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By Ala’ Alrababa’h (Twitter: @a_alrababah)

Photo: Wikipedia

Fareed Zakaria is an astute political analyst and commentator. I enjoy reading his articles, and watching his GPS show.  If you haven’t watched his Munk debates, especially the one on Iran you should get on it soon.  However, Zakaria’s article in the Washington Post, Arab Spring’s hits and misses, did not live up to his usual standards. In the article, Zakaria ignored essential facts about the transition process in Jordan. In fact, Zakaria’s article reads like some Jordanian government propaganda. It was unsurprising when Al Rai, a state-sponsored newspaper in Jordan, decided to translate and republish the article.

In the article, Zakaria compares the ways Jordan and Egypt have dealt with the Arab Uprisings. Zakaria claims that Egypt chose the wrong path of “democratization before liberalization.”  Jordan, on the other hand, “did not rush to hold elections.”  Instead, it embarked on a slower, yet more orderly transition.  Zakaria also says “Morocco has taken the same route as Jordan.” In the end, he concludes:

The best role models for the region might well be two small monarchies. Jordan and Morocco have gone the opposite route, making measured reforms and liberalizing their existing systems. The monarchies have chosen evolution over revolution. So far, it seems the better course

Zakaria might very well be right in his conclusion.  Jordan and Morocco might transition into true liberal democracies, and Egypt might not.  Nevertheless, Zakaria omitted important facts from his analysis.  Those facts paint a different picture of the transition process in Jordan.

For example, look at the following statements by Zakaria:

Compare the differences between Egypt and Jordan. At the start of the Arab Spring, it appeared that Egypt had responded to the will of its people, had made a clean break with its tyrannical past and was ushering in a new birth of freedom. Jordan, by contrast, responded with a few personnel changes, some promises to study the situation and talk of reform.

Zakaria is right in pointing out that Jordan’s response in the beginning was not as far-reaching as Egypt’s.  However, Jordan’s initial response was more serious than mere talk of reform.  Shortly after protests began, the government formed a National Dialogue Committee (NDC). The Committee recommended the elimination of Jordan’s Single Non-transferable Vote (SNTV) system.  The SNTV has proven unpopular among Jordanians, as it is designed to establish a weak Parliament with limited party representation.  The NDC proposed to replace the law with a modern one based on proportional representation.  Although there were limitations to the new law, it was a vast improvement from the SNTV  (For more on the deficiencies of the SNTV and on the NDC proposal, see here).  Further, in early 2011, the King appointed a committee to revise the constitution.  The committee’s proposals were more than cosmetic.  So Zakaria, is wrong to suggest that Jordan’s early efforts consisted of only personnel changes, some promises and talk of reform.  Although Jordan’s transformation did not seem as extensive as Egypt’s, they were encouraging.

In Jordan, by contrast, the king did not rush to hold elections (and was widely criticized for his deliberate pace). Instead, he appointed a council to propose changes to the constitution. The members consulted many people in Jordan and in the West to determine how to make the country’s political system more democratic and inclusive. A series of important changes were approved in September 2011.

Zakaria is right to say that the committee consulted many experts.  He is also right to state that some changes were approved in 2011.  But Zakaria fails to mention that some of the most important proposals by the council and the commission proposals were not implemented.  The Parliament eventually failed to pass the electoral law proposed by the NDC, and instead kept the SNTV with slight modifications. In addition, according to a Human Rights Watch report, the “Parliament rejected proposed constitutional restrictions on the military-dominated State Security Court’s powers to try civilians.”  Moreover, Jordan has moved towards further restriction of free speech.  In 2012, the parliament moved to censor online news media.  None of those make Jordan a liberal democracy.

But 70 percent of eligible voters registered, and 56 percent turned out at the polls, the highest turnout in the region.

This statement is deceiving.  First, 56% might seem high.  But during the 2010 parliamentary elections 53% turned out at the polls.  This did not make the parliament any good.  In fact, that parliament was one of the least popular ones since Jordan allowed elections in 1989.  So high voter turnout does not correlate with legitimacy.  In addition, using very simple math, one can observe that the actual turnout was not too high after all.  Multiplying the two numbers Zakaria mentions (70% X 56%) results in 39%.  This is the percentage of eligible voters who actually turned out at the polls.  Even the 39 percent is an exaggeration of the number of people represented by members in the parliament.  According to this analysis, more than 81% of Jordan’s population is not truly represented in the current Parliament.

Morocco has taken the same route as Jordan. It enacted constitutional reforms in 2011. In the elections that followed, Morocco’s Islamist Party won 107 of the 395 seats in parliament and formed a government. The head of this government, Abdelilah Benkirane, while a feisty critic of the West, has also spoken firmly about protecting the rights of minorities, explicitly including Jews, who he noted have lived in Morocco for centuries and are an integral part of the country.

This might be the most misleading paragraph in Zakaria’s article.  In terms of the pace of implementing reforms, Morocco was more like Egypt, not Jordan.  The elections in Morocco were held in 2011, before Egypt’s elections.  Jordan’s elections were conducted only recently.  Morocco’s king appointed an elected, Islamist Prime Minister in 2011.  It is still unclear whether Jordanians will have an elected Prime Minister anytime soon.  In addition, despite some minor issues, Morocco’s elections were fair and held under a representative electoral law.  Jordan’s electoral law continues to be problematic.

In 1997, Zakaria published a widely cited article titled: The Rise of Illiberal Democracy.  In the article, Zakaria notes that democracy, measured in elections, may not be always associated with constitutional liberalism.  It seems that Zakaria wanted to use the cases of Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco as further evidence of his thesis.  Some of Zakaria’s predictions might indeed be correct.  Nevertheless, his interpretation of the cases of Jordan, Morocco, and Egypt is flawed, and does not provide evidence for his argument.

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