Jordan’s mukhabarat and ‘careless’ monarch set back reform?

Thousands of Islamists and leftist protesters took to the streets of Amman today to demonstrate against a new cabinet sworn in by Jordan’s King Abdullah II this week and to call for the peace treaty with Israel to be revoked.

Militants criticized the monarch’s nomination of Fayez Tarawneh, a key figure in negotiating the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace pact, as prime minister.

“This is a person who obviously does not respect the people’s will and his words are proof of how out of touch he is with average citizens,” Jamil Abu Baker, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, told dpa.

The composition the new cabinet amounts to a “setback” for reform plans, said opposition activists and independent analysts. Observers are also questioning the monarchy’s competence and commitment to reform.

“To lose one prime minister may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two in short order looks like carelessness,” The Economist notes:

Since February last year, when the Arab spring burst forth, King Abdullah of Jordan has lost three. If all goes according to his plan, by the end of the year he may well have rattled through six. Since he seems to find it so hard to find a suitable person, reform-minded critics are suggesting he might let Jordan’s citizens elect their own.

The frequent cabinet changes are undermining the regime’s credibility with the populace, said Hassan Barari, a professor at the University of Jordan.

“Reform is the victim each time,” he said. “Each time we go back to square one.”

The king appointed Tarawneh for “a limited transitional period” to pave the way for elections before the end of the year, after demanding the resignation of Awn Khasawneh, an International Court of Justice judge, who he accused of being too tardy, as Jordan “cannot afford any delay in achieving the needed reform.”

“It is paradoxical that a conservative government has come to lead and push for reform,” political analyst Oreib Rintawi told AFP.

“The resignation of Khasawneh and the designation of Tarawneh… do not send reassuring messages about reform,” said Rintawi, who heads the Amman-based Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies.

“This does not help people believe that we are having a genuine reform process. I think Jordan will witness heated debate in the coming months between the government and opposition, mainly the Islamists, who got the message clearly.”

The latest change “reveals the absence of political will to accomplish reform in Jordan,” said Zaki Saad, who heads the political bureau of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s largest opposition group.

“It is a setback for reforms. It entrenches a pre-Arab Spring mentality,” said the Brotherhood’s Abu Baker.

“The government itself and the prime minister prove that. This does not give hope to the people that change is coming. The prime minister is conservative and his views and position on reform are well-known.”

Tarawneh said his cabinet would be “a government of reforms that embodies your majesty’s vision to guarantee the holding of parliamentary elections.”

“The electoral law is the backbone of political reform. My government will work with MPs to produce a law that will meet the demands of all Jordanians and build the foundation for parliamentary governments,” he told the king, vowing to fight corruption.

But the cabinet line-up “does not give the impression that it is up to reforms,” said Mohammad Masri, an analyst at the University of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies.

“I am not sure this government will be able to shoulder the responsibility and carry out ‘miracles’,” he told AFP..

“It is a conservative government. Most of the ministers are not known to have important political or ideological backgrounds in order to engage in dialogue.”

Tarawneh “does not have a convincing record to introduce the required reforms at this stage of ‘Jordanian spring’. He is not known as an open-minded politician,” Masri said:

Khasawneh came under sharp criticism for proposing in April an electoral law that has been seen as a blow to pro-reform movements, including the powerful opposition Islamists. The long-awaited draft scraps a contested one-person-one-vote system and increases a quota for women MPs. But it has angered political parties for limiting the number of seats allocated to them.

Other observers highlight Khasawneh’s challenge to the privileges of the intelligence services, or mukhabarat resulting from an anti-corruption campaign that led to judicial probes against senior officials.

“For the past year, Jordanians have demanded reforms similar to those in nearby Arab countries: economic and social justice, more representative government, and an end to corruption,” writes Ben Gittleson, a fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad in Cairo. “But the government’s response, compared to the sweeping changes taking place from Egypt and Tunisia to Syria and Libya, has been rather muted.”

Debate has focused on the country’s election law, he notes on the Fikra Forum.

“The most recent iterations of the law have empowered rural areas, where tribal Jordanians, or East Bankers, live, at the expense of urban populations, where most Palestinians and supporters of Islamist groups reside,” says Gittleson. “The current law has been dubbed ‘one person, one vote,’ and it takes advantage of heavily gerrymandered districts to ensure the election of a parliament loyal to King Abdullah II.”

As a result of the regime’s “exclusionary initiative,” Jordan’s “axis of political polarization has sharpened,” writes David Pollock, the director of Fikra Forum:

First, as Gittelson mentions, relatively reformist prime minister Awn Khasawneh abruptly resigned, to be replaced by reputed hardliner Fayez Tarawneh. Next the Islamic Action Front re-elected its own hardline leader, Hammam Saeed, and announced that it would boycott further consultations on the election law–and probably, though not necessarily, the parliamentary election itself. Then…the parliamentary committee debating this law witnessed an actual shouting and shoving match among various deputies representing other contesting parties.

But the palace’s secret political weapon against this brewing confrontation, which must be added to Gittelson’s account, is the clear overture to the traditional Hashemite base: the country’s native East Bank minority. Many of them resent reforms that could empower the majority of Palestinian origin. And it was this East Bank base that, over the past year, had appeared increasingly shaky. East Bankers had started turning out, particularly in southern cities far from the capital, to demonstrate against the king and his Palestinian queen. In Amman, the old guard grumbled about losing control of the country’s politics, as they had already lost control of its economy.

“Now, however, the new prime minister is the old guard incarnate,” he notes:

A Palestinian bloc vote will stay fragmented and constrained by the revised electoral law. And the regime has recently taken other, more symbolic steps to signal its distance from Palestinians: publicly threatening to revoke the citizenship of some officials from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority; while quietly getting more involved in the affairs of East Jerusalem’s nearly 300,000 Palestinians, in competition with that Authority’s claims.

“The wild card in estimating this new strategy’s chance of success is not political, but economic,” writes Pollock, the Kaufman Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in the Program on Arab Politics:

Jordan is a perennially precarious, heavily state-managed and aid-dependent economy. East Bankers count disproportionately on government jobs, patronage, subsidies, and local development projects. And Jordan’s always fragile economy is currently suffering from major new disruptions–perhaps already costing as much as a few billion dollars–in two neighbors much more directly affected by the instability of the “Arab Spring”: continual interruptions in gas supply from Egypt, and in trade and transit revenues from Syria. As a result, if promised Gulf Arab aid keeps lagging, the king will be ever more hard-pressed to deliver the economic largesse on which the Hashemite dynasty’s base has always counted.

But other observers suggest that the regime has only bought itself time and cannot defer reform much longer:

The king is on top for now,” The Economist observes:

Protests have flagged since he began wooing disgruntled Bedouin with feasts and fatter military pensions. The Americans are losing their appetite for change in Jordan amid the bloody uncertainties elsewhere in the region, and have increased their financial support. Saudi Arabia, the Arab counter-revolution’s engine, has also stumped up extra cash, and might give more if Jordan were to become a conduit of arms for Syria’s rebels. Electricity price increases scheduled for May 1st have been postponed to give Mr Tarawneh a honeymoon.

But while the king has again bought time, the handouts cannot go on for ever. Public debt is high, the budget deficit wide. Strikes have paralyzed the privatized potash and phosphate mines. And recent elections within the Muslim Brothers’ Jordanian wing have strengthened hardliners who refuse to co-operate with the king.

“In its increasing subservience to reactionary Gulf emirates, the kingdom could increasingly come to resemble one,” writes Nicolas Pelham, the author of A New Muslim Order: Iraq and the Revival of Shia Islam:

As elsewhere in the Gulf, a minority of Arab Bedouin clans would rule the roost, while the nonindigenous majority would find themselves relegated to second-class citizens or guest workers. Hopes of political and economic reform will be put on ice, and Gulf largesse will relieve pressure to hold to account those parts of the state budget that are currently outside parliamentary review, like military expenditure. Already the Central Bank looks increasingly powerless to investigate allegations of high-level corruption. When the Central Bank’s governor tried last month to do just that, he was sacked and his office surrounded by the Mukhabarat to prevent him entering it.

“When the state is working against those who are working against corruption, and sending thugs to attack them, where are we going?” says Leila Sharaf, the governor’s mother and long-standing legislator, who tendered her resignation in protest.

RTWT

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Deal struck for Chen Guangcheng – ‘lotus rising from muck of modern China’

Have the U.S. and China agreed a deal to end a diplomatic impasse over dissident ‘barefoot lawyer’ Chen Guangcheng?

“The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Chen may apply for travel permits to study abroad,” AP reports:

An American university has offered Chen a fellowship with provisions for his family, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, adding that the U.S. expects Beijing to quickly process their travel permits, after which U.S. visas would be granted.

“Over the course of the day progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants and we will be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“This is not just about well known activists; it’s about the human rights and aspirations of more than a billion people here in China and billions more around the world and it’s about the future of this great nation and all nations,” she added.

Her spokeswoman says China “has indicated it will accept” the blind human rights activist’s “applications for appropriate travel documents’’ to leave his country.

If confirmed, the relatively quick resolution illustrates the salience and sensitivity of the U.S.-China strategic partnership, said Chris Johnson, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Economic Studies and a former China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Both sides looked over the edge yesterday and decided it was time to turn the wheel back from the cliff,” Johnson said.

Any deal will have more profound political implications in Beijing than in Washington, observers suggest.

“This remarkable saga has not just embarrassed the US government, which had guaranteed his safety if he stayed in China, but has dealt a damaging blow to the credibility of Beijing and its propaganda campaign to convince citizens that China is a country ‘ruled by law,’ writes a Beijing-based analyst:

For the 40-year-old is a far more potent symbol than a traditional political dissident.

Ironically, the very illegality of his treatment at the hands of the government could provide the solution that allows him and his family to leave for the US. On Friday, China’s government conceded he was not accused of any crimes and that as an ordinary citizen he is eligible to apply for a visa to study abroad, as he says he wants to do.

“Beijing no doubt hopes his influence will fade once he is out of the country,” writes the FT’s Jamil Anderlini. “But his courage is already inspiring a new generation of activists. Some admirers even compare him with Gandhi. That may be over the top – but he has clearly shaken the confidence of the Communist party as few have done before.”

The standoff has prompted the worst crisis in U.S.-China relations since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and highlighted the growing political rifts within China’s ruling Communist party.

“For China, the crisis falls into an ongoing struggle between increasingly visible reform-minded moderates within the Communist Party and hard-liners who emphasize security and stability at any cost,” reports suggest:

Some analysts saw Chinese officials’ quick acceptance of Wednesday’s deal as a sign of the reform faction’s sway. In many ways, China’s apparent willingness to give assurances to a foreign country about how it would treat one of its citizens was exceedingly rare.

But the deal’s rapid unraveling could, instead, boost hard-liners.

“The collateral damage here is substantial,” said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a China expert at Brookings. “If there was a debate on the Chinese side on whether to negotiate, this certainly isn’t good for those who pushed for the deal.”

If Chen is allowed to leave or remain at large, the deal “has larger political implications,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “I can’t see Beijing coming to this decision without disavowing the security apparatus.”

Although his treatment was widely reported in the international media and raised on numerous occasions by foreign governments, Beijing had refused to do anything about the situation until his escape last week .Analysts say that this was most likely because the decision to persecute and silence him was made directly by the country’s powerful security apparatus and no other senior officials dared contradict that decision.

But the political demise of former Communist party scion Bo Xilai last month has weakened hardliners in the regime, especially Mr Bo’s former close ally Zhou Yongkang, who is in charge of the all-pervasive domestic security forces.

Although he was a recipient of the National Endowment for Democracy‘s 2008 Democracy Award, following a police crackdown on his family and associates, Chen is not a traditional democracy advocate, the Washington Post’s Peter Finn reports:

He did not attack the Communist Party or the system but repeatedly exposed failures to abide by the law as it was written.  ….Local people described women who were eight months pregnant being forced to have abortions. One or both parents of two children were forcibly sterilized, and relatives were held hostage until they complied, Chen reported. All this happened even though the government had outlawed coercion to achieve its development and population goals.

“To Chen, it was another maddening example of the party ignoring its own laws, and when his neighbors asked him what they should do, he suggested a class-action lawsuit against local officials,” wrote Philip P. Pan, a former Washington Post reporter, in his book “Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China.” “In the quarter century since the party adopted the one-child policy, no one had ever attempted a mass legal challenge against the state’s power to compel sterilization and abortion.”

In an interview Thursday from his hospital bed, Chen said he planned to continue “to promote social progress and judicial system improvement in China.”

“Society must become more and more fair in the future,” Chen said. “It’s just a matter of time. It depends on how many people make efforts and how big the efforts we make are.”

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Countering human trafficking

Radio Free Asia’s human trafficking series (above)recently the recipient of a major award for human rights journalism, represents a year of in-country research, one-on-one interviews, and video production. The project documents, among other topics, the advent of child soldier recruitment in Burma, labor abuse in China’s black factories, traffickers targeting refugee camps in Thailand, and North Korean mothers being forcibly wed in China.

Human trafficking generates some $32 billion each year, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

That makes it a threat of “extraordinary proportions,” says Yury Fedotov, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The Washington-based Solidarity Center has developed a series of counter-trafficking strategies, including:

  • Educating intending migrant workers about labor laws and workplace rights in their own and foreign countries
  • Helping to draft and pass improved anti-trafficking and safe migration legislation
  • Training teachers to run school-based awareness programs
  • Promoting union-run legal aid, counseling, and information centers
  • Researching local, regional, and national trafficking trends and demographics
  • Supporting common counter-trafficking initiatives between stakeholders
    in sending and receiving countries
  • Creating standardized reporting forms for use in police stations

Please join RFA on Thursday, May 24, beginning at 6 p.m. to view a half-hour documentary based on its human trafficking series. In a follow-up panel discussion, the project’s videographers will share their experience shooting the videos in dangerous environments. The event will be held at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Washington offices. Light refreshments will be served.

Thursday, May 24

6-8 p.m.

at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

1201 Connecticut Avenue NW

Washington, DC

*RSVP by May 21 to RSVP@rfa.org

The Solidarity Center is one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy and the NED has funded the center’s work on human trafficking.

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Somali journalist slain – on eve of World Press Freedom Day

Radio journalist Farhan Jeemis Abdulle (left), was shot and killed by masked gunmen in Somalia’s northern town of Galkayo late Wednesday.

The killing came on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, an annual event to highlight threats to media, journalists and freedom of expression.

Abdulle, who worked for Radio Daljir in the Puntland region, was returning home when he was attacked, Agence France-Presse reports.

“He left the radio station and a few minutes later we were told he was dead,” Abdifatah Omar, director of Radio Daljir, told AFP. “It was shocking and unbelievable to all of us. They brutally shot him several times.”

“He was working for Daljir Radio since it was founded and was one of the best journalists, I had worked with.”

No group has claimed responsibility for Abdulle’s death.

His killing occurred hours after the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) marked International World Press Freedom Day in Galkacyo with an event – The Safety of Journalists: Challenges and Strategies – in collaboration with the Puntland Ministry of Information and the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS).

The union said that more than 30 journalists have been killed in Somalia since 2007.

Abdulle’s murder is the latest in a series of killings designed “to silence the journalists and incapacitate the freedom of expression,” said Burhan Dahir, president of the National Union of Somali Journalists. “The criminals want to put pressure on the media and journalists and prove they are able to kill journalists.”

The union condemned the murder in the strongest terms possible and called on the Puntland administration to undertake an urgent investigation and bring the culprits to court.

Abdulle is the second journalist killed to be killed in Galkacyo this year alone, the union reports. On 4 March, 2012, unknown assailants killed Ali Ahmed Abdi, a journalist for a news website and Radio Galkayo.
Somalia is the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, according to media freedom group Reporters Without Borders.

The killing coincided with a major new report from the Center for International Media Assistance which highlighted continuing threats to journalists and freedom of expression.

“These are exciting times for those who believe media can help transform the world,” according to the report.

“The global reach of digital technology has armed the public with tools hard to imagine even a decade ago,” says Empowering Independent Media: U.S. Efforts to Foster a Free Press and an Open Internet Around the World, a report from the Center for International Media Assistance.

“Journalists—both citizen and professional—now have the ability to shoot video, record audio, and send dispatches from the remotest corners of the world. Armed with smart phones, tablets, and tweets, a media-savvy citizenry has the chance as never before to enforce accountability on those who hide from public scrutiny,” the report observes.

Nevertheless, the CIMA report notes, journalists are increasingly under attack:

Murders of journalists, after staying fairly constant during the 1990s, jumped by more than 30 percent over the past decade, the report found. And far more numerous than the killings were beatings, kidnappings, and threats against the press. There is also a rising trend of imprisoned journalists, from 81 in 2000 to 179 in 2011. The worsening conditions come amid a global decline in press freedom, after two decades of progress. According to Freedom House, only 15 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that enjoy a free press.

For more data and analysis on Somalia, visit the Committee for the Protection of Journalists’ Attacks on the Press.

The NUSOJ is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Media the Arab world’s canary in the coal mine?

“A free press is an essential cornerstone of any country based on democracy,” says Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman, in an exclusive interview with the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, to mark 3 May, World Press Freedom Day.

“We need to achieve full press freedom, not a fragmented version,” she writes. “We need to practice it without prohibitions.”

Her comments are nowhere more valid than Tunisia, the brightest star of the Arab awakening which may yet be dimmed by a cloud of intolerance evident in the blasphemy trial of an executive from the Nessma TV station..

“A week before Tunisians voted in the fall for their first freely elected government since 1956,” the Washington Post reports….

Nessma aired the French-language animated movie “Persepolis,” based on an Iranian exile’s graphic novel about a girl who comes of age during Iran’s 1979 revolution. In the weeks after the broadcast, Karoui’s house was destroyed by a mob of vandals and Nessma’s offices were repeatedly attacked — all because of a short scene in which the girl imagines herself talking to God, who appears as an old man with a long, white beard.

Now, Karoui’s on trial, and so is Tunisia’s year-old revolution and the young democracy it has wrought. For hundreds of years, Tunisia has boasted a complex blend of Islamic and Western values, and now, having ousted their autocratic leader, Tunisians are struggling to find the right balance. No part of that wrenching, sometimes violent debate has been more divisive than the issue of freedom of speech.

What was somebody saying about illiberal converts to democracy?

“Even in the Middle East and North Africa, the explosive improvement in the regional average score obscures considerable differences among individual countries,” writes Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research at Freedom House:

The map below shows how gains and declines were distributed across the region, with significant progress limited to Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Most other countries’ scores remained unchanged or underwent some degree of deterioration; Syria and Bahrain suffered sizable declines.

The gains in the Middle East and North Africa are certainly remarkable, in part because they effectively transformed two of the worst media environments in the world—Tunisia and Libya. But the improvements are not yet well supported by new institutional, legal, and regulatory structures. Vigilance will be required as these countries seek to consolidate their transitions and begin adopting and enforcing new laws and constitutions. If the hard-won progress to date can be successfully defended and expanded upon, the year 2011 will mark a genuine turning point for press freedom in both the region and the world, rather than an isolated deviation from the prevailing negative trend.

Karman’s Women Journalists Without Chains, a Sana’a-based NGO, is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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