Sunday, June 05, 2005

Deeds to match lofty words

When I was studying in Jordan, I felt like it was a politically moderate country especially compared to its more authoritarian neighbors. Even the English newspapers, like the Jordan Times (read mostly by intellectuals & those who don't understand Arabic) were very open in their opinions about the government. True, the picture is not perfect, especially in terms of Palestinian rights, but I feel it is a lot better than say Syria. I found this article from The Jordan Times very interesting because it criticizes about the lack of democracy in the country in a popular Jordanian newspaper!!

In a string of recent interviews with the foreign press, His Majesty King Abdullah has spoken of Jordan's ambitious plans for reform and democratisation. The King has successfully portrayed Jordan as a leader in political reform and repeatedly praised the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world. In one particularly noteworthy exchange with American broadcaster Peter Jennings in March, the King assured viewers that Jordan was on its way to becoming a “constitutional monarchy”.

With all this talk, one could be forgiven for thinking that Jordan is an island of progressiveness in a region dominated by a sea of one-party police states and sham democracies. Things, however, are not always what they appear to be.

When King Abdullah first came to power in 1999, observers were encouraged by the prospect of this young, dynamic Sandhurst and Georgetown-educated monarch leading one of America's closest allies. Today, Western commentators still regularly laud Jordan as a modernising, progressive nation, and a model for the Arab world. There was, in fact, a time when it appeared that Jordan, in contrast to its more recalcitrant neighbours, might very well fulfil its promise. Prominent scholars, such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, argued that young, Western-educated monarchs who enjoyed popular legitimacy and political security would be more willing to take risks, gradually letting go of some power and embarking on potentially destabilising reforms. Yet, as of late, it has been four non-monarchical regimes — Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria — which have, to varying degrees, experienced unprecedented democratic openings.

In Jordan, such openings are proving hard to find. Last year was dark and disappointing for what remains of Jordanian democracy. With authoritarian gusto, the past government of Faisal Fayez systematically clamped down on the opposition, put new limits on press freedom and introduced draft laws which showed blatant disregard for the most fundamental aspects of democratic life. After being appointed in April, the new Prime Minister Adnan Badran half-heartedly tried to convince doubters that he was serious about democracy. Analysts, however, were quick to point out that the same tired pledges to “accelerate political reforms” have been uttered by every prime minister since 1989. Badran has used a less confrontational tone that his predecessor, but has failed, after seven weeks in power, to withdraw either the controversial Professional Associations Law or Political Parties Law introduced by his predecessor.

Jordanians are understandably frustrated. The region is changing before their very eyes, yet they remain on the outside, looking in. The seeds of a democratic revolution are being planted in previously barren land. In a region known for its apathy and quietism, the last few months proved a pleasant surprise and mark what may very well be a new chapter in the often tragic story of what we call the Arab world. But amidst the excitement and expectation, Jordan has, in its own peculiar way, been forgotten, conveniently dropped off the West's democracy radar, as the Bush administration and the European Union have turned a blind eye to the Jordanian regime's authoritarian practices.

Vague platitudes about democracy will no longer suffice. King Abdullah appears well intentioned, but his plans for reform, which focus on promoting decentralisation and improving government efficiency, miss the mark. The most significant obstacles preventing Jordan from joining the ranks of the world's democracies have yet to be addressed. Most glaring, Jordan's outdated Constitution legally enshrines an unbalanced distribution of power, with the executive branch towering over a weak parliament. The Constitution also states that the King, who appoints the prime minister as well as all 55 members of the Senate, is “immune from any liability and responsibility”. How such an arrangement could possibly be conducive to the development of a liberal polity is anyone's guess.

It is time, finally, to open a frank dialogue on the future of Jordan. What does Jordan aspire to become in the years ahead? Instead of disingenuously dodging the crucial issues involved, it is time for both Americans and Jordanians to come to terms with the fact that Jordan is not, as the popular myths would have it, a lonely but brave outpost of liberalism in a sea of what is still the most authoritarian region in the world.

Jordan has played an important role in working for peaceful resolutions to a whole host of thorny regional issues. This, however, does not mean that it should be exempt from American efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world. Thus far, both President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have studiously avoided any public criticism of Jordan. It is baffling that after nearly two months, Rice has failed to mention April's change of government in Jordan even once in her briefings to the press.

Those of us who work for democracy promotion in the Arab world were heartened by the bold Wilsonian vision that Bush presented in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses earlier this year. But, once again, on this most vital of issues, US deeds fail to match the lofty words we so often hear. America's credibility — and its ambitious plans to promote Arab democracy — hang in the balance.

The writer is a Fulbright fellow in Amman, conducting research on democratisation and political Islam in the Arab world. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.