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July 22, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 713

Reform in Jordan: Comprehensive Change or Nominal Amendments?

July 22, 2011 | By H. Varulkar
Jordan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 713

Introduction

From January 2011 to the present, processions, demonstrations, and sit-in strikes have been held every Friday throughout Jordan, demanding political reforms in the country. The protests, inspired by the wave of popular uprisings and revolutions that have swept through the Arab world over recent months, have been organized and led primarily by the Islamic Movement. Leftist organizations, trade unions, and recently established youth movements, among others, have taken part in the protests.

Protestors in Jordan called for the implementation of political and economic reforms and for the restoration of the Jordanian constitution to its original version ratified in 1952 – in other words, the revocation of some 30 amendments made since then to expand the authority of the king and government at the parliament's expense. They also called for the disbanding of the current parliament, for a new modern elections law, for the formation of government via majority vote in the parliament, rather than by royal appointment, and for the prosecution of politicians implicated in corruption.

In addition, calls have occasionally been heard for the establishment of a true constitutional monarchy in Jordan in which the authority of the throne would be reduced to no more than a national symbol. Few have dared to raise the latter issue, and those who raised it met with a violent response from Jordanian Prime Minister Ma'rouf Al-Bakhit, who claimed such talk was "harming the equilibrium and foundations of our political regime," and called it "a violation of the constitution," "nonsense," and incitement.[1]

Initial Reforms to Prevent Escalation of Protests

In early February 2011, several weeks after protests broke out in Jordan, King 'Abdallah II began working in various ways toward pacifying the protestors. As an initial step, on February 1, he dismissed then-prime minister Samir Al-Rifa'i's government and charged Ma'rouf Al-Bakhit with forming a new government with the primary goal of taking "practical, swift, and appreciable steps to initialize a process of true political reform..."[2] Two days later, the king made an unprecedented move when, for the first time since coming to power in 1999, he met with a delegation of Jordan's Islamic Movement, headed by Hamam Sa'id, general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. At the meeting, the king reiterated his serious intent to implement sweeping political reforms.[3]

Two weeks later, the new government announced its plans to amend Jordan's Public Assembly Law to abolish the clause stipulating that assemblies, demonstrations, or processions be conditional upon a permit by the province governor. The new law would merely require 48 hours' notice before any such events were held.[4] Just over a month following the announcement, the amended law was, in fact, approved in parliament.[5] The Jordanian regime hoped that this move would prove to the Jordanian people, and particularly to the opposition, that, unlike other Arab regimes, it allowed and supported freedom of expression.[6]

King 'Abdallah II Promises to Implement Comprehensive Reform and Evaluate Proposed Constitutional Amendments

Since February 2011, King 'Abdullah and his regime have made visible efforts to focus media attention on the reforms expected in Jordan. In almost every recent speech, interview, and press statement, the king, prime minister, and other senior regime officials could be heard discussing the longed-for reforms.[7] In his February 21 speech, King 'Abdallah stressed his intent to enact comprehensive political, economic, and social reforms that would include fighting corruption, holding new elections, instating party laws, and promoting greater youth involvement in politics. He said that the reforms would be aimed at meeting the needs of Jordanian civilians, improving their standard of living, and creating new jobs.[8]

The king ordered the assembly of two committees to oversee the reforms. On March 14, a National Dialogue Committee was formed, with 52 representatives from Jordan's various political parties, charged with assessing proposed amendments to the elections and party laws specified in the constitution.[9] On April 26, the king established a royal committee, headed by former prime minister Ahmad Al-Lawzi, to evaluate proposed revisions to the constitution.[10] This committee is to receive proposals from the National Dialogue Committee regarding the elections and party laws. On June 5, the National Dialogue Committee submitted its final report to the government, which contained its recommendations for revisions to the elections and party laws. The report also included recommendations for additional constitutional revisions, such as revoking the clause allowing the king to postpone parliamentary elections, a revision that would mark a reduction of the king's authority.[11] These proposals were passed on to the royal committee, which is expected to complete its work by the end of July.[12] King 'Abdallah has announced his commitment to implementing the recommendations of these committees.[13]

Jordanian Regime Accedes to Some of the Opposition's Demands

Jordanian media reports have indicated that the expected reforms would include the repeal of some 30 amendments made to the Jordanian constitution since its ratification in 1952 which, as mentioned, expanded the authority of the king and the government.[14] This would mean that the new constitution would, in essence, resemble its original 1952 version. Reports have also indicated that the reforms would bring about early parliamentary elections.[15] It should be noted that these were the two chief demands of Jordan's opposition, headed by the Islamic Movement.

Over recent months, there has been a noticeable change in the Jordanian regime's stance vis-à-vis the opposition's chief demands for the disbanding of parliament, for a new elections law, and for the restoration of the 1952 draft of the Jordanian constitution. Whereas merely a few months ago, regime officials openly resisted these demands, it would seem that they will now be at the center of the regime's reform initiative. The regime has also capitulated to the opposition's demand that the government and its prime minister be elected by parliamentary majority rather than by appointment by the king. In a June 12, 2011 address, King 'Abdallah said that in the future, the government would be established by parliamentary vote, although he refrained from specifying when the new system would be instated.[16]

Nonetheless, and notwithstanding the king and the government's daily assurances of imminent reforms, it remains unclear if these reforms will indeed be comprehensive and meet the demands of Jordan's various groups, especially the Islamic Movement. Recent developments in Libya, Yemen, and especially Syria – Jordan's neighbor to the north – may have worried Jordan's royal court that such events might take place in Jordan, as well, leading it to demonstrate greater openness vis-à-vis the opposition's demands. It is entirely possible, however, that King 'Abdallah will not hurry to reduce his authority, and will limit the reforms to surface and superficial moves aimed at appeasing the Jordanian public and silencing the voice of protest. One of the chief difficulties in assessing the true nature of the expected reform is the fact that the there have been virtually no reports in the Jordanian media on the content of the deliberations of the royal committee for revising the constitution, or projections on when the promised reforms would take effect.

Editor of Jordanian Daily: A New Constitution in September 2011, Early Elections in 2012

In contrast with the Jordanian media's relative blackout on the aforementioned issues, on July 6, 2011, Fahd Al-Khitan, editor of the independent Jordanian daily Al-Arab Al-Yawm, published an article describing the stages of Jordan's reform process and setting a timeframe for their expected implementation.

I. A New Constitution in September Resembling the 1952 Version

Al-Khitan claimed that the chief manifestation of the reform would be the drafting of a new constitution, which, he said, would be ready by September and would be similar to the original version ratified in 1952: "The chief and most important headline of the political reform in Jordan [will be] the revision of the constitution, which is the wide gate through which the locomotive of change needed on all levels will pass. In both the domestic and foreign arenas, the extent to which the reform in Jordan will succeed depends on the assessment of the constitution, and the degree to which the amendments proposed by the royal committee are approved...

"The chairman and the members of this committee are aware that they are under pressure to finish their work of revising the constitution quickly. On the other hand, they are unwilling to [manhandle] the country's most important document. At the end of this month [i.e., July], the committee will finish preparing [its] revisions to the constitution. It has already finished preparing the chief revisions to the main clauses dealing with parliamentary life, in addition to assurances against the disbanding [of parliament], restrictions on legislating temporary laws, the establishment of a legislative court, and the reduction of the [minimum] age for parliamentary candidates from 30 to 25. The most important thing is that, at the end of its deliberations last week, the committee restored the constitution more or less to its 1952 [version] and began making new amendments in line with legal and political developments in the world.

"By the end of September, we will find ourselves at a historic stage of our political life: we will have a new constitution or, to be more accurate, the original constitution will be fitted with a new and modern suit of clothes. This is the most important thing, which gives hope that Jordan will progress in the right direction and will lay the modern foundations for a constitutional monarchy based on parliamentary life, governments [established] by [parliamentary] majority, and the parliamentary majority [itself] based on a platform – [as opposed to the current parliament, which is characterized by] paralysis and personal considerations."

II. Early Parliamentary Elections in 2012

Al-Khitan claimed that by 2012, Jordan's parliament would be disbanded and new parliamentary elections held: "At the second regular session of the National Assembly, the members of parliament will be faced with an important and pressing mission – to approve the new elections law... The next [stage] will apparently be the disbanding of parliament and new, early parliamentary elections will be called for in early [2012]. In accordance with the proposed constitutional revisions, the government that disbands the parliament will [itself] resign a week later. The decision-makers hope that Al-Bakhit's government will be steadfast until then, when it will fall upon someone else to form a transition government with the role of overseeing the parliamentary elections."

III. Instability in Jordan Will Put an End to the Reform

Al-Khitan went on to caution that in order for Jordan to reach the stage of true reform, it would have to maintain political and social stability. Otherwise, he said, the situation was likely to deteriorate into disaster: "Before we even consider of how delicate this transitional stage is, we must first consider the present stage and the dangers and challenges it entails. Reaching the stage of democratic changes, at the end of [this] year, depends upon the successful management of the current crises and dangers. If the failures and confusion we are now witnessing continue, [Jordan's] political and social stability, which is necessary in order to get through the [current] stage, will collapse, and this will force [Jordan] into catastrophic options that will destroy the plans for reform.

"Stability is not only a condition for success in the domestic arena, but is also the main factor that will determine the position taken by the Western forces vis-à-vis Jordan. Failure of the reform will be interpreted by these forces as meaning that Jordan has joined the countries [of the region] that are facing [dangerous] changes."[17]

*H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Arab Al-Yawm (Jordan), March 11, 2011, Al-Dustour (Jordan), March 4, 2011.

[2] Al-Rai (Jordan), February 1, 2011.

[3] Aljazeera.net, February 15, 2011, Al-Rai (Jordan), February 4, 2011, Factjo.com, February 3, 2011.

[4] Aljazeera.net, February 15, 2011.

[5] Factjo.com, March 23, 2011.

[6] Factjo.com, June 24, 2011, Al-Dustour (Jordan), July 6, 2011, March 27, 2011, February 27, 2011.

[7] See, for instance, Al-Dustour (Jordan), June 13, May 12, March 31, 28, 18, 10, 2011, Assabeel.net, March 17, 2011.

[8] Al-Dustour (Jordan), February 21, 2011.

[9] It should be noted that the following day, March 15, 2011, the Islamic Movement in Jordan announced that it did not intend to take part in the National Dialogue Committee, which it said did not represent its demands for reform. Allofjo.net, March 16, 2011.

[10] Al-Hayat (London), Al-Dustour (Jordan), April 27, 2011.

[11] Al-Dustour (Jordan), June 5, 2011, May 29, 2011, Almustaqbal-a.com, Factjo.com, June 5, 2011.

[12] Al-Arab Al-Yawm (Jordan), July 6, 2011, Al-Dustour (Jordan), July 3, 2011, May 9, 2011.

[13] Al-Dustour (Jordan), June 16, 13, 2011.

[14] Al-Dustour (Jordan), July 3, 2011, May 9, 2011.

[15] Al-Arab Al-Yawm (Jordan), July 6, 2011, Assabeel.net, March 17, 2011.

[16] Al-Dustour (Jordan), June 13, 2011.

[17] Al-Arab Al-Yawm (Jordan), July 6, 2011.

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