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Thursday, March 3, 2011

In Jordan, Some Regret a Missed Opportunity


In Jordan, Some Regret a Missed Opportunity

NY Times

March 2, 2011
AMMAN — Two weeks ago, Manal, 27, dressed in a black robe, walked slowly in a crowd of several hundred demonstrators — mostly men — carrying children, waving Jordanian flags or holding up homemade protest signs near the prime minister’s office.
This was her first public protest, said Manal, who declined to give her last name for fear of angering conservative members of her family. “I’m here to demand reforms,” she said. “I’m here to say enough. Enough corruption. Enough with the high prices. Enough of being silent.”
In the past month, the government has offered various promises and initiatives to stem the wave of popular discontent sweeping the country and the region, but the impact of these gestures has been blunted by the fact that a comprehensive 10-year National Agenda for reform has existed, in theory, since 2006.
The agenda includes strategies and initiatives for social, economic and political development. It also calls for the evaluation and monitoring of progress.
“Under this plan, Jordanian laws were to change in ways that would open up elections, improve freedom of the press and reduce bias against women — in other words, creating meritocracies,” wrote Marwan Muasher, a former deputy prime minister, who led the introduction of the 10-year plan.
Many intellectuals, former politicians and ordinary citizens say that if the National Agenda had been carried out — with changes in the electoral laws, more civil rights and better economic policies — in the past five years, Jordan would not be faced with the difficult challenges of today.
“We have been speaking about this National Agenda and reform for so long,” said Audeh Quawas, a former member of Parliament. “We heard about several political reforms — but the truth is we were going backwards, including in terms of civil rights.”
Amid continuing protests across the region, several thousand demonstrators took to the streets of Jordan this week to press for real political, judicial and economic change. Newspapers, too, have been campaigning for comprehensive, rapid political change. A cartoon published in Al Ghad, an independent newspaper, featured a map of Jordan covered with protest banners.
Jordanians on Twitter have created a “ReformJO” hashtag, a 140-character platform in which they spill their thoughts on how their country should move forward. Facebook pages like “What the Jordanian People Want” have been created. Journalists at the government-owned newspaper Al Rai staged their first protest ever, demanding higher salaries and more press freedom. A journalist standing in front of the newspaper building carried a placard that read: “You have suffocated us.”
Reacting to the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, King Abdullah II has tried to head off anger by siding with the demonstrators.
“When I say reform, I want real and quick reform, because without genuine reforms, the situation will remain as it was,” the king said in a speech to the heads and members of the executive, legislative and judicial authorities.
After the announcement of subsidies for fuel and basic goods and pay increases for civil servants and security personnel failed to restore calm, Abdullah last month dismissed the government of Prime Minister Samir Rifai.
“The king realized that it’s time to make major changes,” said Hani al-Hourani, an analyst and director at al-Urdun al-Jadid Research Center, a political science institute. “I hope that these changes will be implemented and the government that is chosen is sensitive to the needs of the people.”
Steps by the government in recent weeks have included scrapping an article in the Public Assembly Law that required government consent to hold rallies and protests. But final approval is still pending in Parliament.
“We have a crisis and the people of Jordan will continue protesting because obviously policies have failed in the past,” said Mohammed Sweidan, the managing editor of Al Ghad. “I am not confident this new government has the political will for serious reform because they are saying it can take three or six months. There is no need to wait that long to start the implementation process.”
School teachers in Jordan had started protesting even before the Tunisian uprising, calling for better working conditions and higher salaries. This week they demanded fundamental changes in the education system and announced plans to form a union.
“Prior to the regional uprisings, there were demands issued by political parties, unions and even from teachers in Jordan, but today the statements are bolder than ever,” said Hussein al-Khozahe, a sociologist and expert in developmental studies at al-Balqa Applied University in Amman.
This week a group of university professors, including Towfic Shomar, an associate professor at Philadelphia University in Amman, opened a campaign for a university teachers’ union.
“We think this is a very good time to establish a union because of the democratic changes in the region and we hope to have the union established in the next two or three months,” Mr. Shomar said.
The government has, meanwhile, set up a committee to overhaul the electoral system, a persistent demand by demonstrators and the public. Hamzah Mansur, chief of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, told protesters last week: “We want immediate constitutional change to help create productive governments and a truly representative Parliament.”
Some long-running grievances are also being addressed. A national housing initiative, Decent Housing for a Decent Living, introduced by Abdullah in February 2008 to build homes for poor Jordanians, has been referred to the government’s anti-corruption unit after repeated allegations of favoritism and nepotism.
“I believe corruption is a big challenge for Jordan,” Mr. Hourani said. “When there are laws and nongovernmental organizations fighting corruption, yet it increases, it means there needs to be a real political will, real democracy, real Parliament, a robust media that has enough strength to fight without fear.”
For a younger generation reared on the Internet and satellite television, “it’s no longer about the political will, but when,” said Mr. Khozahe, the sociologist. “You can’t silence them and you can’t beat them into submission. They see the region, they see the world and there’s no turning back this time.” 

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/03/world/middleeast/03iht-m03-jordan.html?_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss

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