Jordan: A Democratic Audit
Dr. Adli Hawwari
In this concluding chapter, I examine why democracy has failed to take root in Jordan to date. I will outline several reasons often cited to explain the failure, and scrutinize the plausibility and limitations of each. I will then identify the reason that I consider the most plausible.
Characterizing the Change in Jordan
The democratic audit presented and discussed in previous chapters had established that Jordan was not a democratic sate. Therefore, there remains one point to discuss: How can one describe the process that started in 1989? The most appropriate characterization is that Jordan has undergone a process of liberalization, according to the definitions theorized by Huntington (1993) and Martins (1993). The former defines liberalization as a process that entails ‘the partial opening of an authoritarian system short of choosing governmental leaders through freely competitive election’ (p. 9). A state wishing to liberalize its system may ‘open up some issues for public debate, [and] loosen censorship’. These, and other measures described by Huntington, have indeed taken place in Jordan.
In addition, Martin’s definition of liberalization applies to what happened in Jordan, namely ‘the adoption of formal democratic institutions’ without ‘consensus concerning the rules of the [democratic] game, political accountability of the rulers, the right of ample political representation, and alternation of power’ (1993, p. 88). The Jordanian government remains in charge of the ‘rules of the game’. The elections law has continued to change without resulting in a system that is fair to all players. The government is also in charge of organizing the elections, counting the votes, and announcing the results.
Moreover, political accountability to the people is limited at best. The king is considered above accountability, and the governments are accountable only to him. Political representation is restricted according to the wishes of the government. The number of Islamist candidates that should sit in the HoD, or the number of MPs that should represent the Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin, is a matter decided by the government. No alternation of power has taken place in Jordan since 1989. Governments come and go at the discretion of the king.
I shall now examine the reasons for the failure of democracy to take root in Jordan so far.
This reason is based on the claims that democracy and Islam are incompatible for arguments I outlined and discussed in another volume (Hawwari 2016/2020). The logic used to explain the failure is that Jordan is a Muslim majority state, and is ruled by a descendent of Prophet Muhammad. If Islam and democracy are incompatible, then it is inevitable that democracy will fail in Jordan.
This explanation is problematic because it overlooks other important factors: first and foremost, the Jordanian state was created on the British model—a monarchy but with a parliament, political parties, and a democratic system of government. Moreover, during the period of 1990-2010, there have been frequent references in Jordan to a ‘democratic process’. Two points can be made in this regard. The first is to assume that the king and people of Jordan strictly follow Islam’s teachings. If Islam is incompatible with democracy, the king would refrain from calling the process ‘democratic’. Similarly, the people in Jordan would refrain from engaging in this process because it contradicts Islamic teachings. What actually happened was that the process was described as democratic, and an Islamist political party participated in it.
The second point is that strict adherence to Islamic teachings is not always possible. There are practices that can be introduced in a Muslim majority state despite arguments regarding their compatibility with Islam. Banking is a case in point, particularly banks which deal with interest on loans and savings. In both cases, interest is considered un-Islamic. However, banks operating in this manner have existed in Jordan since its inception. Therefore, there is a need for further clarification.
The presence of these non-Islamic banks can be justified on two bases. One is that the economy cannot function without banks. In other words, there is an overriding need that justifies implementing a system that is considered incompatible with Islam. King Hussein talked about a ‘democratic process’ which implied that he saw no incompatibility between Islam and democracy. Otherwise, different terms would have been used, such as ‘shura process,’ or he would need to justify why it was necessary to launch a democratic process even though it is not compatible with Islam. Therefore, citing Islam as the reason for a lack of democracy in Jordan is unsound.
The second reason suggested for the failure of democracy to take root is the ideology of Islamism. In other words, the Islamists are not believed to be committed to democracy. There are also concerns that they will change the democratic nature of the system if they come to power. This explanation of the failure, however, overlooks three facts.
First, the MB/IAF never managed to obtain a majority in parliament. Therefore, they were never in a position to change the political system or alter its democratic nature (which is non-existent). The representation of MB/IAF continued to decline, and they were therefore increasingly incapable of introducing changes. Second, the MB/IAF played by the rules of the democratic process; in other words, they accepted the outcome of elections, and did not replicate the Algerian example. The most drastic action they took to protest was to boycott the elections in 1997 and 2010 to persuade the government to introduce changes that would help democracy, not hinder it. Third, one can disagree with MB/IAF ideologically, but one cannot deny the fact that MB and IAF manage their affairs on a democratic basis, as has been demonstrated by Brown (2006). Therefore, if democracy is not good for Jordan, it will not be good for the MB/IAF. These reasons undermine the conclusion that Islamism in Jordan may be the reason why democracy has failed to take root.
3. A State Dependent on Serving a Role
The failure of democracy in Jordan is explained by arguing that the state was formed in order to serve a role in the region. This role was to stem the French expansion in the area (Wilson 1988, p. 44); to be a sort of ‘buffer’ zone (Lucas 2005, p. 14); and as a reward for Amir Abdullah for his family’s contributions to the efforts to bring down the Ottoman Empire (Wiktorowicz 2001, pp. 50-51).
Two of the three roles above are no longer valid, as the British and French left the area decades ago. However, it is still possible to pursue this explanation further by saying that roles change over time. One role was the fight against communism, which King Hussein cited in his decision to dismiss the government of Sulayman al-Nabulsi in 1957. Another role is for the state to have peace with Israel, or to be part of the war on terror. The role, therefore, depends on international developments in which Western countries require support from their allies. Fahd al-Rimawi (2008) subscribes to this explanation.1 In his view, the role of Jordan at present is to provide protection for Israel, and to act as an intermediary between the latter and the Arab states which do not have diplomatic ties with Israel [See Epilogue].While it is a state with a role, Jordan cannot develop into a democratic country.
This theory of ‘a state dependent on a role’ is plausible as Jordan does play a role when asked by the West. Only rarely does it refrain from cooperation with the West, such as during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (1990-91). The lack of cooperation damaged Jordan’s relations with the West and other Arab countries.
This explanation, however, cannot resolve the matter satisfactorily, as states can be democratic and serve a role. Western European countries have been democratic while serving a role in the Cold War. These countries distinguished themselves from states run by communist parties by being democratic. Therefore, a state that plays a role does not have to be undemocratic.
The third reason for establishing the State of Jordan, namely as a reward for King Abdullah I, requires some clarification because it is valid to some extent, but should not be accepted at face value. First, as a political act by Winston Churchill, it is true historically speaking. However, neither Churchill personally nor Britain owned the territory and thus did not have the right to give parts of it away as a reward.
Second, the notion that a king or queen owns the land, its resources, and the people is outdated. (The ruling dynasty in Jordan is referred to as ‘al-‛āl’la al-mālika’ not ‘al-‛āl’la al-malakiyya’. The first literally means the ‘owning family’. The latter means the royal family). However, even if a monarch entertains any illusion in this regard, historically these types of kings or queens have had to give up some or all of their powers. Therefore, the ‘reward’ explanation is unsatisfactory.
4. Political Feudalism
Another reason for the failure of democracy suggests that Jordan is controlled by ‘political feudalism’. On 12 January 2010, a statement signed by more than seventy figures of different political orientations criticized Jordan’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan (Efranews 2010). They demanded the ‘lifting of the tutelage of political feudalism’, and the creation of a political climate that would lead to ‘real political reform and democratic transformation’.
This explanation is not without its merits. The king does appoint and dismiss the government at will. King ‛Abdullah II has dissolved parliament without giving reasons. For instance, in 2007, the royal decree to dissolve the HoD simply said ‘the HoD is dissolved as of Monday, 20 August 2007’. However, this explanation fails to recognise that King Hussein had to make concessions on three occasions: in 1956 when parties contested elections and a government reflecting such results was formed. The second was after the 1967 war when he had to tolerate the presence of the Palestinian resistance organizations for three years before deciding to eliminate their presence. The third was in 1988, when the April Uprising (habbat nīsan) took place, and he decided to ‘resume democratic life’.
5. ‘Certain Forces’ Work Against Change
One of the often-cited reasons for the failure of democracy to take root is that there are ‘forces’ in Jordan which have no interest in democracy. The king, therefore, has to proceed with caution and balance the various interests. The explanation does not identify the forces at work, but one of the frequently used terms in this context is ‘forces pulling in the opposite direction’ (qiwa al-shadd al-aksi).
One can speculate that these forces include the beneficiaries of an undemocratic system, such as those who are appointed prime ministers, ministers, high-ranking officials, and special advisers. They will have no interest in a democratic system, in which they have to compete to hold such positions, and be accountable to the electorate. Without a democratic system, they simply have to pledge loyalty and intervene when called upon, whether to launch a crackdown, privatize industries, or sign a peace treaty.
Other ‘forces’ that may appear to have no interest in democracy will be the intelligence service (GID), tribes, and people in the business sector. The role of GID was pervasive in Jordan. Despite improvements in the past twenty years, activists continued to be detained during the period of protests (2011/2012). In some cases, they were referred to state security courts. With regard to tribes, the government continued to encourage tribalism, and relied on members of the tribes to oppose organizing rallies and protests in their areas. Moreover, in relation to people in business, it may be argued that without the accountability that comes with democracy, business people have the freedom to strike deals and run their affairs on the basis of personal connections with people in power.
The explanation of undemocratic forces has its limitations. The forces that seek privilege are not so powerful a force as to block democracy, as privilege seeking occurs irrespective of whether the system of government is democratic or not. Assuming that these people have worked together to maintain a special status, their effect can be easily neutralized if the king chooses to change the status quo. Similarly, the GID may advise the king against adopting a wholly democratic system of government, or to proceed with caution. The king can reject this advice. In this case, the GID cannot defy the will of the king and people at the same time.
With regard to tribes, although the government encourages tribalism, the demands for change come from all sectors of the population. Opposition figures are invited to rallies organized by tribes. There is not a single attitude that represents all the tribes, or all members of a single tribe. In relation to the business sector, certain people will prefer doing business through contacts with people in power. However, a great deal more will prefer to be able to compete fairly in order to succeed in business.
Another reason for the failure of democracy to take root in Jordan is suggested by ‘rentier economy’ theorists. According to this explanation, the population of a rentier state tends to be depoliticized. As Brynen (1992) explains in this regard ‘the state is expected to provide a certain level of economic security, in exchange for which society grants state leaders considerable political autonomy’ (p. 75).
This explanation has severe limitations, even when it refers to the rich countries of the Gulf, where there is no taxation. Shambayati (1994) argued that ‘rentierism’ did not depoliticize the population, and that the Shah of Iran lost his throne in 1979, because he alienated the bazaaris for ideological reasons. Specifically, he considered them ‘greedy, backward, reactionary, and unwilling to contribute to the country’s development. There was no room for them in a modern Iran’ (p. 323). Because the bazaaris did not depend on the state, as did other sectors, they ‘had both the financial and the organizational autonomy to challenge the state’ when the revolution started (p. 320).
When the rentier explanation is applied to Jordan, it becomes harder to sustain. First, Jordan is not as rich as the oil-producing countries in the Gulf or Iran. This is why Brynen describes Jordan as a ‘semi-rentier’ state. However, it has provided ‘a certain level of economic security’, referred to above. ‘At the mass level,’ Brynen (1992) explains ‘the Jordanian state became a central supplier of both social services and employment. Extensive health and education programmes were developed’ (p. 81). Nonetheless, as happened in Iran, not all sectors of society have benefited. For instance, the widespread claims of corruption in Jordan are indicative of the level of alienation felt across all parts of the country.
Moreover, Jordan introduced a tax collection system in the 1980s. Although the government claims that the majority of the population is exempt from paying taxes, this statement is true in part at best, because everyone pays indirect taxes on many things, and those who do not pay income tax do not earn enough money to bring them into the tax-paying bracket. Since the Jordanian citizen has become a taxpayer, the demand for representation has been made on this basis.
The rentier state argument does not satisfactorily explain the failure of democracy in Jordan. The reasons in summary are that the state has not managed to sustain a level of economic security that will pacify the people (poverty in Jordan is widespread); it has alienated many people in the country, including the tribes; and it is not possible to depoliticize the population of any state, let alone the people in Jordan.
7. Arab-Israeli Conflict
The Arab-Israeli conflict has been used by rulers to justify the undemocratic nature of Arab governments. In the case of Jordan, the argument was that it would not possible to hold elections while one part of the kingdom, the West Bank, was occupied. Elections are only one of the elements necessary in a democratic state. Moreover, holding elections in the West Bank ceased to be an obstacle because Jordan decided to sever links with the West Bank. Ironically, after the peace treaty with Israel in 1994, one of the first things Jordan was willing to sacrifice was the process of reform which started in 1989.
As Robinson (1998, p. 388) observed: ‘the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict may well usher in a new era of authoritarianism in Jordan.’ Had there been a commitment to establish a democratic system of government, neither the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, nor the peace treaty with Israel in 1994 would have prevented the fulfilment of this goal.
8. The West is Responsible
The absence of democracy in the Arab world as a whole is due to an external factor: the US in particular and the West prefer it this way. AbuKhalil (2011) argues that regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are supported by the West despite being undemocratic; that Husni Mubarak, for instance, stayed in power so long only with Western support. This argument is valid to some extent. In its support, one can cite the example of the attitude towards the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections in 2006. However, my response to this argument is similar to the one I made earlier in relation to considering Jordan as a state formed to serve a role: being democratic and maintaining friendly relations with the West are not mutually exclusive.
9. Rustow’s Antecedents
I have argued that all of the above reasons are flawed. I propose, finally, to apply Rustow’s modernization theory to test whether it can better explain the failure of democracy in Jordan. Rustow (1967) identified four antecedents of democracy (pp. 228-229).
(1) A history anywhere from 40 to 130 years of administrative and educational modernization.
(2) A stable geographic context for the political system throughout the same period.
(3) A tradition, dating back at least one, two or three generations of parties […] that provided some organic link between rulers and subjects, and that were able to involve progressively larger groups in the political process.
(4) [T]enacious and bitter conflicts between major social or political groups over issues of profound concern to them.
I shall apply these antecedents to Jordan’s case in order to establish the extent to which they apply. If they do not, then Rustow is wrong. If they do, I will argue why Rustow’s theory is better than the reasons outlined above at explaining why democracy has failed to take root in Jordan. Any limitations concerning Rustow’s explanation will be identified.
In relation to the first antecedent, although Jordan’s modern history spans more than forty years, this is at the lower end of Rustow’s range of years (40-130) of administrative and educational modernization. Jordan would require another sixty years to reach the other end. The first university in Jordan was established only in the 1960s. However, more universities have been established in Jordan, and now there are many private universities.
It is possible to argue that Jordan has satisfied this antecedent because the state has existed for more than seventy years. Conversely, one can suggest that Rustow’s lower and higher ends of the range of years (40-130) are too far apart, and therefore, this antecedent is flawed. Two responses are possible. One is that the circumstances in countries making the transition to democracy cannot be identical. Therefore, it is not abnormal to make the transition at different speeds. The other response is that the transition is not assumed to be automatic once the lower end of the scale is achieved, as this antecedent is one of four.
More importantly, one has to look at what else happened during the relevant years. The expansion in education at all levels was not matched by weakening tribal traditions, for example. The universities became scenes of frequent fights between members of different tribes. Despite the abundance of universities in Jordan, they lack the freedoms that students enjoy in democratic countries. On one occasion in May 1986, for example, the students of Yarmouk University organized protests against increasing tuition fees. The police dealt with them aggressively, and three students were killed. In contrast, students in the UK frequently demonstrate against increasing fees, not only on campuses but also on the streets of cities.
Therefore, it is not the mere number of years of education, but the extent to which such education has contributed to moving the state and society a step closer towards modernity. Moreover, the antecedent of education alone is not sufficient, as there are three other antecedents to be satisfied.
The second antecedent is concerned with ‘stable geographical contexts’. The geographical context of Jordan’s political system did not remain the same since its inception. It expanded in 1950 after the merger with the West Bank. The merger meant an increase in the population which more than doubled. In 1967, the geographical context decreased after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. It was further reduced politically in 1988 after the decision to sever links with the West Bank (in effect a demerger). After the decision, the notion of Jordanian citizenship was thrown into confusion. Therefore, the second antecedent is not satisfied.
Rustow’s third antecedent is related to political parties. One can say that there is now one generation of political parties, but this does not satisfy the third antecedent because Rustow mentions two or three generations of parties. There was a discontinuity in the presence of parties between 1957 and 1991. Although parties operate legally now, they do so with severely restricted freedoms. If this remains the case for two more generations, parties will not make any difference. This is one limitation in Rustow’s explanation. However, he must have taken it for granted that the parties will be operating in a free environment—not in a restricted one.
The fourth antecedent is the presence of ‘a tenacious conflict’. It is not satisfied. The conflict of September 1970 was short. The uprising of 1988 in southern Jordan was significant and produced changes, but it was short too and lacked leadership. Signs of a tenacious conflict started to appear before the uprisings erupted in the Arab world at the end of 2010. It can also be seen in protests by workers to assert their rights and improve their conditions, as happened in Aqaba in August 2009. Other workers who work without contracts also protested at the Ministry of Agriculture in 2010. Moreover, the government could not stop or outmanoeuvre the campaign for a teachers’ union.
These indications can be regarded as belonging to a bottom-up process that may lead to the democratization of the political system in the country. Jamal (2007, p. 137) has concluded that ‘the bottom-up approach to democracy is seriously flawed.’ The context of her conclusion was the assumption made by foreign donors who wish to develop civil society because without it ‘there can be no democracy’. Within the context of her conclusion, she is right. However, the bottom-up process unfolding in Jordan is of a completely different nature. It was initiated by teachers, workers, and others who decided to assert their rights without the assistance of foreign donors.
An important corollary of Rustow’s antecedents is that they should take place in the context of embracing modernity, especially its intellectual aspects. Education, geographical context, parties, and a tenacious conflict will not lead to democracy if modernity is not ingrained in the political system. Rustow claimed that religious denominations in Lebanon were the substitute for parties. He was mistaken, as could be recognised from the Lebanese Civil War. Moreover, the various religious sects in Lebanon prevent the development of a democratic system based on equality of citizens. Similarly, tribes in Jordan cannot be a substitute for parties. When the government changed the elections law to have more MPs from the tribes, it achieved its objective. However, it also caused divisions within tribes. Moreover, the encouragement of tribalism has produced a situation in which tribes fight each other, and frequently clash with the police.
Despite the limitations identified in the discussion above, Rustow’s antecedents better explain why democracy has failed to take root in Jordan. Unlike the essentialist or cultural explanations, Rustow’s modernization theory does not imply that Jordan will remain undemocratic permanently because of Islam or Islamism.
The democratic audit delivered a detailed appraisal, which identified the unsatisfactory aspects. However, it also provided the opportunity to recognise positive features, particularly those reflected by means higher than seven marks out of ten. Moreover, Rustow’s modernization theory provided the criteria that challenged the Islam-democracy incompatibility paradigm.
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1 Personal interview. Amman, 14 April 2008.
Adli Hawwari (2020). Reluctant Liberalisation: A Democratic Audit of Jordan, 1989-2019. London: Ud Al -Nad Ltd.
- Jordan: A Democratic Audit