Jordan: Abdullah II’s lack of vision

Last week Abdullah II of Jordan sacked the Prime Minister, Marouf Bakhit. He had only been appointed in February this year after the king had fired his predecessor, Samir Rifai, following widespread protests that mimicked demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt. Bakhit’s dismissal was allegedly due to his slow progress in pushing the reforms promised by the King in February. However, as The Economist points out this week, in Jordan Prime Ministers are there to be sacked and the premier is often a scapegoat for the palace’s own faults. Bakhit was certainly no committed reformer, and is accused by Jordan’s opposition of overseeing rigged elections in 2007 when he was previously premier, and of endorsing widespread corruption. However, it is questionable whether the King would have allowed Bakhit to usher in serious political reform even if he wanted to. Abdullah has adopted the language of reform, but the proposals his royally appointed committees have recommended since February are pitiful. They call for constitutional amendments that slightly enhance the power of parliament and for a new electoral law that gives a fraction more proportional representation, but true power remains in the hands of the king.  Moreover, these changes were being pushed forward by Bakhit at the time of his sacking.

Bakhit’s real crime was to alienate the elite that runs Jordan in the past few months. First he intervened heavily in the much-respected Central Bank, forcing the governor to resign after surrounding his building with troops. After that he attempted to split municipalities for the forthcoming elections, despite being advised not to by frustrated senior politicians. The final straw was when 70 MPs from Jordan’s largely ineffective parliament petitioned the king to remove Bakhit. Although Bakhit was unpopular on the street and his resignation was welcomed by many in the opposition this was a move made by the king to appease the elite, not the street.

The new administration, led by Awn Kasawneh, formerly a judge at the International Criminal Court, may have more public support than his predecessor. However, he faces the same problem: that even if he wants to bring about reforms the King is reluctant to make changes that will deprive him of power. As the Economist states, the king has become part of the problem.

In the context of the Arab Spring, Jordan is actually in an interesting position at present. On the one hand, things look bleak: many of its neighbors have seen regime change (Egypt and, earlier, Iraq) or a serious and violent uprising (Syria), while it lacks the resources of its other neighbour, Saudi Arabia, to buy off a large swathe of malcontents with improved welfare provision and jobs. Yet on the other hand, Abdullah remains if not widely popular then respected, and few in Jordan’s opposition are calling for the overthrow of the monarchy, just a reduction in its power. Moreover, the king’s security forces have, by and large, resisted resorting to the levels of violence seen in Syria and Egypt that ultimately turned many against the regimes there.

What is clear, however, is the limited vision that Abdullah II has. Instead of recognizing the way the region is going and pre-empting any major calls for his overthrow by opening up his kingdom to genuine democratic reform, he is persisting  with piecemeal, superficial reforms that leaves true power firmly located in his hands and will ultimately only frustrate the opposition further.