Jordan’s missed chances at reform

For all the upheaval the Arab revolutions have brought to the Middle East, and the tricky challenges they have created for the United States, it’s important to note that much of the region remains unchanged – and therefore vulnerable. While four autocratic rulers have been toppled – and a fifth, Bashar al-Assad, is teetering – none of the eight Arab monarchies have undergone a change of regime.

Most have also eschewed major political reforms. The recent addition of women to Saudi Arabia’s toothless shura council was a step forward, but a tiny one in a dictatorship where peaceful advocates of democracy are on trial. Bahrain has promised greater democracy and human rights to its rebellious population, but it mostly failed to deliver while continuing to imprison and persecute opposition leaders. Only Morocco has made real headway toward political modernization, holding a democratic election last year in which Islamists participated and allowing the winners to form a government.

Jordan, like Morocco a close U.S. ally and free-trade partner, claims to be following the same path. But the parliamentary election scheduled for Wednesday represents another missed opportunity for the regime of King Abdullah II. The government is touting reforms that allowed voters to choose party lists in addition to individual candidates and created an electoral council more likely to prevent vote-buying or manipulation by the regime’s powerful intelligence service. King Abdullah promises to consult the new parliament before appointing a prime minister.

The electoral system nevertheless is engineered to block the two political forces most threatening to the regime: the Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinians, who outnumber Jordan’s native population. Gerrymandered districts that leave Palestinian areas underrepresented, and a limitation of party lists to 27 of the parliament’s 150 seats, ensure that local tribal leaders will once again predominate in the assembly. Both the Islamists and Jordan’s secular protest movement called for an election boycott, meaning that the parliament is unlikely to provide a legal and democratic channel for dissent.

That is worrying because Jordan, unlike Saudi Arabia or other Persian Gulf states, lacks the means to buy off its population. On the contrary: In pursuit of a needed International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, the regime was forced to cut fuel subsidies in November, prompting street protests; other IMF-mandated subsidy cuts lie ahead. Anger among Jordanians, including the monarchy’s traditional supporters, is growing over allegations of government corruption and lavish spending by the king and his wife.

For now, there is no sign that unrest will grow into a revolution; with refugees flooding in from Syria, Jordanians may be wary of pushing the regime too far. The Obama administration appears to have the same view; there has been no visible U.S. pressure for change in Amman. But the idea that autocracy can survive in a country that borders Israel and Iraq as well as Syria is a delusion. If change in Jordan does not soon come from the palace, it will come from the street.

Washington Post