While the people have demanded the fall of their regimes in streets and squares across the Arab world this year, those regimes have offered a persistent, if predictable, reply: “the people just aren’t ready for us to go yet.” This accusation of unpreparedness has taken a few different forms in different contexts: “The people are too sectarian” (Bahrain and Syria); “too tribal” (Libya and Yemen); “too Islamist” (Egypt, Libya, Syria); “too underdeveloped,” “too radical” “too violent,” “too weak and defenseless,” et cetera. In every case, the people are portrayed as inept and a threat to themselves. Meanwhile, regimes clinging to power in the face of mass protests portend that the only solution to this unpreparedness is their steady hand ferrying their societies into the harbor of democratic governance (eventually).
The Jordanian monarchy, like most other regimes in the region, claims to be the sole leader of national development and political reform in the country, and its rationale is not unsurprising: The political other (be it political parties, media outlets, civil society organizations, or voters) is too immature to govern, and—until it reaches maturity—the regime is the only appropriate guide down the path of democratization. As Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said recently, “The tone is being set from above. Reform is led by the king.”
The irony is that the same story has been told and retold for decades, and it seems to be holding little water for Jordanian citizens. Beginning with Jordan’s supposedly grand turn toward democratization in 1989 following years of emergency rule and the suspension of parliamentary life, a pattern has emerged: Discontent and political challenge lead to national dialogue, which leads to limited political reforms, which lead to further discontent over the absence of comprehensive change. Be it the economic riots of the late 1980s, sit-ins in 2005 following the passage of a restrictive civil society law, or the sustained demonstrations that Jordan has seen in recent months, the regime has responded with dialogue initiatives that are theoretically inclusive of various political actors but effectively led by the Crown.
This past week featured one such initiative, a political reform panel tasked with recommending constitutional amendments for the government’s consideration. Entitled the Royal Committee on Constitutional Review, the panel was appointed by the king in April following months of popular demonstrations calling (rather ambiguously) for the reform of the regime (islah al-nizam). While the demands and overall objectives of the protestors remain inchoate, one demand that has been articulated with some clarity is the reform of the process by which the prime minister and cabinet are designated. Currently, the prime minister and the cabinet are appointed by the king, rather than directly elected by the people or indirectly elected by parliament. Although the royal panel suggested the creation of a high constitutional court, a lower minimum age for parliamentary candidacy, and a requirement that cabinets resign within a week of the king dissolving parliament, the recommendations fell short of citizens’ demands for a fundamentally more representative government. Even the monarch had called for the election of future governments in a speech in June (without specifying a timeframe); however, this promise has failed to materialize in the wording of the proposed constitutional amendments, which are currently being debated in parliament. Defenders of the status quo seem rather relieved. As one commentator argued, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing elected governments is unnecessary in the first place because parliament can bring down appointed governments through a vote of no-confidence if it so desires.
What the prevailing discussions of national dialogue and constitutional amendments miss, or rather obscure, is that the basic structures of government in Jordan are geared toward maintaining authoritarian rule, and they remain unchanged. In addition to his right to appoint the entire executive branch (and play a powerful executive role himself), the king has the power to dissolve parliament at will (for months or years at a time, as has frequently been the case) and proclaim laws in its absence. This obviously limits the legislature’s ability to legislate. Also, the very composition of the legislature leads many to question the degree to which the parliament is of and by the people. Not only is the upper house entirely appointed by the king, but the laws governing election to the lower house have been the center of intense contestation in Jordan for nearly two decades due to the limiting of voters’ choices inherent in the single-vote system, not to mention allegations of the regime’s blatant rigging of results and gerrymandering of electoral districts. Finally, the systematic legal restriction of political parties, civil society organizations, and media outlets must be noted, for the members of these civic bodies can neither operate freely as political actors nor serve as effective monitors of those in power. Without addressing the structural foundations of the authoritarian regime, dialogue is an arguably fruitless diversion in the quest to create a truly more representative government with checks and balances.
So why has the Jordanian regime’s claim to be leading political reform proven so durable? It is not that its authoritarian structures are unknown – in fact, most of them are enshrined in the constitution. Neither does it seem to be the case that the regime’s national dialogues, which rarely see full implementation, appeal to most citizens. Rather, the regime’s power and authority seem to be, at least in part, discursively constructed. The regime claims the exclusive right to define what is “democratic” or “pluralistic,” and may therefore restrict political actors and organizations by deeming them outside the bounds of acceptable pluralism (and potentially traitorous threats to national unity).
Discussion of democracy and pluralism is in no short supply in Jordan. The regime goes to great lengths to portray itself in public statements, official media, school textbooks, and diplomatic trips abroad as a model of political tolerance, moderation, and development in the Arab world. This is in part a response to the international development community’s hunger for a photogenic representative of moderate Islam, and particularly a self-reforming one willing to discuss human rights and democracy as it implements neo-liberal economic policies. But on the domestic side, it is also a way to persuade Jordanian citizens that gradual political development is all a part of the plan (timeline unspecified).
Prince El-Hassan Bin Talal, former heir to the throne and influential representative of the monarchy, illustrates this point very clearly in his writings and speeches. The prince goes so far as to claim that the Hashemites are leading a renaissance in the region, a vital part of which is “honouring the principle and practice of plurality” and “diversity within the framework of unity.” He says the Hashemites believe “that cultural diversity and political pluralism can ensure the development of a civic society, and contain the contagion of exclusive ideology whether of the religious or the ethnic variety.” The relevant question, however, is: Who defines the boundaries of “pluralism” and “diversity,” and to what degree are those definitions themselves exclusivist? Furthermore, if Jordanian society already bears the seeds of democracy inherent in its plurality, is a regulated renaissance (so easily manipulated in favor of maintaining the status quo) really the right path for the nation?
On a very fundamental level, Hashemite political rhetoric seems to make a monopolistic claim on the definition of pluralism. Much like the colonialist discourse of years past and present-day liberalism, Hashemite discourse declares itself to be the neutral arbiter of what is “tolerant” or “modern” or human rights-oriented, and is thus qualified to classify others as potentially intolerant, backwards, or antagonistic to rights. So labeled un-pluralistic and intolerant, the other is further accused of incompetence and barbarity (hardly ready for self-governance), and the complex political, socio-economic, social, and historical factors at play in creating modern Jordan are obscured. Thus in the name of tolerance, Hashemite discourse de-politicizes and de-contextualizes, leaving the other – the political actor, the citizen – with unrealized political and socio-economic rights and un-actionable claims.
We can critically assess a few examples of this discourse in action. Speaking on the most recent recommended constitutional amendments, appointed Prime Minister Ma’rouf al-Bakhit at once extolled Jordan’s supposedly democratic culture dating from the 1920s and condemned as potentially seditious those parties and political actors who only offered criticism and have refused to be a part of the regime’s dialogue project. Of course, these actors claimed that there would be no benefit to participating in a fruitless dialogue that would accomplish little in terms of genuine reform, and some now maintain that the proposed amendments are a far cry from the steps necessary to realizing democratic governance in the country.
Jordanian school civics textbooks are also a rich source for analysis. There are few historical surprises described in the texts – no riots, no large opposition movements, no demands for rights. Rather, politics develops according to a teleologically progressive Hashemite plan for the country, and rights are recognized, if not bestowed as needed, by the Crown, an almost all-knowing guide that directs Jordan’s development from above impartially. Jordan’s post-1989 experiment with political pluralism is framed as an on-going democratic work in progress and, crucially, Jordanian parties are framed as the primary obstacles to democratic development due to their alleged tendency to be centered around personalities rather than programs, their inability to form effective parliamentary blocs, and their at-times unconstructive and subversive agendas. Blame for democratic deficits is thus placed on parties, not the regime’s design of a system that is at best partially representative. The only solution according to this scheme seems to be for the problematic other to be kept in check and ideally re-made (in the likeness of the regime) – that is, to submit to the dominant model of what it means to be pluralistic and tolerant.
As a 2006 National and Civics Upbringing textbook has it, political parties must cooperate with the regime in building the nation:
Parties help advance the nation through the participation of their representatives in parliament, or by being in the opposition, thus contributing to and guiding the government with constructive criticism. […] In this way, society becomes a big cooperative family in which individuals compete to do the best they can. This is what diversity means in the framework of unity, i.e., that society is composed of various groups, but they are united in their goals. As for disagreement between groups, such leads to division and conflict and wastes the efforts of citizens, preventing them from working together in economic development. It also allows enemies to attack the independence, sovereignty, and unity of our country. We have seen in previous lessons that the independence and advancement that Jordan has achieved was the result of the loyal efforts exerted by our Hashemite leaders and all the citizens.
The logic of the text runs as follows: First, a degree of pluralism is to be tolerated only if it functions in the interest of the nation; second, the nation is a big family, the paternalistic head of which is the Hashemite monarchy, which should be praised for national achievements; third, Hashemite leadership must not be held back by disagreement that may emerge from pluralism, or else disunity, foreign attack, and economic backtracking will be the result. The underlying message this text sends to students is: National unity depends on the king; there is a maximum to which you can raise your voice, because the multiplicity of voices inherent to pluralist democracy is ultimately a threat to the unity and stability provided by the king. A democratic understanding, by contrast, would maintain that national unity is guaranteed precisely by the ability of individual citizens to voice their political will, thereby exercising their rights and giving life to pluralism. It seems fair then to ask whether the “pluralism” espoused by the regime is truly rooted in a democratic understanding, or rather, is more prone to preserving elite power.
In recent months, tens of thousands of Jordanians have demonstrated in the streets to protest corruption in the country and to call for genuine political reform, with some demanding a return to the 1952 constitution and others calling for the institution of a constitutional monarchy. A significant number of Jordanian citizens, it would seem, question the tolerance-pluralism narrative offered by the regime, because their fundamental political and economic rights remain unrealized. Thus far, however, the protestors have failed to clearly articulate their demands. Indeed, it is unclear what the slogan calling for reform of the regime really means or how the reform the protestors demand differs from that being charted by the regime. Very few are willing to point to the regime’s history of unfulfilled reform and call explicitly for its fall. Instead, protestors seem to be caught within the discursive parameters of the dominant narrative of elite-led democratizing reform. The threat of being labeled a traitor to country and king remains a powerful one, as evidenced by the decision of many protestors to carry the monarch’s picture in demonstrations and preface their activities with oaths of allegiance. And then there is always the threat of violence, intimidation and arrest.
It remains to be seen where the protests go from here, and in particular, whether or not they can be quelled by another round of dialogue and constitutional amendment. It is not out of the realm of possibility, though, that citizens demonstrating for their rights can develop a discourse of their own that redefines pluralism and politics in their country and shakes the established foundations of the regime’s power.
 Dhouqan ‘Abidat, ‘Eissa Abu Sheikha, and Sahban Khalifat, National and Civics Upbringing, Third Edition (Amman: Ministry of Education, 2006), 24-25.