Thousands demonstrated in Amman over the last weekend at a pro-reform protest organized by the Islamic Action Front, the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The protesters’ demands were summarized on a huge banner calling for “democratic electoral law, constitutional changes, parliamentary governments, independent judiciary, constitutional court, effective anti-corruption efforts and preventing security services from interfering in political life.”
While the rally failed to attract the anticipated 50,000 participants – 15,000 reportedly attended – it was nevertheless the country’s largest demonstration since the start of the Arab Spring. But the government jumped on the largely Islamist composition of the demonstration.
“Obviously this demonstration represented no one but the Muslim Brotherhood,” Information Minister and government spokesman Samih Maaytah told AFP.
“If this was the best gathering they could come up with, then the Islamists should really consider taking part in elections and join parliament to seek reform there instead of on the streets.”
The Brotherhood has said it would boycott polling as it did Jordan’s last elections in 2010 to protest a lack of meaningful reforms. It demands a parliamentary system where the premier is elected rather than named by the king.
Last weekend’s rally heard Islamist leaders repeat their threat to boycott forthcoming elections.
“We demand genuine constitutional reform that would help empower the Jordanian people,” said Hammam Said (above), leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We will not take part in the elections because we demand parliamentary governments and a real parliament.”
That would be a strategic mistake, says the country’s monarchy.
“I am telling the Muslim Brotherhood that they are making a tremendous miscalculation” with their threat to boycott, the king told AFP in an interview last month.
“This elections law is not perfect. We all understand that. But there is no better consensus on an alternative. What is critical is that we keep going forward,” the king said.
“So I am telling the Muslim Brotherhood, you have a choice. To stay in the street or to help build the new democratic Jordan.”
Labor unions and professional syndicates, similarly suspicious of the Islamists’ agenda, boycotted the rally even though they share the frustration with the glacial pace of reform and hostility to a new electoral law which discriminates against Jordanian citizens of Palestinian descent.
The protests are the latest in a series of mobilizations since early January 2011 by a growing reform movement.
“While the movement has not requested regime change, it seeks profound constitutional reforms that would strip the King of Jordan of his executive and legislative authorities,” writes Mohammad Yaghi, a researcher at the University of Guelph, Canada, who focuses on mobilization and democratization in MENA:
Above all, the movement seeks to immunize the parliament (the National Council) from being dissolved by the King, in addition to parliamentary control over the formation of the government (instead of being appointed by the King), and a direct election of the upper house (currently, it is appointed by the King). Thus, the ongoing debate in Jordan over electoral reform lies at the heart of the power struggle between the government and the opposition, and contributes to a poisonous political environment as Jordan approaches parliamentary elections, scheduled to take place by the end of this year.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been able to dominate the opposition, analysts suggest, in part because of restrictions on civil society, including the freedoms of association and expression.
Jordan has made significant strides in developing media pluralism, not least on the Internet.
“Online activity is so energetic that Princess Sumaya said in 2011 that 75 percent of all Arabic content on the Internet comes from Jordan, a boast that King Abdullah II made in August to U.S. journalist Charlie Rose,” writes Daoud Kuttab (left), director general of the Community Media Network which operates AmmanNet.net, the Arab world’s first Internet radio station and a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy:
AmmanNet.net started as an electronic media experiment. It was created with support from the Open Society Institute and was sponsored in its first year by UNESCO and the city of Amman. Initially our online broadcasts were barely followed in Jordan. By collaborating with a Palestinian FM radio station, we were able to bypass government restrictions on radio broadcasts; the Palestinian station rebroadcast our signal into Jordanian air space, using our Internet Webcast. Since 2003, Jordan has allowed independent radio stations, but the Internet has continued to be a lifeline for freedom of expression.
But recent progress is now under threat from a recent amendment to the Press and Publications Law, says Kuttab, a former Princeton University professor of journalism.
“Jordan’s Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists says there were 16 cases of violations against media freedoms and journalists’ rights between May and August,” he notes.
“Activists say the government’s real aim is to stop Web sites from exposing corruption and official excesses. They note government’s heavy hand in stopping recent attempts by parliament to investigate corruption accusations against individuals close to the ruling powers.”
The prospect of non-Islamist opposition emerging from within civil society is constrained by its tribal roots which are “deeply embedded in society and operate alongside the formally established legal system,” according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
“The tribes in Jordan play a political role, offer an alternative judicial system and provide services to communities. Indeed, the formal legal system, in defining societies, does not eliminate the tribal concept of ‘families’,” ICNL notes:
Once Jordan acceded to international conventions, such as the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, some CSOs emerged to raise public awareness in relation to human rights, including the rights of assembly and association. At the same time, however, fundamental rights and freedoms are still subject to governmental interference, due to the Government’s claims of fighting terrorism and protecting national security.
The most preferable route to reform would be via a national dialogue between government and the opposition groups “ in order to agree on the best electoral law that will ensure the participation of all political parties and movements in the election and provide fair representation for all Jordanians,” Yaghi suggests on the Fikra Forum.