February 2011: Jordan’s King Abdullah II fired his government on Tuesday and charged a new prime minister with boosting economic opportunities and giving citizens a greater stake in politics. Rifai tendered his resignation to the king, who accepted it immediately, according to a statement from the Royal Palace in Amman. Abdullah named Marouf Bakhit, 63, as prime minister, replacing Samir Rifai. Bakhit an ex-general who served as ambassador to Turkey and Israel and supports close ties with the US – previously served as prime minister from 2005-2007.
In his official statement, Abdullah stated he had ordered Bakhit to “undertake quick and tangible steps for real political reforms, which reflect our vision for comprehensive modernization and development in Jordan. “Economic reform is a necessity to provide a better life for our people,” the king said. “But we won’t be able to attain that without real political reforms, which must increase popular participation in the decision-making.” Abdullah also demanded an “immediate revision of laws governing politics and public freedoms,” including legislation governing political parties, public meetings and elections.
Jordan’s constitution gives the king the exclusive power to appoint prime ministers, dismiss parliament and rule by decree.“Unlike Egypt, we don’t want a regime change in Jordan, and we recognize the Hashemites’ rule in Jordan,” Mansour said, referring to Jordan’s ruling family. “But we want to see real political reforms introduced.”
When he ascended to the throne in 1999, Abdullah vowed to press ahead with political reforms initiated by his late father, King Hussein. Those reforms paved the way for a parliamentary election in 1989 after a 22-year gap, the revival of a multi-party system and the suspension of martial law, which had been in effect since Israel’s War of Independence.
But little has been done since then. Although laws were enacted to ensure greater press freedom, journalists are still routinely prosecuted for expressing their opinion or for comments considered slanderous of the king and the royal family.Some gains been made in women’s rights, but many say they have not gone far enough. Abdullah has pressed for stiffer penalties for perpetrators of “honor killings,” but courts often hand down lenient sentences.
Still, Jordan’s human rights record is a notch above those of Tunisia and Egypt. Although some critics of the king are prosecuted, they frequently are pardoned and some are even rewarded with government posts.It was not immediately clear when Bakhit will name his ministers. A government official said the incoming premier was consulting with lawmakers, opposition groups, unionists and civil society institutions on the cabinet makeup.
The official, who is involved in the consultations, stated Bakhit may name some opposition leaders to the new government. He declined to say whether Bakhit may approach the Muslim Brotherhood and insisted on anonymity because he is not allowed to brief the media.
In 2005, Abdullah named Bakhit prime minister days after a triple bombing attack on Amman hotels claimed by the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. During his 2005-2007 tenure, Bakhit – an ex-major-general and top intelligence adviser – was credited with maintaining security and stability following the bombing, which in killing 60 people was the deadliest attack in Jordan’s modern history.
Abdullah is convinced that what worked for his father and for himself on previous occasions will work again today.
King Abdullah II asked Marouf Al Bakhit to form a government in Jordan that will implement “genuine political reform,” the Royal Court released in a statement. The government will “take practical steps, quick and concrete, to launch a process of genuine political reform” and “comprehensive development,” according to a letter from the king to Al Bakhit. It also will act to strengthen democracy, the letter stated. Jordan has been deprived of “achievement opportunities” due to some leaders’ resistance to change, the king wrote, and because they had sometimes put their own interests ahead of those of the public.
The king asked Al Bakhit and the new government “to conduct a thorough evaluation process” and review laws regarding political affairs and civil freedoms to “address the mistakes of the past” and develop “a clear action plan that takes the march of reform forward.” King Abdullah II also called on the new government to strengthen the institutional infrastructure and combat corruption, and prosecute those found to be involved in corruption.
Jawad Anani, a former Jordanian deputy prime minister,stated changes had to be made and that the development comes amid a “deep outcry in the Arab world” seeking change and reform. He stated the king wants Jordan to be more competitive, globalized, and influential, but the management he’s been choosing “has not been very successful.” “That’s why there’s been many changes in government,” Anani stated. In this case, the message of reform covers the political, social, economic, and educational arenas.
One of the talents that the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan has consistently displayed is a deft sense of timing. This allowed king Abdullah’s father King Hussein to laugh at the prognosticators who predicted his demise as early as the 1960s. Hussein knew when to bend, then bide his time till the moment was opportune to recoup his powers.
As a boy of 18, Hussein had to get a handle on the anti-western mood sweeping the Arab world including Jordan in 1956 following the abortive Suez campaign. Hussein fired the legendary British commander of the Jordanian Arab Legion, John Bagot Glubb Pasha, and installed a Palestinian Prime Minister known for his sympathies for Nasser’s Egypt.
In 1958 he was strong enough to undo this with British backing and tacit Israeli acquiescence to having British planes and forces cross Israeli aerospace and back up Hussein’s dismissal of the problematic cabinet that he had been forced to appoint.
Similarly after the Six-Day War, when traditional Arab leaders had been discredited by their defeat, Hussein found himself with a Palestinian state-within-a-state in Jordan headed by Yasser Arafat. Again, Hussein waited for the opportune moment. That came in September 1970 (Black September for the Palestinians), when he smashed Arafat’s power base and sent him packing to Lebanon.
There is a new sense of momentum and inevitability sweeping the Arab world. Despite appearances, the force may be stronger than in 1956 or 1968. For one thing, there are now television satellite dishes, and the Jordanian population is more educated. On the other hand, the Hashemite monarchy is more entrenched, and Abdallah commands popularity that puts him a cut above Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali.
Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front-the Brotherhood’s political arm; Jordan’s most powerful opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, dismissed the changes as cosmetic and didn’t go far enough. One can infer this from the difference in tactics adopted by the Islamic Action Front and its leader Hamzeh Mansur. “We reject the new prime minister and we will continue our protests until our demands are met,” stated Hamzeh Mansur.
Mansur repeated his call for constitutional amendments to curb the king’s power in naming prime ministers, arguing that the post should go to the elected leader of the parliamentary majority. The former premier had been widely blamed for a rise in fuel and food prices and slow-moving political reforms. Mansur distinguished the demands of the Jordanian protesters from those in Egypt “”There is no comparison between Egypt and Jordan.The people there demand a regime change, but here we ask for political reforms and an elected government.”
The Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, is also asking for an “elected government.” Currently, the king appoints the prime minister and the Cabinet. The Islamic Action Front is being ingenuous here. They have also called for constitutional amendments to curb the king’s power in naming heads of government, arguing that the premiership should go to the leader of the majority in parliament. This means that King Abdullah can stay, but his status will now be a constitutional monarch under a parliamentary system, something akin to Queen Elizabeth and the Scandinavian monarchs.
The Brotherhood presumably would also like a change to either proportional representation or redistricting that is not controlled by the palace. In Jordanian elections, the districts were drawn to over-represent rural areas where the Islamic Front is weaker, and to minimize its bastions in the cities. Now he is above the presidential systems in France and Russia, where the executive appoints the prime minister who must also receive the support of the legislative branch. The president in France and Russia must get elected while Jordan is an hereditary monarchy. In a pure parliamentary system, the Prime Minister can reshuffle his cabinet. In presidential systems, with a Prime Minister , and presuming the president’s party commands a majority in the legislature, the cabinet reshuffle can take place from the top-down beginning with the Prime Minister.
From its point of view the Islamic Action Front is quite correct in viewing the new Prime MinisterMarouf al-Bakhit as another henchman of the King. After all he served as prime minister from 2005-2007. It is doubtful that Abdullah’s mandate to the prime minister designates “a real political reform process that reflects our vision of comprehensive reform, modernisation and development.” “Such a process should enable us to proceed with confidence along the path of bolstering democracy and building the nation that will open the door wide for achievement by all our dear people,” and will result in the changes that the Islamic front desires.
In Jordan, police estimated that several thousand people gathered in the capital Friday to demand more significant economic and political reforms. Protesters including Islamists, leftists and union members marched in downtown Amman, and there were protests in six other cities as well, authorities said. It was the third Friday in a row for the protests. Demonstrators gathered in front of the Al Husseini Mosque to decry government policies they blamed for rising prices, low wages and unemployment.
The demonstrators had demanded what the king did Tuesday, sack Prime Minister Samir Rifai, who took office in December 2009. They also called for the dissolution of parliament. The Jordanian government in recent weeks announced several measures aimed at easing citizens’ economic hardships, including reducing taxes on fuel derivatives and subsidizing some basic commodities. A pay raise of 20 Jordanian dinars a month (US$28) was given to civil servants, military personnel and retirees. But protesters Friday said the measures do not go far enough.
Those in Amman Friday also showed their solidarity with others in the Arab world, most notably Egypt, where protesters have recently taken to the streets to demand certain freedoms and urge the ouster of their leaders and the government. The development in Jordan follows protests that forced the president of Tunisia from power and unrest that has convulsed Egypt for days.
Demonstrators also have called for change in Algeria, Sudan and Yemen. Protest organizers have called for a demonstration this week in Syria.