Jordan's Experiment: Does Top-Down Democratic Reform Work?

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Jordanians were granted the right to elect a government this spring, but a popular king with nearly unchecked powers might not really be willing to give those up voluntarily

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Jordan's King Abdullah addresses top officials at Raghdan Palace in Amman / Reuters

Jordan has a new prime minister and a new government. Once again, there is hope that a change in leadership will put this Middle Eastern monarchy back on the right course toward democratic reform. In the Jordanian press, approval of Awn al-Khasawneh's selection as prime minister has been nearly unanimous. Western observers have also sounded optimistic notes. But, for those who wish to see Jordan develop into something resembling a democracy, King Abdullah's recent moves -- apparently intended to reassure skeptics that democratization is forthcoming -- suggest more of the same.

Khasawneh -- a former judge on the International Court of Justice -- is by all accounts a smart and well-meaning individual. As one former Jordanian minister told me, "Awn is a great guy but a bad manager." I saw Khasawneh speak at the World Economic Forum on October 22. He was humble, self-deprecating, and won over the crowd. His admission that he didn't know much about economics managed to be both endearing and somewhat frightening. But the focus on Khasawneh, his skills and his deficiencies, is something of a distraction.

Still, the prime minister can't be Jordan's solution because the prime minister isn't really the problem. The prime minister is appointed by the king -- usually with minimal consultation -- and serves at his pleasure. He has limited powers and operates within a claustrophobic political structure in which the monarchy, the royal court (with a staff of more than a thousand), and the intelligence services dominate. In a new Brookings paper, my colleague Courtney Freer and I take a closer look at king's role in the Jordanian politics and what it means for the country's reform prospects.

The current situation reminds me of 2004 and 2005, when I was living in Jordan. It was a tumultuous time with growing opposition to Prime Minister Faisal al-Fayez's increasingly repressive measures against professional syndicates and other civil society organizations. Fayez was soon replaced by the academic Adnan Badran, a well-meaning liberal with a reputation for integrity. But Badran, like so many others before him, was only able to tinker around the margins, despite the existence of an ambitious reform blueprint known as the "National Agenda." The National Agenda was never implemented. The architect of the agenda -- then deputy prime minister Marwan Muasher -- has suggested that it was those officials around the king, rather than the king himself, who blocked the reform process from going forward.

The Jordanian monarchy appears to use its government to provide a buffer between the king and the public. The government provides useful scapegoats when things go awry. In a way, this benefits both the rulers and ruled alike. The public can let out steam and call for the downfall of the government (hukuma) rather than the regime (nizam). The regime listens and replaces the government. The regime stays intact, offering the illusion of change with little of the substance. Jordan, remarkably, has had three different prime ministers since the Arab spring began, each armed with the same mandate for furthering the reform process.

If the king does indeed bear some responsibility for the slow pace of reform -- Jordan's first "democratic experiment" began some 23 years ago -- it is worth asking what exactly the king thinks and wants.

First and foremost, the king does not appear to take kindly to the Islamist opposition. King Abdullah, since his ascent to the throne in 1999, has presided over a deteriorating relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). Under his father King Hussein's reign, the relationship was often tense, particularly after the signing of the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, but it was one anchored in both history and mutual respect (Hussein and the Muslim Brotherhood were close allies from the 1950s through the 1970s out of a shared opposition toward then-dominant leftists). King Abdullah, half-British and educated at Georgetown and Oxford, is clearly a social progressive and has little patience for the tribalism and conservatism that still dominates Jordan. His glamorous wife Rania can often seem out of touch in her own country, and has come under increasing scrutiny at home for her profligate spending.

Not surprisingly, Abdullah and many royal court officials evince a deep suspicion of Islamists, whose strength is frequently used to explain the delay in executing promised reforms. In one recent interview with Christiane Amanpour, the king said, "If we can show democracy that leads to a two-, three-, four-party system - left, right, and center - in a couple of years' time, then the Muslim Brotherhood will no longer be something to contend with."

In his public speeches, the king speaks of democracy much more than nearly all other Arab leaders. Yet, he is also careful to warn of the dangers of unfettered freedom - often in the same breath. In a major June 12 speech, Abdullah underlined the "difference between the required democratic transformations and achievable ones on the one hand, and the risks of chaos and fitna (sedition) on the other." The implications were clear: democracy, without loyalty and vigilance, could easily turn into something dangerous.

It was not an isolated comment. In his October 24 letter of designation to the new prime minister, Awn al-Khasawneh, King Abdullah emphasized the importance of media liberalization but cautioned that "the media should shun demagoguery and incitement, refrain from undermining the country's image and from character assassination." He went on, "When democratic environment, press freedom, and freedom of speech are exploited to serve personal agendas and purposes, or to undermine the reform process or national unity, then this is a matter to be referred to the judiciary."

Since the Arab spring began, King Abdullah, to his credit, has acknowledged the demands of protesters and promised significant reforms, including granting Jordanians the right to elect a prime minister and a government. Yet, in a speech to parliament on October 26, he also said it wouldn't happen anytime soon: "As for governments formed by political parties, this issue rests in the hands of the citizens and voters, and it is very much conditional to the ability of political parties to freely compete."

It is unclear how long that might take. Developing two or three broad-based political parties has long been the stated desire of Jordanian officials. If one goes back to newspaper archives in the mid-1990s, it is remarkable how similar some of the debates were. Back then, political parties - with the exception of the Islamic Action Front - were weak and ineffectual. Today, they are still weak and ineffectual.

This brings us to a larger, more troubling question: does gradual reform even work? One hopes it does. The alternative, after all, can be destabilizing and even violent. And, sometimes, the alternative - revolution - doesn't even work on its own terms. In Egypt, for example, the "revolution" has, so far, been unable to dislodge entrenched power structures. But if revolution is uncertain and messy, at least it brings about substantive change. The track record of top-down "gradual reform," meanwhile, has an almost flawless record of failure in the Arab world. Reform does not necessarily lead to democracy. But perhaps that's the point.

Nearly every Jordanian official I've met with in the year and a half I was based in Amman, and ever since, has cautioned against rapid democratization as a process or full democracy as an objective. Jordan is too divided, their argument goes. The Islamists are too strong and would almost certainly win a plurality in free elections. East Bank Jordanians are still too wedded to their tribes. Giving more political power to Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who already dominate the economy, would undermine national unity.

All of these arguments have a ring of truth to them. And they are not something you hear only from those in government. Many Jordanians, particularly East Bankers, are perfectly fine with a powerful, even dominant monarch.

But the king's strong position, relative popularity, and legitimacy are also an argument for doing more, sooner. If the king is above the fray, and treated with a degree of reverence -- direct criticism of the king is still rare (and illegal) -- then the king, unlike his weaker republican counterparts, has considerable room to maneuver and initiate a real democratic transition (as his father did in 1989). But is it really realistic to expect a king - with nearly unchecked executive powers and with a sizable domestic constituency that does not want to see him give it up - to voluntarily undermine his own throne? We are about to find out.

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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