Government’s inability to find common ground with political opposition on the nature and pace of reforms is sowing the seeds for civil unrest
The pro-reform movement in Jordan, a loose coalition of opposition parties, professional unions and youth groups, celebrated one year of popular protests and sit-ins last week, but there wasn’t much to celebrate. In spite of recent royal assurances that political reforms are on track, most Islamist and secular leaders of the pro-reform movement disagree.
In their view, successive governments, including that of Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh, which took over more than two months ago, have failed to accommodate the street’s main demand; regime reform that would allow for elected governments to be chosen by the people.
Jordan has been affected by the winds of the Arab Spring early on. The first demonstrations took place in a small southern town of Thiban, almost a year ago, composed largely of politically unaffiliated youth who were unemployed and frustrated with the lack of political and economic reforms. They were soon joined by opposition parties, including supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But when under the banner of the 24 March movement, hundreds of youth demanding the implementation of a constitutional monarchy in Jordan staged a sit-in at the Jamal Abdul Nasser (Ministry of Interior) Square and clashed with pro-regime supporters, resulting in them being forced out of the square, the nature of protests changed.
One man died in the melee. It was to be a turning point in the direction of the pro-reform movement. The coalition of opposition parties organised protests every Friday in downtown Amman and in other towns and districts of the kingdom. The main slogans called for urgent political reforms and an end to what they saw as widespread official corruption.
Thus Jordan became part of the seismic political wave that was sweeping across the region, but overall it has managed to keep its demands restricted to regime reform, thus avoiding a recurrence of what took place in Tunisia and Egypt.
Jordan’s Arab Spring is a unique one. For starters, King Abdullah II was quick to recognise the legitimacy of public demands. He followed his words with action by forming a royal commission to review the constitution and asking the previous government to engage in a broad dialogue with an all-inclusive committee representing the kingdom’s political parties and opposition figures.
The Islamists declined an invitation. They insisted on guarantees that included recognition of their main demand that future governments will be elected and that certain royal prerogatives be transferred to the executive and legislative bodies.
The Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), took to the streets both as a show of strength and to send a message that they will not be party to half baked reforms that fall short of their main demands. Jordan Islamists have been allied to the regime since the 1950s, and when political parties were banned in the early 1960s, the Brotherhood continued to perform as a charitable organisation.
It was in 1989, when parliamentary life was restored, that they were allowed to contest new elections, winning more than 25 per cent of the Lower House and presenting themselves as a power to reckon with. They briefly joined the short-lived government of Mudar Badran in 1991. Since then they had contested four more elections, but complained that the government has enacted a new election law only to limit their representation in parliament. Insisting that the election law was unfair to them they boycotted the last two legislative elections.
There is no doubt that Jordan’s Islamists remain the most organised and popular political power on the scene. For years they were ignored by the higher decision-making centres; the palace and the security department. But the Arab Spring has changed that policy.
Even though they chose to boycott the National Dialogue Committee and criticised its recommendations, Khasawneh decided to appease them. He has met their leaders, in addition to the head of a secular pro-reform bloc led by former prime minister Ahmad Obiedat. In return for making some concessions to them — they were recently given back control of a major charitable organisation — the Islamists promised to give the new government time to deliver on its promises of enacting reform demands.
Khasawneh, a former international jurist and an outsider to the political circles, has vowed to wage war against corruption while making sure that his government enjoys full sovereignty and independence in the public domain. He has praised recent constitutional amendments but declared that he is not bound to the recommendations of the National Dialogue Committee, especially with regard to the highly controversial election law.
But the Islamists are now complaining that Khasawneh’s government is not moving fast enough. They have resumed their weekly demonstrations and few weeks ago suffered a setback when tribesmen in the northern governorate of Mafraq aborted their sit-in and later ransacked the IAF’s headquarters. The Islamists accused security forces of allowing the attack to take place and failing to arrest the culprits. The following week they staged a huge demonstration in downtown Amman which included a paramilitary parade. In response, deputies and the government controlled press launched a vehement attack on the Brotherhood accusing them of threatening public order and inviting militancy.
As things stand now, Brotherhood hawks are taking the lead in attacking the government, while keeping to their minimum demands, while political figures, representing the tribes, are waging a war of words on the Islamists. It is not clear if the Khasawneh government is still in control or if has lost the momentum to the security apparatus.
Jordan’s Arab Spring has taken a different route. There is a feeling that the palace, while committed to political reforms, believes the main problem is economic. The Islamists, on the other hand, are under public pressure as the mainstream press, and pro-regime deputies, attempt to demonise them. The Khasawneh government is yet to take a stand amid a growing feeling that if it fails the country could be pushed into a downward spiral.
US-Iran row will get out of hand if both sides lack the political will to work towards creative solutions
The West and Iran are playing a dangerous game. In the past couple of weeks, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz and warned the US against sending an aircraft carrier back into the Arabian Gulf. The US predictably responded that its aircraft carriers could and would patrol wherever necessary to promote freedom of navigation. Iran then announced that it would conduct naval exercises in the strait.
In the game of ‘chicken’, two cars drive straight at each other at top speed; either one driver ‘chickens out’ and swerves, or they collide in a fireball. Governments around the world cannot stand by and watch that game play out across the world’s energy lifeline. It is time for third parties to step in and facilitate solutions that allow Iran to save face while significantly and credibly reducing its supply of enriched uranium.
Iran may or may not be planning to go all the way to production of a nuclear weapon. Nonetheless, it is in clear violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as determined by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is charged with monitoring the treaty. Its continuing non-compliance is destabilising the entire Middle East, with serious repercussions for global security.
Although the Iranian government could most likely be deterred from using a nuclear weapon, the price of a nuclear Iran could well be a regional arms race — a nuclear Saudi Arabia, possibly followed by Turkey and Egypt. Nuclear weapons, components, and materials in a region that is already volatile and violent, and that determines the world’s oil prices, is an appalling scenario.
The market has already taken the measure of the past week’s tensions, driving up the price of some oil contracts to their highest levels in eight months.
Trying to force Iran to back down with steadily mounting sanctions has not produced results. Despite the tightening economic noose many nuclear experts now estimate that Iran is very close to enriching enough uranium to build a bomb.
But how else can the US, the EU, and the UN make clear that the ‘international community’ means what it says? To go soft now is to lose all credibility with respect not only to Iran, but also to any other country thinking about pursuing a nuclear path.
The logic is compelling enough, except that the current course leaves Iran’s government no alternative between publicly backing down, which it will not do, and escalating its provocations. After all, what government wants to be seen as ‘chickening out’? And, in this case, decision-makers on both sides face domestic opponents who are only too ready to pounce at the least sign of weakness.
In the US, the Republican party’s leading presidential candidate in this year’s election, Mitt Romney, declared at a recent debate, “If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon”. His principal challenger, Rick Santorum, said he would “order air strikes” if it “became clear that [Iran] was going to get nuclear weapons”.
So this is no time for President Barack Obama to go wobbly.
Iranian politics is much harder to read. In the ongoing power struggle between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, each is more likely to out-tough the other than to propose concessions to the West.
Moreover, many Iranian analysts point out that Khamenei and his inner circle are convinced that the US is ultimately bent on regime change — and is willing to use force to achieve it. Hence Iranian missile tests, threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, and announcements of nuclear progress should be read as efforts to deter more than provoke.
The more publicly the West threatens Iran, the more easily Iranian leaders can portray America as the Great Satan to parts of the Iranian population that have recently been inclined to see the US as their friend. The net effect is to keep Iran speeding down the road toward a crash.
It is time for cooler heads to prevail with a strategy that helps Iran step back. The key players here are Brazil and Turkey, whose governments negotiated an ill-timed deal with Iran in May 2011, whereby Iran would transfer 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for 1,200 kilograms of medium-enriched uranium for medical research at a Tehran reactor. That deal quickly fell apart, but it could be time to try again. The stage is already set in Turkey, which agreed on January 6 to host a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council + Germany).
A new deal would probably have to go beyond the swap proposed in May 2011, but there are other possibilities. For example, add Egypt and Qatar to the equation and bring in the UN to provide an umbrella for a proposed regional nuclear-fuel bank, to which Iran would make the first contribution.
Bring in South Korea (a major customer for Iranian oil) and Russia and begin exploring options for a global fuel bank. And ensure that all countries in the region reaffirm the basic rules of freedom of navigation in a way that allows them to claim vindication.
Where the political will exists to allow the other side sufficient margin to reach an agreement, creative solutions can be found. Still, diplomats know that war can be preferable to humiliation, which is why saving face is just as important as threatening force — and why other countries should step in and provide the room that both sides need to avoid a head-on collision.
— Project Syndicate, 2012
Anne Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department (2009-11), is professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.