Jordan Could Repair Public Rift With These Five Reforms

20-06-2021 12:01 PM


Long praised for its stability, Jordan has been troubled by protests, detentions, and international criticism. To protect its rulers’ legitimacy and ease citizens’ frustrations, Amman should consider substantive political reforms.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II announced on June 10, 2021, that he had created a high-level committee tasked with advancing political reform. The initiative comes after the famously stable country made international headlines in early April for a wave of political detentions and the house arrest of Abdullah’s half-brother, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein. Leaks attributed to Jordanian intelligence officials portrayed the detentions as a response to an attempted coup. Yet rather than securing international support, the state’s story prompted a barrage of negative coverage from global media outlets identifying Jordan’s actual problem as a lack of political reform.

While this latest reform initiative is encouraging, many such efforts have occurred over the last few decades without resulting in a significant or sustained increase in political freedoms. For one, episodic pressure for political reform tends to be general enough that Jordan needs only to address it rhetorically until attention is diverted. For another, Jordan’s traditional ways of maintaining control still work well enough to prevent major trouble. However, the methods of the country’s leaders have become less effective each year, as measured by the increased frequency of protests, the growing number of politically motivated detentions, and the severity of the opposition’s rhetoric.

The efficacy of the state’s traditional tools of control is eroding too gradually to prompt the serious consideration of new tools, but steadily enough that Jordan will eventually find itself unable to manage crises.

In some ways, the coronavirus pandemic gave the Jordanian government a reprieve from political pressure as the public’s attention turned to daunting public health challenges. In a sign of the times, a parking lot near the prime minister’s office that was once the site of Jordan’s largest recurring protests is now occupied by COVID-19 testing tents. But the pandemic has also exacerbated a host of underlying societal tensions, particularly concerns about socioeconomic inequality, and these tensions are likely to resurface as soon as the pandemic subsides.

Jordan should consider implementing five specific reforms this year to address citizens’ frustrations that were exposed by the intrigue in April.

One of the tools the state has used to maintain control is extrajudicial detention—known in Jordan as “administrative detention.” The procedure enables authorities (in the name of district governors) to detain anyone they deem a potential threat to public order, whether or not they have yet committed any crime. Administrative detention also bypasses judicial oversight, providing an attractive option for authorities to lock up and intimidate anyone deemed a troublemaker (including political activists) without having to justify the detention in court. While some activists remain detained for months, most get out within a few days after authorities deem the message has been successfully delivered.

Jordan is transitioning from a society where key divisions and balances that have long been based on ethnonationalism are increasingly based on social class. This presents the state with a type of opposition to which it is less accustomed. Rather than coping with this new opposition with a sustained political reform program, Jordan has instead reacted by increasing its reliance on detention.

According to the quasi-governmental National Center for Human Rights, from 2008 to 2013, such detentions hovered at or below 15,000 cases a year. After the Arab Spring, detentions jumped to around 20,000 a year in 2014 and 2015, then to approximately 30,000 in 2016 and around 35,000 in 2017. In 2018 and 2019, the last two years for which data is available, such detentions numbered about 38,000 each year. At times, administrative detainees have made up more than 20 percent of Jordan’s prison population.

These administrative detention numbers do not account for the Jordanians who are officially charged with crimes, including the many political activities criminalized by Jordan’s legal code—from “disturbing relations with a foreign state” to “insulting the king.” But these official charges require a modicum of due process and the involvement of judges and lawyers, while administrative detention does not.

Ending administrative detentions by repealing the law that enables them—the 1954 Crime Prevention Act—would not deprive the state of the ability to confront the very real security challenges it faces. Instead, repealing the law would require only that the state use its official criminal justice system to enforce national security. This reform would send a powerful message to Jordanian citizens that the state is not above the law and that everyone is entitled to due process.

Just as Jordan has expanded its use of detentions in recent years in response to an increasingly frustrated populace, it has also tightened restrictions on expression, including online. Social media used to be a relatively safe space for citizens to vent and challenge government policies, but now, that type of speech is also liable to be prosecuted. The government has broadened the scope of the topics a citizen may risk detention for discussing: Jordanians used to be safe if they avoided disparaging the royal family, but in recent years authorities have detained people for criticizing a far wider range of subjects including austerity measures, education policy, and the government’s pandemic response.

The restriction of online speech has contributed to the overall decline in citizen-state relations in Jordan, hampered the government’s ability to track public opinion, and left citizens with even fewer outlets for their frustration. Rather than ending criticism of the government, the clampdown has pushed dissent underground to closed venues that are harder to monitor, such as WhatsApp. These underground discussions tend to be more critical of the government than conversations in public venues, as like-minded individuals egg each other on in private.

One of the most effective steps the Jordanian government could take to loosen restrictions on expression and rebuild trust with the public would be to revoke Article 11 of the Cybercrime Law. The article stipulates a minimum of three months of jail time for “anyone [ ]who deliberately sends, resends or publishes data or information [online] that involves defaming, vilifying, or insulting any person.” This provision is often used to prosecute people, including journalists, who criticize government policies or raise concerns about possible corruption and other misconduct of public officials. Although this is not the only provision of Jordanian law used to control political speech, it is one of the most frequently employed. Article 11 is also particularly powerful, as Jordan’s Law Interpretation Bureau ruled in 2015 that the provision supersedes a prohibition in the country’s Press and Publications Law on jailing journalists. While efforts by local civil society organizations—like an investigative journalism collective known as 7ibr—have so far helped prevent the state from making the law even more restrictive, Article 11 remains in force.

Repealing Article 11 would not solve all of the problems caused by restrictions on expression in Jordan. But it would be a significant step toward ensuring Jordanians have peaceful ways to express criticism of government policies and officials.

In Jordan, almost all draft laws originate in the executive branch of the government before they are sent to the country’s parliament for approval. On the rare occasions when members of parliament (MPs) do propose legislation, the constitution stipulates that the executive branch must review, edit, and approve the bill before the full parliament can consider it for a vote.

If the state amended the constitution to require legislation to originate in parliament, it would boost the public’s regard for the national legislature; a November 2019 poll (before the pandemic forced a pause in polling), indicated only 16 percent of the public had confidence in the body. The public’s lack of faith in parliament is so severe that, in February 2019, hundreds of Jordanian citizens walked great distances from all over the country to the offices of the king’s staff in Amman to seek jobs and economic assistance, bypassing all other national and local governance structures.

Those opposed to empowering parliament will argue that Jordan’s current MPs lack the expertise and capacity to draft legislation themselves. But there is little incentive for qualified candidates to run, or for voters to elect them, until the body to which they are elected is empowered.

Furthermore, while some government officials will invariably see empowering parliament as hampering the executive branch’s ability to control Jordan’s national affairs or to push through legislation with its exact desired language, such measures are a small price to pay for strengthening parliament’s credibility.

At the moment, Jordanians know that all power rests with the king and therefore blame him for policy failures. Protests in recent years have coincided with increasingly harsh criticism of the king. A strong national legislature could credibly share responsibility for the state’s successes and failures. The more that citizens feel they can bring their grievances and feedback to parliament, rather than straight to the palace, the more the king (and by extension, the kingdom) will be insulated from existential challenges.

Such a constitutional change would not address the elephant in the room—namely, that Jordan’s intelligence services can continue to pressure MPs to adhere to state preferences no matter what MPs’ official powers may be. Nevertheless, the more official authority parliament wields, the harder it will be for the state to hide such interference.

King Abdullah has stated several times that he would like a strong political party system, with two or three main parties, to emerge in Jordan. But today the country has some fifty political parties, most of which exist primarily on paper, with the notable exception of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front. The absence of strong parties has contributed to a sense among Jordanian citizens that official political structures are not the most effective avenues for expressing grievances. A survey by the International Republican Institute in late 2019 found that more than twice as many people (52 percent) believed that “protest” was the most effective way to influence government decisions compared with casting a “vote” (23 percent).

Jordanian and foreign analysts of the kingdom’s election system explained in interviews with the author that one of the primary reasons that strong parties have failed to emerge is the preponderance of electoral districts whose populations are small and homogenous enough that they reinforce tribal patronage politics. Jordan took a modest step toward addressing this issue in 2013, when it made a subset of the national legislature’s seats nationally elected—meaning any Jordanian voter could vote to determine the winner of these seats no matter where they lived. The experiment produced some modest results: a few relatively reform-oriented candidates with detailed policy platforms won national seats. But unfortunately, the government eliminated the nationally elected seats after only one election cycle, before candidates or voters could get used to the system.

Government officials and others who oppose bringing back the nationally elected seats tend to justify their position by arguing that the only party ready to campaign effectively for those seats is the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. While their prediction is logical, it has not been tested, as the Brotherhood boycotted, for unrelated reasons, the only election cycle to use the national lists.

Further, the lack of other viable political parties is not by chance but rather by state design. Whenever other strong, policy-oriented parties have attempted to organize—as the secular Civil Alliance Party did, starting in 2017—the state has gone out of its way to thwart them. Organizers of pro-government political parties and civil society groups confided in interviews with the author that even they faced skepticism from authorities, who told them they prefer to control all mobilization mechanisms directly.

Authorities are also concerned when any nonstate actor demonstrates an ability to mobilize people, even for seemingly apolitical events. In an August 2020 conversation at his home, one young man recounted an occasion when he and some friends organized about 500 people to collect trash from the side of the highway, only to be questioned by the country’s intelligence services. As a result of such situations, there is pent-up energy among Jordanians, particularly young people, who want to contribute to civil society and politics but who feel their government does not want them to participate, particularly when it comes to political parties. “My family told me from when I was a young boy to avoid two things in life,” a Jordanian remarked at a May 2018 meeting at the U.S. Embassy: “drugs and political parties.”

It is within the state’s control to encourage civic participation and the emergence of strong political parties—and one way of doing so would be to restore nationally elected seats in parliament. This reform is also in the state’s interest, as strong parties could act as constructive interfaces for frustrated citizens to comment on policy, rather than through actions like street protests.

Public opinion polls consistently show that one of most significant causes of citizen-state tension in Jordan is the perception that there is widespread, high-level corruption. The government has contributed to this view by restricting information flows and favoring secrecy over transparency. Analysts of the Jordanian government have mentioned in interviews with the author that this strategy is deeply ingrained in traditional ruling practices, but it is increasingly out of step with the communication habits of the Jordanian people, who use social media at greater rates than nearly any other population in the world. In the absence of clear and credible information from the government, Jordanians have drawn their own conclusions and often have assumed the worst.

Transparency International’s Jordan branch has proposed one solution to help repair public trust: strengthening the asset declaration system for public officials. Jordanian law currently requires public officials to declare to the government their financial assets (such as real estate and bank holdings) upon assuming office and annually thereafter until completing their duties. The problem is that once the information is submitted, it is kept confidential and is only accessible by prosecutors investigating specific criminal complaints. In practice, the information is rarely used and therefore does little to deter corruption. Over a decade since the establishment of Jordan’s asset declaration process, almost no cases of illicit enrichment have appeared before Jordanian courts.

One of the ways other countries have successfully strengthened their own declaration processes is by uploading the information into publicly accessible online databases. By making the data public, governments empower civil society to assist in efforts to root out and deter corruption—as well as refute wrongful accusations. This arrangement keeps governments from having to carry the burden alone, increases the efficacy of anticorruption programs, and tends to boost public trust.

More than half of countries worldwide make asset declarations accessible to the public in some form. The country of Georgia had a GDP lower than almost all countries in the Middle East (and less than half of Jordan’s) when it set up an award-winning system and website for public asset declarations in 2010. Instituting a similar system would offer Jordan the chance to bolster its anticorruption efforts and strengthen public trust in government institutions at a time when such confidence is seriously flagging.

These five reforms all target the deep societal frustrations exposed by the royal drama that Jordan weathered in April—and all are achievable this year. The reforms would help secure the king’s position by sharing responsibility (and blame), while also fostering a more resilient and democratic society for all Jordanians. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. In the absence of these reforms, Jordan will remain on its current trajectory, holding on to outdated modes of governance and control as they slowly but inexorably weaken. To help Jordan avoid a slide toward instability, its allies should move beyond general conversations about reform to discussing specific actions.


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