Jordan’s ‘Unfinished Journey’ to democratic reform

Despite efforts on the part of the Jordanian government to favorably portray its commitment to reform, a perception gap regarding the process and pace of transition to a constitutional monarchy persists, writes Curtis Ryan, in a new report from the Project for Middle East Democracy.

Recent parliamentary elections, heralded by the monarchy as a significant step in a broader reform initiative have been cast by the Kingdom’s critics as an insignificant response to popular demand for greater participation in the democratic process. That response has included certain efforts to combat electoral fraud – foremost among which was the creation of an Independent Electoral Commission – but the extremely unequal distribution of seats, combined with boycotts by major opposition parties, has meant that the new parliament largely resembles its predecessors, with similar loyalties and little authority.

On January 23, 2013, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan held its latest round of parliamentary elections. Expectations among many in the opposition were low, and indeed the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated party, the Islamic Action Front (above), boycotted the elections entirely. These elections, they argued, would be no better than the last few, which had been marred by widespread allegations of fraud.

Besides the Islamist movement, Jordan has seen a rise in opposition in locally-based Hirak or popular movements, often rooted in East Jordanian communities previously regarded as core elements of regime support. Like the Islamists, and some leftist parties, most of these newer Hirak opposition movements also boycotted the elections.

Other highlights of the brief:

-Despite efforts on the part of the Jordanian government to favorably portray its commitment to reform, a perception gap on the process and pace of transition to a constitutional monarchy persists.

-Recent parliamentary elections, heralded by the monarchy as a significant step in a broader reform initiative have been cast by the Kingdom’s critics as an insignificant response to popular demand for greater participation in the democratic process.

-That response has included certain efforts to combat electoral fraud – foremost among which was the creation of an Independent Electoral Commission – but the extremely unequal distribution of seats, combined with boycotts by major opposition parties, has meant that the new parliament largely resembles its predecessors, with similar loyalties and little authority.

“In every aspect of its engagement with Jordan,” Ryan concludes, “the U.S. government should increase its focus on domestic political reform, articulating in clear and consistent terms the importance of empowering parliament, rectifying imbalances in the electoral system, fostering free speech and ensuring that political representation more accurately reflects Jordan’s electorate.”

Curtis Ryan, associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, wrote POMED’s latest policy brief, Jordan’s Unfinished Journey: Parliamentary Elections and the State of Reform.

The Project on Middle East Democracy is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Two Years into Arab Spring: Islam, Elections & Democratic Transformation

In the wake of the Arab Spring, the international community watched as Islamist political parties began to take shape. The history and diversity of Islamist groups and the role Islam could play in the democratic transformation of the Arab World was often left out of the commentary.

Join the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the International Council for Middle East Studies (ICMES) in a discussion on the rise and trajectory of Islamist political parties after the Arab Spring. Panelists will discuss the influence of Islamists on the development of the constitution and legal framework, and the role of Islam in the political evolution of the MENA region.

Featured Speakers:

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University.

Daniel Brumberg, Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University and co-Director of the M.A. Program in Democracy and Governance.

Issam Michael Saliba, ICMES Secretary and Legal Specialist on Islamic law and the laws of the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa at the Law Library of Congress.

The event will be moderated by IFES Chairman and ICMES Vice Chairman Peter Kelly. IFES Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Zeinab Abdelkarim will provide the opening remarks.

Lunch will be served.

Click here to RSVP and see the speakers’ bios.

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China’s workers demand genuine labor unions

China’s workers have demonstrated remarkable solidarity and organizational ability for several years now in strikes and protests across the country. They have demanded and in many cases obtained higher wages and better working conditions from their employer, notes China Labour Bulletin. Moreover, they have done this on their own and without the help of the official union, which is usually seen as ineffectual or merely a tool of management.

Today, however, there is evidence that workers are no longer simply ignoring the union in their struggle but instead are demanding that it shows solidarity and do a much better job in protecting their rights and interests. Over the past few months, for example, Chinese workers have demanded the ouster of a democratically-elected but under-performing trade union chairman, gone on strike in protest at a wage agreement negotiated by management and union, and demanded union assistance in their quest for equal pay for equal work at a state-owned enterprise in the revolutionary heartland of Yan’an. 

The response of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions to these worker initiatives was generally guarded but not unsympathetic, suggesting that while the official union clearly has not yet got up to speed with the rest of the workers’ movement in China, at least pressure from workers is now forcing the union to reassess its role and the way it interacts with the people it is supposed to represent. 

In May last year, the employees at Japanese-owned Ohms Electronics in Shenzhen were given the chance to democratically elect their trade union chairman. They chose a senior manager named Zhao Shaobo, largely because they felt at the time that he was best placed to convey their concerns to the company. But just nine months later, on 28 February, after Zhao failed to effectively intervene in several contract disputes involving long-serving employees, workers posted a notice on the factory gate demanding he be removed and new elections held. 

More than 100 employees signed the petition and it was duly taken to the district trade union office where officials promised to consider the request and come to a decision within one month as required by law. Meanwhile, the under fire Zhao Shaobo made a staunch public defense of his record as union chair, saying the accusations against him were unjust….. 

Throughout much of the reform era in China, the workers’ movement and the trade union travelled separate paths, barely if ever coming into contact with each other. Perhaps now, with worker activism on the rise, there is a chance that those two paths will begin to converge. 

But for that convergence to really bear fruit, both workers and the trade union need to develop a new set of practical skills. The union is taking small steps in the right direction but it still has much to learn about running an effective and genuinely representative workers’ organization. But once the union begins to attain these skills, it will start to gain the trust of the workers, who then in turn will be more willing to learn new organizing and bargaining skills themselves.

 As such, at present, there is clearly both a need and an opportunity for the international labor movement to get involved in China. By exchanging information, offering practical help and skills training, international unions can help Chinese workers and union officials to fully appreciate how trade unions really work and understand how they can effectively work together in the future.

 RTWT

China Labour Bulletin is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Syrian opposition’s ‘significant inroads’ against regime prompts fresh calls for Western aid

The Sunni-led opposition appears in recent days to have made significant inroads against the government, threatening the Assad family’s dynastic rule of 40 years and its long alliance with Iran,” writes Neil MacFarquhar for the New York Times:

If Mr. Assad falls, that would render Iran and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, isolated as a Shiite Muslim alliance in an ever more sectarian Middle East, no longer enjoying a special street credibility as what Damascus always tried to sell as ‘the beating heart of Arab resistance.

The assassination of prominent Sunni imamMohammad Said Ramada al-Bouti is “a great blow to the regime and the remaining Sunni supporters of the president,” says a leading analyst.

“He was the most important Sunni clerical supporter of the Assad regime,” said Joshua M. Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the Syria Comment blog:

Landis said the sheik had been reviled by some Syrian revolutionaries when he came out early in the conflict to denounce the uprising. He was known for having a prodigious memory, was the author of at least 40 books and was ranked 23rd on a list of the most influential 500 Muslims in the world.

But the moderate secular forces within the Syrian opposition are still being outflanked and marginalized by better-funded radical Islamist groups, raising concerns about the nature of a post-Assad transition.

“For the longest time we spoke about the Free Syrian Army, but the FSA has gone from being a something people hoped would become a structure to a concept that with every day is just a shadow of its former self,” said Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The reality is that the economics of warfare have exposed them to corruption and have exposed them and the folks who support them to warlordism,” he told USA Today:

Among Western nations, one of the biggest concerns has been the emergence of radical Islamist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. classified as a terrorist organization because of its ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The Islamist groups have grown in large part because of their access to outside funding, much of which comes from donors in the Arabian Gulf according to numerous reports from Arab news media. Most opposition groups have struggled to operate amid shortages of supplies, relying largely on equipment captured from the Assad army.

“This has become a resource-driven conflict,” said Joseph Holliday, a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “Most important above all is the ability to provide enough money for salaries for your fighters and have enough weapons.

“It’s increasingly a problem for the opposition to have enough money to provide services for the civilians in the areas they control,” he said. “The biggest driving factor behind the Islamization of the opposition is that they have access to resources.”

The disparity in resources and empowerment of radical Islamist forces, and concern that the West is losing its chance to shape the post-Assad transition are prompting renewed efforts to push the Obama administration to arm more mainstream factions of the Syrian rebels.

House Foreign Affairs ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) this week introduced a new bill calling on the administration to provide lethal assistance, Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reports.

“The United States has special capabilities that should be used to help facilitate and prepare for a post-Assad transition,” Rogers told The Cable. “As the Assad regime deteriorates and loses control, the chaos created will create a serious humanitarian crisis. This slow-motion nightmare will quickly turn into a fast paced reality for thousands. The transition will undoubtedly be turbulent and painful, which is why we must prepare immediately.”

If the administration’s policy does change it may well be due to a change of heart on the part of Benjamin J. Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

His “influence is being put to the test again on the issue of Syria, where the president has so far resisted more than modest American involvement,” the New York Times reports:

After two years of civil war that have left 70,000 people dead, Mr. Rhodes, his friends and colleagues said, is deeply frustrated by a policy that is not working, and has become a strong advocate for more aggressive efforts to support the Syrian opposition.

Rhodes has evidently changed his position after opposing a joint proposal from the State Department, Pentagon and CIA to arm the Syrian opposition, and he is now in a position to influence the president’s decisions.  

“He became, first in the speechwriting process, and later, in the heat of the Arab Spring, a central figure,” said Michael A. McFaul,* the US ambassador to Russia, who worked with Rhodes in the National Security Council.

The protracted conflict is raising the likelihood of a fracturing of the Syrian state, says Mona Yacoubian, a senior Middle East adviser at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

“As we watch sectarian violence unfold, and the ways in which various Syrian communities are increasingly isolated, there is some degree–and it’s hard to document–of soft partition, where various minorities go back to places where they feel more safe,” she recently told the Council on Foreign Relations.

“One wonders: Are we watching the beginning of the unraveling of the post-Ottoman order in Syria? And maybe even in the Levant? This would be a shift of historic implications,” she said.

*… and a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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Exposing the real NGO ‘foreign agents’

While the Kremlin is forcing overseas-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents” in an attempt to undermine entirely legitimate, transparent and locally-driven civil society programs, Eurasia’s post-Communist states have proven adept at using GONGOs and similar fronts to exert influence in the United States, reports suggest.  

“A range of post-communist governments, in particular, with money to burn and no particular love of transparency” are exploiting an “increasingly popular loophole in the federal law intended to regulate foreign activity,” allowing them “to follow the minimal disclosure practices required of domestic corporate lobbies, not the extensive ones demanded of registered foreign agents,” writes Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray:

The trick is this: Any entity controlled and funded by a foreign government is formally required to be registered as a foreign principal. But as long as the entity is formally a nongovernmental organization and isn’t funded by a government — a chamber of commerce, an advocacy group, or some other entity — the law does not apply…..

“For better or for worse, it’s legal,” said Joseph Sandler, a Democratic lawyer and expert on FARA law.

The erosion of those requirements began around the fall of the Soviet Union, says Bill Allison, editorial directorial of the Sunlight Foundation, a lobbying watchdog group.

“One of the problems with the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 is it weakened the requirements for foreign entities and gave an awful lot of them the ability to register under the LDA when they should be filing under FARA [the Foreign Agent Registration Act],” he said.

FARA established extremely detailed disclosure requirements, which have recently shed light on everything from Georgian lobbyists’ hors d’ouevres to a stealth Malaysian campaign to plant propaganda articles in American media outlets.

A case in point, writes Gray, is an organization variously called the Fund Forum or Forum of Culture and Arts of Uzbekistan Foundation, which is run by Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov.

“It’s a philanthropic organization that allegedly does a few genuinely good things, it’s allegedly a front for some of Gulnara’s shady business dealings, and most of all, it’s ground zero for Gulnara PR, a way that she can promote herself as a ‘philanthropist’ and gain a following among Uzbekistan’s youth,” said Sarah Kendzior, a Central Asia expert.

Read the rest.

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