‘Stuck’ and ‘Knotted’: Where Jordan Is Today
In the past few weeks and months it has grown increasingly difficult to understand where Jordan is going. For anyone relying on western media they would be inclined to think that Jordan is next on the Arab Spring target list. For anyone actually living in Jordan, they would be inclined to think that the reality is quite different and it is far from experiencing any of the kinds of drastic changes we’ve seen in other Arab nations. I am reminded of a post I wrote on January 23rd, 2011 on why Jordan Is Not Tunisia – while much has changed, especially on a societal level, the fact remains that Jordan is definitely not Tunisia, or Egypt for that matter. People who think otherwise need a second reading of the Kingdom’s political landscape.
But while we are not Tunisia, we are indeed, stuck. Stuck in the mud; stuck in neutral. And this is largely why it is so difficult to understand where the country is going. It is a ball of yarn that seems to keep growing and becoming more complicated; loose strings are being pulled in different directions making everything all the more tangled up. What we are is knotted.
An economic situation that is dire, to say the very least. This did not happen overnight; a slew of bad policies and bad practices over the past decade have largely gotten us to this point. A cash-strapped Kingdom which has employed nearly half the employable population in the public sector. A public sector and patronage system dependent largely on foreign donors, the biggest of whom live in this region and are more inclined to play politics with every cheque they write. A private sector that is over taxed, and struggling to survive. A looming energy crisis, and to top it all off, even more regional instability.
A political situation that is defunct. A state that wants to take things so slowly that political reform in Jordan might be measured on a timeline of human evolution. A state that has pushed for an election law that does little to fix the essential problems inherent within the electoral system, including proportionate representation, creating the right environment for political party development, and getting people to stop voting for their relatives. An election law that will likely yield a very similar lower house of parliament, which will be used to assign blame for any legislative or political missteps, despite the fact that this specific body of government has very little influence on policymaking to begin with. An election that has been framed as the centerpiece of political reform in the Kingdom – and an electorate that is more polarized than ever before.
A political opposition that is lost in space, that has depended more on populism than on setting forth a different vision and a palpable political platform. The state says these parties must do their own reform before any “real” political reform can take place, and how that is expected to happen in a political climate dictated largely by restrictive legislation is beyond comprehension. So, we wait. In the meantime – deadlock; each side seeing each other as the enemy, and pushing their adherents to pursue the same narrative – pushing a divisiveness that has spun us far from the orbit of national consensus building and in to the domain of ideologues, labeling, and kindergarten finger-pointing.
A society that continues to be divided through fear. Fear mostly of “the other” – and the other simply being anyone who doesn’t adhere to their stance. A regional environment that has probably persuaded more Jordanians to not “rock the boat” or risk anything in the name of change, in the fear that it would destabilize the country. The path to democracy in Tunisia and Egypt growing suspicious enough that many Jordanians have grown disenchanted with political change, and more specifically with the thought of Islamists leading that change. A Syria ripped apart, setting a difficult backdrop for anyone calling for genuine change in Jordan’s political system. And so we wait.
Suffice to say, it is difficult to make sense of, or simplify, a very complex political scene. So where do we go from here?
Recently, HM King Abdullah published the first of what are expected to be a series of “discussion papers” circulated through the media. The goal of these papers – as has been stated – is for the King to share “his vision” of a future Jordan with everyone, in an effort to encourage public debate. A noble pursuit no doubt, and this post is an attempt to take up that challenge for discussion. With this in mind, while these papers are, in my opinion, a decent effort to communicate with the population, reading through the document was a stark reminder of just what is wrong with Jordan and the direction it doesn’t seem to be going in. Reading through it one manages to glean a very positive vibe, and there is little in it that one can disagree with in an absolute fashion. In the paper, the King champions democracy, mutual respect amongst citizens, good citizenship, accountability, and compromise. These universal values may go without saying in the 21st century, but Jordanians do need to hear them said (or written) out loud and publicly by the country’s central leadership. But here’s the crux of issue…
Such values have already been preached over the span of a decade. A look at the various documents the King issues in his name, be they letters of designation to the endless number of Prime Ministers in the past 12 years, to the National Agenda, to throne anniversary speeches and Independence day speeches – much of this has been said before. Some of the words are new, some of the language has changed, but more or less, it’s the same. What one can conclude from this is one of three possible things: either the King is not serious about political reform, or, he has never had a real mandate for genuine political reform, or, Jordan has a problem translating vision to implementation. In my opinion, the first point may just as well be moot given a regional context that has forced political reform on the table, which leaves us with points two and three. On several occasions these past two years, the King has consistently said that the Arab Spring presented him with an “opportunity” – a chance to tell the naysayers around him (why those people exist is beyond me) “look, we have to reform”. How that reform is brought about is the main point of contention.
Which takes us to the third point, from vision to implementation. There is no doubt that this has always been at the heart of problems in Jordan. That entire process is defunct. There are only a few cases where it has worked and brought about some genuine changes, but many of those changes have been unsustainable – and this only points to a critical problem in the public policy process – from having a vision, to setting goals, to creating benchmarks, to achieving those goals, to reviewing the process and creating mechanisms of feedback, etc. And moreover, to have this entire process public and accounted for by the public.
So where do we start fixing this? Let’s start with the vision.
In his document, and in others, the King uses the term “my vision”, some times the “Royal vision” and every now and then there’s an “our vision” that seems to mean “the state’s” vision. The document even begins with “I dedicate this paper to share my vision for the principles and values needed to help us progress in our democratisation journey, under our constitutional monarchy.”
There are organizations that have visions, manage to employ a great many people and dictate that vision to them, and for the sake of a pay cheque, many gladly go along with that vision. Then, there are those organizations that create visions through consensus building, in an effort to recognize that greatness cannot be achieved unless people feel they are part of that organization and have some sense of ownership over that vision. In this analogy, Jordan is, for the most part, the former type of organization. One of the key reasons it keeps running in to difficulties is that there is no “national vision” or unified vision – the sense of a shared set of goals and ideals by the diverse public. Something that is generally agreed upon by people who come together to construct it themselves, with their own two hands. Instead, it is decreed – royally. Whether one has a problem with the “Royal Vision” or not is besides the point – it’s about the process, it’s about whether people feel they have something invested in those words because they were involved in their creation; because they learned to compromise, and to engage in the kind of democratic practice the King mentions in his paper. That kind of participation tends to bring about a willingness by most to follow through on that vision, and support the implementation process.
While this document is geared towards encouraging participation in the election process and shunning those that have decided to boycott (the latter is deemed to be an “ineffective” political expression, on par with “political intransigence, and violence” – an assessment I personally disagree with and feel is dangerously divisive) – the ideals outlined are broader in their reach. Their inability to translate to effective public policy with a sound policy process is largely due to a lack of public engagement – or, to be specific, the right kind of public engagement.
Beyond the vision is implementation, and this requires setting achievable goals and benchmarks that allow us to publicly assess where we are, where we are going, and perhaps even enthuse us with a bit of optimism for the future. As would any solid organization function. This has largely been missing as well. While a “Royal Vision” is present we have little idea of the roadmap, and for the most part, we are flying blind. The state is reacting rather than acting. More importantly, even if we had those benchmarks, we have few-to-no mechanisms for public accountability. For instance, it is the easiest thing in the world to publicly declare that the people should “combat corruption” – but to do so requires the right avenues, mechanisms and environment that facilitates that. Those things are nonexistent, and so we are stuck with a situation where only the state holds itself accountable, sending off its own appointed members to the courts, arbitrarily, to be tried for corruption or “mismanagement of funds”.
From having a shared vision to creating a suitable environment – public participation is largely dependent on the existence of these two elements. It is not measured by the number of people who show up to vote on election day – that’s not a measuring stick for whether we’re heading in the right direction or not, and it’s been touted often enough by the state in the past decade that we know it to be unreliable (e.g. 2007, 2010).
Creating laws that do more to set boundaries and restrictions than to induce and encourage social and political development, being reactive instead of proactive is not the way to go either, and avoiding genuine public input – the kind that really influences the public policy process – isn’t the way to go. We’ve learned this lesson over and over again these past ten or so years. We’ve learned it through the failure of many policies and the successes of others. We’ve learned it through the National Agenda. And we continue to learn it now in this Arab Awakening. A vision needs to be shared, and a genuine participatory environment needs to emerge for a domino effect to take place – for accountability to emerge, for party development to occur, for national consens to happen. If from all of this we end up with something that says “here’s what we’re doing; here are the tangible steps that will be taken; here are the benchmarks so you know we’re on the right path; here is the timeframe; and here are the mechanisms to hold us accountable” then that would be a step forward. This is where a drastic shift in the process needs to happen.
The King’s papers may be a good way to poetically communicate his and the state’s thoughts – but at the end of day the public remains only an apathetic audience listening to a one-way channel. Those who are convinced blindly, genuinely or not at all, remain so, as the process has remained unchanged.
Here’s to a better Jordan in 2013.