Jordan’s Experiment: Does Top-Down Democratic Reform Work?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Jordan has a new prime minister and a new government. Once again, there is hope that a change in leadership will put this Middle Eastern monarchy back on the right course toward democratic reform. In the Jordanian press, approval of Awn al-Khasawneh’s selection as prime minister has been nearly unanimous. Western observers have also sounded optimistic notes. But, for those who wish to see Jordan develop into something resembling a democracy, King Abdullah’s recent moves—apparently intended to reassure skeptics that democratization is forthcoming—suggest more of the same.

Khasawneh—a former judge on the International Court of Justice—is by all accounts a smart and well-meaning individual. As one former Jordanian minister told me, “Awn is a great guy but a bad manager.” I saw Khasawneh speak at the World Economic Forum on October 22. He was humble, self-deprecating, and won over the crowd. His admission that he didn’t know much about economics managed to be both endearing and somewhat frightening. But the focus on Khasawneh, his skills and his deficiencies, is something of a distraction.

Still, the prime minister can’t be Jordan’s solution because the prime minister isn’t really the problem. The prime minister is appointed by the king—usually with minimal consultation—and serves at his pleasure. He has limited powers and operates within a claustrophobic political structure in which the monarchy, the royal court (with a staff of more than a thousand), and the intelligence services dominate. In a new Brookings paper, my colleague Courtney Freer and I take a closer look at king’s role in the Jordanian politics and what it means for the country’s reform prospects.

The current situation reminds me of 2004 and 2005, when I was living in Jordan. It was a tumultuous time with growing opposition to Prime Minister Faisal al-Fayez’s increasingly repressive measures against professional syndicates and other civil society organizations. Fayez was soon replaced by the academic Adnan Badran, a well-meaning liberal with a reputation for integrity. But Badran, like so many others before him, was only able to tinker around the margins, despite the existence of an ambitious reform blueprint known as the “National Agenda.” The National Agenda was never implemented. The architect of the agenda—then deputy prime minister Marwan Muasher—has suggested that it was those officials around the king, rather than the king himself, who blocked the reform process from going forward.

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