Failure of Jordanian reform offers roadmap for Arab leaders

King Abdullah II of Jordan. (File photo)

King Abdullah II of Jordan. (File photo)
A look at a decade of failed reform in Jordan goes a far way to explain the mass anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. It offers a roadmap to Arab nations seeking to accommodate demands for greater political freedoms and improved economic opportunity.

If Jordan has a message for Arab leaders, it is that their long-term survival will depend on their willingness to truly share power, take on elites with vested interests in the continuation of autocratic rule, build checks and balances into economic reform to ensure that its benefits are not usurped by the elite, and allow freedom of the press and expression to build a two-way dialogue with the public.
The risks in not adopting this roadmap are evident. The protests have already toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. The leaders of Syria, Libya and Yemen are battling for their lives, hoping that brutal crackdowns will enable them to regain control even if only temporarily.

The ruling monarchs of Jordan, Morocco and Oman confront a historic opportunity: protesters in these countries are demanding reform but remain willing to give their rulers the benefit of the doubt. Other Arab rulers are sitting on the sidelines waiting to see how the wave of protests across the region unfolds.

The demand for far-reaching political and economic reform is there to stay irrespective of how the protests unfold and whether Messrs Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, succeed in holding on to power.

The question is on whose terms reforms will be enacted. If Arab leaders fail to grab the bull by its horns and lead reform, the street will either demand that they do so or seek to remove them as obstacles. In other words, the choice for Arab leaders is one of an orderly reform process in which they surrender significant chunks of power or opt for bloody street battles that make their long-term survival unsustainable.

King Abdullah of Jordan like King Mohammed VI of Morocco has made reform the trademark of his reign since acceding to the throne in 2000. The kings’ harping on the need for reform and announcement of umpteen initiatives is one reason that Jordanians and Moroccan still give them the benefit of the doubt provided that they this time really pushes forward.

Their record so far is at best mixed, which explains why they, too, face mass protests. That record also shows that half-hearted reforms in the Arab world that fail to cut to the core issues sparking discontent ultimately serve to exacerbate rather than alleviate the problem.

In a study just released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Marwan Muasher pinpoints the shortcomings of King Abdullah’s efforts. Topping Mr. Muasher’s list is the king’s failure to secure a public buy-in into his reforms and his apparent unwillingness to relinquish chunks of his power.

Mr. Muasher leaves open the question whether the king failed to recognize that he needed the buy-in of the country’s elite or counted on it thwarting his reform initiatives, but suggests that he has become increasingly frustrated at the elite’s thwarting of his efforts.

Mr. Muasher’s comments are nonetheless significant as an insider as well as in the wake of the invitation extended to Jordan to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudi-led body that groups six conservative oil-producing states.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Mr. Muasher warns that cosmetic changes in the Cabinet as various Arab leaders have tried won’t do the job. To implement reforms, a leader needs a cabinet that truly backs his efforts to implement change. Failure to ensure that committed reformers surround the leader effectively means that reforms will not happen. Jordan is a case in point.

“The selection of several prime ministers (in Jordan) did not lead to serious progress on reform, precisely because they were neither true believers in its value, nor did they have a critical mass of reformers inside their governments able to counterbalance the traditional elements who wanted to preserve the status quo at all costs. Reform needs reformers who are cognizant of the need for an orderly, gradual process but are also committed to a serious roadmap that would lead to true power-sharing through strong legislative and judicial bodies,” Mr. Muasher says.

It is the traditional elites whose support King Abdullah failed to enlist that ultimately defeated many of his proposed reforms.

“All efforts to open up the political system have been thwarted by a resilient class of political elites and bureaucrats who feared that such efforts would move the country away from a decades-old rentier system to a merit-based one. This group accurately predicted that reform would chip away, even if gradually, at privileges it had acquired over a long period of time in return for its blind loyalty to the system. It thus stood firm not just against the reform efforts themselves, but also in opposition to the king’s own policies,” Mr. Muasher says.

King Abdullah has consistently tried and failed to strike a balance between the requirements of reform and the hesitancy expressed by many of his more traditional supporters. He ended up at almost every bend of the road at appeasing the conservatives at the expense of the reforms he was seeking to implement.

The king acknowledged as much in an interview last year with Fareed Zakaria, the TV and magazine celebrity-cum-public intellectual.

“Sometimes you take two steps forward, one step back. There is resistance to change. There is a resistance to ideas. When we try to push the envelope, there are certain sectors of society that say this is a Zionist plot to sort of destabilize our country, or this is an American agenda. So, it’s very difficult to convince people to move forward,” King Abdullah said to Mr. Zakaria.

While no doubt true, King Abdullah’s failure to garner support for his reforms is to a large degree a problem of his own making. The king’s attempts at enhancing press freedom are a case in point. Freedoms granted were effectively withdrawn and control of the media was strengthened.

By failing to enforce freedom of the press and freedom of expression, the king effectively restricted his ability to put the case for reform to a public that would be able to discuss the merits of his proposition and convince it that it had a stake in the reform process. That would have allowed the king to build a popular base for reforms that would have counterbalanced if not outweighed its opponents.

Mr. Muasher argues further that attempts to enact economic reform without simultaneous political change as ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Mr. Assad tried are doomed to fail.

“While it is easy to argue that citizens want bread before freedom, economic liberalization took place without the development of a system of checks and balances and resulted in the benefits of economic reform being usurped by an elite few. To the average citizen, neither bread nor freedom was attained. As a result, the public has come to view liberalization and globalization negatively. Economic reform must be accompanied by political reform, such that institutional mechanisms of accountability are developed to monitor excesses and ensure benefits are made available to all,” Mr. Muasher says.

King Abdullah’s attempts at reform have produced at least three things: a lesson in how not to attempt reform, a roadmap for the requirements of reform and sufficient public support for Jordanian protesters to so far shy away from demanding that the he resign to pave the way for reforms. The protesters have in effect put the ball in the king’s court.

Says Mr. Muasher: “The choice in Jordan seems to be similar to that of other countries around it: either lead a reform process from above in a gradual, orderly, and serious way, or watch it take place in the streets below with uncontrolled consequences.”


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