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Letter from the Levant : Jordanians prepare to resume their democracy

Jordanians are recovering from the state of "shock and awe" following the great debacle in Iraq. The view from Jordan is probably typical of many Arab capitals. On the one hand you have the populace, a great many of them, trying to resume their lives and pick up from where they left before Mohammad Sahaf’s last press conference.

Friday picnickers congregate on both sides of the airport highway, a favorite area for bored Ammanite families, in search of shady trees under which families would gather to barbecue meat, share a watermelon and pass around a hubble-bubble. So much for springtime!
On the other hand there is the government with all its wisdom and glory.

In Jordan’s case the government was quick to call on citizens to shift their attention from the Iraqi issue back to the elections, which will be held in June. The local press was still reeling from the unexpected outcome of the Baghdad siege, when the authorities reminded everyone that less than two months separated Jordanians from the first parliamentary elections to be held in the reign of His Majesty King Abdallah II.

First reaction to this reminder was apathetic. Few Jordanians showed genuine interest in the outcome of the poll, which will take place under a new election’s law. Before the Iraq war, Jordanians were kept busy with a local agenda based on the "Jordan First" slogan. Committees were formed to submit recommendations on how best the mantra applied to economic, social, gender, political and other issues. As a result, a women quota of six seats was adopted and a call to concentrate on local issues and challenges was endorsed. Then came the war, and Jordanians like millions others around the Arab world gave it undivided attention.

Today, almost a month since the fall of Baghdad, Jordanians are beginning to discover new interest in the elections. The Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s biggest organized political group with its own party, decided to rescind an earlier decision to boycott the elections—they pulled out of the 1997 poll. That decision brought life back to the local political scene. With the Islamic Action Front (IAF) contesting the June elections, opposition parties, mostly left wing, decided to follow suit. Slowly Jordanian tribes and clans began meeting to name their candidates for the 110-seat Lower House. It now looks like the June elections will resuscitate what was once a thriving democratic process.

What happens in Jordan this summer should in fact matter to the kingdom’s neighbors. In 1989, when Jordan held its first parliamentary elections in decades producing a vociferous and outspoken legislature, the experiment was considered as controversial and revolutionary across the region. In retrospect the first five years of the 1990s remain the most luminous in Jordan’s political history. The press thrived, political parties bloomed—although most remained popularly ineffective with the exception of the IAF—and public liberties were enshrined by progressive laws. The political experiment survived two serious tests, the first Gulf war and the Jordan-Israel peace treaty in October 1994. From 1995 onwards the experiment began to suffer. Anti-normalization pressure from opposition parties and the killing by a Jordanian soldier of seven Israeli schoolgirls near the border with Israel in March 1997, are believed to have forced the government to apply the brakes on the democratic process. The pro-Iraq weekly press was thought to have jeopardized Jordan’s efforts to normalize relations with the Gulf countries which were damaged as a result of the Kingdom’s stand on the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990.

As a result, the press and election laws were amended with the aim of curbing rogue publishers and sensational weeklies and limiting the influence of Islamic and leftist parties in the Lower House. Thus with most of these parties boycotting the polls in protest, a docile and submissive Lower House was elected in 1997.

That parliament was still in session when King Abdallah II succeeded his father, the late King Hussein, to the throne in February 1999. The young King brought a new vision for Jordan and hoped to accelerate a process of economic reforms that was perceived to be moving too slowly through the labyrinths of the legislature. When the King instructed his Prime Minister, Ali Abul Ragheb, to push forth with these reforms and hasten economic restructuring, the Lower House failed to respond. So in the summer of 2001 the King dissolved parliament and asked the government to prepare for a new elections. With the government’s hands set free, it quickly moved to pass and amend no less than 130 temporary laws. In the absence of the legislature the democratic process came to a halt.

There is no doubt that while economic reforms were achieved in many areas, the political process had suffered. The government was seen as resorting to arbitrary policies to curb press freedom and public liberties. The outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada, the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister in Israel and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America contributed in one way or another to postponing the date of the new elections and so souring relations between the government and opposition parties. Finally the King decided that the elections must be held this spring and few months later the government set the June date.

With political parties deciding to participate, the elections promise to be lively and important. With regional challenges in Palestine and Iraq notwithstanding, Jordan’s determination to go ahead with the elections reflects a willingness to change and lead for that matter. It might take a while to go back to the golden era of the first years of the 1990s, but the decision to return to full democratic life in Jordan will be more crucial today than back in 1989.

Change will take place across the region as a result of the Iraq question. It is not surprising that democratization has become a vital issue on regional agendas from Baghdad to Damascus, from Cairo to Riyadh to Doha and elsewhere. Jordan has both the track record and experience to jump-start its democratic experiment and build on what it had achieved in the past. There is no doubt that the June elections will be viewed with keen interest by the country’s neighbors and friends while many Arab leaders will look for similarities and differences in the Jordanian example.

One thing that the world will be watching is voter behavior on elections day. With candidates from all walks of life and shades of color running it would be interesting to see what kind of deputies Jordanian voters will choose. With Iraq, Palestine and a plethora of other issues on their mind Jordanians are being asked to vote with their minds not their hearts. Tough choice, but still it is good to know that democracy will win the day.

Amman,05 12 2003
Osama El-Sherif
The Star
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