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In Jordan, a Quick Move for Reform -- Or Is It?

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King Abdullah's quick decision to change the prime ministerial guard, firing Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai on February 1 and replacing him with Marouf al-Bakhit, Jordan's prime minister from 2005 to 2007, comes as a surprise. When I was in Jordan the week before, Abdullah and al-Rifai reacted to peaceful and relatively small demonstrations over the past weeks by inviting opposition leaders for dialogue and touring the country to listen to citizens' concerns. So what message is the king sending?

Abdullah seemingly responded to the demands of demonstrating citizens against high prices, unemployment, and corruption. Since mid-January, hundreds, and occasionally thousands of peacefully demonstrating trade unionists, members of leftist political parties and professional associations, who are the largest opposition outside organized parties, took to the streets. They demanded better living conditions in protests in Amman, Irbid, Zarqa, Dhiban, Karak, Ma'an, 'Aqaba, and other towns. The Muslim Brotherhood initially held sit-ins in front of parliament, then joined the demonstrations.

Some demonstrators had demanded al-Rifai's resignation, and that parliament, not the king, select the prime minister. The king granted only the first wish, but tasked his prime minister-designate with implementing a "full" and "true" program of political reform, including freedom of speech and association, and full and equal political participation of all citizens.

However, the choice of al-Bakhit to lead reform is an unlikely one, given his past record. A military man, he was Abdullah's security adviser and ambassador to Israel, before becoming prime minister in the wake of the November 2005 terrorist bombings on three Amman hotels that claimed around 60 lives.

During his tenure, he failed to implement the now defunct National Agenda, a blueprint charting reform for the next decade, issued in late 2005. The current peaceful protests, in their fourth week, demand the kind of change the National Agenda was supposed to deliver over the past four years, such as "improvement of social welfare," with jobs paying at least the minimum wage. Al-Rifai's government had already announced plans to reinstitute subsidies and augment government salaries.

The National Agenda also set clear goals for freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. For example, it called for abolishing the requirement for prior consent from a local governor, an Interior Ministry official, to hold any public meeting. Ordinarily, no opposition rally in Jordan can get such permission. The current demonstrations have only been possible because governors have not enforced these rules.

During al-Bakhit's premiership the government also cracked down on two of the largest independent charities, the Islamic Center Society affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the General Union of Voluntary Services, from the trade union movement, replacing its board members with government officials. The government did not present evidence of illegal activity, but used a law that allows it to take over or shut down any nongovernmental organization. Updated laws governing the operation of these groups, drafted under the al-Bakhit government and put in effect in 2008 and 2009, retain these powers, despite a National Agenda recommendation to remove them.

Most damning perhaps is al-Bakhit's record during the 2007 municipal and parliamentary elections, in which local commentators detected serious fraud. The government declined an EU offer to monitor the elections and undermined local efforts to provide independent monitoring, not least by withholding permission for civil society to hold coordinating meetings.

King Abdullah dissolved parliament in November 2009, only two years into its four-year term, and in 2010 the government ruled by decree. It passed a new election law that maintained the unequal parliamentary representation between Jordanians of Palestinian origin, estimated at more than half the population, and East Bank Jordanians. Here too, the National Agenda's call to "ensur[e] fair representation of the country's regions" was ignored. The November 2010 elections produced a parliament almost entirely loyal to the government, and Jordanian media have lampooned the 111 votes of confidence (out of 119) for Prime Minister Samir Rifai in late December, six weeks before his ouster.

Throughout 2010, acts of violence increased in a worsening economic climate. Tribal unrest broke out in Salt and Amman, and heavy-handed tactics by the gendarmerie led to hundreds of injuries among Palestinian-Jordanian supporters at a football match in December. Riots erupted in the southern town of Ma'an, home to East Jordanian tribes, on January 3 following in which rioters torched government buildings and security forces sealed off the area.

So if Abdullah is sincere about reform, then the new prime minister needs to improve on his record from the last time around. Al-Bakhit should revert to the National Agenda as the guiding plan for political reform.

Christoph Wilcke is senior researcher for Jordan at Human Rights Watch