Jordan Drops the Pretense of Democratic Reform

by Jillian Schwedler | published April 28, 2016 - 12:19pm

In September 2012, King ‘Abdallah II of Jordan stopped by “The Daily Show” to chat with Jon Stewart about his commitment to democratic reform in his country. In the wake of the uprisings across the Arab world, he said, “We changed a third of the constitution. We did a lot of different things—a new constitutional court, a new independent commission for elections,” all in preparation for a transition from monarchical rule to meaningful parliamentary governance. “This is the critical crossroads for Jordan to get it right, these next four years,” the king concluded.

It was a pretense that few in Jordan ever believed. Indeed, if anything, those four years have seen King ‘Abdallah peel the veneer of parliamentary governance off an increasingly autocratic system. In mid-April, Prime Minister ‘Abdallah al-Nusour submitted draft constitutional amendments to Parliament, requesting the body’s approval of changes that give the king absolute power over the judiciary, foreign policy, defense and security. By the terms of the amendments, the king would be able to appoint members of the constitutional court and the head of the paramilitary police force, which is tasked with suppressing domestic dissent, by himself and without further ado. In practice, ‘Abdallah already exercises these powers, but the draft amendments codify them, eliminating the need for lip service to checks and balances. The king would no longer need signatures from the prime minister or cabinet members to rubber-stamp his decrees.

On April 27 the draft amendments passed the lower house of Parliament by an overwhelming margin. They are sure to sail through the upper house, whose members are handpicked by the king. State-run media says the changes “strengthen the principle of separation of powers,” but this claim is too risibly thin to be called a smokescreen.

It is, in fact, a bizarre instance of greater transparency. The constitutional changes effectively acknowledge that Jordan is an autocracy, not the developing constitutional monarchy that the king markets to Western audiences eager to find a likable, “moderate” ally in the region. Perhaps ‘Abdallah thinks that no one will notice: With civil wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria, and President Barack Obama struggling to patch up relations with the Gulf Arabs while members of Congress (and other nations) call for suspending sales to Saudi Arabia of arms being used to commit war crimes in Yemen, Jordan’s amendments have attracted almost no international attention.

Let’s take further stock of ‘Abdallah’s critical four years. He told Jon Stewart in 2012 that Jordanians were politically immature, but rather than encouraging a vibrant public sphere, he portrayed Jordanians as politically ignorant, not understanding what it means to be positioned to the right, left or center. Jordan has numerous political parties, however; it is just that the regime treats them as a nuisance rather than a resource to be developed. Many parties boycotted the 2013 parliamentary elections as illegitimate because the electoral law and and the boundaries of electoral districts ensure that regions loyal to the royal court are overrepresented in Parliament. A new electoral law passed in March (ahead of the contests slated for 2017) scrapped the controversial one-vote system that significantly disadvantaged the political parties, but failed to address the skewed districting. Jordan’s elected Council of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, has always been constrained in its freedom of action, as the royally appointed upper house, the Council of Nobles, can veto any of its legislation. The constitutional amendments formally sign away the last of the elected assembly’s nominal prerogatives of note.

The name of the game in Jordan today is security. The civil wars in neighboring Syria and Iraq, and the attempts by ISIS to launch attacks in Jordan, have led to a near lockdown of the kingdom. But the regime has not limited its repression to those suspected of connections to or sympathy with ISIS. Instead, its reach has been largely indiscriminate: It has imposed severe restrictions on freedom of expression, whether that of journalists, activists or any dissident voices. The penal code has long been banned criticism of the king. But revisions of the anti-terrorism law in 2014 go much further, classifying statements that “disturb” Jordan’s relations with foreign states as acts of terrorism. A Jordanian citizen who questions the wisdom of Jordan’s alliance with the Gulf monarchies, for example, could be prosecuted as a terrorist. So could one who suggests that Jordan’s gas pipeline deal with Israel might be bad for the Jordanian people. 

Peaceful dissenters face repeated harassment at the hands of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), or mukhabarat. The regime has tortured government critics and shut down all forms of public assembly. An event planner at a major Amman hotel told me in March that he would not book any conference or event even remotely connected to political debate without the GID’s verbal approval.

The crackdown extends to the realm of entertainment. The Lebanese alt-rock band Mashrou‘ Leila was scheduled to appear this week at the Roman amphitheater in downtown Amman, but the concert was abruptly canceled because the group’s songs “threatened the values, customs and traditions” of Jordanian society. The band issued a statement condemning the censorship, noting that it had previously played several times in Jordan, including at the amphitheater. And what were the dangerous ideas in the songs? Gender equality and sexual freedom seemed particularly to offend some powerful regime officials.

If the global history of state repression offers any lesson, it is that wholesale quashing of dissent, even alternative voices in arts and culture, is very likely to radicalize many of those who have been silenced. King ‘Abdallah may be willing to take that risk, but it is not a good bet.

But as the king amends the constitution to concentrate power in his own hands, at last he has dropped the pretense of democratic reform—though not, of course, the parallel conceit that he and the Jordanian regime are “moderate.”

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