Amman/Brussels, 8 October 2003: Jordan has weathered the Middle East’s recent storms, but to maintain stability it must decide how much democracy it now needs and can afford.
Jordanian Democratisation and Regional Instability,* the International Crisis Group’s latest briefing in a series on challenges of democratic reform in the Middle East, acknowledges the Hashemite Kingdom is in a uniquely precarious situation, caught between Iraq to the east and the Israel/Palestine conflict to the west, with a fragile economy and a majority population of Palestinian origin.
"Jordan trod a difficult, dangerous line during the Iraq war, adjusting its rhetoric to fit the public mood while backing U.S. policies", said ICG’s Middle East Program Director Robert Malley. "But the regime’s efforts were more successful in purchasing time than in buying lasting domestic peace".
Although King Abdullah has supported democracy rhetorically since he came to the throne in 1999, his first years have generally favoured a more strong-handed approach in practice with emphasis on economic rather than political liberalisation. Today, as he emerges from the shadow of his father, the late King Hussein, he faces the key question of whether long-term stability is best served by a continued clampdown on expression and association or a gradual, carefully managed opening of political space.
The latter course is fraught with risks, not only because it may affect power relationships between a Palestinian-origin majority not yet fully integrated into Jordanian society and the tribes that have been traditional supporters of the monarchy, but also because it is seen by many as a policy pushed by a U.S. government that is distinctly unpopular with the Jordanian public. As in Egypt, on which ICG reported last week, U.S. policies in Iraq and on the Israel-Palestinian conflict are hurting the cause of political liberalisation in Jordan.
The King seems to favour a measured process, making a strong pledge in support of democratic reform, relaxing restrictions on expression and association, and pushing for the establishment of a Centre for Human Rights and a Higher Media Council. In June, the government organised elections and revived parliament after a two-year hiatus. Although the elections were free, their ground rules ensured a safe pro-regime parliament.
These steps may not satisfy the strongest critics, but in circumstances where all agree the process could spin out of control if not carefully managed, they are probably realistic. Most of all, they are necessary as a means of addressing popular discontent over the economic situation and regional developments.
"The regime has always been focused, above all, on its own stability", said ICG’s Middle East Project Director, Joost Hiltermann, "but lasting stability can now only come through democratic reform".
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*Read the report in full on our website: www.crisisweb.org