Civil Society and Public Freedom in Jordan: The Path of Democratic Reform

Sameer Jarrah
Sameer Jarrah Todd G. Patkin Visiting Fellow in Arab Democracy and Development, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

July 7, 2009

Executive Summary

Beginning in the late 1980s, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan instituted a series of economic reforms that have streamlined business start-ups, encouraged foreign investment, and reduced bureaucracy. Despite these reforms to the economic sector, the country has maintained a tight grip on political reforms. Specifically, as the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has increased—doubling since 1989— so too have the restrictions on their activities. As such, while there is a picture of political liberalization in Jordan, NGOs have very little influence in the political sphere. The existence of a large civic sector is therefore a façade that is merely part of the regime’s survival strategy.

Yet, the regime’s measures—passing laws that control civic groups, using state institutions (primarily the security apparatus) to restrict NGO independence, and limiting public freedoms in the name of security—are not the only cause for blame. Many NGOs in Jordan suffer from their own internallygenerated problems, including short sightedness with regard to their goals, lack of strategic planning, weakness of their administrative bodies, and unqualified staff.

The weakness of Jordan’s civil society is closely related to the overall limitation of the political opposition in Jordan. The opposition’s main concerns have been limited to anti-Zionism and challenging the IMF-inspired economic reforms that they believe have had harsh effects on the underprivileged. Formal political opposition, necessary to the democratic process, has never had the opportunity to emerge, and to this day does not present any real challenge to the government.

While civil society groups must conduct internal reforms, the monarchy and the Jordanian government must also realize that opening up the public arena in the kingdom is in everyone’s best interests, and they must take the necessary steps to make this happen. It has become ever more urgent to implement political reform because the government’s adoption of economic policies that lack a popular mandate has caused social tensions. The middle and lower classes are increasingly made to bear burdens through high rates of poverty and unemployment, which is widening the gap between high-income and mid- and low-income populations.

The monarchy, therefore, should work to strengthen civil society by reducing legal and political obstacles. Specifically, the monarchy should:

  • Reject the notion that free political discussion is, in itself, a threat to national security. A gradual opening of political space might help contain a radical fringe of Islamists that has appeared in recent years and has shown no reluctance to use violence. This could result in an enhancement of the Jordanian government’s legitimacy as violent opposition organizations become delegitimized.
  • Pass a new elections law and ensure regular elections. New legislation must be passed that ushers in wider representation of the people, more justice in the distribution of electoral constituencies, and a broader base for political participation.
  • Repeal the Public Assemblies Law and increase press freedom. The Public Assemblies Law constitutes a violation of international human rights conventions to which Jordan has committed itself. In addition, the Press and Publication Law, Number 8 of 1998, which provides only a marginal degree of publication freedom, must also be amended.
  • Establish a constitutional court. The 1991 National Charter calls for establishing such a court to “decide on disputes and challenges pertaining to the constitutionality of laws and decrees which are brought before it by interested parties.” Doing so would lend credibility to the legislative process.

Without such changes, the government will continue to find itself in confrontation with major social groups, whether they are organized into legal associations or not. Without an ability to assemble peacefully and advocate for their needs and priorities, citizens will continually seek to circumvent government restrictions by manipulating the law and operating clandestinely. This is harmful not only to the prospects for true democratic reform, but to Jordan’s overall security and stability.