Daoud Kuttab Headshot

When the King Hesitated About Meaningful Reforms in Jordan

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The extraordinary session of the Jordanian parliament was asked to stay in session in order to debate and vote on the constitutional changes that the royal commission had recommended and the king accepted. Once approved and signed by the king, the changes will be the most comprehensive changes in 90 years.

Still, the recommendations have not been welcomed by most of the protestors. Even those who welcomed the changes say they are a step in the right direction but more is needed.

What has been changed and why are they not wholeheartedly welcomed? Among other things, the changes include setting up a constitutional court (the first in Jordan) curtailing the power of the executive branch from issuing temporary laws, and lowering the age of nominees for parliament from 30 to 25 in an attempt to better reflect Jordan's youth population.

International treaties signed by Jordan will be considered more powerful than laws and less powerful than the constitution. What the constitutional recommendation's don't include are any reductions of the power of the monarch especially in the areas of dissolving parliament and appointing governments. The new constitutional court whose nine members are appointed by the king can only be accessed by the government and the two houses of parliament. The recommendations at the last minute withdrew the call for equality of Jordanians according to gender, thus disenfranchising half of the population. And while the state security court's mandate has been slightly reduced, it was not eliminated.

For supporters of these changes, the recommendations reflect the size and strength of political pressure and balance the need for reform from the desire not to change too many clauses and too quickly. The need to by pass equality for women has been justified by the fear that this will give Jordanian women married to non-Jordanians the chance to pass their citizenship to their children and husbands. Timely leaks from the ministry of Interior claim that Palestinian men married to Jordanian women represent the majority in this category numbering about 300,000. By giving these families citizenship, the argument of pro-government groups goes, this will empty Palestine of its citizens and will effect the demography of Jordan. The issue, however, was brilliantly countered in a long editorial by Rana Sabbagh who argued that if this was the fear why give Jordanian men the right to pass citizenship to their Palestinian wives. She also argued that the denial of all women equality counters the CIDAW convention which Jordan is a signatory to.

Perhaps the most compelling concern about the direction that these changes has taken is that they are built on the concept of doing what is possible and acting in as much as the strength of the protests with the idea that more changes can be enacted later if the desire for change continues.

Such an attitude makes sense when coming from politicians who deal with politics as the art of the possible. However the expectation by many in Jordan was that the changes in the constitution would reflect leadership and statesmanship that has long term vision rather than dealing with issues in a short sighted way.

The big surprise also comes from the fact that the palace, which has usually reflected a much more liberal attitude and has been critical of reactionary forces, has allowed these conservative views to affects its long-term view. Jordan's leading columnist is famous for a quote in which he said that the king is more liberal than his government and that the government is more liberal than parliament and parliament is more liberal than the people.

Creating any law in Jordan requires the approval of the king. The present constitution, however, gives parliament the chance to overrule any possible veto by the king if two-thirds of both houses of parliament. While this applies to all laws, the only exception to this procedure is amending the constitution. Any amendments to the constitution made by parliament can only become effective if the king signs it into law and it is published in the official gazette. If the king refuses parliament can't over ride his veto.

The changes in the Jordanian constitution were the one opportunity for these various bodies to insist on the liberal views that they have been advocating publicly. By throwing the ball back to the court of the people and making political rather than visionary decisions, the upper echelons of Jordan merely delay what will eventually take place.

No one knows whether the recommended changes will suck the air out of the present protests or whether protesters will continue demanding more serious reforms. But at all cases, the present time is the most appropriate time to enact serious changes in the Jordanian constitution. It is not clear when the next opportunity for change in the country's supreme law will become available.