On June 26, Jordan’s King Abdallah II issued a royal decree pardoning former parliamentarian Toujan Faisal, who had been sentenced on May 16 to 18 months in jail for “seditious libel” and “spreading information deemed harmful to the reputation of the state.” Faisal’s release “on humanitarian grounds” was welcome not only because of her failing health, but because the charges against her were dubious. She was detained in March after accusing Prime Minister Ali Abu Ragheb, in an open letter to the government published online, of “benefiting personally” from a government decision to double car insurance premiums, in one of a series of temporary laws called “essential” to the country’s security. Wasn’t it curious, she asked, that Abu Ragheb’s family dominates the car insurance industry in Jordan?

It took the arrest of the outspoken Faisal, who is Jordan’s only elected female deputy (1993-1997), to attract international attention to the dramatically deteriorating civil and political liberties in Jordan. The kingdom remains one of Washington’s favorite Arab nations: it is a moderate, predominantly Muslim country whose ruler is more fluent in English than in Arabic. It has democratized “enough,” legalizing political parties and holding elections, but manipulating the electoral system to prevent opposition voices from gaining any real power and quashing embarrassing anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations. Jordan’s stable, pro-Western regime is eager to support the US in its wide-ranging and ill-defined “war on terrorism” in exchange for increasing foreign aid. Yet as Washington turns its rhetoric to the need for democracy in the Middle East, it continues to turn a blind eye toward the deterioration of political freedoms in what should be a model for a moderate, democratic Arab nation.

Brief Liberal Experiment

Jordan began its most recent experiment with democratization under the late King Hussein in 1989, following a series of riots in response to the removal of government subsidies. As Jordan embarked on an IMF-led structural adjustment program, the regime opted for limited political liberalization as a means of channeling and deflating the dissent that would surely result. Although the initial openings were quite promising, the retreat began in earnest in 1994, when Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel. Since then, civil and political rights guaranteed to Jordanians in the constitution and the National Charter have been gradually but steadily revoked. “Free and fair” elections are manipulated through changes in the elections law, and civil society organizations are pressured to avoid dealing with “sensitive” issues such as human rights, sanctions against Iraq, press freedoms and tensions between Jordan’s majority Palestinian population and the East Bank tribes that make up the regime’s support base. Prior to the 1997 elections, severe press restrictions forced more than a dozen weeklies to close, while a “temporary” elections law was made permanent. These “exceptional” measures were constitutionally possible because the parliament had been dissolved before finishing its regular term.

With King Hussein’s death in early 1999 and Abdallah II’s subsequent ascent to the throne, the pace of the retreat from democratization quickened. In efforts to solidify his own regime, the young king has increasingly relied on a tribal support base and the secret police, alienating not only Palestinians but also many long-time supporters and former government officials committed to democratic reform. The Economic Consultative Council formed last year seeks to strengthen Abdallah’s ties with the economic elite, and even the upper house of parliament, the Chamber of Notables—newly appointed in February—is now without the few dissenting voices that remained.

With the outbreak of the second intifada in late September 2000, the government began to violently repress hundreds of demonstrations in support of Palestinians that took place throughout the country. Dozens were arrested and hundreds detained, while at least two protesters were killed in clashes with security forces. In June 2001, the parliament was dissolved in preparation for the elections in November.

Pre-September 11 Shackles

Some observers point to the events of September 11, 2001, as justification for Arab regimes to put political freedoms on hold while cooperating with Washington in the “war on terrorism.” In Jordan’s case, however, it was clear long before the attacks that the government did not intend to hold the elections on schedule. One oft-heard official explanation last year emphasized that a new system of electronic identification cards would not be ready on time, though the German company that held the contract stated repeatedly that it was ready to go. The real reason was the government’s concern that the effects of the intifada could be felt acutely in Jordan, where a majority of the population is of Palestinian descent, and many live in refugee camps. Combined with the potential for a US attack on Iraq, the regime remains concerned that holding elections in such a climate will not return the desired pro-regime assembly. When Jordan remained neutral during the 1990-91 Gulf war, Washington responded by immediately cutting aid to the regime. King Abdallah II will not make the same mistake, but neither does he want to face the thousands of Jordanians who will protest against another US assault on Baghdad.

Besides delaying the elections, the government began in August 2001 to issue temporary laws that effectively shackled what few democratic practices remained available to Jordanians. Press freedoms were harshly restricted, newspapers were closed and brave editors were arrested for defying restrictions on content. Criticism of “friendly” nations, for example, can be prosecuted in the State Security Court. A new public gatherings law requires that organizers of public events not only notify the governorate of the event, as previously required, but that they also obtain a permit three days in advance. Most requests are denied. Event organizers are now held personally responsible for any damage to property that might result from activities deemed by the state to be linked to the event. Despite these restrictions, political parties, professional associations and other civil society organizations continue to organize protests and demonstrations, both with and without government approval. As recently as April 2002, thousands of demonstrators throughout Jordan rallied in opposition to Israeli reoccupation of Palestinian lands and particularly the destruction of the Jenin camp and large parts of Nablus.

Jordan Post-September 11

The events of September 11 did not so much change the course of domestic politics in Jordan as accelerate them by providing a Washington-friendly justification for increased political repression. In the year since parliament was dissolved, more than 100 temporary laws have been passed. The next parliament is supposed to review each law and may accept or reject each. But the government still has not declared when elections will be held, and changes in the electoral law — which include redistricting and adding additional seats to certain districts — give greater representation to traditional pro-regime regions of the country. Even so, the appointed upper house, still controlled by the conservative former prime minister Zayd Rif’ai, has veto power over decisions taken by the elected lower house.

Political parties have rightly been frustrated with these changes to the elections law, and have argued that the reforms were made through unconstitutional procedures. Repeatedly, the Opposition Parties Higher Command Council saw its legal challenges to the elections law rejected by the High Court of Justice without even being heard. Most recently, the Higher Court rejected on “technical” grounds a lawsuit in March brought by a number of political parties against the elections law. The Court stated that for a case to stand trial, the plaintiff(s) must be directly affected: political parties, in the justices’ view, are not directly affected by the elections law.

Temporary Laws and the Elasticity of “State Security”

The resort to these scores of temporary laws is not only troubling because they undo Jordan’s democratic advances of the early 1990s. More problematic for the country’s long-term development is that the laws further entrench the traditional elite—a move clearly intended by King Abdallah II to consolidate his authority, which is far less grounded in popular support than his father’s. In this context, all activities that contradict the views of the state are restricted or suppressed. The constitution allows for temporary laws only in urgent situations to protect the security of the state, when it would be dangerous to wait for Parliament to reconvene. Was this the case in the decision to ease restrictions on the foreign purchase of land in Jordan? Was the state in danger when it decided to increase the penalties for press violations to a maximum of $7,000 and three years in prison? Or, in mid-June, did internal security needs really require a temporary law that prevented civil servants from&mash;among other things—signing petitions that might “potentially harm the integrity of the state”?

In fact, what the security-focused regime has sought above all is to quash all political dissent, whether expressed in newspapers, through political parties, in demonstrations and rallies, or through legal civil society organizations. New temporary laws are passed each week, as Jordanians struggle to utilize what few options for political expression remain open to them. Perhaps the last remaining outlet is to vote with the pocketbook by boycotting American products in protest of US policies in the Middle East. The government has been frustrated with this sort of legal protest, because it cannot force consumers to purchase certain products or retailers to sell them. However, the regime has launched a press campaign through pro-government media and journalists to condemn the boycott and has refused permission for pro-boycott rallies. Just last week, a pro-boycott demonstration inside the professional associations complex was prevented when security forces cordoned off the building and forbade even association members from entering. Similar peaceful rallies are routinely shut down with half an hour, even when held indoors. They consist only of speeches, and are not visible to passersby.

The most troubling aspect of the temporary laws is the extent to which violations of a wide range of laws are now referred to the State Security Court. Any activity that potentially threatens the integrity of the state—a vague notion that state agents may interpret as they see fit—is prosecutable under the harsh penalties of the penal code. Acts that threaten state security now include outspoken journalism, illegal public gatherings (of six or more people) and any criticism of the royal family, the government, its allies and “friendly” countries. What is more, a 2001 temporary amendment to the State Security Court Law denied citizens convicted of misdemeanors the right to appeal, though violations of the penal code carry harsh penalties, in terms of both sentences and restricted rights upon release; only convicted felons have the right to appeal. In June, the 8,000-member Jordanian Bar Association held a one-week boycott in protest of the amendment to the State Security Court Law eliminating this right of appeal. Another temporary law issued last week extended the right of appeal to military personnel convicted of felonies and misdemeanors through the establishment of a Military Appeals Court. Previously, only the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff could overturn a conviction in a military court. While the Bar Association was pleased at this change, the right to appeal was not extended to misdemeanors in the State Security Court.

Hope for Jordanian Democracy?

Toujan Faisal’s lawyers sought to contest precisely this temporary law, which prevented her right to appeal to the Higher Court of Justice. More than 150 prominent politicians and political activists signed a letter to the king calling for Faisal’s immediate release, and last week the Charitable Circassian Society and Chechen-Circassian dignitaries (Faisal is of Circassian origin) appealed to the prime minister for her release. Just one day prior to the royal pardon, Faisal’s lawyers lost their challenge to the constitutionality of the temporary law. Yet while the pardon released Faisal from her penalty, her conviction stands. Under the law, those convicted of non-political crimes and receiving prison sentences of over one year are ineligible to run for public office.

Within this context, it is both fortunate and unfortunate that Faisal was let go. Her case drew much-needed international attention to the deterioration of civil and political freedoms in Jordan, as numerous international human rights activists circulated petitions calling for her immediate release. Faisal’s conviction in State Security Court on flimsy grounds was an embarrassment to the regime. While her many supporters are relieved that she has been released, the larger problems—amendments to the penal code and the scores of temporary laws—maintain a stranglehold on political freedoms in Jordan. In this sense, Faisal’s release might lessen international attention to Jordan’s retreat from democratization.

As with Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s arrest and conviction in Egypt in 2000, Toujan Faisal’s case cuts to the heart of a much larger problem of severe restrictions on political expression and civil rights. If one takes Washington’s pro-democracy talk at face value, Jordan should be a model for US support: a moderate, pro-Western Muslim country intent on moving, however slowly, toward greater political, civil and economic freedoms. If democracy in the Arab world is really on the State Department agenda, Jordan stands as a test case. But Jordan more closely embodies how the Bush administration talks about promoting democracy, and then declines to criticize its “moderate” Arab allies’ failure to democratize in practice. If Washington is serious about promoting democracy in the Middle East, it should start with Jordan, where the administration already has significant influence.

How to cite this article:

Jillian Schwedler "Don’t Blink," Middle East Report Online, July 03, 2002.
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