Autocracy-lite in Jordan

By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian 29 January 2010

The Arab Middle East is the least democratic region in the world and it is getting worse, according to Freedom House’s latest Freedom in the World report. Only Morocco, Kuwait and Lebanon now pass as “partly free” while Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan have this year regressed into the same “not free” group as all the other Arab states. Jordan’s relegation is particularly alarming.

King Abdullah II‘s decision to dissolve Jordan’s parliament barely two years into its term, and delay fresh elections until late 2010 was interpreted by Freedom House as “an attempt to manipulate the political process” and a decline in political rights. In spite of this, Jordan retains a carefully fashioned friendly image in the west and remains a key US regional ally, with Abdullah becoming the first Arab leader to visitObama’s White House in April last year. With US strategy under Obama seemingly shifting from democracy promotion towards stability-focused realism, is Amman’s backsliding the shape of things to come? Is Jordan’s friendly-faced “autocracy lite” the best that democracy advocates can hope for?

For decades Jordan has been viewed by the west as the best of a bad bunch in the Arab world. During the cold war the late King Hussein’s pro-American autocratic rule was deemed more benevolent than that of his neighbours in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, and hopes were high for the democratic reforms he initiated in 1989. Since then, Jordan has had an elected parliament with quotas for women, a partly independent press, increased civil society and cooperation with NGOs. It also legalised the Jordanian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). Adding the shine to this friendly image have been the half-British King Abdullah and his glamorous Palestinian Queen Rania, darlings of the western media for their support for charities, progressive values and tolerance.

Yet beneath the kingdom’s glossy surface lies an autocratic underbelly. Despite economic liberalisation, the political reforms of the early 1990s have stalled. While Abdullah talks the language of change, domestic supporters have grown frustrated at his inability or unwillingness to push reform past Jordan’s entrenched elites. No international observers were permitted during the 2007 elections, amid recurring claims that electoral boundaries were re-drawn to ensure a pro-regime result, particularly at the expense of Jordan’s under-represented Palestinian majority. Even this engineered parliament had restricted power, with the king legally able to rule for long periods without it. Furthermore, strict laws muted the fledgling independent press and Jordan recently slipped behind Egypt in its ranking for journalistic freedom. Human Rights Watch complains of regular prisoner abuse and of governors bypassing the judicial system to detain people without trial.

The Obama administration, however, seems unconcerned by this creeping autocracy. Washington recently allocated an additional $150min annual assistance to the Hashemite kingdom, at the same time as Congress cut democracy and governance aid for Egypt and Jordan. Though the White House has spoken of support for reform in Jordan, notably in education, refugees and the assimilation of Palestinians, it also sees the benefits in continued support for undemocratic rule.

Obama needs a consistent ally to fight his corner should he redouble his efforts in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2010, and won’t want to risk the instability of forcing reform. Furthermore, Washingtonmakes widespread use of Jordan’s Intelligence Directorate, recently highlighted by the gruesome murder of CIA operatives in Afghanistan. Such services thrive on the unaccountability of autocracy.

The EU has proven equally reluctant to hold Jordan to account. Indeed,reports suggest that Jordan’s “strong commitment” to the social and economic reforms required as part of its Association Agreement are deemed sufficient to continue financial support despite the lack of progress in political and electoral reforms.

It appears that western reluctance to promote and support Arab democracy is still shaped by George Bush’s failures. Bush’s aggressive attempts to democratise the Middle East were unpopular, ineffective and hypocritical. While some have noted improvements in Lebanon and Iraq as a result of Bush’s “freedom agenda”, the Bush administration also oversaw increased authoritarianism in Egypt and the subversion of democracy in the Palestinian Territories. Keen to rebuild America’s image in the region after such disasters, Obama has adopted a more restrained approach.

But Obama should not abandon the cause just because Bush’s method was flawed. Opposing regime change should not mean opposing regime improvement. Jordan has shown a willingness to reform in the past and should be actively encouraged to do so again. Both the US and EU have vast reserves of soft power that they seem reluctant to use in promoting democratic change, most notably the huge sums of aid sent to Amman each year. Jordan has an internal reform movement upon which to focus and a seemingly progressive leader. If Jordan, with this potential and reliance on western aid, cannot halt its democratic decline, what hope for the more authoritarian Arab states?

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