Jordan's Troubling Detour

by Ian Urbina , Toujan Faisal | published July 6, 2003

Los Angeles Times

When Washington cites examples of the potential for reform and democracy in the Arab world, Jordan is one of the first countries mentioned. For the first time since 1997, Jordanians went to the polls last month to vote for parliament, and by most accounts the elections went smoothly. Voter turnout topped 52 percent and stability was maintained, with a clear majority of the seats going to pro-government candidates. Islamists, though they later questioned the outcome, added credibility to the process by taking part in the elections rather than boycotting them. In the end they captured only 17 out of 110 seats, far fewer than expected. Jordanian women took a step forward, with six parliamentary spots specially set aside for females.

These were important developments, but Jordan is still a long way off from embracing true democratic reform.

In June 2001, when the prime minister disbanded the last parliament, he hijacked the legislative process and began governing by fiat. He put politics and dissent on a short leash and refashioned the electoral process so that it would be far from representative. Consequently, although Jordan has finally returned its parliament to session, the country is in many ways further away from being a functioning democracy than it was two years ago.

At the heart of the problem are the “temporary laws” the Jordanian government has decreed over the last two years at dizzying speed. These laws are constitutionally permitted only when parliament is not in session and the “essential security needs” of the nation demand them. By disbanding the parliament and putting the country into a sustained state of high alert, the present government opened the way for unfettered drafting of these laws. Between 1930 and 1999, only 60 such temporary laws were decreed. In the last two years, the government has implemented 184.

The temporary laws contain a wide range of domestic restrictions. Public gatherings require a three-day advance permit, which is almost never given. Criticism of “friendly” nations is a crime prosecuted before a military court. Reporters who write stories critical of the government now face much harsher penalties — up to three years in prison. Misdemeanor convictions come with no right to appeal. Civil servants are prevented from signing petitions that might reflect poorly on the state.

Temporary laws have also been used to gerrymander electoral districts to favor the regime. In expanding the parliament’s size from 80 to 110 seats, the regime watered down its critics by concentrating the new seats in the south and west where regime support is strong. The north and central voting districts, where the bulk of the Palestinian population resides, are sorely underrepresented. Estimates released by Fawzi Samhouri, director of the Jordan Society for Citizens’ Rights, a pro-democracy group that authorities dissolved last year, are revealing. They show, for example, that Amman has roughly one parliament member for each 52,255 voters, whereas the city of Karak, hometown of the government’s interior minister, has a parliament member for every 6,000 voters.

The Bush administration, which values its close relationship with the King Abdallah II and wants Jordan to continue to run smoothly, will be tempted to look the other way rather than pressure its ally to honestly reckon with these unfair and restrictive temporary laws. But to promote real democracy in the Arab world, the US needs to begin encouraging its regional allies to tolerate internal opposition from all sides and give it a legitimate outlet in free and fair democratic elections. Otherwise, dissenters will tend to boycott the ballot box, heading underground and becoming more radicalized in the process.

None of this takes away from the fact that the restoration of parliamentary elections in Jordan was an essential move forward, one important both to Abdallah and the Bush administration. Jordanians headed to the polls only days before the opening of the World Economic Forum near Amman. As one of the few Arab nations with a free-trade agreement with the United States, Jordan is a model of the sort of economic hopes for the region that US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick promoted at these meetings. Fiery and anti-Western political rhetoric from Jordanian campaigners — or a different outcome in the balloting — would certainly have cast a gloomy shadow over the ambitions of the Jordanian government and the Bush administration for increased regional trade and foreign investment.

The elections also held significance for the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Jordan is one of the United States’ closest friends in the Arab world in part because of its willingness to engage in dialogue with Israel. This was the first time since the king took office in 1999 that Jordanian citizens, 60 percent of whom are Palestinian, could vote. They did so as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, just across the border, worked arduously to keep forward momentum in the sputtering “road map,” which has the strong support of Abdallah but has engendered deep skepticism from most Jordanians, whose ballots could have been used as a referendum on the issue.

The fact that the elections weren’t turned into such a referendum should be seen as good news for Jordan’s government. Perhaps now, with a little external pressure, it will be willing to facilitate public discussion of the many temporary laws, since not even the new parliamentarians possess a complete list of them. Removing the overly restrictive limitations on press freedom would also be an important prerequisite for restoring government transparency and opening a public debate about the validity of these laws. The prime minister and others in the government who were most directly involved with the disbanding of the parliament and the repeated postponements of parliamentary elections should be held accountable for their unconstitutional actions. These would be small but crucial first steps in putting Jordan back on the path toward true democratization.

But by far the most important challenge lies immediately ahead. The next parliament is supposed to review every one of the temporary laws and decide whether to accept or reject each. It’s clear that the political deck has been stacked with pro-regime types. Now we’ll see whether the new parliament will be able to overcome that and do what is right: begin the across-the-board reversal of those laws that are most anti-democratic.

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