Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Failure Of Reform In Jordan

By Hassan A. Barari
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 24/05/2011

Reasons for the failure of effecting political reform in Jordan abound. A new study titled “A decade of struggling reform efforts in Jordan: the resilience of the rentier system” by Marwan Muasher, published recently by Carnegie, claims that the only reason for this colossal failure over the past decades has to do with the dominance of the “rentier” ruling elite in the country.

Contrary to King Abdullah’s wish, the study says, this elite has resisted reform and has done what it took to stifle the momentum for it.

The importance of the study lies in the fact that its author played a prominent role in Jordan’s politics during the first half of the last decade. Therefore, his gripping testimony should be taken seriously.

Yet, while it is true that the old guard had little interest in reform, the story is pretty much more complicated. First, the claim that the “rentier” elite (traditional one) was alone behind the failure of reform is, to say the least, misleading. The study overlooks equally important variables that can together account for the lack of progress on reform.

If anything, the “neoliberal” elite dominated the political scene in Jordan over the last decade. It was during the liberal Ali Abul Ragheb government, in which Muasher himself was a prominent player, that the Parliament was dissolved and the call for elections was ignored for more than two-and-a-half years. During this period, the government enacted more than 211 provisional laws that many constitutional experts dub as unconstitutional. The concept of balance among authorities was destroyed under this liberal government. Additionally, the liberal elite did everything possible to undermine the institutions of the state.

Indeed, it was the “liberal’ elite that proved to be the least democratic since the resumption of the parliamentarian - democratic life in Jordan in 1989. Many believe that it was during its rule that the Kingdom witnessed unprecedented levels of corruption.

The liberal economic recipe that was implemented ruthlessly was behind the retreat of the state from the economic life, thus creating social dislocation. The “liberal” elite failed to see the ramification of its policies. Moreover, the policy followed by the “liberal” elite was unpopular; it restricted freedom and cracked down on liberties. Many are still perplexed why the “liberal” Cabinet members continued to serve in such governments.

It is no secret that the “liberal” elite thought of ignoring all democratic institutions, including the Parliament, to accelerate the economic reform. The outcome is clear: unprecedented budget deficit and the deteriorating of the economy.

During this period, the traditional elite was not in the driving seat. I am saying this because decisive decisions were made outside the government in which the “liberals” had the upper hand.

Yet, the study is correct when it describes the traditional elite as the status quo forces that had vested interest in trashing all suggested reform, including the National Agenda initiative.

The daily political life in Jordan over the last decade refutes the main argument of this study. Also, dividing Jordanians into liberal and traditional does not depict reality. Those who fought against reform were both “liberal” and “traditional” politicians, including all governments in which Muasher served as a prominent Cabinet member.

Also absent from Muasher’s study is the fact that there was no political will to embark upon genuine reform, and the study on a whole is not placed in the wider regional context that impedes the efforts to reform. Blaming the traditional elite for this failure is not quite accurate.

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