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.