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May 30, 2016 No.
1252

In Jordan, Criticism And Protests Following Constitutional Amendments Expanding King's Powers

By: Z. Harel*

Introduction

On April 18, 2016, the Jordanian government passed amendments to the country's constitution that included an expansion of the king's powers to make appointments to top posts.[1] The amendments were ratified in a rush vote in both houses of parliament, and on May 4, a royal edict of approval was published.[2]

The amendments allow the king to make independent appointments, via royal edict and without the signatures of the prime minister and relevant ministers, to a number of top posts: crown prince, regent to act for the king when he is out of the country, chairman and members of the upper house of parliament (House of Senate), Judiciary Council chairman,[3] president and members of the Constitutional Court, and commanders of the army, military intelligence, and gendarmerie. It should be stressed that prior to these amendments, the prime minister and the relevant ministers had to sign off on all these appointments.[4]   The amendments also cancelled the ban on ministers or MPs holding dual citizenship, and also extended the term of members of the lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives, to two years instead of one year.[5]

The constitutional amendments were much criticized by politicians and political activists in the kingdom, and also by newspaper columnists; one of the criticisms was that they were contrary to positions previously expressed by the king. Many argued that the amendments would create a situation where nobody would be held accountable for incompetence or misconduct by the appointed position-holders. Previously the government, which signed off on the appointments, was held accountable in such cases, but now the king would be solely responsible for the appointments, and Jordan's constitution stipulates that he cannot be held accountable for officials' actions.

Also criticized was the haste of the approval process, without any public discussion of the proposed amendments or in-depth examination of them in the parliament. This criticism was expressed also across social media, as well as at a handful of relatively minor demonstrations held in some areas of the country, at which, inter alia, some shouted condemnations of the king. On the other hand, senior Jordanian officials as well as articles in the government daily Al-Rai defended the move, and attempted to justify it and to portray it as a vital step that will help maintain the principle of separation of powers in the country and the independence of the judiciary, since the king will have the sole authority to appoint key officials in the judiciary and legislative branches, without the government's involvement.

It should be noted that this opposition comes against the backdrop of the Arab Spring demonstrations across the country in 2011-2012, led by the Islamist movement and popular movements and demanding political reforms that would include a reduction in the powers of the king and Jordan's transformation into a constitutional monarchy in which the king would be a mere figurehead. In the wake of those demonstrations, King Abdullah carried out a series of initial measures for reform, including 42 constitutional amendments, and even spoke about establishing a constitutional monarchy. He promised to promote additional reforms, including the establishment of a parliamentary government in which the leader of the largest party would be appointed prime minister. In 2012-2014, the king also published five discussion papers presenting principles of reform and democratization for the country, with the aim of encouraging a national discussion on the matter. One of the papers dealt with developing democracy and a transition to a parliamentary government, which the king envisioned as viable after the formation of pragmatic and influential political parties.[6] Critics of the amendments to expand the king's powers argued that they constituted regression from these royal discussion papers and that instead of promoting political reform in the country, they set it back.

This report will review the protests and criticism in the Jordanian public arena, social media, and press, of the expansion of the Jordanian king's powers as part of the constitutional amendments, and will also present the arguments in favor of the amendments among the political elite and by writers in the government daily Al-Rai.

Politicians, Citizens Protest Against Expansion Of King's Powers

Even before the passage of the constitutional amendments expanding the king's powers, opposition to them was being expressed. For example, at an April 18, 2016 debate in the House of Representatives, MP Rula Al-Hroob warned that the proposed amendments contradicted the fundamental principles of the constitution and changed the regime from a constitutional monarchy to an "absolute monarchy." She said that this was a "grave turning point."

MP and former justice minister 'Abd Al-Karim Al-Doghmi called on the king to demand that the government withdraw the proposal and pointed out that the constitution was sacred, not a regular law that could be changed any day. He stressed that expanding the king's powers would give rise to a problematic situation, because if it transpired that one of his appointees had overstepped their bounds, there would be a need to place the blame for this on the king. He noted that the constitutional amendments in 2014 had allowed the king to appoint the commander of the army and the head of military intelligence, and called for no further expansion of these powers beyond these exceptions. Al-Doghmi expressed opposition also to the clause allowing those in senior positions to maintain dual citizenship, and said that he would not sign the amendments even if all five of his fingers were cut off.[7]

Yet another MP, Mustapha Al-Shanikat, told the BBC in Arabic that the amendments would limit the parliament's authority to oversee the executive branch. He said that the amendments would take away the people's ability to make appointments to senior posts by means of parliament, so that no influence would remain in their hands at all.[8]

Also criticizing the expansion of the king's powers was the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). An announcement published April 24, 2016 by the Islamic Action Front, the political of the MB in Jordan, stated: "The amendments came as a surprise, rushed through without any real examination or political and social discussion on whether they are necessary. They will lead the country to absolute [monarchic] rule and to the establishment of a security mentality, and they constitute a regression from the ideas of reform that appeared in the king's discussion papers [published in 2012-2014], particularly in all things concerning the establishment of a parliamentary government with [real] authority. The amendments to the constitution abolish a large part of the powers of the government and make prime ministers into mere executive clerks. They aim to perpetuate the principle of absolute monarchy, while the king talks about constitutional monarchy and easing the burden he carries on his shoulders...  We in the Islamic Action Front party demand that the House of Representatives not agree to these amendments, for the sake of the homeland and its people, as a sign of solidarity with our problems and our uniqueness, and for the sake of establishing the principle of separation of powers."[9]

Likewise, the MB journal Al-Sabil published a communique with 439 signatures, including those of former ministers and former MPs, opposing the constitutional amendments and arguing that they were unjustified. The signatories demanded that the amendments be withdrawn, and stated that they harmed the spirit of the constitution, which sets Jordan's rule as parliamentary-monarchic and hereditary, with the people being the source of authority.[10]

The topic was also hotly debated on social media, under the hashtag #Constitutional_Amendments. Opponents claimed that the king was reneging on the political reforms he had promised, and that the amendments constituted regression in the country's democratic ways.[11] Thus, for example, one tweet on the topic stated: "How can we accept the [country's] direction as being toward a parliamentary government, when the constitutional amendments set us back 100 years and render the constitution hollow[?]"[12]

  

The protest over the constitutional amendments was also expressed on the streets. On May 2, 2016, a handful of activists from the Al-Tafaila neighborhood of Amman gathered outside the royal office and demanded that the amendments be rescinded and the rule be restored to the people.[13] On May 6, 2016, broader protests took place in several places, including Al-Tafaila, Irbid and Jarash.[14] In Al-Tafaila, several dozens demonstrated in front of a mosque, calling on the government to revoke the constitutional amendments. Participants at the protests held signs with slogans harshly attacking the king, among them "Allah will hold the corrupt accountable, Allah will hold the oppressor accountable"; "Jordan is ours, and the corrupt will be expelled"; "Action will continue against the traitor"; and "The constitution is my right and yours, you have changed it solely for yourself." It should be mentioned that the website that reported on the protest and the slogans featured at it stated that it had refrained from showing some of the signs being carried, due to legal restrictions set by the publications law.[15]

 
"We oppose the king's exclusive rule" (image: allofjo.com, May 6, 2016)

 
"Is it not contradictory to grant the king central authority and absolve him of responsibility?!" (image: allofjo.com, May 6, 2016)

On May 6, 2016 in Irbid, a sit-down strike was held by the coordinating office of the popular movement outside the Al-Yarmouk University mosque, to oppose the constitutional amendments, and also to show solidarity with the residents of Aleppo, Syria, who are being bombed by the Syrian regime. The website Jo24.net reported that on the eve of the event, the Irbid governor met with members of the coordinating office and warned them that their event was illegal, but that they had gone ahead with the event, which according to the organizers was nonviolent. Security forces ultimately dispersed the demonstrators by force, and arrested former Islamic Action Front MP 'Ali Al-'Atoum and another party official, Na'im Al-Khasawneh, who had previously served as secretary of the coordinating office.[16] Following these events, the coordinating office issued a statement condemning the suppression of the protests and claiming that this showed "fear among decision-makers about activists' return to the streets aimed at causing the corrupt to lose sleep." The statement added that the voice of the popular movement was the voice of liberty that would not die and that would remain steadfast, even though its activity was marginalized and its members were arrested, and that it intended to continue nonviolent protests and actualize its constitutional right to express opinions.[17]

Jordanian Press Expresses Criticism Of Constitutional Amendments And How They Were Ratified

The Jordanian press also featured many articles critical of the amendments to the constitution and of the haste in which they were ratified, with no comprehensive parliamentary examination and no regard for public opinion. The articles also argued that the amendments run counter to positions that the king expressed in the past and require clarifications by state officials.

Former Foreign Minister: The Amendments Are Unnecessary And Damage A Fundamental Constitutional Principle

In his weekly column in the Jordanian daily Al-Ghad, former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Al-Mu'asher argued that this expansion of the king's authority damages a fundamental constitutional principle. Amending the constitution, he said, requires national discourse and a close examination by both houses of parliament: "The government announced that it has ratified several amendments to the constitution, and sent them to parliament within less than two weeks, with no national discussion about them or even an attempt to explain the reasons requiring [them]...

"Since its establishment some 100 years ago, the Jordanian regime has been based on the principle that the king rules through his ministers, because the king's status and personality should serve as the general umbrella under which all citizens live, with the king as the protector of all, regardless of origin, opinion, religion, or gender. For 100 years, all Jordanian men and women agreed to this protection, and wanted [the king] to be immune to any responsibility for any policy, moves, or decisions - so it was agreed that full responsibility for these will rest with the governments that he appoints. This principle has become the foundation of the stability of the state and the regime, in the heart of a burning, unstable region.

"Nobody thinks that proposing these amendments serves the king. The claim that they were meant to strengthen the separation of powers is likewise unpersuasive. We all know that the appointment of commanders of the military, intelligence, gendarmerie, and others was never carried out without the king's choice or approval [anyway]. However, the changing of the rules of the game and the damaging of the principle of the king's rule via his ministers constitute a precedent regarding the most important article of the constitution - which is meant to preserve the stability of the state.

"Another point that cannot be ignored is that the Jordanian constitution is not sacred... Developments in every country require that the constitution be reexamined from time to time. However, the constitution also expresses a social pact between the state and the citizen. Amending it requires dialogue on the national level, and a reasonable time frame, during which the amendments are examined with the discretion of both houses of parliament, people are consulted and the reasons for [this move] are explained... However, when three [series of] amendments to the constitution are ratified within five years, without any true national discourse or comprehensive discussion in or out of parliament, harm could come to the honor of the constitution..."[18]  

Senior Journalist: The Way In Which The Amendments Were Ratified - Hastily And Without A Public Debate Or An Explanation Of Their Necessity - Was Wrong

Fahed Al-Khitan, a senior writer for Al-Ghad, criticized the fact that the amendments were ratified hastily, and in the absence of any public debate on the matter or any explanation regarding their necessity and purpose. He said that even if these amendments were vital and part of the process of reforms of which the king has spoken in recent years, they should have been explained to the public, in order to create political backing for them. He wrote: "The discourse regarding the constitutional amendments has [thus far] taken place quietly, in small circles, and no one knew exactly what kind of amendments were to be ratified and when... Ultimately, the government presented the amendments two days ago, and then rushed them to parliament...

"However, when constitutional amendments are at stake, it seems that not enough was done to explain a move of this magnitude and importance in order to create political backing for these proposed amendments - [backing that] could place them in the context of the plan of reforms that was adopted by the state and comprehensively discussed in King Abdullah II's discussion papers.

"The brief and general answers we heard from the government in parliament are insufficient. Some questions require broader, more detailed answers. For example: Are the amendments concerning the king's power to make appointments a move towards granting more constitutional authority to parliament in selecting a prime minister? Senate President Faisal Al-Fayez, who is close to decision-making circles, hinted at this yesterday when he said that the constitutional amendments pave the way for [Jordan to transition to a system of] parliamentary governments [meaning a government and prime minister selected by the parliamentary majority]...

"Some claimed yesterday that the constitutional amendments contradict the philosophy expressed in the king's discussion papers. These statements seem highly inaccurate, but there is no way around conducting a public debate in order to clarify this matter... Disregarding public opinion and expert commentary is a mistake.

"In my opinion, we can still ensure political backing for this set of constitutional amendments. [To this end,] the important thing is for officials break to their silence and issue a comprehensive statement to the public, that will place the proposed amendments in their objective context, and outline, even in draft form, the features of the coming stage."[19]

Article In Muslim Brotherhood Journal: Constitutional Amendments Are Unnecessary; The King Actualized His Powers Of Appointment Without Them Just Fine

The head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights (AOHR) in Jordan, the attorney Hani Al-Dahleh, wrote in the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) journal Al-Sabil that the constitutional amendments regarding the king's powers would not change the current situation, since the king was effectively in charge of appointments anyway. He wondered, for example, whether the amendments would allow an appeal of a royal appointment of a particular functionary, and argued that they constituted unnecessary obsequiousness: "The Jordanian constitution states that the country's system of governance is parliamentary-monarchic - meaning that the constitution prioritized parliamentary rule over monarchic rule, thus cementing the crucial principles of a rule of the people, by the people, and for the people...

"The language of the first Jordanian constitution in 1951 explicitly required several guarantees of the separation of powers, and it determined that the king reigned but did not rule. [The first constitution gave] the executive branch the actual power to manage governance, which included: drafting law proposals, establishing institutions, and taking all necessary steps to enable the citizens to live in good health, complete liberty, and with a reasonable income. However, all subsequent governments relinquished this status and all their powers, one by one. Thus, the situation and regime in the country changed to the point that the government is merely a display window [for the king], and its role comes down to signing resolutions that it receives fully prepared...

"Granting the king the power to appoint the heads of the military, security [apparatuses], intelligence, and civil defense [sic][20] is simply the old system with a new name, since he had [already] been doing this for decades, along with the signature of a minister or the consent of the government [as the constitution had required prior to these amendments]. [But the former] situation was better than appointments [made solely by the king] without the signature of any official. This is because if anyone wishes to appeal one of these appointments in court, who will he sue? Will he state [in his appeal] that the defendant [i.e. the king] erred or misused his authority...?

"These amendments are unnecessary, since they are a form of obsequiousness to the king that he does not require, since he has always exercised these powers..."[21]

Political Elites, Writers In Official Daily Al-Rai Fight Back Against Criticism

Jordan's political elites attempted to fight back against the criticism of the constitutional amendments and the process involved in their ratification, as well as to explain the background to them and why they were needed. Additionally, the official daily Al-Rai even published a series of articles by Jordanian officials arguing against those opposing the move, and stating that the amendments were vital and would strengthen the separation of powers in the country, and the independence of the judiciary.

Jordanian Officials: The Amendments Are Part Of Political Reforms For The Benefit Of The National Interest, And Will Strengthen Separation Of Powers

During the session of the senate's legal committee discussing the amendments, Senate President Faisal Al-Fayez addressed the public criticism of them. He called the amendments part of widespread political reforms for the benefit of the national interest and the greater good, which obligate Jordan to continue to be strong on the political, security, and constitutional levels, and also obligate the king to continue to be strong with the backing of the constitution. The amendments, he said, attest to the fact that Jordan is marching towards political reforms that will facilitate the establishment of a parliamentary-partisan government, that is, a government headed by the leader of the biggest party in parliament, in accordance with the king's discussion papers. He highlighted the successful political reforms in Morocco, which included constitutional amendments expanding the king's authority, that eventually led to the establishment of a parliamentary government.

Al-Fayez argued further in defense of the move that the amendments stemmed from the king's aspiration to keep the security and military establishment away from political bias, and that they would help establish the independence of the judiciary. Addressing claims that the amendments harmed the constitution, he noted that, conversely, some say that they not only not contradict the constitution, but actually are in line with its spirit, and frame it as a guarantee for the future of political life in Jordan and the strengthening of its separation of powers. He stressed that the sole authority granted to the king to appoint officials without ministerial approval did not absolve the ministers of responsibility, since ultimately the executive branch is the general authority, and therefore its responsibility remains the same. Finally, he said, there are opinions for and against the constitutional amendments, but ultimately the majority would decide, as that is the democratic way.[22]

At the senate session ratifying the amendments, former prime minister 'Abdallah Ensour (whose government was recently dissolved) called them a progressive reformist measure aimed at balancing the separation of powers such that the executive branch would be removed from the process of appointments in the legislative and judicial branches. Similarly, 'Atef Al-Tarawneh, speaker of the House of Representatives, said at a meeting with a delegation of parliamentary aides to U.S. Congressmen that the constitutional amendments had granted full independence to the judiciary.[23]

The government daily Al-Rai also rallied to the defense of the constitutional amendments, publishing numerous articles, including by Jordanian officials, which presented them in a positive light. Former Jordanian information minister Saleh Al-Qallab wrote in the daily: "Popular and societal necessity might sometimes require that there be more than one constitutional amendment within a year, and perhaps even within a month. It is true that we must preserve the stability of the constitution as much as possible, but its 'sanctity' cannot become a burden to public life and to the needs of the state, the people, and society - because it is they that constitute the metric for the necessity of constitutional amendments."[24]

Former interior minister Hussein Hazza' Al-Majali wrote: "The constitutional amendments could be explained as the king's ambition to establish the principle of a parliamentary government, and therefore could be viewed a true guarantee that the appointment of officials will not be subject to political, partisan, or regional struggles... From this perspective, we can see the constitutional amendments in a positive light, based on the fact that the security establishment and the judiciary will not influence politics or be influenced by it... The king represents a balanced, objective position that is devoid of the machinations of politics, which often involve partisan political bias."[25]

Deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in parliament, Hayel Wad'an Al-Da'aja, rejected criticism of the expansion of the king's authority, claiming that the Jordanian regime was not parliamentary, and that the constitution already grants the king widespread authority. He wrote: "Some believe that every country with a parliament has a parliamentary regime, regardless of the actual nature of its political structure... This does not apply to the Jordanian political regime, since the constitution has granted the king widespread authority: He is the head of state and is protected from being held responsible in accordance with Article 30 of the constitution... These authorities granted to the king prove that Jordan's political regime is far from the parliamentary system, in which the president has no practical political and constitutional authorities, since in a parliamentary regime, the person with the ultimate executive authority is the prime minister. This, while the Jordanian constitution grants the king all the authorities granted to a president in a mixed presidential-parliamentary regime [like the one] in France, as well as legislative authority and legislative veto authority granted to the head of state in a presidential regime [like the one] in the U.S. This indicates that the king's constitutional authorities prevent constitutional and political crises erupting among state institutions due to contradictory political desires."[26]

* Z. Harel is a research fellow at MEMRI

 

Endnotes:

 

[1] Al-Rai (Jordan), April 18, 2016.

[2] Al-Rai (Jordan), May 5, 2016.

[3] The Judiciary Council heads the Jordanian judiciary authority, and oversees the entire judicial system.

[4] In effect, the 2014 constitutional amendments gave the king the sole authority to appoint the commanders of the army and military intelligence, and the recent amendments expanded those powers to the appointment of other officials. Aljazeera.net, April 19, 2016.

[5] Al-Rai (Jordan), May 3, 2016.

[6] Kingabdullah.jo/index.php/en_US/pages/view/id/248.html.

[7] Alanbatnews.net, April 19, 2016.

[8] BBC.com/arabic, April 27, 2016.

[9] Albosala.com, April 24, 2016.

[10] Al-Sabil (Jordan), April 24, 2016.

[11] Aljazeera.net, April 20, 2016.

[12] Twitter.com/amjadmalawneh, April 20, 2016.

[13] Allofjo.net, May 2, 2016.

[14] Al-Sabil (Jordan), May 6, 2016.

[15] Albalqatoday.com, May 4, 2016; allofjo.net, May 6, 2016.

[16] Jo24.net, May 6, 2016.

[17] Al-Sabil (Jordan), May 6, 2016.

[18] Al-Ghad (Jordan), April 27, 2016.

[19] Al-Ghad (Jordan), April 21, 2016.

[20] Contrary to Al-Dahleh's claim, the amendments do not grant the king the authority to appoint military and security figures other than the commanders of the army, military intelligence, and gendarmerie.

[21] Al-Sabil (Jordan), April 25, 2016.

[22] Al-Ghad (Jordan), April 28, 2016.

[23] Al-Rai (Jordan), May 3, 2016.

[24] Al-Rai (Jordan), April 24, 2016.

[25] Al-Rai (Jordan), April 26, 2016.

[26] Al-Rai (Jordan), May 2, 2016.