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King Abdullah of Jordan: Balancing on an ever-tighter tightrope

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A look at a decade of failed social, economic and political reform in Jordan goes a far way to explain recent mass anti-government protests demanding the resignation of the government.

The protests, prompting concerns about the survival of the Hashemite dynasty, also bear witness to the fallout of the region’s epic power struggles and the pitfalls of government failures to respond to long-standing discontent that has been simmering across the region just below the surface.

Pent-up anger and frustration with governments that have failed to deliver public goods and services were at the core of popular Arab revolts in 2011 that initially toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

If anything, the Jordanian protests in a Middle Eastern nation viewed as relatively stable, have defied notions that the brutal rollback of Egypt’s successful revolt and the bloody conflicts wracking Libya and Yemen as well as Syria have cowed the region’s public into accepting autocratic rule as the best of all evils.

The protests target corruption and a proposed tax bill that protesters say will reduce living standards in a country with double digit unemployment, 21 percent of the population living below the poverty line, and finances and services burdened by the influx of more than 2 million refugees, including 600,000 plus Syrians.

The bill would raise taxes on employees by at least five percent and on companies by between 20 and 40 percent in line with the terms of a three-year $723 million dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that Jordan secured in 2016.

Jordanians have seen repeated price rises on staples such as bread and increased taxes on basic goods like electricity and fuel since the beginning of this year. The Economist Intelligence Unit earlier this year ranked Jordan’s capital Amman as one of the most expensive in the Arab world.

The writing has been on Jordan’s wall since the 2011 protests when in a seismic shift of Jordanian politics, tribal leaders took their criticism public rather than relying on traditionally secret, behind closed-door interactions with the country’s monarch.

The change in tactics that in the current protests has brought a wide swath of Jordanians irrespective of whether they are of Palestinian or East Bank tribal descent on to the streets bears a cautionary note for regimes across the region.

Scores of prominent East Bank Jordanian tribal leaders signalled the change in an unprecedented public letter to the king in February 2011 that accused King Abdullah’s glamorous Palestinian wife, Queen Rania, of corruption.

The leaders charged that Queen Rania, “her sycophants and the power centres that surround her” were dividing Jordanians and “stealing from the country and the people.” It warned King Abdullah that if he failed to tackle corruption and introduce reform “similar events to those in Tunisia and Egypt and other Arab countries will occur.”

The letter and a 2011 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report written by former Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Marwan al-Muasher constituted early warnings of what is at the core of the current protests: a popular demand for a government that garners public support by catering to popular social and economic aspirations as well as demands for political participation.

Mr. Al-Muasher argued that King Abdullah’s efforts to squash protests in 2011 by projecting himself as a reformer failed to secure a public buy-in, in part because he was unwilling to relinquish chunks of his power.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Mr. Muasher, in comments that are particularly relevant today with Prime Minister Hani Al-Mulki’s imminent resignation, warned that cosmetic changes won’t do the job.

“The selection of several prime ministers did not lead to serious progress on reform… 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. Al-Muasher said.

“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. Al-Muasher added.

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

In the process, the king raised questions about how serious he was about reforms, in part by seemingly conceding defeat from the outset.

“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 told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in 2010, a year before the 2011 protests erupted.

King Abdullah may no longer have the luxury of lamenting opposition to reforms. Although conscious of the fact that Jordan has been spared the destructive violence that has wracked its neighbours, Jordanians may this time round not be pacified by cosmetic measures like Mr. Al-Mulki’s resignation and the temporary rescinding of price and tax hikes.

“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… 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 cautioned in 2011.

King Abdullah’s current need to win public support rather than pacify the public has been compounded by tectonic shifts in the Middle East that have reduced the value of Jordan, a country that is dependent on foreign aid, to its traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and driven a wedge between them on key policy issues.

With Gulf states liaising directly with Israel, Jordan is no longer needed as an interlocutor. The same is true of Jordan’s ability to leverage its geography in the wake of the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and a growing acceptance that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is winning his country’s brutal civil and proxy wars.

Jordan’s usefulness in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also diminished because of US president Donald J. Trump’s policies that have effectively dashed hopes for a two-state solution.

Adding to King Abdullah’s woes is pressure on Jordan’s labour market as a result of economic reform in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that involves a push to reduce reliance on foreign and expatriate labour.

Jordan’s refusal to back Israeli and Saudi support for Mr. Trump’s approach coupled with his rebuttal of Saudi pressure to join the one year-old Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar and more recent symbolic overtures to Iran have won it little sympathy in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and cost it badly needed financial aid.

Said Jordan scholar Sean Yom: “The real heart of public outrage is not about tax brackets, but something far broader – the notion of the state radically scaling back its end of the social contract and not providing anything in return. From the monarchy’s perspective, it has little choice. Nonetheless, the prospect of more social turmoil makes the search for a new geopolitical conduit to survival even more pressing.”

Survival could well mean that Jordan forges closer ties to countries like Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Russia – a prospect that is raising concern in Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Already, Jordan’s smouldering discontent has Israeli and Western intelligence analysts worried. Even if it may seem at best a theoretical notion, some have nonetheless begun to ponder the survivability of Jordan’s Hashemite dynasty.

That may be a scenario too far. What is beyond doubt, however, is the fact that King Abdullah’s options are narrowing as he walks an ever more tightly spun tightrope.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

God’s Grace: Reichstag Fire and July 15 Military Coup

Zakir Gul, Ph.D.

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“By the grace of God!” Some rulers use the cry to explain why certain events happen and why they play out as they do. They will argue that God, in allowing the events to happen, has bestowed his grace upon the ruler. Two rulers and two events—the Reichstag fire in Germany on February 27, 1933,and the military coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016—illustrate the devastating consequences this twisted logic can have on the lives of ordinary people.When Adolph Hitler arrived at the scene, he told German Chancellor Franz von Pape, “This is a God-given signal” to crush Communists (and later opponents). Immediately after the failed military coup, Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the event was “a gift from God” and justification for Erdogan to start cleansing the military (and later purging opponents).

The similarities between the two events are striking in terms of beneficiaries, consequences and suspicions about the rulers’ true intentions going forward. Soon after the fire, Hitler started to consolidate his powers in the name of protecting the state’s security and democracy. To do so, Hitlersuspended civil liberties and shut the door on the rights and freedom of the country’s citizens. The fire in the heart of the countrywas used to justify the notion that the country was in a great danger. With decrees, Hitler purged his opponents, even though there was only one person considered to be responsiblefor the fire. Erdogan followed a similar path when he has declared a state of emergency after the coup attempt and consolidated his powers with radical changes in the country’s political and legal systems. With decrees, Erdogan purged hundreds of thousands of people under the guise of protecting the country’s security and democracy—even though soldiers who allegedly were involved in the coup attempt that night already had been into custody.In the political arena, Hitler increased the number of votes he received in the election that took place a week after the fire. Similarly, public support for Erdogan increased after the coup attempt. History does, indeed, repeat itself. These are two of many examples that could have been cited.

It may not be possible to know for sure who staged and orchestrated the Reichstag fire orthe military coup attempt; however, it is clear that the rulers’ purported motives are suspicious and their explanations filled with inconsistencies, given the many controversies arising from both events.The Reichstag firehas been discussed by scholars and historians who concluded that Hitler and his team—either directly or indirectly—helped to instigate the fire. Indeed, the arsonist responsible for the fire was pardoned years later. The military coup in Turkey wasa terrorizing and wicked deed against humanity and democracy, and the persons responsible must be identified and punished based on the rule of law and democratic values. It is, however, a Herculean task. Too many loopholes and controversies about the coup attempt need to be clarified. Erdogan should provide evidence-based, honest and objective explanations to remove the suspicions surrounding the coup attempt. Many answers are needed. For example,why did Erdogan refuse to answer questions from the major opposition party (the Republican People’s Party, or CHP) about the coup? Why has the investigation case report and the report of the parliament’s investigation committee deemed inappropriate and unsatisfactory even by some members of the committee? More important, why has an international committee not been allowed to investigate the case? Questions such as these highlight the many mysteries and suspicions that still surround the event two years after it occurred.

An independent international investigation committee should be established by the United Nations to examine the coup attempt and eliminate possible suspicions about Erdogan and his governing team. The committee also should determine whether thousands of people were responsible for organizing the coup attempt, as the government alleges, and clarify the following: whether some U.S. citizens, such as Andrew Brunson, who is still in jail, were among the primary plotters of the coup; whether some other U.S. citizens for whom bounties were offered were behind the coup attempt; and whether the United States was behind the coup attempt, as Turkish politicians and government officials claim—even though the United States has denied any involvement in the event.

Another independent international investigation committee should be established by the U.N.(or some other internationally accepted institution)to investigate the aftermath of the coup. Violations of internationally accepted human rights (as reported by credible human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) that have been committed by government security and intelligence officials since the coup attempt should be investigated. The committee also should also determine whether persons victimized in any way (such as imprisonment, job loss, inhumane treatment, and deprival of constitutional rights and freedoms)were based on evidence or resulted from the arbitrary application punishment. A final task of the committee should be to investigate allegations of abductions, extrajudicial executions and torture by government security and intelligence agencies. As John Dalhuisen,Amnesty International’s Europe director, has said, “It is absolutely imperative that the Turkish authorities halt these abhorrent practices and allow international monitors to visit all these detainees in the places they are being held.”

An independent and objective domestic committee that consists of members from every political party in the country—regardless of the parties’ percentage of the vote among constituents—should be established to investigate the same issues the two international committees need to review. Care must be taken to ensure that the members of this domestic committee—unlike those serving on the committee that was formed after the coup attempt—can maintain their objectivity and are aware of their responsibilities. The committee should be transparent and its actions and discussions observed and by international representatives of the U.N., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union, and individual countries and/or journalists.

Finally, the European Court of Human Rights, an internationally accepted high court of which Turkey is a member,should determine for itself—rather than rely solely on the response from government officials—whether the country’s domestic legal and judicial system can be accessed openly and freely by all citizens and the attorneys representing them in legal matters.

It is only through these independent international and domestic investigations that the truth about the failed coup attempt can come to light.

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Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian Pioneer Author of Resistance Literature

Sondoss Al Asaad

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The eighth of July marks the 46th martyrdom anniversary of Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated by the Zionist Intelligence;  Mossad, along with his 17-year-old niece Lamees. Days before their martyrdom, Lamees had asked Kanafani to diminish his activitism and to concentrate on his writings. He answered her,” I write well because I believe in a cause, in principles. The day I leave these principles, my stories will become purposeless. If I were to leave behind my principles, you yourself would not respect me.”

Kanafani was born in 1936, in Palestine, to a father who was a national activist in the resistance against the British colonialism. After the 1948 Zionist occupation, his family sought refuge to Syria, when he was 12-year-old. In the refuge camps, Kanafani wrote most of his novels which highlights the sufferings that the Palestinians endure in the diaspora. He won multiple awards for his works both during his life and posthumously. For instance, in “Umm Saad,” Kanafani’s protagonist is a symbol of the Palestinian women in the refugee camps.

Kanafani was inspired by Jamal Abd al-Nasser’s ideas of national independence and defiance of imperialism. Due to the decline of Nasserism after the 1961 failure to consolidate Egypt and Syria under a unified United Arab Republic, the ascendancy of imperialism and Zionism and the rise of communism; Kanafani, along with his comrade George Habash, resolved to adopt Marxism. They belived that the political crisis in the Arab world could only be solved by turning the anti-imperialist struggle into a social revolution.

In Lebanon, Kanafani adopted the Communist philosophy and become a leading member of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He says, “The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.”

Besides, he was a prolific creative and brilliant novelist and the first to anticipate the “resistance literature” genre. His literary products and fictitious works have inspired a whole generation of resisting youth, both during and after his lifetime as they are greatly rooted in the Palestinian culture and cause. Kanafani dedicated his works to reflect on the Palestinians’ lives and the challenges they face under the Zionist occupation. He states, “My political position springs from my being a novelist. In so far as I am concerned, politics and the novel are an indivisible case and I can categorically state that I became politically committed because I am a novelist, not the opposite.”

The assassination of Ghassan Kanafani was the result of his commitment to the Palestinian cause and the resistance methodology. Today, his legacy echo within every free revolutionary who devoted his life to confront the imperialist conspiracies. Indeed, Kanafani was murdered merely because he had constituted an intellectual threat to the Zionist entity. He refused the negotiations with the enemy, pointing that it would be “a conversation between the sword and the neck […] I have never seen talks between a colonialist case and a national liberation movement.”

The chief thematic field of Kanafani’s writing was inseparably connected to the anti-imperialism struggle. He stressed that the Palestinian cause could not be resolved in isolation of the Arab ‘s social and political crisis. Further, he insisted on developing the resistance movement from being a nationalist Palestinian liberation movement into being a pan-Arab revolutionary socialist movement of which the liberation of Palestine would be a vital component.

Definitely, Kanafani played an influential role in raising consciousness on the issue of imperialism. He maintains, “Imperialism has laid its body over the world, the head in Eastern Asia, the heart in the Middle East, its arteries reaching Africa and Latin America. Wherever you strike it, you damage it, and you serve the world revolution. “Shortly after Kanafani’s obituary in Lebanon, “The Daily Star” stated, “He was a commando who never fired a gun, whose weapon was a ball-point pen, and his arena the newspaper pages.”

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Bahrain’s Top Spiritual Leader in U.K. for Medical Reasons

Sondoss Al Asaad

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Eventually, Bahrain’s prominent, 80-years-old, Top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim has been flown to the U.K., after the severe deterioration of his health conditions.

The Bahraini authorities have frequently procrastinated the proper hospitalisation of the ailing Ayatollah Qassim until last week when the Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa twitted that Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s ruler, had approved off Ayatollah Qassim’s “facilitation of travel” to find medical assistance.

Ayatollah Qassim was earlier transferred to Bahrain’s International Airport by ambulance. The authorities have currently issued a one-year temporary passport for Ayatollah Qassim as he is technically stateless since Bahrain’s Cassation Court stripped him of citizenship.

The arbitrary prosecution of Ayatollah Qassim has been related to his religious duty of collecting charities, known as “Khoums.” This religious ritual has been violated by the government, the charities have been confiscated and the Ayatollah has been audaciously accused of “money laundering.”

Ayatollah Qassim’s medical team issued a statement confirming his transfer abroad in order to avoid further complications in his health. The team said, “Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim left Bahrain for England Monday morning, July 9, 2018.This measure has been taken on the basis of medical reports and consensus of his doctors who emphasized the need for his immediate transfer to a specialised hospital to prevent a further deterioration.”

Moreover, Ayatollah Qassim’s health has been deteriorating after the authorities imposed on him a house arrest. Medical sources have informed that Ayatollah Qassim is suffering from cancer, which is in an early stage.

Since June 2016, Ayatollah Qassim has been arbitrarily stripped of his nationality. Bahrain’s Court of Cassation convicted Ayatollah Qassim of “illegal collection of funds and money laundering, serving foreign interests” and sentenced him to one year in jail suspended for three years. It also ordered him to pay $265,266 in fines.

The unfair, politically motivated,  blatant trial had led Ayatollah Qassim’s followers to peacefully protest, on daily basis, in his residence area, up to 23 May 2017.

On that day, the government violently stormed the sit-in zone, in Duraz village, murdered 5 youth and arrested around 300. Since then Ayatollah Qassim has been under house arrest and denied adequate medical care, which let his situation to drastically worsen and to another health complications.

Clearly, the denaturalisation of Ayatollah Qassim and various dissents is regarded as a systematic reprisal against the political and religious freedom in the country.

Since the onset of the 2011 peaceful uprising, Duraz village along with scores of Bahraini villages have been subjected to an ongoing clampdown and restrictions.

Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, has gone to great lengths to clamp down on dissents. On 15 March 2011, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were deployed.

Religious freedom has been violated  until the central Friday prayer; the largest Shiite religious congregation, held in Duraz, has been banned. Armoured vehicles were deployed to cordon off Duraz’s mosque and various police checkpoints were set to thoroughly lock down the village.

Regularly, the government have been criticised for violating the freedoms to religious rituals, assembly, association, expression, etc. Since 2011, when protests; demanding democracy, reforms and justice, have erupted; tensions have simmered.

Dozens of high-profile activists have been detained or exiled, opposition associations have been dissolved and citizenships have been revoked.

Unfortunately, the Shiite community have long endured a pivotal and methodological persecution in  an attempt to forged the demographic representation.

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