The recent lavish praise by Israeli spin doctors in support of the King of Jordan couldn’t have come at a better time for the embattled monarch. Over the last couple of weeks, the King has had to contend with the difficult aftermath of the Tunisian and Egyptian events and the growing vocal opposition at home. Different groups, including some who are known as core loyalists to the monarchy, have recently issued rare statements criticising the King and his family and calling for urgent and far-reaching political reform.
Their criticism pointed to the King’s incompetence -“steering a ship in rough waters while asleep at the wheel”-; his inability (or desire) to introduce genuine political and economic reform; and some indirect references to his own corruption.
Criticism from others also included ample warnings to the King but fell short of asking him to abdicate. Many observers were taken by surprise at the growing disrespect for the King and his family, given that direct criticism of the monarch is banned in Jordan and can lead to a three-year imprisonment for opinions or comments considered slanderous of the King and the royal family. The American and European stance against Mubarak and their persistent call for a change to the status-quo of governance in the Middle East must have also weighed on the King’s mind.
It is interesting that Israel played a very low-key at the beginning of the Tunisian and Egyptian events, with Netanyahu even banning his cabinet from commenting on the events.
The situation changed quickly as the Israeli leaders started to appreciate what the demonstrators have achieved. After all, it wasn’t Islamists or foreign troops that toppled Bin Ali and resulted in Mubarak’s decision not to nominate himself for re-election: it was ordinary, brave people. Israel then realised that the Arab people had something to celebrate, and that the cronies they have become accustomed to dealing with are under threat.
The populace was no longer afraid of the despots and tyrants – suddenly entire “stable” regimes have been placed at the mercy of their own masses! The Israeli leaders and media soon started to caution against a regime change in Egypt and pressure the American administration to curb criticism of Mubarak. As the King of Jordan struggled to react to the dynamic events around him, the Israeli media quickly moved to his rescue. In a recent article published in Haaretz newspaper, Oded Eran, director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a former ambassador to Jordan, warns that a successful attempt to remove the current regime in Jordan is of a totally different magnitude to what is transpiring in Tunisia and Egypt. Oded praised the King’s choice of new Prime Minister Maroof Al-bakhit, emphasising that “an army general is needed much more in the face of a gathering storm”. In a message directed to the Jordanian opposition, Oded stresses that the regime in Amman has a much lower threshold of tolerance than its Cairo counterpart and that:
The King would not hesitate, if needed, to call the army’s 1,250 tanks, 2,300 armoured personnel carriers and the 100,000-strong bedwins (loyalists to the king) into action to nip any uprising in the bud, regardless of the international repercussions.
In another message directed to the USA, Oded lectures Washington that the stakes of embracing demands for full democracy in Jordan are much higher than for Egypt, and that Washington “should refrain from sending messages of encouragement to the Jordanian opposition, peaceful as it may be.”
One of the reasons that the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel remains lukewarm, is that it was a treaty between the people of Israel and the Hashemites - it was never a peace between two peoples. The late King Hussein curtailed certain public freedoms in the lead-up to the treaty and his government passed a temporary electoral law (Parliament was given a recess), which introduced the one-person one-vote, to ensure that loyalists are elected to ratify the treaty.
While a shift to democracy in Jordan might well be uncomfortable for Israel, the dangers are manageable. There is no doubt that a democratic government in Jordan will come under pressure to reflect popular anger at Israel. But generally, democracies rarely attack other democracies.
The Muslim world increasingly provides examples of progressive Islamist regimes with tolerance and respect for all religions. So even if democracy in Jordan ends up with an Islamic flavour, Israel has nothing to fear from a democratic, plural and liberal Jordan. Democracy in Jordan will provide dignity, freedom and economic reform for its people. Once these basic needs are met, Jordanians would begin to embrace peace and tolerance with their neighbours.
Supporting a dictator like King Abdullah may provide Israel with some short-term benefits, but it won’t win Israel the long-term peace it desires for its future generations. That lasting peace can only be achieved through negotiations with democratically elected leaders who have the support and blessing of their people – King Abdullah has neither.
Even if the King clings to power for a bit longer, the damage has been done. He’s clearly lost his support amongst the loyalsists and will no longer be able to provide the “stability” which Israel desires to the east of its borders.
The King of Jordan has recently been in the limelight as the next reviled dictator in the region to face a similar fate to Mubarak. Under pressure from street demonstrations, and in an attempt to head off trouble from angry Jordanians in the wake of unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, the King sacked the despised Prime Minister Samir Rifai and appointed Marouf Bakhit as new Prime Minister. This move, clearly made in panic and without regard to the demonstrators’ demands, had little effect in placating the masses and their demands for genuine political reform. The demonstrators’ main demands, as reported by the New York Times, is for the King to uphold the constitution which calls for election of the Prime Minister and for the King to have a symbolic role (like Queen Elizabeth of England) in running the country.
However, the King’s appointment of Marouf Bakhit, a former Prime Minister with military background in the Armed Forces, has largely been received as a clear demonstration of the King’s unwillingness to implement genuine reform or relax his grip on power. In his previous role as Prime Minister (2005-2007), Bakhit presided over one of the worst parliamentary elections in Jordan, which were rigged and resulted in Bakhit being stood down shortly after. In making this appointment, the King is sending a defiant message to the masses that he is running out of tolerance for any descent and that Bakhit’s appointment signals his desire to further strengthens his grasp on the army, the main pillar of his support.
Throughout this, and in a reference to the National Agenda proposed by reformist and former Deputy Prime Minister “reform czar” Marwan Muasher, the King has maintained that it was the political elite who obstructed and resisted reform. While scapegoating of others may have worked for the King in the past, the masses are now well aware that this argument no longer holds water because the King himself has sidelined all reform attempts and acted as an ultimate authority with responsibility for appointing and nurturing these elites in the first place.
This argument further suggests one of two things: at best, it shows an incompetent King who has no control or authority over his cronies and the running of his country; or at worst, his complicity in resisting reform and providing full support for this political elite. Either way, this shows that the King is unfit to govern and must leave.
The King’s decision to abandon Samir Rifai, whose disgraced government was given a strong vote of confidence by Jordan’s new Parliament only a few weeks earlier, is laughable. The Parliament is largely seen as a rubber stamp for the King and was conceived as result of a new election law concocted by Samir Rifai (with the blessings of the King) to ensure election of loyalists to the Parliament. Most of the recent street demonstrations have denounced the members of Parliament for abandoning the people and providing a vote of confidence to a government despised by the people.
In a recent letter sent to the King by a group of Jordanians advocating political reform and democracy in the country, the King was warned of the impending dangers if their demands are not met. Their letter stated that Jordan was suffering from both a crisis of governance and governments; a crisis of corruption and corrupting; a crisis of failure and failing to reform; and a crisis of political elitism all supported and nurtured by the corrupt regime.
In what is believed to be a reference to the Country’s most prominent political prisoner and former minister Adel Qudah (currently imprisoned for 3 years for standing up to the corruption of influential people), the letter also pointed out to a crisis of repression, character assassination and false imprisonment of dignitaries under the auspices of the King and the Rifai government.
The signatories also called for a general amnesty of political prisoners; drafting of modern electoral laws with participation from all political parties; respect for public freedoms and freedom of speech; and making provisions for an interim caretaker government from independent political figures respected for their courage and honesty. They also called for the dismantling of the lower and upper houses of parliament in preparation for new, fair and transparent elections.
The Jordanian people’s demands are loud and clear. The Hashemite rulers have had more than 90 years to prove their worth. They have failed miserably on all aspects and did very little to promote genuine democratic and economic reform. They have amassed a fortune and squandered the wealth of the country.
The events of last week show little promise that the King is interested or committed to genuine reform. His actions do not meet the aspirations of the Jordanian people and he must now make provisions for a transitional caretaker government and leave the country peacefully – cronies included!
In a Brief published by the Arab Reform Initiative, Jordanian Lawyer Sufian Obeidat presents a scathing report on the sad state-of-affairs surrounding corruption laws in Jordan. He eloquently describes how “a network of laws is in place that acts to entrench corruption” and argues that the real corruption “is corruption within the structure of the ruling regime”. He goes on to explain that “combating corruption and eradicating its effects can only be achieved by repairing these structural problems”; that “the spread of corruption in society is a result of the corruption of the regime”; and that “corruption is a crisis of governance that is caused by a crisis of democracy”. He also explains that “ a state that is not ruled by the law is itself the source of corruption, as the rule of law and democracy go inseparably hand in hand, and there can be no rule of law without democracy to protect it”
Mr Obeidat also described in his article how corruption in Jordan originated from distortions in the political regime that have amassed over a period of almost sixty years:
“A series of amendments and interpretations since the 1950s have further concentrated power with the king and government, and weakened the role of the judiciary and the National Assembly … Hence the balance between the three authorities has been upset, and the supervision of the judiciary and the parliament over the workings of the government undermined”.
The most dangerous provision of this network of laws, according to Mr Obeidat, is the power they grant to the prosecutor’s office to reach a settlement with a perpetrator, if the latter returns the funds appropriated as a result of the crime. These laws further authorise the Chamber of Deputies to allocate a portion of the funds collected from the perpetrators of crimes “to pay for administrative and legal expenses, and cover fees.” Obeidat argues that “this is a flagrant violation of the principles of neutrality and impartiality and the principle that judges should not be influenced by any material benefit related to their work other than their salaries, and leaves the door wide open to the corruption of the judiciary”
Mr Obeidat concludes his article with an example of an outrageous and reprehensible practice of these arcane laws which manifested itself in a recent court case involving the Jordan Petroleum Refinery Company Expansion Project:
“In an egregious case that continues to play out today, the government exploited all exceptional means given to it by anti-corruption legislation … Jordanian society as a whole was taken aback by a decision made by the prime minister to wrest the case from the civil judiciary and transfer it to the State Security Court … The trial went ahead before the State Security Court, which used its powers to conduct it in secrecy, veiling the details of the case from the public without bothering to justify the secret trial …”
Yesterday’s ruling by the State Security Court (SSC) in connection with the Jordan Petroleum Refinery Company expansion project, shows unprecedented levels of manipulation of the Judiciary by the Country’s leadership. The sentencing of three former officials and a businessman to three years in prison on unsubstantiated charges of bribery, makes a mockery of the country’s judiciary which is widely seen to be a political instrument used by the country’s leadership to distort facts, manipulate the law and influence pro-government outcomes.
The SSC decision comes as a shock particularly given the lack of evidence in this case. The Prosecutor’s main witnesses did not testify to any wrongdoing by any of the defendants. On the contrary, observers found their testimonies to be wholly in the defendants’ favour. The sentencing of the four defendants, without any evidence to support their involvement either in offering or accepting a bribe, strongly suggests that this case is politically driven. In a clear reference to Prime Minister Samir Rifai, Ahmad Najdawi, a prominent lawyer representing Mr Adel Qudah, told Reuters that the ruling was settling of scores by influential people who had rival interests in the case and sought to take revenge against Mr Qudah, after they came to power, because he stood up to them in this particular case. Najdawi further said that he believed the “conditions of a fair trial were not attained” and that “defence was denied the right to fully present its case”. This is believed to be a reference to the Defence’s request to summon a number of high-ranking officials as key witnesses in the case. This request was denied by the SSC, who also barred the media from attending the proceedings over the past six months. Defence Lawyer Saleh Armoti, representing Mr Mohammad Rawashdeh, also refuted the SSC decision and both lawyers said they would appeal the decision to the Court of Cassation.
Jordan’s legal system has had a long history of being a puppet in the hands of the country’s elite. However, this particular case is significant because it directly affects the legitimacy of the Regime. This case has and will further erode the regime’s support base of moderate Jordanians, as was manifested by the recent declaration of a moderate political party who openly criticised the declining state-of-affairs and incompetent governance in the country.
To add insult to injury, some government supporters are now calling the three-year jail sentence “light” and are advocating that the assets of all defendants be confiscated. The substantial wealth of these high-profile defendants now appears to be a target for an increasingly corrupt, greedy and bankrupt leadership.
Jordan’s leadership may have been lead to believe that these actions will receive support in the West, who has long criticised corruption in the Country. However, by manipulating the law to suit their objectives, the message they’re sending is that Jordan is not a transparent country open to international business; that it remains an autocracy where the rule of law can be undermined by political influence; and that family and company wealth will always be at risk of confiscation on the whim of the Country’s leadership.
Jordan’s record on human rights violations has come under attack again following the Government’s handling of the on-going Jordan Petroleum Refinery Court Case. This Case involves charges which have been brought against the former Chairman of the Company and former Finance Minister Adel Qudah (age 70 years) and three other people. The concerns about this case are in regard to unlawful detention of defendants who have been released on bail, manipulation of laws to ensure a pro-government result, lack of transparency in judicial proceedings, and curbing of freedom of speech particularly against the fledgling independent press. The Government’s actions in this case raise concerns about the integrity of the proceedings, and the sudden decision to transfer the case to the State Security Court, after the defendants had posted bail in a Civil Court. This is particularly concerning given that the case had already been with the Civil Court for a period of two months and given that the expansion project had never been awarded.
This case has caused the Government considerable damage and embarrassment. At best, it shows an incompetent and negligent leadership scrambling for cover and a way out. At worst, it suggests their involvement in a sinister and deliberate attempt to manipulate the judiciary, force a pro-government outcome, and tarnish the reputation of innocent people. Either way, it is a fiasco and shows a leadership unfit to govern.
According to Freedom House’s latest “Freedom in the World” report, similar violations have been reported in recent years. Their latest report shows that Jordan had regressed from a “partly free” to a “non-free” state according to their rankings. The country’s Parliament was dissolved barely two years into its term, and new elections were not scheduled until late 2010. These actions were interpreted by observers as an attempt to manipulate the political process and signified a decline in political rights. Furthermore, strict laws have muted the independent press, resulting in Jordan’s ranking to slip behind Egypt in Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) ranking for journalistic freedom. HRW has also documented systematic prisoner abuse and bypassing of the judicial system to detain people without trial.
The Government must restore confidence in the Judiciary and the integrity of the Courts. This must be demonstrated by upholding the Civil Court decision and the immediate release of detainees. The Government must also ensure that a transparent and fair trial be held in a Civil Court open to the media, general public and international human rights observers. This is the only prospect that will guarantee the detainees a fair trial and an opportunity to clear their names.