Saturday, June 18, 2011

In Jordan, Real Change Or Illusion?

By Rami G. Khouri  
As we mark the six-month point of the Arab citizen revolt that has swept half this region, here is the question I pose for all who wonder what, if anything, has changed:
Is it a sign of the success or illusion of the Arab revolt that Jordan’s King Abdullah II announced at the start of this week that he has agreed to protesters’ demands that future prime ministers be appointed and dismissed according to the will of a parliamentary majority, rather than by the king?
Two days later King Abdullah qualified that, saying it would take two or three years to take such a measure; time was needed for Jordan to have the requisite three mature parties representing the left, center and right of the political spectrum. In other words, the king will open up the political system only when he feels that reliable parties are in place that would not create problems for him or for the country.
It was six months ago in that mid-December day that Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in the provincial Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. This ignited a cascade of spontaneous protests across Tunisia that ultimately overthrew the president, and sparked similar protests in other Arab countries demanding the overthrow of regimes.
Mostly orderly weekly Jordanian protests have not called for regime change, but for three other things that capture the core spirit of this historic regional rebellion: constitutional reforms to give citizens greater rights and protections; political reforms that make all Jordanians equal before the law and the governance system; and other measures that would help fight against corruption more seriously and reduce the interference of the security services in media, civil society and education, smothering any possibility of serious political, cultural and national development.
Jordan in many ways is a good litmus test of whether real political reform can happen peacefully. It is significant that King Abdullah announced his agreement to the demand that Parliament be the reference for prime ministers and Cabinets, rather than the king’s discerning eye or the occasional royal whim. It suggests that he hears his people’s reasonable calls for change, and is willing to move toward meeting them, as quality monarchs should do.
Yet if this outlook a real breakthrough in a gradual transition toward a constitutional monarchy, it is also jeopardized by the subsequent revival of this old Jordanian royal call for crafting a pre-defined political system that will see national politics conducted with decorum and responsibility as envisaged by the king himself.
Here is the big problem. There is an unbridgeable and deadly contradiction between King Abdullah’s promise to promote democratic freedoms (to make governments accountable to Parliament) and his insistence on maintaining control of this entire process (waiting for three broad political parties to run Parliament). This need to control political life from above shatters the central operative principle of the Arab citizen revolt: that governance happens with the consent of the governed, and ultimate authority rests with the will of the people – expressed through the legitimate constitutional institutions of the rule of law.
The royal call for three mainstream political parties to oversee or manage national governance represents a return to the failed old ways of Arab governments that decide what is best for their people, and dole out episodic benefits and changes through state-managed “reform” processes. Such “reforms” will go down in history as colossal failures that never achieved any credibility or traction with their citizens – because citizens were never serious participants in the process, but rather passive recipients of top-down benevolence, docile targets of dependency rather than of democratic reforms.
All Arab leaders still need to understand that credible political change cannot seriously be defined, promulgated and micro-managed from above. Only superficial, fake political change happens that way. Credible and lasting democratic and constitutional change must respond to and be directed by the collective will of the citizenry, to whom the government system reports through constitutional means.
Free and orderly democratic societies do not naturally move toward a neat configuration comprising three political parties in the center, left and right of the ideological spectrum. Democracy, pluralism and constitutionalism generate a more diverse, complex, imbalanced and ever-changing political landscape – but also a secure and decent one, because it is defined by and held accountable to the citizens.
King Abdullah is one of the handful of Arab leaders who has real legitimacy at home. He is one of the few who can initiate serious reform processes, should he show the way and decide to trust his people and give them the political space they deserve. But this must come as a right of their citizenship, not as a royal gift or a state bonus.
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 18/06/2011

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