Do ambiguous reforms threaten the stability of the Jordanian regime?

By Mona Sukkarieh.

Jordan’s parliament passed a law on May 10, 2012 introducing amendments to the political parties law meant to encourage an effective multiparty political system. An electoral law is being discussed by lawmakers ahead of early parliamentary elections expected later this year. It is likely to cancel a contested one-man-one-vote system and to increase the numbers of seats reserved to women from 12 to 15. The elections will be supervised by an independent election commission, approved by the King on May 7. Last year, in the wake of revolts elsewhere in the Arab world, the King appointed a committee tasked with reviewing the Constitution. More than 40 amendments were approved by the parliament and a new government was appointed, tasked with pursuing political reforms. The King, as it is constantly being repeated by the Jordanian political class, is “determined and very serious” about reforms.

King Abdullah II of Jordan

Not everybody seems to agree, and the Kingdom seems less stable than it is hoped it is. Protests are organized weekly since early 2011 and, although limited compared to some other countries in the region, rising unemployment rate – which unofficial sources place at 22% – and a weakening economy suggest that an escalation is likely. The Prime Minister that was appointed last October to carry out political reforms has just resigned and the King appointed his fourth Prime Minister in less than a year and a half.

The opposition, represented mainly by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front (IAF), seems emboldened by the political gains that the Brothers are building up elsewhere in the Arab Spring countries. “Neither sacking a prime minister nor forming a new government solves the problem” IAF spokesman Jamil Abu Bakr said. According to the electoral law being debated, only 15 seats can be contested by candidates representing political parties, the rest are kept for independent candidates. The constitutional amendments fall short of establishing a real constitutional monarchy and only relatively limit the King’s power. It is significant that the King and his entourage prefer to talk about “constitutional development” rather than “constitutional reform”.

The series of reform initiated by King Abdullah II since last year in response to popular protests are seen as a means to contain popular demands rather than a genuine reorganization of power. The opposition is not satisfied by what it perceives as marginal political changes and by the slow pace of reforms. The King will need to make further concessions to maintain Jordan’s stability.

More importantly, and although his calculation that the opposition will want to preserve the Monarchy is correct, it would be a risky assumption from his part to conclude that this should also apply to the person of the Monarch. His marriage to a Palestinian-born woman has long been a subject of criticism among Jordanian nationalists and even among certain circles in his family. A combination of increased social discontent, fueled by economic difficulties and widespread corruption, escalating protests and political instability might encourage members of his family to safeguard the Monarchy at all costs, even if this should come at his expense. It is through this lens that many have seen the recent arranged marriage of Prince Hamzah, the King’s half-brother and previous Crown Prince (before the King decided to remove him and appoint his son, Prince Hussein, instead of him) to Basmah Bani Ahmad earlier this year, a rare case of a Hashemite prince marrying a tribal Jordanian. For the moment, the King has the means to prevent serious challenges to his rule. But scenarios for a post-Abdullah II Jordan are being assessed if anything should threaten the foundations of the Hashemite Kingdom.

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