JORDAN – Democratic transition in Jordan


If you go to prison in Egypt, you disappear. In Syria, you get tortured. In Jordan, they’ll ask you questions.

This saying in the Middle-East carries with it some exaggerations, especially for the last country. The picture isn’t as rosy in the Jordanian penal system as it seems, highlighted by the 2006 Human Right Watch’s report, stating that “Jordan should end routine and widespread torture in its prisons”.

Although the Jordanian penal system has its flaws, the state of human rights and democracy has gone through improvements during the last decades compared to most Arab countries. King Hussein’s extensive political reforms in 1989 introduced a mostly free and fair election process to the lower house. It was accompanied with a degree of freedom of press, and economic reforms to better suit the globalised world order. These pro-democracy initiatives came a couple of months after an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bail-out and the protests against it.

The sincerity of political liberalisation has been questioned ever since. The King back-tracked on these reforms already in 1993, by drawing up new electoral district boundaries to curb Palestinian and Islamist influence and pressured newly established independent newspapers, which led to the closure of some.

Since his son, King Abdallah II, inherited power in 1999 the question has remained: will Jordan further its democratic project, or will it continue to stall?

The classification of Jordan as a pseudo- or hybrid-democracy has become widespread by observers from the outside. The election process, legalisation of party movements accompanied by a relatively free press suggests that Jordan is a bright spot in the region. The discourse of the current King also gives an appearance that the country is on the road to political liberalisation. A closer look into party politics, election procedures, freedom of speech and the power of the King is necessary to understand the state of democracy in Jordan.

Party politics

Political parties in Jordan became legal in 1989 after a thirty-year prohibition during the martial law. They were able to run for parliamentary elections for the first time in 1993. The most powerful party is the Islamic Action Front (IAF) which is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The Islamist grouping’s roots date back to the Hashemite monarchy itself, and is the largest and best organised political opposition in the country. However, the government refused to renew the Muslim Brotherhood’s license in the wake of the 2016 September parliamentary elections. This essentially outlawed the functioning of the MB’s main decision-making body, the Shura Council. Even so, the IAF was still able to operate, but has suffered from a fair share of internal tensions originating from its parent organisation and the fall of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt.

In the 2016 September election, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing decided to ally itself with Christian, tribal and nationalist figures, and setting aside their differences about religion. The end result was remarkably weak. The alliance called National Coalition for Reform (NCR) gained only 15 seats in the lower house, which is equal to 11,5%. Even with this modest result, the NCR is the most powerful opposition bloc in the lower house. Less than a quarter of the members of the parliament belong to political parties, while the vast majority are tribal chiefs and clan leaders, many of whom have historically been loyal to the monarchy.

The already feebly represented opposition in the lower-house have within it divided parties who aren’t getting noticed either. According to a study from a Jordanian NGO, only 30% stated that they have some knowledge of the existing parties. However, the voting turnout in the 2016 September elections was of 37%, which is attributed to most votes having been cast in favour of tribal leaders and influential businessmen. The end result was a lower house where members affiliated to a party are in a minority. The majority of the voters have more confidence in influential people hailing from their own provinces, because they see them as more capable to represent their political and economic interests. Historically, support for the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan hails from the rural region, where tribal identity is still important. Satisfying and empowering them is key for the survival of the regime. Opposition to the regime comes from the urban region, which has a Palestinian majority, and where the Muslim Brotherhood is strongest.

King Hussein assured that tribes and clans remain more powerful than political parties. The result of the first election after the end of the martial law in 1989 brought an important representation for MB members in the parliament. To weaken them, the government reformed the system in 1993 just months before the general election. The electoral districts were re-drawn, to be in favour of the rural and tribe-based parts of the country. Jordan has seen demonstrations against the electoral district boundaries, but they’ve remained intact ever since. In 1993 a “one man, one vote” system was also introduced, while during the 1989 elections, the electorate could vote for multiple candidates. While the district part of the amendment empowered the representation for the rurality in the lower-house, the second part gave incentives for candidates to run independently highlighting their affiliation to their tribe. Since the voters could only cast their ballots once, they have rather chosen a non-partisan candidate.

During the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests, it seemed that King Abdullah II would further the democratic process to meet some of the demonstrators demands. Apart from the right for the Parliament to nominate the Prime Minister, another important reform was passed. The “one man, one vote” was abandoned, and the 2012 election law made it possible for voters to cast their ballots twice: one vote for a nationwide party list, while the other for a candidate in the local electoral districts.

The government has changed the electoral law before every election, and this is the most notable reform undertaken since 1993. This electoral procedure is closer to the one in 1989, and the stated goal of the 2012 reforms was to empower parties, instead of tribal leaders. However, The Muslim Brotherhood remained unsatisfied, and boycotted the 2013 elections. They returned in 2016 when a new electoral law was drawn up, which they thought would facilitate party participation in the elections. The most recent procedure involved a district based system, where the ballotters first voted for a list in the district, and then for a candidate in that list. As consequence, people in the same list were competing among each other, as not every candidate would make it to the lower-house.

In spite of these (complicated) reforms, the 2016 election saw an all-time low voter turnout, which reached only 37%. The representation of political parties in the lower-house has also continued to diminish, and the vast majority of members of parliament have been independent. Some members of the organised opposition ridicule the lower-house as simply being a glorified tribal assembly. The opposition itself is divided between left, right, and nationalist currents, and in 2015, after 70 years of unity, the MB in Jordan split into two distinct groups: one which remained allied to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the splinter movement cut its regional ties and presented itself as a nationalist Islamist group. A powerful legitimate political opposition has thus far not materialized in Jordan and their division is beneficiary and probably facilitated by the Monarchy.

In interviews, regime officials often describe parties as inept for the country’s democratisation, which they say has to be managed by Abdullah II. Neither does the ruler take much responsibility for the failed process. He has called the Muslim Brotherhood a “masonic cult”, and blamed the secret service (Mukhabarat) for sabotaging his own efforts. However, as the most powerful person in the country, the King has total control of the armed forces and could interfere to further the democratic process.

The power of the King

Abdullah II has, on paper, less power than the majority of Arab rulers.

But key domains remain under the King’s control. Legislation in Jordan must pass with both chambers of parliament: the lower house (House of Representatives) and the upper house (the Senate). Members of Parliament in the lower house are elected by the population, but organised opposition is weak for the reasons cited before. If legislation passes in the lower house, it moves up to the Senate, where each of the 65 members are appointed by the King. Legislation is put forward by the Prime Minister, who since 2012 is nominated by the parliament, but is appointed and dismissed by Abdullah II.

Since the King’s inauguration in 1999 the Prime Ministry has changed hands eleven times, which means on average every one and a half years. Both native Jordanians, and loyal Palestinian Jordanians are granted the position to please both spectrums of the population. In the lower-house, there is an overrepresentation in quotas for minorities who usually tend to support the Hashemites, such as Christians (9 seats out of 130), Chechens and Circassians (3 seats). So far, all PMs have had Islam as their religion. Out of the ten different Prime Ministers, nine have been educated partially in the United States (as has the King) or in the United Kingdom. Loyalty to the Monarch is the most important factor for the Prime Ministry. This is highlighted by the ascendance of Sameer al-Rifai to the Prime Ministry in 2009, whose father was also Prime Minister under King Hussein’s rule.

Many of the departed Prime Ministers continue to occupy key positions in cabinets or in the Royal Hashemite Court which acts as a link between the government and the King. In Jordan, as in any pseudo-democracy or dictatorship, it is also the government which receives most of the blame at times of hardship, and not the King. Like in Morocco, the opposition understands that insulting the King comes with repercussions. As the Monarch has the power to dissolve the Parliament, he can pretend to please those who demonstrate, and gain time for reforms to have an effect. During the Arab Spring protests in 2011-2012 four different Prime Ministers took office in less than two years, and the governments were blamed for the problems both by Abdullah II and by the demonstrators.

Insulting the King or another foreign leader is punishable by the law. The former is more or less widespread in the region; however, the latter shows how important it is for Jordan to be in good terms with its neighbours, even at the expense of freedom of speech and by punishing its own citizens. As a consequence, journalists must engage in careful self-censorship to continue their work. In 2013, two writers were given prison-sentences for posting a video of the brother of Qatar’s emir laughing, dancing and chatting with women. The journalists received four months of jail time for disturbing Jordan’s relationship with a foreign state.

Similar was the case with the arrest of the Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader Zaki Bani Arshid in 2014, because he wrote an article criticizing the United Arab Emirate after they included the MB in a terrorist list. The Jordanian government, instead of opting to protect its already fragile political party, chose to imprison one of its leaders. The absurdity of the way in which the Jordanian elite operates, paves the way for the continuation of the status quo where democracy cannot evolve. For this elite, financial grants by neighbouring states (the United Arab Emirates set up a $5 billion fund in 2011 for Jordan) are more valuable. And the freedom of political speech has literally been expensive.

Until mid-2012, the fees for radio- and television-stations, which wanted to air political programmes, were 50% higher than fees for entertainment outlets. This regulation has since been withdrawn, but most privately-owned outlets still air entertainment. Furthermore, every station still has to go through government bureaucracy to go on air, and can be rejected without giving a reason. There are other technical and financial barriers targeting certain radio stations. Thus far, the fees for them have only been waived for stations based in universities, a government- and police-owned station, and a Christian station called Amen FM. Moreover, the latter also has free access to government antennas, which cover the entire country, while no private outlets have been given the same possibility.

Certain websites have also been put to the test, and in 2013 the Jordanian Press and Publications Department closed down 250 news-related sites. All of them have to be managed by a member of the Jordanian Press Association, an agency, which every journalist needs to be a member of to work legally. Membership rejection can happen if someone is too critical towards the government, or worked for a foreign news agency, which the regime does not approve of.

Jordan has done remarkably well to be spared of the problems its neighbours have suffered of during the last decade, such as Syria, Egypt, Israel and Iraq. On its southern border, Saudi-Arabia has the ability to buy off its citizens through petro-dollars and extensive subsidies, while that isn’t the case for Amman. The majority of Jordanians remain poor and there is little hope for substantial economic growth in the future and a new IMF bail-out is a possibility.

Taking some, giving some

In April 2016 further power was granted to the King, which weakened the cabinet and the Prime Minister. Among others, it gave Abdullah II the possibility to appoint the heads of various military and police units and the members of the constitutional court, which before was based on the recommendation of the Prime Minister’s cabinet.

The laws that legitimised the amendments, were passed within two weeks by both the lower- and upper-house, and there was essentially no public or parliamentary debate on the constitutional changes. Former Prime Minister Taher al-Masri said that the laws were necessary as they are “distancing military and security institutions from political gravitations”. The same could be said for the composition of the nation’s most important court, but these acts bring Jordan closer towards an absolute monarchy, than a liberal democracy. Reacting to the constitutional amendments, Faisal al-Fayez, the speaker of the Senate (who is appointed by the King), said that the changes will be in line with the successful experience in Morocco, while leaving out the fact that in Morocco there was a referendum beforehand.

Article 30 of the constitution remained, which states that the King “is immune from any liability and responsibility”. So, even though Abdullah II has the ability to appoint important state members, his actions can’t be questioned, and criticizing him is illegal. The government will be held accountable for the actions of its appointees. The 37% turnout at the parliamentary election, which followed five months afterwards, showcased how much faith the population had in the democratic process.

In Jordan, the King’s power won’t be challenged until the instability of the region remains. The Jordanian Armed Forces have been involved in the Syrian arena, first by providing arms to the southern Syrian rebels, then training to a group called “New Syrian Army” (NSyA). The Royal Jordanian Air force has also struck regularly inside the country. The King is the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and implicating the country in such a volatile arena has come with repercussions at home as well. The Islamic State regularly threatens the Kingdom’s elite, and has also launched successful attacks. On 2016 November 6th, three US military servicemen were killed while trying to enter a Jordanian army training camp in an “inside-job” when a guard opened fire.  A month later ten people were killed, when IS fighters attacked tourists and a police station in al-Karak.

An estimated 420 Jordanians have been killed in the Syrian civil war, and approximately 2.000 Jordanian nationals have joined the Islamic State. The quick fall into chaos in neighbouring Syria is perceived as a sign to Jordanians, of what instability can lead to. The latter can be brought by Islamist fundamentalists and also by democratisation, which during transition can shake up the political makeup of the country. However, what is missing from this equation is that the revolts in Arab countries have also taken place because of the dictatorships the populations have suffered from for decades.

It is easy for King Abdullah II to point to what is happening in neighbouring countries to justify stalling and reversing the democratic process, but there were no substantial reforms even during times of peace. Political parties remain inept and are today weaker than ever since their legalisation, but at least they are not boycotting the elections as was the case in the past decade. The King’s relationship with the population is constantly changing, he sometimes grants them more freedom, and at other times taking some away. In the end, both chambers of parliament have remained decisively pro-monarchy. The 2016 constitutional changes were passed on the first vote, even though it limited their own power in the game of checks and balances.


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Even so, Jordan has more democratic tendencies than the various Arab dictatorships. There are free and fair elections, and it can even be said that the United States is manipulating its electoral districts. Journalist can be jailed, but cases for that are rare, and happen according to the rule of law. While there are reports of torture in prisons, guards have been arrested when it became public, and not when convicts have died, like in Egypt.

Protesting is legal, and the Arab Spring went by with far less brutality than in other countries in the region. Jordan is still far away from having a clear separation of power within its system, and the country is not moving closer to it, but has the means of reaching it.



About Author

Noel Daniel Vig

Political Scientist-Editorial Secretary / Secrétaire de Rédaction

1 Comment

  1. Emad Salem on

    This type of pseudo-democracy is much worse than Dictatorship on the long the run . since with dictatorship you very well know the enemy while with this many people live in the illusion of being free which hinders the efforts of the enlightened and prolongs the oppression.

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