Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 October 2011
Issue No. 1069
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Extreme circumstances

Oula Farawati looks at the sudden change of top management in Jordan

Fighting tooth and nail for stability internally and externally, the Kingdom of Jordan is at a crossroad. A series of economic, political and social events has put the country on the brink: either work hard to pull back towards sustained development, or fall into the unknown.

The desert kingdom has weathered many attacks to its stability and sovereignty with commended wit. From consecutive influxes of refugees to wars on different fronts, Jordan seemed to be doing OK, using a combination of smart control internally to impeccable relations externally to help it sustain a healthy status.

Recently however, the same tactics proved futile. The international financial crisis and the ensuing credit crunch, an obdurate right-wing Israeli government and the Arab Spring dictated that a new charter for a new course has become imperative.

Outgoing Prime Minister Maarouf Al-Bakhit led a forlorn hope to revive the political atmosphere in the country after his predecessor Samir Rifai was said to have weakened it. But Bakhit's band left many casualties and the glory he expected from leading the brigade turned into an almost unanimous call for the army man to be discharged of duty.

Jordanians had given up on their hopes for change; a series of changes of heads of government only bred more pessimism. However, the appointment of respected international jurist Awn Khasawneh changed the mode from total glumness and dejection into hope and buoyancy. The usually acrimonious editor of Al-Ghad Fouad Abu Hijleh surprisingly asked Jordanians to "just breathe" in a column following the appointment of Khasawneh."

Despite the government's attempt to minimise the impact of crises, wrong policies drove us to the edge. Issues escalated and still threaten the security of our street on every Friday and in every gathering," he wrote. The government and the authorities underestimated the issues leading to widespread tension, and more dangerously, Abu Hijleh wrote, to a take over of "the street" by political mobs, who sensed the government weakness. "But now let's just breathe deep and give the new prime minister a chance, his record speaks for him."

Since the eruption of liberation revolutions across the Arab World, and small peaceful demonstrations around the kingdom, the authorities in Jordan were yo-yoing between total permissiveness and forbearing and intolerance. The message to protesting Jordanians demanding reform was not clear. The result was loss of the "state's respected status" and even blood and violence .

Economic policies were also in shambles. The policy was not clear and the government was once again lost between forging ahead with its bone-breaking IMF-backed austerity policies, or appeasing increasingly disgruntled people, making ends meet by sweat, blood and tears.

Where did Bakhit specifically go wrong? Many places: from firing top economist Faris Sharaf from the helm of the Central Bank through a "murky operation" using failing PR tactics, to turning a blind eye to corruption letting convicted felon Khaled Shahin flee the country, Bakhit was digging his newly won political grave.

But the straw that cut the camel's back was the state of chaos the country was racing towards. Not only weekly Friday protests were becoming more violent, more vocal, and "pierced the ceiling", but also tribal tensions were rising ahead of municipal elections. The authorities gave a message of lack of control so much that some "groups", unhappy with the elections, blocked artery streets to voice their demands. Suddenly, the state of things went back hundreds of years, when the only way to demand a legitimate or illegitimate request became the street.

Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures, and for that King Abdullah made sweeping changes in top posts in the country. Not only was Bakhit fired, but also the head of the General Intelligence Department was dismissed in a move that can only be interpreted as indicating that the King was unhappy with both policy and security officials.

The new prime minister, Khasawneh, served as former chief of the royal court and a legal advisor to Jordan's team that negotiated the peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Most importantly, the new head of government is known for not having "enemies", and is expected to avoid domestic rivalries, unlike some of his predecessors.

Jordanian lawyer and active tweep Tayseer Kloub wrote a letter Khasawneh on the citizen journalism website 7iber. He, above all, asked the PM-designate to rule with justice, and defend his post by appointing a team not based on any tribe or influential group, but on merit, track record and devotion to country.

Prime ministers come and go frequently in Jordan As usual, the new prime minister is promising genuine and immediately-felt change. Khasawneh, who is rumored to have turned down the post several times in the past, is surprisingly vocal about his mandate, saying no other authority will intervene in his work. In an interview with BBC Radio, he explicitly said that the General Intelligence Department will not intrude in his affairs although he was quick to point out that his relationship with the top security authority in the country will "not be confrontational".

He also said he was "happy to include Islamists", the biggest opposition group, in his government. "We desire to end the tension in the country and to restore trust between the government and the people." He added: "I stress that we have a sincere desire and will to end the tension. We intend to remove the tension, because countries should be built based on fairness, justice and equity, whether there was an Arab Spring or not."

He said: "In addition to this, I promise that the government must reach out to all components of the political spectrum in the country, in order to help all bear the responsibility at this stage of the country's history and the history of our nation and the region."

The prospects for Khasawneh are filled with hope. His appointment however comes at crunch time, for Jordanians don't seem to be willing "to like it or lump it" anymore. If no real measures are taken, the entire country will be living in some interesting times.

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