Too little, too late?

Too little, too late?
During a monthly meeting of Amman Tech Tuesdays, a gathering of tech-savvy Jordanian youth, the country’s prime minister, Samir Rifai, promised “fair and representative elections” in November. However, when he asked members of the group whether any of them had voted before, only a few of the 300 attendees raised their hands. When asked whether they intended to vote in the November elections, even fewer raised their hands.

Such apparent disinterest represents a challenge for the young Jordanian prime minister who borrowed a British saying to try to convince his audience of the importance of casting their votes. “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” he said.

However, Jordan’s politicians will need to do more than produce slogans if they are to counter the apathy that is finding an increasing stronghold among the country’s young people and elsewhere.

The technocrat prime minister has other problems to contend with before November’s elections. His government is battling with the country’s teachers and their demands for a professional association, and a new temporary law has angered Jordan’s Bar Association which claims that it undermines the independence of the judiciary.

Looking for a solution to these problems, Rifai last week restructured the government, replacing controversial ministers with respected figures such as the powerful public speaker Khaled Karaki, who came in as minister of education, and the charismatic Ali Al-Ayed, who came in as information minister.

Rifai also replaced the agriculture minister who was recently implicated in an embezzlement case along with the tourism, justice and labour ministers. However, Rifai’s decision to reshuffle his cabinet may be a case of too little, too late, according to analysts, and in any case it is an attempt to blame the government’s present problems on the mistakes of individuals.

Outgoing minister of education Ibrahim Badran made what have been described as inappropriate comments about the country’s 150,000 teachers when, in response to protests from teachers wanting their own professional association, he said that they would be better off improving their “grooming and personal hygiene.”

According to analyst Mohamed Abu Rumman, the reshuffle is an attempt by the government to regain public confidence as a result. “The government desperately needs to free itself from the backlash caused by the misjudgment of the education minister on the teachers’ issue,” he said.

It could also lift some of the pressure on the government over the performance of previous ministers, especially if the new team manages to reduce tensions before November’s elections, already high because of a steep rise in taxes.

Earlier, the government had said that it had no choice but to raise taxes on items such as alcohol, tobacco, coffee and petrol if it was to rein in exploding public expenditure.

Yet, for respected writer Taher Adwan last week’s reshuffle will still be cosmetic if the government does not address previously controversial decisions, such as sacking teachers, firing agricultural workers and putting limitations on the media.

“I do not think the government will back away from its previous decisions. I do not expect it to cancel the temporary law on the independence of the judiciary, for example, since it is evident that such decisions were taken collectively and not by individual ministers,” Adwan said.

“However, the reshuffle may be an opportunity for the government to review its relationship with various sectors, including the media, teachers, judges, lawyers and agricultural workers, and to replace confrontation with openness.”

“It needs to do this if it is to contain accumulated public anger and stop the cycle of escalation. The government needs to find a basis for dialogue, not only in order to create social harmony on the eve of the elections but also in order to undo its mistakes.”

Nevertheless, the reshuffle does not seem to have been enough to assure the prime minister of a quieter political landscape ahead of the elections.

The country’s Islamist movement, for example, has opened a new front by announcing its intention to boycott the elections, claiming that the government had not given sufficient assurances of impartiality or of keeping the “one- man one-vote” formula enshrined in the recent temporary elections law.

The Shura Council of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s largest and most influential opposition party, voted in favour of a boycott, with IAF official Hammam Said telling the news agency AFP that “the government has failed to provide sufficient guarantees to make sure the polls will be fair and transparent.”

“There will be no independent body to monitor the elections, and we are not optimistic that the government will carry out reforms and manage the process properly,” he added.

The IAF’s decision came as a surprise to many observers, who believe that the decision will undermine the movement’s influence over voters, especially after a similar decision in 1997 resulted in the weaker representation of the Islamists on Jordan’s political scene.

Many commentators believe that the boycott decision mirrors the movement’s internal divisions, it having been weakened by internal differences and a struggle for power between movement doves and hawks.

The decision is all the more surprising in that, despite their announced discontent with the elections law, which increased the number of seats in the Jordanian parliament from 110 to 120 and doubled the women’s quota from six to 12, allegedly aiming at weakening the Islamists’ position in cities having a high number of Jordanians of Palestinian origins, the Islamists in June said they would participate in the elections.

Earlier, Jamil Abu Bakr, spokesman for the Brotherhood, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the movement would “not be deterred and would still participate in the fall elections.”

For its part, the government has been quick to criticise the Islamists’ decision, spokesperson Samih Maaita describing it as “a step backwards.”

Political analyst Mohamed Mbaideen agreed, saying that “if the Muslim Brotherhood [does not participate in the elections], they will need to do a lot to make up for their absence, which is obviously testimony to the depth of their divisions.”

However, analyst Fahed Khitan took a different view, contending that the Brotherhood’s decision would strengthen “political rejectionism” in Jordan, especially if the Brotherhood has sensed that political parties, as well as teachers and students, are also leaning towards a boycott.

“Stubbornness does not help in such situations, and ignorant arguments and unsubstantiated allegations will only exacerbate the impasse. As a result, we will go into the elections, government and society, exhausted and divided, and in such an atmosphere it is difficult to predict the composition of a representative body that will be able to meet ambitions and respond to the challenges of the next political era,” he wrote.

Analysts say that Rifai’s government will have to adopt a different approach to the country’s political parties, media and society, if it wants to fulfill its pledges of an improved political atmosphere.

However, events are not helping, and the government has found itself faced with developments that make its job harder.

The influence of Hamas in the country is well documented, taking it towards political caution. There are also certain external pressures, with a rocket hitting the port city of Aqaba last week resulting in one death and many injuries.

While the Jordanian government has not announced where the rocket came from, saying only that it was fired from outside the country, investigation of a previous incident a couple of months ago has still not given rise to any official statement, and the public has remained in the dark as to the source and motive of such attacks.

Egypt has denied that the rockets were launched from Sinai, “impossible”, an Egyptian security official told AFP, because of the heavy security presence in the peninsula.

“We have a heavy security presence in Sinai, particularly along the Egyptian-Israeli border. No suspicious activity has been reported anywhere in Sinai,” the official said.

However, the news agency also quoted a Jordanian official as saying that “we can now say without hesitation that the rocket was launched from Sinai.”

According to Khitan, despite the accumulating problems, the Jordanian government could still ease its task if it were to be less distant and unapproachable.

“Dialogue is not something that should be seen as a concession by the government. The attitude of superiority that has ruled government behaviour in previous crises should be got rid of, as it brings more problems than solutions,” he said.