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The Facade of Jordanian Reform: A Brief History of the Constitution

[Image by TheBlueJett4 via Wikipedia]] [Image by TheBlueJett4 via Wikipedia]]

In a matter of days this past month, the Jordanian legislature moved rapidly to substantially concentrate official government power in the institution of the monarch. The cabinet introduced a set of constitutional amendments on 18 April 2016. On 27 April and 2 May, the lower and upper houses of the Jordanian parliament respectively passed the amendments with overwhelming majorities. King Abdullah II issued a royal decree on 4 May approving the amendments. How was it that the legislature had passed the most significant changes in the country’s separation of powers in such a short period? The formal debate, in both the upper and lower houses had taken only three days in total. This unprecedented speed was a direct result of the challenges that revolutions and counterrevolutions in the Arab world posed to the Jordanian regime.

Local activists, opposition groups, and some politicians have decried the constitutional changes. Jordanian lawyer and legal scholar Muhammad al-Hammouri described the amendments as undermining the existing political system. Sufian Obeidat, another Jordanian lawyer and researcher, argues that these changes produce a “presidential monarchy.” 7iber’s Reem al-Masri described the parliamentary debates on the amendments as a farce. Perhaps Jillian Schwedler summed it up perfectly: “Jordan drops the pretense of democratic reform.”

Central to the recent amendments is the addition of a paragraph giving the king exclusive power to appoint a broad array of positions. These are: the crown prince, the regent, the speaker and members of the senate, the head and members of the constitutional court, the chief justice, the commander of the army, as well as the heads of the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) and the Gendarmerie. Previously, such appointments required the approval, however formulaic, of the prime minister and relevant cabinet ministers. An additional amendment allows those with dual nationalities to run for parliament and/or hold cabinet positions. Yet another allows for cabinets to continue to “govern” in case of a prime minister’s death, under the leadership of the deputy prime minister.

This latest round of amendments, and the criticisms they have garnered, form part of a broader historical trajectory and political context. Calls for a meaningful separation of powers and representative parliamentary system under a Hashemite monarchy date back to the early formation of the Jordanian state in the aftermath of World War I. Similarly, the regime has at key junctures transformed legal and institutional arrangements to further concentrate power in spite of such demands. The recent amendments speak to the political context of five years since the Arab uprisings began. They also betray a legacy of authoritarian state formation and the persistent quest of many activists, intellectuals, and every day people for a more representative, accountable, and socially just political system.

Doubling Down on Reform Rhetoric and Authoritarian Practice

The most recent constitutional amendments are not isolated. They build on five years of major legal and institutional developments that respond to deepening public dissent, inspired by and in exchange with the broader uprisings. These changes also reflect the challenge that this dissent, and indeed the very possibility of dissent, posed to a regime, which in response heightened its punitive measures. These developments include amendments to laws dealing with the press, publications, and terrorism.

As the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and across the Arab world raged, Jordanians organized weekly protests, public sector strikes, and a diverse array of campaigns, initiatives, and actions. The specific demands varied across a range of political and economic concerns. They largely constituted a reformist impulse that did not challenge the primacy of the monarchy. Furthermore, the number of people actively making these calls remained relatively small compared to the mass mobilizations surrounding the kingdom.

Nevertheless, the regime quickly took action. It sacked the cabinet of Samir al-Rifa‘i, granted a license for a teacher’s union, and established a “national dialogue.” It eventually created a constitutional court and an independent electoral commission. The regime also increased salaries of government employees and pensioners. These gestures did not affect the fundamentals of government authority, political representation, and economic privilege. Moreover, coercive maneuvers accompanied these gestures. The regime allowed “vigilantes” to attack weekly protests; cleared the Gamal Abdel Nasser Square to prevent a Tahrir-like encampment; and re-instated the annual registration for military service deferment abandoned in the early 2000s.

One significant move was the 2012 amendments of the 1998 Press and Publications Law. These amendments defined electronic publications as “a website with an electronic address on the worldwide web that offers publication services including news, reports, investigations, articles, and comments” relevant to the kingdom’s internal and external affairs.” They required those publications to register with the Ministry of Commerce and obtain a license from the Ministry of Culture’s Press and Publications Department. They also required these publications to appoint editors-in-chief that are members of the Jordanian Press Association (JPA)—the only and government-allied journalist syndicate in the country—at the very same time that the JPA maintains tight control over who could become a member. Failure to abide by these regulations or to avoid publishing “defamatory” content became grounds for website blocking or closure without a court order. 

Another significant move came in 2014 when the government amended the 2006 Anti-Terrorism Law. The amendments dramatically expanded the definition of terrorism to include “sowing discord,” “disturbing public order,” “disturbing [Jordan’s] relations with a foreign state,” and spreading the “ideas of a group that undertakes an act of terrorism.” This means that a local group airing or printing the speech of a group or person, defined by the Jordanian government as terrorist, even if for analytical purposes, can be charged with the crime of terrorism and prosecuted in the State Security Court. Effectively, anyone who protests or opposes the prosecution of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the massacring of its supporters may be subject to the charge of terrorism and State Security Court prosecution in Jordan.

Some would point to other developments, claiming a “more complicated” outcome vis-à-vis meaningful reform. In particular, they highlight the creation of a constitutional court and the removal of the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) from the electoral law. The SNTV voting system was first implemented in the 1993 parliamentary elections. Not coincidentally, these elections were the first since political parties were legalized in 1992 and second since the resumption of parliamentary life in 1989 (after martial law was declared in 1967).  In an SNTV system, each voter casts only one vote for a single candidate irrespective of how many seats are up for election in that voter’s district. The SNTV system disadvantages political parties in general and candidates running on electoral platforms by incentivizing voting along extremely narrow lines of family or clan. The most recent election law (in anticipation of parliamentary elections in 2017) has done away with the SNTV system and introduces a proportional list system (see caveats below).

These steps fall far short of the promise of a constitutional monarchy and the longstanding demands for more representative elections, a democratically empowered legislature, the protection of constitutional rights, and a genuine separation of powers. Furthermore, the government has designed subsequent laws and constitutional amendments to blunt any potential impact of these “reforms.” For example, the Jordanian government touted the 2014 amendments to the State Security Court Law, which restricted jurisdiction to crimes related to terrorism, espionage, treason, drugs, or money counterfeiting. Thus the government removed “disturbing relations with a foreign state” from the court’s purview. At the same time, the 2014 amendments to the Anti-Terrorism Law expanded terrorism to include “disturbing relations with a foreign state.” Some heralded the creation in 2012 of a constitutional court as moving the political system to one in which the constitution is a more central arbitrator of the political process and the separation of powers. Yet this court can now serve a different purpose: the 2016 constitutional amendments give the king the sole prerogative of appointing all the members of that court.

These shifts are not anomalous; they typify the top-down political and legal engineering that has prevailed in Jordan since the state’s formation. It is not surprising when an authoritarian regime makes these maneuvers. What is surprising, or should be, are opinions and perspectives that portray these shifts as embodying either democratic principles or the regime’s “mixed bag” of reform. This commentary is most troubling for the way it erases local struggles altogether. Thus the landscape appears as one stuck between reform and security. This framing portrays politics in Jordan as a balancing game between two equal parties with equally legitimate goals. However, ignoring the power disparity between an authoritarian regime and the broader population is loaded with ethical, political, and analytic problems.

Recalling the Promise of a Constitutional Monarchy

These recent constitutional amendments must be put in broader context of the Jordanian government’s strategic recalibration. This has come in the face of the regime’s shifting social bases, the transformation of state institutions, and the rise and fall of popular mobilizations in Jordan and the broader Arab world. Various movements in Jordan have also struggled to assert dignity, demand basic rights, and challenge deepening economic restructuring, as Fida Adely and Sara Ababneh have shown. Other demands have targeted intelligence services’ interventions on university campuses, the policies toward and conditions of Palestinian and Syrian refugees, relations between Jordanians of different religious and regional backgrounds, and the country’s foreign policies. These demands have a longer genealogy even if they were recently visible in the 2011-13 popular mobilizations in Jordan. Such challenges have necessitated the regime’s implementation of a public relations campaign, both domestically and internationally. The campaign positions the regime at the forefront of reform, stability, and security in the Middle East.

Despite the elimination of the SNTV in the newest election law, the new electoral law extends the life of a number of historic problems while at the same time introducing new ones. On the one hand, the law defers the issue of distributing the 130 lower house seats among the electoral districts to a bylaw that will be passed presumably after the election law is promulgated. Little indication exists that the bylaw will do anything but continue to over-represent those districts deemed “loyal” to the regime and under-represent those deemed “opposed” or “unknown.” On the other hand, the introduction of the proportional list system has been circumscribed at the district level. Parties/blocs/lists will not compete nationally but within each district. Furthermore, in addition to casting a vote for a given party/bloc/list, each voter is expected to also vote for individuals from within that list, effectively creating intra-list competition.

The appointment of the prime minister and formation of the cabinet is an equally important demand. Opposition groups have long called for a constitutional amendment—or at least an informal agreement—that the majority parliamentary party/bloc select the prime minister and that he then appoint the cabinet. Most recently, between 2010 and 2013 the Islamic Action Front and the National Salvation Front collaborated in a major campaign in pursuit of electoral reforms that would produce a prime minister appointed by parliamentary majority. The historical record of politics in Jordan shows only two instances when the appointment of the prime minister took place in this manner. In October 1956, King Hussein appointed Sulayman al-Nabulsi prime minister and asked him to appoint a cabinet. Nabulsi was a member of the National Socialist Party, itself a group member of the Jordanian National Movement (JNM). The latter represented the leading opposition coalition in the 1950s. In 1956, they dominated what some consider to be the freest and fairest parliamentary elections in Jordanian history. Nabulsi governed until April 1957, when the king dismissed the prime minister and his cabinet, dissolved parliament, and declared martial law. In March 2013, King Abdullah II allowed the lower house, elected that year, to effectively nominate someone for the premiership. Symbolic of its loyal composition, they nominated the previous royally-appointed prime minister, Abdulla Al-Nsour. The timing of this gesture coincided with both the height of the local mobilizations known as the hirak and the boycott by the Islamic Action Front (IAF) of the January 2013 elections

Much of the regime’s post-1989 electoral management aimed to contain the IAF, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s (JMBs) electoral party and the leading and most effective opposition group in the country since the 1980s. The lessons from the regime’s 1950s experience with the JNM, and the success of the JMB in the 1989 elections were political learning moments. The relationship of the JMB to the Hashemite regime has featured several transformations since the JMB’s establishment in 1945. Once a bulwark against the member groups of the JNM, the disintegration of that coalition, the expulsion of the Palestinian resistance groups, and close relations with the intelligence apparatus enabled the group to consolidate its position as the leading political party. Emboldened by the Arab uprisings, the early success of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, and the statement of some members of the Jordanian political elite, the JMB publically called for the majority group in parliament to select the prime minister. Yet recently in 2015, the JMB splintered into the Muslim Brotherhood Group (the original organization) and the Muslim Brotherhood Society (the offshoot) over “strategic disagreements” vis-à-vis the regime. The regime has used this opportunity to further repress the JMB while supporting the consolidation of the JMS. The split has created a potential opportunity for the regime to better manage elections.

Such histories shed light on the recent constitutional amendments. Should a future electoral law ever reflect the type of representational praxis activists and intellectuals have long called for, the parliament will nevertheless have no power whatsoever over the state’s judicial and coercive apparati. Yet the strategic value of the recent amendments is independent of any future improvement in the electoral law. Political mobilizations of the past few years have thrown into question the much-touted division of the country into regime-loyal and regime-opposed geographies and institutions. In 1989, 1996-1998, and most importantly 2011-13, episodic social mobilizations of the Jordanian hinterland protested economic and political arrangements in the country. Furthermore, 2010-13 featured the opposition mobilization of the National Committee of Retired Servicemen. These were “signal protests” rather than anti-regime mobilizations. Nevertheless, they shook the regime’s confidence in post-1989 electoral management through district gerrymandering.

 A History Forgotten and A Trope Repeated

The history of state formation and regime consolidation in Jordan has featured three constitutional documents: the 1928 Organic Law; the 1947 Constitution; and the 1952 Constitution. Each of these documents attempted to construct separation of powers to manage political representation and policy making.

The Organic Law of 1928 established an executive and legislative council under then Emir Abdullah. A two-tiered election process undergirded the first election law. In response, an opposition coalition consolidated and held five national conferences between 1928 and 1933. The central demands were the reduction of Abdullah’s powers and the implementations of a more representative legislature. An eleven-point national pact formalized these demands in a call for a constitutional monarchy. Several opposition individuals and groups went one step further and boycotted the first elections in February 1929.

The Emirate of Jordan gained its independence in 1946. The constitution of 1947 established Jordan as a kingdom with a two-level parliament similar to today’s. The regime began its experimentation with electoral districting in this new constitutional framework. A new electoral law disproportionally represented the countryside, which constituted the social base of the regime established during the mandate period. This loyalty of the hinterland population only came into effect decades after the repression of the 1921-23 rural rebellions against the British mandate and the Hashemites, as well as the institution of what Tariq Tell terms “military Keynesianism.” The nearly twenty-five years since were critical to recalibrating the regime’s social base. This recalibration produced the very rural-urban dynamics that present-day scholars assume to be a natural and historically continuous fact. Once again, the 1947 constitution and its first electoral competition faced repeated calls for a constitutional government and a more representative electoral system. Predictably, the majority of those elected to the lower house in 1947 were carryovers of those individuals who dominated the 1929-47 period.

King Talal’s ascension to the throne in 1951 was followed by the promulgation of the constitution of 1952. Yet Talal’s rule was short due to mental illness and ultimate deposition. King Hussein formally ascended the throne in 1953. The 1952 constitution undergirds the present political system in Jordan. While the constitution offered a number of newly guaranteed civil liberties, it did not address the fundamental demand for a constitutional monarchy and a more representative electoral system. Despite these constraints, the effective mobilizing of the Communist Party, the Ba‘th Party, the National Front, the Arab Nationalist Movement, and the National Socialist Party, within the framework of the Jordanian National Movement (JNM) resulted in a major electoral victory for the opposition in 1956. It was this work, popular sentiment, and the contingencies of domestic and regional politics that constrained the regime’s managing of electoral outcomes in 1956. It also persuaded King Hussein to appoint Nabulsi of the National Socialist Party, a member group of JNM, as prime minister that year.  Betty Anderson and Tariq Tell have detailed and analyzed the rule, downfall, and aftermath of the JNM cabinet between October 1956 and April 1957. 

Numerous constitutional amendments since 1952 are the historical precedents of the current changes. These amendments included the 1950 annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the union with Iraq, and its subsequent dissolution, in 1958. However, the majority of constitutional amendments directly facilitated the consolidation of the Hashemite regime’s control of the state apparatus generally and the cabinet and legislature particularly. One significant amendment in 1955 reduced the threshold for the required parliamentary vote of confidence in the cabinet from two thirds to a simple majority. That year a second significant amendment enabled the king to appoint all senators for a four-year term. Previously, the senate served an eight-year term. At the end of that term half the seats would be up for (re-)election and the other half for appointment. In 1958 the government introduced further significant amendments, no longer requiring the resignation of a cabinet after the dissolution of parliament. Another amendment required only a simple parliamentary majority of those in attendance, rather than all seats,  for passage of legislation. A final amendment came in 1960 when the parliament granted the king the prerogative of extending a parliamentary term for no less than one year and no more than two years (Article 68).

There are many other amendments passed throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. They all concentrate power within the institution of the monarchy, making it easier to confirm cabinets, pass legislation, and proceed without a parliament or postpone elections and/or extend the mandate of an existing parliament. It is in this context that one must view the latest constitutional amendments, as well as the call by some activists during the 2011-13 mobilizations in Jordan calling for a return to the “original” 1952 constitution.

The recent constitutional amendments do not simply represent the persistence of authoritarian rule. They represent the deepening of the nature of such rule. Proclamations, whether from their regime or analysts, of progress, reform, or stability cannot be taken at face value. It is thus imperative that we listen to the analysis of those historical and contemporary activists and intellectuals that the Jordanian regime relentlessly attempts to silence, contain, and erase.  These struggles for social justice render any celebration of the regime’s ostensible reform suspect.

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