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The challenges faced by Jordan's new Prime Minister

Commentary, 7 November 2011
Middle East and North Africa
The appointment of a new Prime Minister in Jordan could mean a more comprehensive implementation of much needed reforms. But divisions and tensions between domestic political factions could once again stall this process.

The appointment of a new Prime Minister in Jordan could mean a more comprehensive implementation of much needed reforms. But divisions and tensions between domestic political factions could once again stall this process.

Jordan PMBy Jamie Ingram, Researcher, RUSI Qatar

On 17 October, Awf al-Khasawneh was appointed Jordan's third prime minister since February, following the resignation of Marouf al-Bakhit.[1] Just one day previously, seventy of Jordan's 120 MPs petitioned King Abdullah II to dismiss Bakhit for failing to launch genuine reforms and tackle endemic corruption.

In a statement to reporters shortly after his appointment, Khasawneh announced that a new government would be formed in a 'few days', with the new cabinet sworn in on 24 October. This marks Jordan's third government of the year, while a significant reshuffle was also undertaken in July. The latest victim of the 'Arab Spring', during his short, second tenure as Premier, Bakhit was widely accused by opposition groups and protestors alike of failing to introduce sufficient reforms and tackle corruption. Appointed on 2 February by King Abdullah in an attempt to placate escalating protests, Bakhit replaced the previous incumbent Samiir Rifai and was charged with implementing political reforms and ensuring a decent living for Jordanians.  

The administration faces severe challenges as Khasawneh attempts to steer the country through turbulent times. Jordan's economy is in a perilous state, much like other states in the region that are facing popular unrest. Dissent has been fuelled by high levels of unemployment concentrated in the male youth population and declining real incomes, further exacerbated by rising food and oil prices. In an effort to quell social unrest, the Kingdom has rolled-back flagship pro-market reforms, unveiling packages of partial subsidies on fuel and staple foods; however, the added fiscal strain of such policies on the economy could yet prove severe. Jordan's fledgling private sector is largely incapable of providing a catalyst for growth, with the economy heavily weighted towards the public sector and dependent upon overseas aid.

Of potentially more worry to the regime, however, are signals of discontent emanating from within Jordan's East Bank elite. Members of the East Bank tribes dominate the army, police and bureaucratic structure in Jordan and are traditionally stalwart supporters of the monarchy. Concerned that the growing numbers of Palestinians in Jordan will erode their traditional hold on power and money in the Kingdom, East Bankers have increasingly voiced their discontent with the administration. In February, tribal figures issued a petition to King Abdullah to reduce the role of his Palestinian wife Queen Rania in Jordanian politics. Fears that the Queen is attempting to build her own power centres largely motivated the petition, which served to underscore the deep divisions between the two populations. In an attempt to placate the East Bankers, the King moved to raise civil servant's wages in February, further stressing the fragile economy.

An Inadequate Government

The dismissal of the Rifai government on 1 February was a clear attempt by King Abdullah to quell the growing protests which erupted in January. Thousands regularly marched after Friday prayers, condemning the government's economic policies and the corruption associated with the privatisation of state enterprises, while calling for substantial constitutional reform. Although Rifai's dismissal temporarily restored stability to the Kingdom, by 3 March the new government had already faced a parliamentary vote of no-confidence, which it only narrowly survived. Leading the charge has been the opposition Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

As unrest continued to grow, the King bowed to opposition demands, pledging on 12 June to introduce constitutional reforms. While welcomed by many as a significant concession to protestors, the IAF were not placated, stating that 'there was nothing new in that speech' and crucially questioning whether the King could ever force the government to implement his reform visions.[2] The absence of a timeline for implementation further fuelled fears that reforms would not be enacted. On 17 August, the King announced precise details of the proposed reforms, which while generally well received were again slammed by the IAF for failing to live up to the people's expectations. Despite this, on 28 September, Jordan's Senate endorsed the proposals, which will enter into effect following approval by King Abdullah and publishing in the Official Gazette, affording it the force of law.

Despite King Abdullah's actions however, it has long been clear that popular dissatisfaction with Bakhit was so strong that only his removal would assuage protestors. His appointment was largely intended to curry favour with the East Bank tribes, but he had proven unpopular in his previous tenure as prime minister (2005-2007) when he was perceived to have blocked reforms. Bakhit's attempts to highlight government successes in combating corruption experienced almost-comical difficulties. At a 26 May press conference intended to highlight these successes, Bakhit was forced to announce the resignation of two ministers over a 2010 corruption case which had resulted in a former minister being sentenced to three years imprisonment. Subsequently, the then-prime minister survived a 27 June impeachment vote in which he and seventeen former ministers were implicated in graft allegations regarding a 2007 agreement with a UK firm to construct a casino. Denying any complicity, Bakhit's reputation was further damaged in September when documents emerged showing that he had authorised the deal.[3] Many MPs were alienated over issue, accusing Bakhit of making a scapegoat out of former Tourism Minister Osama Dabbas.

The government's efforts to combat corruption have been widely criticised. The Committee to Protect Journalists and the Jordan Press Association (JPA) have repeatedly stated that the draft Anti-Corruption Commission law (ACC) will greatly restrict press freedoms. The legislation would permit fines for public accusations of corruption without solid proof. On 29 September, the Senate indefinitely deferred discussion of the controversial bill due to the public outcry, further underscoring the government's inability to effect change. Anti-government protests have regained momentum, with thousands attending Friday protests in recent weeks.

Although Bakhit's resignation does not ensure the success of the reforms and an end to protests, such an outcome was impossible under his tenure. Certainly, the protest movement will likely lose much of its immediate momentum, with the new government afforded a small window in which to operate. However, the fundamental economic and social challenges facing Jordan remain and are likely to increase further still. Divisions between Palestinians and East Bankers are set to grow more pronounced as the Palestinian population continues to grow, while the government's efforts to appease both camps through pay rises and subsidies are adding increased fiscal strain on the fragile economy. Expensive projects such as Jordan's controversial drive towards nuclear power are likely to attract popular anger for diverting scarce resources away from the people.

A New Start?

Jordan's new Prime Minister Awm al-Khasawneh is a 61 year old former judge at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where he served from 2000 onwards, and has previously held senior legal positions within Jordan's administration. He has been instructed to work closely with the opposition, something his predecessor proved incapable of. The Muslim Brotherhood has cautiously welcomed his appointment, stating that his legal background is essential in an era of constitutional amendments. Certainly his reputation has not been tainted by association with Jordan's previous governments, while he has retained cordial relations with members of the IAF.[4]

The composition of Khasawneh's first government marked an important statement of intent. The Prime Minister was keen to avoid including too many from the previous administration, tarnished as they are in the eyes of many, but included a number of experienced politicians to provide stability. Although Khasawneh was keen to include the IAF in government they refrained from participating. Although this would have confered greater legitimacy on the reform process, they decided against participating in a government that has not been democratically elected. However, their inclusion in the reform process remains vital.

Despite widespread anger with the government and growing dissatisfaction with King Abdullah among elements of the East Bank elite, the King retains great popularity within the population. This has prevented protests from escalating to the scale seen elsewhere and ensured protestors remain focused on achieving constitutional and economic reform, rather than the ousting of the regime. The replacement of the head of the General Intelligence Department (GID) in October was a bold statement, underscoring King Abdullah's intent to modernise Jordan's security apparatus and improve transparency. However, the immediate reputation of King Abdullah is dependent on the performance of the new Khasawneh government. This realistically represents the King's last opportunity to demonstrate to the population that he has the capacity to force the government into implementing genuine reforms. Should these not prove forthcoming, the King's standing would be greatly damaged; however, any attempts to oust him are highly unlikely.

In the short term, protests will likely resume following a periodic lull, as the reforms are unlikely to satisfy everyone. That said, this is no bad thing, they will serve to maintain pressure on the administration to continue the reform process, increasing the likelihood of a more comprehensive implementation. Fundamentally, the economic and social challenges facing the Kingdom are too ingrained to be resolved by constitutional reforms and the regime has yet to demonstrate that it has the determination to adequately tackle these issues.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

NOTES

[1] Ranya Kadri and Ethan Bronner, 'Government of Jordan is Dismissed by the King', New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/18/world/middleeast/king-abdullah-ii-of-jordan-fires-his-government.html?ref=middleeast

[2] Randa Habib 'Jordan Islamists: 'nothing new' in king's speech', Middle East Online, http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=46663

[3] Gregg Carlstron, 'Jordan's PM approved controversial casino' Al Jazeera, http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/07/2011724125647625781.html

[4] Jamal Halaby, 'Jordan's Marouf al-Bakhit Resigns, King Appoints New Prime Minister', Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/17/jordan-prime-minister-resigns_n_1015124.html

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