Jordan’s Fictional Reforms

Foreign Policy

Compared to recent dramatic events — Qaddafi’s demise in Libya, Tunisia’s groundbreaking elections, the Coptic killings in Egypt — Jordan’s latest cabinet shuffle barely registered as a news blip. Indeed, King Abdullah’s dismissal of wildly unpopular Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit had been expected as early as this summer. Still, many analysts greeted new Premier Awn Khasawneh with hope and anticipation. In a country that has simmered with growing unrest, the appointment of a new government explicitly charged with rejuvenating a moribund political reform process may represent a decisive royal concession. As opposition protests enter their eleventh month, perhaps the monarchy has realized that democratization can wait no longer.

Such an appraisal is admirably optimistic, but it is a convenient fiction produced for Western consumption. Scryers of Jordan must look beyond any given cabinet to understand that although the Hashemite palace trumpets the cause of democracy, its goal during the Arab Spring has been to preserve autocratic supremacy. A transition to constitutional monarchy exists more as fantasy in the minds of liberals than a goal supported by the palace. Yet that is the logical endgame of Jordanian democratization: a near-absolute monarchy devolving power to a fairly elected parliament, alongside a General Intelligence Directorate that no longer interferes in public life.

Despite the heroic assumptions of reformists expecting progress toward such transformation, Khasawneh’s new government is designed to fail. Why? It is not simply that Khasawneh’s task is Herculean. (Starting off by promising no more rigged elections, given that every past election was declared free and fair, does not inspire much confidence.) Rather, in Jordan cabinet changes are signals rather than causes of major policy shifts. While prime ministers have always been executors of royal imperatives, since the political opening of 1989 they have become part of a new system of cyclical management. Premiers are appointed with impossible jobs because they are expected to stumble — and popular cabinets do not get sacked. When their inability to deliver generates an inevitable crisis of public confidence, the king ritualistically intervenes.

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