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Arab Reform’s Slow March

On May 11, 2006, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy held a policy luncheon with Marwan Muasher, a Senator in the Jordanian Parliament and the main architect of Jordan’s domestic reform plan, the National Agenda. Tamara Cofman Wittes, Research Fellow in the Saban Center, chaired the discussion. A former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Muasher provided his thoughts on why the pace of reform in Jordan and elsewhere is so slow, and what recent trends mean for the future of Arab democracy.

Muasher traced the recent debate over political reform in the Arab world, noting that, prior to 2004, there was very little enthusiasm for reform among Arab governments. The 2004 Arab League Summit in Tunis, however, responded to U.S. and other outside pressure for democratization by resolving that the Arab world must produce its own reform platform, rather than accept one from the outside. The result of the Tunis Summit was the Declaration of Principles, endorsed by all the Arab states, which called for wider political participation, freedom of the press, economic reform, women’s empowerment, and judicial reform. This document, while historic, was criticized by many for lacking any sort of implementation or monitoring mechanism. Furthermore, many Arab governments resisted the “one-size-fits-all” approach in favor of more modest goals that they argued better suited local conditions.

Jordan, for its part, took the Declaration of Principles one step further by creating a National Agenda. The document, developed by a 27-member committee through dialogues with hundreds of Jordanian citizens, is a 10-year plan covering eight themes across the fields of political, institutional, economic, educational, and social reform. The Agenda includes measurable indicators for success and clear milestones linked to a clear timetable. Budgetary requirements to implement the Agenda are also integrated into the document, so that resources can be allocated to ensure the Agenda’s enactment. In regard to political reform, the Agenda seeks to engage the government in actively encouraging the growth of political parties, including by changing the electoral system from individual districts to a mix of party lists and districts. The Agenda also recommends an umbrella law to guarantee the constitutional rights of Jordanians by forbidding contrary legislation. It also calls for the abolition of laws that discriminate against women and would update the associational laws to make civil society truly independent.

The National Agenda faces obstacles from status quo forces in Jordan, who see the Agenda as a threat to their privilege and position, and from the cynicism and skepticism of the general public, who question whether the political will exists to implement the plan. In addition, Muasher noted, some in Jordan and elsewhere fear that political reform will enable Islamist forces to rise to power along an Iranian or Hamas model. For this reason, he noted, all political parties will be required to commit to principles of political and cultural diversity and of peaceful means. Muasher argued strongly that continued constraints on political and associational life benefited the Islamists more than political openness would, by denying non-Islamist alternatives the opportunity to organize. An environment of political freedom and government encouragement of party life, he argued, would enable a pluralistic system that would temper the role of the Islamists and preserve democratic practices.

In sum, Muasher believes that the argument both in Jordan and in the region has shifted from whether to reform to one of how to reform, especially how quickly.

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