Jordan: the failure to reform

It was in February 1999 that King Abdullah II came to the throne in Jordan. The following July, Mohammed VI became king of Morocco, and a year later Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as president of Syria.

At the time, all three were hailed as a new generation of modern Arab leaders but, more than a decade later, those hopes seem badly misplaced. Of the three, the Moroccan king has probably fared best, though even he is still promising reforms that ought to have been accomplished years ago.

The king of Jordan has never been short of reform initiatives either. He has been announcing them, one after another, throughout his reign but they have delivered very little. In some areas – such as corruption and civil liberties – the country is probably worse off now than it was in the beginning.

In a new paper for the Carnegie Endowment, Marwan Muasher (a former deputy prime minister of Jordan) examines the various initiatives and explains why they failed. His conclusions, though, are relevant way beyond Jordan: they highlight familiar obstacles to reform throughout the region.

One important point is that Arab regimes are not good at managing change or dealing with the inevitable resistance to it from vested interests. Muasher writes:

"It is clear that Jordan’s political establishment has no interest in implementing the king’s explicit orders to move ahead on political reform and, in most cases, took measures that set the process back ...

"The king’s own policies on political reform – often aimed at striking a balance between the traditional elements and the reformers – have not borne fruit, and almost always resulted in appeasing traditional elements at the expense of reform. 

"Reform needs reformers who are cognisant of the need for an orderly, gradual process but are also committed to a serious roadmap that would lead to true power-sharing through strong legislative and judicial bodies. 

"The selection of several prime ministers did not lead to serious progress on reform, precisely because they were neither true believers in its value, nor did they have a critical mass of reformers inside their governments able to counterbalance the traditional elements who wanted to preserve the status quo at all costs."

Muasher quotes King Abdullah, in an interview last year, lamenting the lack of progress:

"Sometimes you take two steps forward, one step back. There is resistance to change. There is a resistance to ideas. When we try to push the envelope, there are certain sectors of society that say this is a Zionist plot to sort of destabilise our country, or this is an American agenda. So, it’s very difficult to convince people to move forward."

My own view of this is that when people think reform is a Zionist plot, the government has only itself to blame: if it had made the case properly, the public would ridicule such ideas rather than believing them. The trouble is that most Arab regimes don't take the public into their confidence about what needs to be done and why, or allow the public to discuss it openly amongst themselves – with the result that weird conspiracy theories go unchallenged. 

This is not helped in Jordan's case (or most other Arab countries for that matter) by restrictions on the media and non-governmental organisations. To manage change successfully, you need open and informed debate: conspiracy theories will always flourish in the absence of credible information.

Muasher also argues that attempts to put economic liberalisation in Jordan ahead of political reform (as various other countries such as Syria and Egypt have done) did not succeed either. He writes:

"While it is easy to argue that citizens want bread before freedom, economic liberalisation took place without the development of a system of checks and balances and resulted in the benefits of economic reform being usurped by an elite few. To the average citizen, neither bread nor freedom was attained. 

"As a result, the public has come to view liberalisation and globalisation negatively. Economic reform must be accompanied by political reform, such that institutional mechanisms of accountability are developed to monitor excesses and ensure benefits are made available to all."

Muasher's final point is that Arab regimes have been trying to embrace reform – or at least talking about doing so – without ceding any of their power:

"The political elite must recognise that the only way they can retain power is by sharing it, and governments will have to acknowledge that substituting serious implementation with reform rhetoric fools no one. 

"The choice in Jordan seems to be similar to that of other countries around it: either lead a reform process from above in a gradual, orderly, and serious way, or watch it take place in the streets below with uncontrolled consequences."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 May 2011