AMMAN, Jordan — In recent days, King Abdullah II (Abdullah II bin al-Hussein), popularly perceived in the West as being among the most enlightened Middle East leaders, has dismissed the Prime Minister and replaced him with a palace aide and loyalist, dissolved Parliament and postponed legislative elections for a year.
The king’s decisions were widely seen here as an effort to free the government from a recalcitrant legislature so it could push through financial measures viewed as essential to shoring up an economy burdened by debt and deficit. The Parliament, dissolved midway through its term, had opposed cuts in spending and the reduction of business taxes, key components of the government’s financial plan.
While King Abdullah often talks about human rights and democracy, the reality here is often quite different, rights advocates say. Last month the internal security forces were criticized by human rights groups when two prisoners died in custody.
The king’s recent moves, while aimed at fiscal management, demonstrate the leadership’s continued intention to manipulate and suppress the political process, former officials and political commentators said.
“The nature of humans is they want democracy,” said Ali Dalain, an independent member of the Parliament that was dissolved. “Since 1993, democracy in Jordan has been receding. One person cannot solve all problems and cannot make everyone happy, so people must share in determining their fate.”
The king tried to blunt that criticism by ordering the government to rework an unpopular election law that limits the ability of voters to select their representatives. But even allies of the government conceded that there was little chance of substantially altering the law, which was instituted in 1993 to keep power out of the hands of certain groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood (The Society of the Muslim Brothers – al-ikhwān al-muslimūn), an Islamist organization.
“There are no fundamental changes; we should not be under any illusions,” said Nawaf W. Tell, a Foreign Ministry official who is director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “Yes, I read the newspapers; hopes are high, but this is not the case, that’s not what is going to happen.”
The king’s credentials as a proponent of democracy were further undermined when he delayed legislative elections and then announced that there would be elections for new local councils, a move termed political sleight of hand by those calling for free elections for Parliament. The councils would have no legislative or decision-making authority, officials said, but would instead work as local administrators and troubleshooters.
“These councils have no political identity, and they will use the councils to improve Jordan’s image,” said Rohile Gharaibeh, deputy secretary general for the Islamic Action Front, the political party for the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. “This will be how they try to distract people.”
When the king first moved against Parliament and promised to fix the much maligned election law, many groups praised the decision. As the economy has soured, with unemployment around 13 percent, the legislature has developed a reputation for self-interest and incompetence. It also lacked legitimacy because of accusations of vote-buying and fraud in the last election, though former officials say it was the intelligence service (Dairat al-Mukhabarat al-Ammah – General Intelligence Department) that oversaw the electoral manipulation.
Jordan’s actions are nothing out of the ordinary in the Middle East, where kings, emirs, sultans and presidents rely on elected institutions to claim legitimacy and give citizens the perception they have a stake in the direction of the state, political experts said. But those institutions have little independent power or authority. In Egypt, officials in 2006 delayed local elections for two years, saying they would use that time to improve the democratic conditions, though those improvements have not occurred.
When Jordan’s king dissolved Parliament, he also instructed the government to ensure that future elections were a “model of transparency and justice.” By doing that, he focused attention on the election law that was put in effect in 1993 by his father, King Hussein (Hussein bin Talal).
The law shifted control of Parliament away from heavily populated urban centers, with a majority of Palestinians and Islamist supporters, to more rural, tribal-dominated areas. The election law has been preserved over the years because it permitted some degree of public political participation, while allowing the government to preserve a social balance that it sees as essential to keeping Islamists from taking power, and keeping Jordanians of Palestinian origin from winning political control. Of the six million Jordanians, at least half are ethnic Palestinians.
Government supporters say changing the law would undermine the identity of the state and diminish the prospects for the two-state solution to the crisis between the Palestinians and the Israelis. But critics contend that the election law has been used as a political tool to protect old-guard interests.
“I don’t think that King Hussein, when he designed the election law, thought it would reach the situation we are in today,” said Mustafa Hamarneh, a former director of the Center for Strategic Studies, who now edits a weekly magazine. “But there are conservatives who believe that this is the best way to maintain stability.”
For the moment, the king has focused on the day-to-day management of a struggling economy. The national debt is headed toward $14 billion this year at the same time that the economy is contracting as a result of the global financial crisis. The king rolled out his final reshuffling on Monday, when he swore in a new prime minister, Samir Zaid al-Rifai, 43, a businessman and former palace adviser.
Referring to the flurry of royal decisions, Musa Maaytah, Jordan’s minister of political development, said, “The most important thing now is how to develop political life and increase the participation of citizens.”
Mr. Maaytah holds a post that Jordan says was created to demonstrate the kingdom’s commitment to improving the political environment. But the ministry is also seen as the weakest in the cabinet, political analysts said, a perception underscored in part by there having been seven ministers in the six years the post has existed.
Mr. Maaytah said he hoped the situation in Jordan would improve, but acknowledged that the jury was still out. “I was against dissolving the Parliament,” he conceded.
Filed under: Civil Liberties, Information, Military Industrial Complex Tagged: | Abdullah II bin al-Hussein, al-ikhwān al-muslimūn, Ali Dalain, Amman, Center for Strategic Studies, Dairat al-Mukhabarat al-Ammah, democracy, Egypt, General Intelligence Department, human rights, Hussein bin Talal, Islamic Action Front, Islamism, Jordan, King Abdullah II, King Hussein, Middle East, Musa Maaytah, Muslim Brotherhood, Mustafa Hamarneh, Nawaf W. Tell, Palestine, Rohile Gharaibeh, Samir Zaid al-Rifai, The Society of the Muslim Brothers, University of Jordan