Jordanians Seek Reform, but Protests Are Fewhttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
November 16, 2011AMMAN — Alaa Khalil, 42, has been selling T-shirts and sweaters on a busy pavement in central Amman for 30 years. Al Husseini mosque is just a five-minute walk from his wooden tables and untidy mannequins. The mosque has been a focus point of nearly all the demonstrations here since the Arab Spring began.
“I just work day and night,” said Mr. Khalil as he watched passersby. “I don’t follow the news or care anymore because some Jordanians have been protesting for political and economic reform for months and nothing has really changed.”
Although youth groups announced plans to protest in favor of reform this week, a few staunch supporters of the regime showed up instead, carrying photos of the king and signs denouncing calls for a constitutional monarchy.
Protests here have been relatively few, compared with those in other countries across the region. This reflects a lack of organizational skills among the few political parties, an effective security apparatus and a consensus, for now, that political and economic reform, and not regime change, is the solution.
This week, King Abdullah II called on President Bashar al-Assad of neighboring Syria to step down. But he also predicted uncertainty about the future of that country. “This is the first time where I think most leaders in the Middle East don’t have a clear answer on Syria,” he said during a BBC interview. “But if you’re just going to remove one person and put another person in, I think that you’ll continue to see more of the same.”
Fear of instability, uncertainty and division in the Middle East have also had an impact on the debate in Jordan about reforms. Despite the recent appointment of a new government by Abdullah, the number of protests increased across the kingdom, although they decreased in Amman.
Protesters brandishing signs with slogans like “There can be no reform under the current security grip” and “The people want freedom, justice and an end to corruption” are showing up in many districts.
“I believe the Jordanian street is now divided into two groups,” said Jamal Tahat, who serves on the executive committee of the newly established Public Assembly for Reform, an initiative that involves Jordanians from various districts, tribes and unions.
The first group, he said, “will continue to push for reform the king mentioned to the Western media but seems to refrain from announcing to his own people.” The second group, which “is losing faith in the current so-called reform process,” will keep pushing for a constitutional monarchy, he said.
Under growing pressure to accelerate reform, the king recently appointed a new prime minister, Awn Khasawneh, a former judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In June, the king gave a televised speech promising to relinquish his right to appoint prime ministers and cabinets but did not provide details or a time frame.
The former government had planned to conduct municipal elections this month, but several legislators, political parties and civil society organizations expressed their dissatisfaction with the establishment of new municipalities.
“The new municipal laws and elections were supposed to be the first real test of democratic reform,” said Amin al-Mashaqbeh, professor of political science at the University of Jordan. “There was a lot of pressure to get it right, but unfortunately it caused more division among society.”
During a press conference this week, Mahir Abul Samin, minister of municipal affairs, said: “All decisions of separations or mergers of municipalities across the kingdom are canceled.”
Mr. Khasawneh announced on television that municipal elections were to be postponed, adding that the delay could also allow for more independent oversight, though no details were revealed.
“The municipal elections remain a real test for the new government,” said Mr. Mashaqbeh, “and how they handle it will indicate if and how we move forward.”
In her weekly column published in The Jordan Times, a government- owned daily, Nermeen Murad wrote that what was missing from the reform debate here was the voice of the people.
“The world is whirling around me and changing drastically, but no one has asked me my opinion,” she wrote. “And here, of course, I am not speaking of myself personally, but as one of the Jordanian people affected by this reform.”
She continued: “If the reform had been in response to the people’s demands, then the Constitution would have been put forward for discussion in public forums and to a referendum.”
Before the king’s announcement of a new government, several officials had lost their positions because of a new constitutional amendment prohibiting any deputy, senator, minister or high-ranking official to hold dual nationality.
“I believe this move was merely a disruption from the real issues that need to examined,” Mr. Tahat said.
Reem Badran, a legislator who was the only woman to win a seat in the lower house last year in elections through direct competition rather than a quota system, said she had voted in favor of this amendment, noting that for a “public person to hold dual nationality” amounted to a “conflict of interest.”
“Some may question the timing,” she added, “but there were so many other amendments that were being voted on and this just happened to be one of them.”
Corruption, favoritism and nepotism are long-running grievances among Jordanians, and calls for investigations into corruption take precedence here at nearly all protests. Earlier this year, cases were being referred to the government’s anti-corruption unit. The government promised to speed up investigations into several corruption cases, including investment projects.
“So many cases of corruption were referred, but I doubt any the files have been closed, so this is making Jordanians lose faith that the crackdown is real,” said Mrs. Badran. “This is the main reason that drives people to protest every week.”
Protesters outside Amman carried signs last week that read, “Yes to publicly revealing the names of the corrupt and those accused of stealing our public funds.”
Bassem Tweissi, a columnist for Al Ghad, an independent daily, wrote earlier this month, “We need political and social mechanisms that helps us move forward instead of laws that divide us and make us weaker.” He added, “Without constructive reform that can accomplish this, it will take us another 20 years of experimenting only to find out that our electoral system is a fraud and the whole reform process is a fraud.”