mubarak and the courtiers around him to act before it was too late. He acceded to the US demands occasionally, usually when it looked like Egyptian aid was on the line, but never took the message to heart. His regime was strong, he reasoned, and knew what was best for the country. And if worst came to worst, he was an indispensable regional partner for the US, with its concerns about Islamist militancy and the security of Israel, and he would be saved.

Then the storm broke and the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, the Jordan of King Abdullah, and of his father King Hussein before him, has some similarities to the Egypt of Mubarak. The only other Arab state to make peace with Israel is another friend of the US, an important partner in America's regional ambitions, and home to a restive population. With an eye on not being the next domino to fall, Abdullah made steps towards a political opening last year. But now, it seems, change may be stalling.

Jordan's monarchy has proven very effective over the years at facing down challenges, both the bloody, as its defeat of the Black September movement in 1970 and '71, in which King Hussein faced down a potential takeover of Jordan by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the peaceful, as the democratic reform process enacted in 1989 in response to street protests has shown. 

But the Jordanian people have been glued to satellite television and the Internet the past year, watching rolling, partially successful demands for change elsewhere. The country is stable for now, but as Egypt and other neighbors show, pressure can build up for years along political fault-lines before erupting into an earthquake.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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