Real reform requires organized action

Marwan Muasher, former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Jordan, is now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  A leading figure calling for reform in Jordan, he was interviewed by Ala’ Alrababa’h of peacefare.net:

Click here to view this interview in Arabic.

Q.  How do you expect events in Egypt to impact the Muslim Brotherhood and the reform process in Jordan?  Would they weaken the Muslim Brotherhood?  And would they be used as an excuse to hinder the reform process?

A.  I think the Arab World should establish the rules of democracy in a way that allows everyone to work. I don’t believe in excluding anyone from the political sphere, whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood or otherwise. I also believe that excluding the Muslim Brotherhood by force, or not involving them in governance by force, has helped to strengthen rather than weaken them. If we look at the Egyptian or Tunisian experience, we see that the Brotherhood did not become weak among the population using force. [They were only weakened] when they took power and had to apply the slogans they called for, whether economic or political [slogans].

In the short term, I am not optimistic about Egypt, because the other side, the civilian forces, treat the Brotherhood with the same exclusion it accused the Brotherhood of. They [civilian forces] accuse the Brotherhood of wanting to exclude others, while they do the same thing. And I believe that the best would be to agree on the rules of the game from the outset, such that everyone receives guarantees that all political and social forces in the society would not be marginalized or excluded, and that they can participate in ruling before writing a new constitution that gets the approval of all sectors of society.

As for us in Jordan, it is possible to read what happened in Egypt in two ways. The first way, which is happening now, and I think it is wrong, is to see that the Muslim Brotherhood was excluded in Egypt, and thus we can do the same in Jordan. And as I said, I don’t think that exclusion happens by force, and if it happens by force, it would help to strengthen, rather than weaken, the Muslim Brotherhood. Or it could be read in another way, which is what I hope the Jordanian society would reach, with the help of the wise people in the society, that this is time to agree on the rules of a game, which allows everyone to participate in the political process, and that prevents anyone from monopolizing this process in the future. Would this happen soon? The signs so far are not encouraging.

Q.  What happened to the Jordanian protest movement? Do you expect it to come back anytime soon?

I don’t think that the Jordanian Hirak (protest movement) has ended. The Hirak may be going through stages of ebb and flow. Undoubtedly, what is happening in Syria, and what happened in Egypt, could have made people think about how to translate the feelings of frustration, which are especially common among the Jordanian youth… how to translate [the feelings] into effective political action on the ground. And perhaps [the Hirak] is in a sort of reviewing the process, but I don’t think the movement has ended because the problems haven’t ended, and thus it could be slowing down, but I don’t think this would continue.

The Hirak ends when the Jordanian citizen feels that the decision making circle has been properly widened, and is involving the citizen in better ways. The Hirak ends when the citizen feels that the Lower House is representative of his ambitions. The Hirak ends when the citizen feels that the economic problems in the country are treated with long-term plans, and when he feels that any subject, such as corruption, is being treated in an institutional manner, rather than in a verbal way or as a formality. This is where the Hirak ends, and otherwise I don’t think the movement would end.

Q.  Some of your positions in the past include the Minister of Media, Minister of External Affairs, and Deputy Prime Minister.  While working in these positions, the consecutive Jordanian governments censored the media, and passed a number of provisional laws.  Later, you criticized such measures.  How do you explain this change or contradiction?

A.  Honestly, there was no change. When I was Minister of the Media, I was the first person not only to call for the abolition of the Ministry of the Media, but I also wrote the law that was sent to the Lower House in 1996. This law remained in the drawers of the Lower House for seven years before the Ministry was abolished. In these regards, I was in harmony with myself to the fullest.

When I was Deputy Prime Minister, I was heading the National Agenda committee that called for an electoral law that breaks the single non-transferable vote system, and that is based on party lists. The National Agenda called for laws that equalize women with men, and that prevent any discrimination in Jordanian laws against women. The National Agenda called for [establishing] the Constitutional Court. This committee exists, and also called for a long-term economic policy, that leads to ending the budget deficit and ending dependence on foreign aid. And above all this, the National Agenda committee called for moving away from the ‘rentier system’ and the adoption of a system to achieve equality for all Jordanians regardless of their origins.

I was calling for reform when I was in the government. And if I were not calling for reform when I was in the government, King Abdullah would not have selected me to head the reform committee despite being a Minister of Foreign Affairs. I was a minister who was supposed to practice foreign affairs, but because of my reform views, I was selected for this position.

Q.  The Jordanian regime, unlike many other Arab ones, repeatedly said that the “Arab Spring” revolutions constitute its chance to implement fundamental reforms that it was trying to conduct for several years.  So far, the process has resulted in an unpopular parliament and government, and other unacceptable decisions.  Did the reform process fail?  And does the regime really want to implement reform?

A.  Until this day, the reform process in Jordan is still cosmetic, and not serious reform. Serious reform, in my opinion, is reform that leads to power sharing through redistributing power between the three branches. Until now, we have a weak parliament.  The main reason is the presence of a non-representative and unfair electoral law, that results in weak parliaments by necessity. Parliaments are dependent on the executive branch instead of holding the executive branch accountable and monitoring its work.

Therefore, in my opinion, the first item of real political reform would be to change the electoral law in the direction of increasing the seats allocated to party lists, rather than only national ones, and also through redistributing the electoral districts so as to be more fair and representative of all Jordanians. This is among the most important results reform could produce. The reforms that occurred could have been good in the first six months. I believe in gradual reform, but also in continuous and serious reform. What has been done is reforms that are mostly cosmetic, and were not followed by any serious reforms, especially, as I said, in changing the electoral law and so on.

We talked about reforms for many years, and… honestly, we produced… again, I do not want to keep returning to the National Agenda, but the National Agenda is an example of what the Jordanian society across all the political, social, and economic spectrum, and not only one specific government, could agree upon. It is an example of what could have been agreed upon for serious and, simultaneously, gradual reform, which does not result in any shocks in the country, and secures a gradual transition into democracy and pluralism. The problem of Jordan is summarized in the National Agenda: we know how to write and plan, but we don’t know, or don’t want to execute.

Q.  Does the regime really want actual, non-cosmetic reform, since you said that reform until now has been cosmetic?

A.  Serious reform will necessarily result in moving away from the rentier system that the Jordanian state was built upon since its establishment until today, and the gradual transition to a system that is based on merit. Does the regime until now… is there a political will to move away from the rentier system, and towards a system that is based on merit? I don’t think so.

Q.  As you explained in the Carnegie report: “A Decade of Struggling Reform Efforts in Jordan: The Resilience of the Rentier System,” there is a wide rentier system in Jordan, and this system has resisted the reform process in the past.  Is this system still as strong/influential as it used to be?  And how would it be possible to overcome it in order to implement actual reform?

A.  Gradually, but in a serious way. This is a system that was built over long decades, and has resulted in groups that fully benefit from this system and that are ready to fight to preserve its privileges. Of course, any reform should take into account these groups. They cannot be excluded, and in my opinion, there should be a new social contract between all the components of society and the ruling body, in a way that allows everyone to participate, and that ensures the rule of law. The rule of law is the first point that we must start from. If democracy is not achieved overnight, then at least let us achieve the rule of law as a first step. No group should be excluded, but what is happening today is that privileged groups are excluding all the other ones, and if you look at the Jordanian state today, it would be really difficult to find any real reform groups within the ruling body.

Q.  In your opinion, has this (rentier) system weakened since the Arab uprisings?

A.  Without a doubt. I think that the Arab uprisings have shown, beyond a doubt, that the rentier system is unsustainable for political and economic reasons. And that people no longer accept their exclusion from political life, and the domination of one class over positions and decisions, excluding all other classes. So yes, I think that the rentier system is in the termination phase.  This doesn’t mean that it would end overnight, of course the traditional forces are rooted in the society, but they are not sustainable.

Q.  King Abdullah II implied that he wants future parliaments and governments to finish their four years in office.  Given that the popularity of the current parliament and government are really low in the Jordanian street, do you think they would actually finish all four years?

A.  I don’t think that the current parliament would complete its term. The current parliament is unrepresentative. And the government, when it insisted on such a [electoral] law that gave 18% [of the seats] to national lists, and not party lists… but it is clear today that this parliament, and those lists too, are unrepresentative, because the law did not provide the party lists, which are necessary to carry on political life, with enough [seats]. And thus it kept 81% or 82% of the seats as they were in the past. And if we look at polls in Jordan today, we’d see that, I think the poll from the Center of [Strategic] Studies in the University of Jordan shows that 72% of Jordanians are unsatisfied, or think that this parliaments is either not better or worse than the previous parliament. Thus, we cannot wait 4 more years until there is an electoral law that the Jordanian citizen feels is representative of him and her in a way better than what it currently is. I think the first item on the list of any government, which is serious about the subject of political reform, should be changing the electoral law.

Q.  Do you think Abdullah Nsoor’s government would finish 4 years?

A.  There is no government in Jordan that finished four years, this is really rare, maybe only 2 or 3 governments in the history of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan [finished 4 years in office].

Q.  You wrote about the importance of political participation in Jordan.  Do you plan to return to political life through forming a party, returning to the government, or any other way in the future?

A.  Yes, I plan to return to Jordan and to establish a political movement that I hope would develop in the future into a party. This would require… I don’t believe in registering a party, then looking for a base. I believe in working with people and building a base on the ground, covering all areas in Jordan. I also believe in listening to the demands of the people, and not just in theorizing. Therefore, I must return to Jordan and form a liberal reformist movement, one that supports the freedoms of the individual and the group, and then supports a plan. Not only a political plan, but also a long-term economic plan that gets Jordan out of the bottleneck in a scientific, well thought out manner, and in a way that leads to ending foreign aid and to self-reliance. God willing, if this movement has those who believe in it, then in the future, God willing, it would turn into a political party.

I served the government of Jordan and that honors me. But my goal is not returning to the government. My goal is to go back to political work that’s dependent on popular bases. I think that we lack in Jordan those who don’t want the religious groups to monopolize the truth, those who don’t want the civil groups to monopolize the truth, and who believe in true democracy that allows everyone to participate and the peaceful transfer of power.

Q.  When do you hope to return?

A.  I can’t tell you because I still haven’t told them here (at Carnegie), so I can’t tell. God willing, soon.

Q.  Are you optimistic about real democratic change in Jordan over the upcoming years?

I’m really optimistic about the youth generation, I’m not optimistic about the older generation. The older generation… there are many who served the country in all sincerity and dedication. But at this stage, I think, the biggest load will be on the youth. The youth who believe in organized and democratic work at the same time, and the youth who believe in the importance of the participation of everyone, and not, as I said, excluding any other people. I don’t believe in demonizing, or in conspiracy theories. All these topics are ones we used repeatedly to cover up what we failed to accomplish. But I think there is a generation of young people who are conscious of these things, and who view the world in a way that the older generation didn’t. And therefore, I count a lot on it in the next phase.

Q.  What is your advice for this generation and for the Jordanian protest movement?

A.  My first advice is organized action. The movement, if it stayed on the street without any organization and framing, won’t lead to translating the demands of the protest movement into political decisions. There is no alternative to organization and to framing. I hope this happens. The next stage, in my opinion, should be a partisan stage (based on parties) where political action is framed and structured.

Q.  And for the youth in general, the same advice?

A.  The same advice. My advice to young people is to reject what their parents accepted, and to complete the journey, in a way… I also don’t believe in revolution… in an organized way, but to continue to raise their voices in political, organized, and framed ways. And not in emotional and sentimental ways. There must be a sense of frustration and the lack of opportunity, etc. True, in the first stage, this could happen through raising the voice, and protesting, and so on, but at some stage, this needs to transform into framing and organization in order to be able to deliver their voice in an effective manner to the government.

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