Saturday, January 28, 2006

National agenda published

The NA is finally published on line. There is no place to provide feedback, as was promised initially. So, I will have to make do with making my comments in the blogosphere (as if I had any intention to do otherwise).

It has been over two months since it was delivered to the king, and a lot has happened since then. In Arabic, we say (zay illiy rayeh a'al Hajj wil nas mrawha ), meaning, "Like the person going to the Hajj while everybody is going home (after the Hajj)". Basically, it is too late, and I am not even sure that it is relevant to talk about the NA any more.

Yesterday, Marwan Muasher spoke about the document, and stressed that the ill-conceived income tax law had nothing to do with the NA, and that the NAC stressed the unconstitutional nature of temporary laws that don't meet the guidelines for issuing them. I find it hard to believe this. How can the head of the NAC have this conviction, and at the same time be the deputy prime minister for a cabinet that does the exact opposite? Fahed Fanek wrote that the rejection of the income tax law was a blow to the NA. Of course, I don't blame Muasher for trying to weasel out of his responsibility, as hard a task as that might be. I think that what happened is a good lesson that any reform effort will have to follow the existing constitutional framework. It is a hard but worthwhile lesson.

Having said all of that, I still think that the NA deserves a hearing. A lot of work went into it, and I will try to give some input, just in case anybody cares what I think.

I will be off line for the next week or so. I will have more later, God willing.

Being tagged

Ala'a Ibrahim was nice enough to ask me about myself. So, as not to give the impression that I am a completely anti-social cretin, I have decided to answer here (with the help of my lovely wife). I hope that is not considered cheating.

Five things about me (as described by my wife, after we had a fight)

  • Geek
  • Blunt and sarcastic
  • Stubborn in my own way
  • Kind and good hearted
  • Pasta lover

Three things I like about others

  • Hard working
  • Sense of humor
  • Sincerity

Three things that I hate about others

  • Lying
  • Blaming others for their mistakes
  • Religion for show

Who do I tag?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hamas' win: Implications for Jordan

Well, it looks like we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the Palestinian issue. Hamas seems to have won the majority of seats in the Palestinian legislative council. How will this reflect on Jordan? This is not a simple question, to say the least. We can start with what we know now, and build a thesis based on that.

1- Despite some statements to the contrary, the general mood within the Hamas movement is against negotiations with Israel. If Hamas were to agree to negotiations, they will make maximalist demands.
2- Israel has little tendency to deal with Hamas, given its "terrorist" background. The US and Europe have similar attitudes. Any negotiations with a Hamas dominated PA will be on the condition that arms are taken away from the various militias. This demand was not and could not have been met in the past, precisely because Hamas would not agree to it. In the remote chance that Hamas agrees to this, other factions and even individual Hamas members would not. The whole issue is a non-starter.
3- The promise to eradicate corruption is easier said than done. Attempts to degrade the economic and social base of Fateh will lead to friction and possibly conflict between the two armed groups.
4- The promise to impose Sharia may or may not be feasible. It is probably the only promise that Hamas will be able to keep, and will probably cause the greatest resentment among the largely secular Palestinian population (people didn't vote for Hamas for this reason, but for a combination of other factors).
5- International aid to the PA will probably drop. The economic situation in the PA is already dire, with 50% unemployment and a per capita income of 600 dollars. The economic situation is unlikely to get any better.

So, within the next six months to a year, the security situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis will stay the same, and the possibility of conflict between the various Palestinian factions will grow. In the mean time, the Israelis will continue to build their separation wall, so that they will isolate themselves from the mess going on on the other side.

Thus the situation will be that of increasing hardships and more radicalization and polarization. In effect, two scenarios can materialize. The best case scenario is that things will stay as they are, and the Palestinians will accommodate each other, either by Hamas taking a more moderate stand in its administrative and social agenda (which would risk alienation of their base) or by the Fateh and the secular Palestinians accepting whatever Hamas dishes out. The worse case scenario is that armed conflict will break out between the various factions. In either case, it is difficult to imagine the peace process with Israel moving forward.

How will this effect Jordan? This might be even more difficult to analyze. There are internal and external politics involved. The following questions arise:
1- Will the Hamas win strengthen the Islamic movement in Jordan? Certainly, the Islamists in Jordan are elated. However, the political dynamics in Jordan are very different from those in Palestine. The idea that "Islamism is spreading" across the region is an oversimplification. Each country has its own history and its own ghosts that it needs to deal with. In Jordan, the Islamists base is stable if not diminishing. If anything, Hamas' win in Palestine might cause alarm more than sympathy. In the case of failure of the Palestinian experiment, it would definitely weaken the Islamist movement in Jordan.
2- What will increased hardship in Palestine mean for Jordan? There will be increased pressure to allow movement of people to Jordan. Most likely, only the wealthy will be allowed in, but pressure will increase to allow people to cross over for humanitarian reasons.
3- What would armed conflict and the disintegration of the PA mean for Jordan? Possibly international demands to Jordan to intervene in the West Bank, and, in a very extreme scenario, take over. This possibility never seems to go away, despite our best efforts.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Teaching the Brits how to run a jail

The security advisor to the British government met today with the assistant to the head of public security in Jordan. According to Petra, they discussed security cooperation between the two countries in the field of training, and the Jordanian official "acquainted [the guest] on the Jordanian experience in the field of corrections and rehabilitation".

I would like to comment, but I'm laughing too hard.

Are we ready for freedom of speech?

The provocative proposal by the Bakhit government to establish a "freedom square" in Amman has mostly been met with scorn. Shaker Nabulsi writes in Elaph that the whole idea is a joke, that the idea of democracy in Jordan is a joke and that the government should work towards freeing other aspects of journalism in the country. He questions whether issues such as the changing of the constitution or accusing high officials of wrongdoing or corruption would be allowed in such a square.

Firas questions whether society is ready to deal with unorthodox ideas such as questioning the existence of God or having somebody claim that he is a prophet. He believes that such a square would become a focal point for Islamic militants, beggars and people recently released from jail.

It has been estimated that 24 laws would need to be changed in order to implement this idea. This in itself would seem to be a major barrier towards such a project.

So, in essence the government is saying that they want to go forward with a project which would certainly raise the level of freedom and debate in the country. On the other side, people are saying that this is just a ploy, and that the government and the people are not ready for such a project.

It is sad that people are reacting this way to the idea. In Arabic, we say (Laheq il ayyar la bab il dar), meaning "follow the name-caller to the door of the house". The saying means that even if somebody is insincere about a certain (attractive) proposal, you should follow up on it to the end. The fact that people are negative about this idea says something about the credibility of the government.

Being contrarian in nature, I would hope that people would rethink this issue. After all, it is the PRIME MINISTER who is saying he wants this to happen. Why not embrace the idea? Why not demand that this promise be fulfilled? Why are we so timid and negative about such a bold proposal? Even if the project is not as attractive and successful as Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, it would be a giant step that could always be modified and tuned. Even if the only thing we get out of the project is changing legislation that limits free speech, we will still be much better off.

The government is demanding more freedom, and the people are saying that it can't/shouldn't be done. Only in Jordan.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Ain Ghazal Samra pipe leak: Glitch or environmental disaster?

A pipeline carrying partially treated wastewater from the Ain Ghazal sewage treatment facility to the Khirbit as Samra treatment plant is leaking. A capsule designed to clean the pipeline is stuck inside, causing this problem.

The pipeline follows the flow of the Zerqa river, which runs northeast from Ras el Ain to Ain Ghazal to Zerqa, and then veering west into the Jordan Valley. The drainage basin of the Zerqa river includes over 60% of the population of Jordan, and is thus heavily modified to meet the water supply and sanitary requirements of the people living there. In Amman, the river is covered with a concrete roof. Water of the river used to come from springs in Amman, the largest of which was at Ras el Ain. Because of the heavy utilization of groundwater, the water table at the headwaters is lower than in its natural state, and thus the historic flow of the river is diminished. Most of the flow in the river occurs in the winter, when rain water runs off directly into the stream. The second component is treated wastewater which enters the stream at Khirbet as Samra east of Zerqa and flows into the King Talal Dam. The 75 million cubic meter storage capacity of the dam is utilized to irrigate crops in the Jordan Valley.

Initially, a waste water treatment plant at Ain Ghazal was enough to treat the effluent from the much smaller Amman. With the explosive population growth, a second treatment plant was set up at Khirbet Samra, which is now severely overused and is in the process of being upgraded. This means that the water reaching KS is currently not receiving optimal treatment before flowing into the KTD.

Back to the leak. Reports are varying between 110 and 120 thousand cubic meters are flowing daily from the AG to the KH plants. Ministry of water and irrigation officials are quick to point out that the volume of water is miniscule compare to the storage volume of the KTD. As long as the issue is resolved soon, then the quality of the dam water should not be severely compromised. On the other hand, the Russeifa area where a lot of this water is now leaking is a major recharge area for ground water, and vulnerability maps show that ground water in this particular area is extremely susceptible to pollution. Ground water is actually a more important water supply source than surface water in the area.

Finger pointing has already started. Ministry sources have told Al Arab Al Yawm reporters that the capsule that is stuck in the pipeline belongs to a private company which has taken responsibility from the government to do this. According to the source, the capsule is of outdated technology and that the ministry used to use more advanced equipment when it was doing this work. The physical and chemical wastewater properties in Jordan are different than in other areas. It has higher amounts of suspended material, because people try to minimize their use of water. The nature of this wastewater necessitates using technologies which are adapted to the characteristics of the water here. While it may be true that a private contractor is in charge, the government can't escape responsibility. They should set the appropriate standards for the contractor and to ensure that he abides by them.

Possible solutions might include using an older disused line temporarily, or trying to dislodge the capsule using high water flows. In any case, this is a very serious situation, and if it isn't resolved soon, serious environmental damage to both surface and groundwater resources in the most populated area in the country will occur.

UPDATE: The immediate problem has been solved, thanks to the hard work of the ministry of water and irrigation and the help of God. The Zerqa river system will always be susceptible to disruption due to it's nature and the population pressures in the area.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Tourism and nature protection

The issue of forest protection in Jordan has been brought to a head the new agriculture law. As was the case with the temporary income tax law, this law was passed under dubious constitutional premises. The house rejected it, along with the income tax law and two other pieces of temporary legislation.

Aside from the constitutional issues, objection to this law has been voiced by environmentalists. The law allows for the delegation of state forest lands to investors in "governorates which need social and economic development in their areas". The implied purpose is to help create jobs and wealth in rural areas such as Ajloun. The danger is that this will lead to the destruction of the precious little forests that we have. On the economic and social side, large hotels and restaurants don't provide the types of jobs needed for local communities, because these jobs require special training and carry social stigmas that one might not agree with, but needs to deal with none the less.

Of course, Jordan is not the first country to be faced with a dilemma of choosing between tourism development and nature protection. This dilemma has led to creation of the concept of ecotourism. The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan has developed a number of sites in Jordan as ecotourism sites, the most notable of which is in Dana. The head of the RSCN has called for the rejection of the agricultural law.

Ecotourism is defined as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." This is brought about by creating opportunities for local people, by allowing them to provide hospitality, indigenous foods, guide services and local handicrafts directly to the ecotourists. In essence, it allows for the preservation of the cultural and natural context of the site while creating economic opportunity for home owners, farmers, artisans and others. The bonus is that by creating such opportunities, it encourages local people to actively protect the resource which provides them with these opportunities (nature).

Arab tourists visit Ajloun in droves during the summer. People rent out their empty rooms, sell food and local products as well as give our guests an opportunity to learn about what Jordan is outside the lobbies of five star hotels. I have seen similar (actually more advanced) entrepreneurship in the mountains of northwest Syria. Tourism is thriving in Slinfeh, east of Lathiqiyeh, despite the fact that the only hotel in the town is shuttered.

It is too bad that most Jordanians know little about their country outside their immediate environment. People have picnics on the airport road, and have little awareness of the fantastic beauty of places such as Wadi Tawahin (Ajloun), Sila'a (south of Petra) or the forests of Birqish (south of Irbid). Ecotourism marketed to Jordanians would increase awareness and bonding with the country and its nature, as well as provide economic opportunities for the people who live in these areas. One major failure of the RSCN in its ecotourism approach is the weak marketing to Jordanians. Had it placed more emphasis on this, it would have found more Jordanians calling for the rejection of the new agriculture law.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Why won't they apologize?

As I suspected, no apology for the insulting of Jordanian Christians seems to be forthcoming from the IAF. Obviously, this in itself is another statement to be added to the original. The IAF has decided that this is not needed. Why won't they apologize? I have no answer, but these are some potential candidates:

1- Nobody has made a fuss about it, and so maybe everybody will just forget about it. This is partially true, although Nahid Hattar today took them to task over the legitimization of overt bigotry. An apology without massive campaign would be a lot more face saving than an apology with such a campaign.

2- They do actually believe that Arab Christians don't deserve respect as citizens, and should be treated as ahl il dhima. Thus, their earlier suggestion that they would have Christians on their electoral slates was just a ploy, to hide their true intentions.

3- Since they are the self-proclaimed standard bearers of Islam, they believe that everything the say must be the TRUTH, and thus any admission of guilt would weaken Islam. This type of pathology exists in our culture, even when God is not invoked. This type of paradox is precisely why modernists (since the early establishment of the Islamic state) believe that religion has no place in politics.

These are the only reasons that I can think of. Whatever the answer is, it should provoke even more questions. Anybody care to comment?


Saturday, January 21, 2006

The human rights report: when will we grow up?

The Human rights watch report is out again, and as usual it criticizes Jordan. Of course, it criticizes the US, Israel, and the EU too.

The main difference between these countries and Jordan is how they react to this report. In Jordan, Petra put together a juvenile response, in which all people surveyed agreed that the level of freedom of expression in Jordan is "advanced". The head of the journalists syndicate, Tareq Momani, blamed "certain centers and ill-willed parties for supplying international organizations with unrealistic reports for selfish reasons in an effort to disrupt the ideal picture of democracy in Jordan". I'm not making this up. Honest.

Too bad that Momani didn't read the Al Ghad complaint, which cited official interference in editorial decisions (unless Al Ghad is an ill-willed party). He apparantly also doesn't realize that providing an open space for free speech requires changing 24 different laws.

Now, I am not saying that the human rights situation in Jordan is bad. Human Rights Watch doesn't say that either. The report simply points out some things that we should think about. But this isn't my point. My point is that this orchestrated upwelling of indignation is amateurish, and actually gives a worse impression than the HRW report does. I would have hoped that such a report would be an opportunity to objectively discuss shortcomings, not to instinctively become so defensive. I am looking for a similar response by American journalists to the criticism of HRW, but I still haven't found one.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A fight in parliament

A fight broke out in parliament yesterday between the chair of the IAF parliamentary block (Azzam Huneidi) and the chair of the left leaning Democratic Grouping (Mamdouh Abbadi). This came after the spokesman of the DG, Raed Hijjazin, gave a speech criticizing the general secretary of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdulmajid Dhuneibat, who had called on the Syrian government to allow democratic reform.

Hijazin's criticism was that Dhuneibat's statement was interference in the internal affairs of Syria. IAF members responded furiously, with Mohammad Abu Fares saying "It is unfortunate that a deputy would attack the Muslim brotherhood, given that it is known who he is and what his affiliation is". Basically, Abu Fares was saying that Hijjazin had no right to criticize the MB because he is Christian. The sentence carries the implication that Christians are less loyal than Muslims. I am sure I will have to wait a long time before I hear an IAF apology to Jordanian Christians for this insult.

Hijjazin is probably the closest Christian in the Jordanian parliament to IAF causes. In his speech in the confidence discussions, he stated that "any compass that does not point to Jerusalem is a treacherous compass", thus criticizing the government for not taking upon itself the liberation of Jerusalem. More interestingly, he voted against the Civil Affairs law that would have given women the right to initiate a divorce (the so-called khulu' law). At the time, he said that the law was designed for "west Amman" women.

The Islamists still haven't gotten their story straight about what they want about Syria. Dhuneibat has stated that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood should cooperate with Abdulhalim Khaddam to topple the Syrian regime, and the head of the IAF, Hamzeh Mansour saying that the Syrian MB should have nothing to do with Khaddam. So, it is surprising given these disagreements that they would be so sensitive to criticism, calling on the speaker of the house to silence Hijjazin and initiating a shouting match in the corridors of the parliament, complete with vulgar insults. This lashing out has certainly brought the more disturbing characteristics of the IAF to the forefront, showing intolerance to Christians as well as to anybody who dares to criticize them.

Musa Wahsh, another IAF member, suggests that Hijjazin's statement might have been brought about by the refusal of IAF members to vote for him to chair the public freedom's committee of the house. I wonder if he believes in the public freedoms of west Amman women. Another suggested cause is a problem between Abu Fares and Hijjazin, which was covered up "to close a wide gate of sectarian and religious polarization if it were to become known and published". Sounds interesting.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

How the political parties blew it

The defeat of the temporary income tax law has demonstrated the power of civil society in driving events. One missing component in the fight to repeal this law was the political parties. In any other system parties would have been in the forefront of the debate on such an issue.

So, during the last month, the press, parliament, trade unions, and professional unions, have been in the thick of this debate, which had important social and fiscal ramifications on the country. Meanwhile, the "opposition" was in Damascus, championing Bashar Assad, and the "centrist parties" are in the process of trying to lead reconciliation in Lebanon.

The issue of political parties in Jordan and their impact is a subject of intense debate, with the government in the process of developing a new law for political parties. A committee between the ministry of political development, the ministry of interior and various political parties has been set up, with the centrist parties boycotting. The government promised parliament that the new law will be ready soon.

Jamil Nimri thinks that political parties are weak because the reward for their success is not power, but simply membership in parliament. I don't believe that a political party with a majority of members in parliament can be considered powerless. The Jordanian constitution places a lot of legislative authority in the lower house, and latest events show that the house can be instrumental in driving policy.

To me, the reason for the weakness of political parties has manifested itself in the latest events. The issue is not too many parties, the involvement of professional unions in politics or the legislative framework or limited reward for success. The issue is that these parties are out of touch with what resonates with people. The latest poll shows that people are interested in the economy and social welfare. Simply stated, these guys are out of touch. Any attempt to reform the political system is doomed to failure if these parties insist on being irrelevant.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Income tax law rejected: the system works

A joint session of the finance and legal committees of the senate today recommended that the senate reject the temporary income tax law passed in the final days of the Badran government. This means that the senate will most likely strike the law from the books during its next meeting on Thursday.

Temporary laws can only be passed by the executive in dire circumstances when the parliament is not in session. The law was passed one day before the parliament was to convene, and there were no dire circumstances which necessitated passing this law. Additionally, the law was widely viewed as being regressive, aimed at the middle class, and lowering the tax burden on the rich.

The house rejected this law as well as three other temporary laws. This meant that it was up to the senate to either pass, reject or ignore the law. If it had ignored it, then the law would stay in force until the senate took action. This would have been a legal way to enforce a law with dubious constitutionality and no public support. Many thought that this was going to be the case.

What is important about this story is how this story came to such an end, and how civic action can make a difference. From the beginning, the Badran government realized that this would be unpopular, so it was passed in the way that it did. What was surprising was how the house reacted, given the climate of intimidation in which it was placed. The fact that the parliament took such a stand and was not punished should be an empowering lesson.

The press took the mantle, with Al Arab al Yawm taking the lead with continuous coverage of the story and withering commentary on the issue. Soon, the professional unions, merchants, farmers and other civic forums began discussing the issue. It should be noted that the professional unions represent a large part of the middle class targeted by this law. Traditionally, these unions were criticized for focusing on non-Jordanian causes, and ignoring the needs of their members. Not this time. The lawyers union brought action to the Supreme Court to overturn the law. This action was similar to a challenge to the press law of 1997, which was overturned on the basis that it was passed unconstitutionally. Having the Supreme Court follow its own precedent would have been quite embarrassing to the government.

So, both Marouf Bakhit and the senate began to feel the heat. They had inherited a bad cause, and had two choices: fight to the end or drop the case. The prudent decision was made. The prime minister asked the senate finance and legal committees to reject the law. These committees were inclined to do this anyway, trying to cast off the senate's image as a pawn of the government. So, this face saving outcome was devised.

The issue is not completely over. There is still an inclination to overhaul the income tax law. At least this time more input from the various stakeholders will be taken into consideration. The good news is that the system works. The bad news that only vigilance makes it work, as in any other democratic system.

Democracy, the law and abuse

Yesterday, UPI published a report on legal charges pressed against Deputy Secretary-General of the IAF, Jamil Abu Bakr. The report is based on an IAF press release, and thus omits the position of the prosecutor of the state security court. However, the accusation highlighted, “insulting the dignity of the state”, deserves the scorn poured on it by Naseem.

More details were published today in Al Ghad. In this report, it says that the issue involves the publication of allegations against the former prime minister, Faisal Fayez by IAF deputies on the IAF website, which Abu Bakr was responsible for.

The allegations made in December 2004 concerned charges of impropriety in the appointment of senior officials, which the deputies said were made without objective standards. Since the deputies are immune from prosecution, Faisal Fayez had charges leveled against Abu Bakr. According to Al Ghad, the charges Abu Bakr faces are making false allegations and insulting the dignity of the state.

Character assassination is a barrier to many honest people who work in government. The king has repeatedly emphasized the need to protect public servants from vicious allegations. Such allegations are a significant part of Jordanian popular discourse. The fact that corrupt officials are rarely held accountable leads to a popular perception that most important officials are crooked, and thus allegations such as those of the IAF parliamentarians are very common, and can be heard at most public gatherings in Jordan. The fact that deputies in parliament say such things heightens the perception of massive corruption.

Allegations of corruption are very serious, both to the individual involved as well as to the state. If people are to make such allegations, they need to have credible evidence to back up their claims. The fact that somebody hears somebody say something (hearsay) is not enough to make such claims, especially if this charge is made by somebody with legal or moral responsibility.

Thus, Faisal Fayez felt that the charges made by the IAF impugned his dignity. If these charges are unsubstantiated, he has the right to legal recourse. Just because he was a prime minister doesn't mean that he doesn't have the right to protect his name. It is up to the court to decide if he is justified in his action or not.

Leaving the legal aspects aside, I would say that there are political aspects to this as well. The two charges (lying and insulting the state) suggest two plaintiffs, Fayez and the government. Fayez took a civil action and filed his complaint in the court of first instance. This is his right, as I have said before. The government decided to elevate it to a state security case, added charges of insulting the dignity of the state and sent it to the state security court.

The government seems to be interested in sending a message about character assassination and the truth, as these issues do in fact eat away at the dignity of the state. On the other hand, the political ramifications took a back seat. Thus, the issue has become the state suppressing the right to free expression, especially for the Islamists. If the objective of the government is to boost the credibility and the popularity of the IAF, this would be the way to do it. However, this issue hurts the dignity of the state and the perception of openness and transparency that the government is trying to convey. I would say that this was a bad mistake, and the government should have let Fayez' civil suit go through the courts. Fayez winning such a case would itself send an important message. It is too bad that our own government doesn't give the courts the respect they deserve.

Friday, January 13, 2006

These guys don't speak for me

The Jordanian "opposition" certainly is an orgy of strange bedfellows, spanning the political spectrum from leftists, pan-Arabists and Islamists. It is often a wonder where they ever find common ground. One place which seems to never fail is their admiration for Arab dictatorships. Last week, they outdid themselves, where they all traveled to Damascus to give support to Syria, based on the assumption that Syrians actually want to be ruled by a dictator. Many Iraqis still hate Jordanians, because similar stunts in the past gave the impression that Jordanians supported Saddam, and not the will of the Iraqi people.

Now, I will stay away from debate over the role of the Syrian regime in last year's wave of terror in Lebanon. There are many apologists who have no problem stating the Syrian regime was innocent in all of this, and even if they were involved, the people were murdered deserve this. While this logic is pathetic and sick, this is not the point I am trying to make.

The objective of any political party or grouping is to participate in the political process, with the ultimate goal of sharing power and setting agendas and policies. It is very worrisome when political parties striving for power find room in their discourse to defend a regime which outlaws and jails political opponents, stifles dissent and has goons beat up opposition figures, aside from being terribly corrupt. What does this say about how this opposition will behave if it comes to power?

The retort would be that Syria is now targeted, and that now is not the time to speak of the regime abuses in Syria and Lebanon, because the "imperialist agenda" has nothing to do with human rights and corruption, but with Syria's "steadfastness in defense of Arab causes". These are the same slogans that the same people gave to defend Saddam. Just to remind everybody, the Assad regime supported the Iranians against Iraq, and later joined George Bush senior's coalition against Saddam. I suppose this is what they mean by Syria's "steadfastness in defense of Arab causes".

Part of the strategy of the Assad regime is to look for enemies they can attack. Their enemies in Lebanon are known. Now, they are trying to make the Jordanian government an issue. Recently, they accused the Jordanian government of expelling Syrian workers, a charge that the Jordanian government denied. The subtext is that Jordan is helping plot against Syria. Of course, if this were the case, then Jordan would not have worked to cover up Syria's role in the plot to attack Amman with chemical weapons in 2004. Thanks for nothing, brothers.

So, if we were to buy all of this, the question still to be answered is this: Where were all of you guys before "Syria became targeted"? When did you criticize Bashar or Hafez for looting Lebanon and Syria, threatening, jailing and murdering opponents or mismanaging a potentially wealthy country into the ground?

This post is not about the Baa'th regime is Syria. It is about the opportunism of a few politicians who purport to speak for the Jordanian people.

The Jordanian people want the best for Syria and Lebanon. They want both countries to be free, prosperous and strong. In my opinion, the Baa'th regime in Syria is an obstacle to these wishes, and the delegation that went to Syria speaks only for themselves, and not for the Jordanian people.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Finance of terror

During the last meeting of the House of Deputies, the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism was ratified. While receiving less attention than the treaty with the US, this issue did raise questions during discussion. The major objections (by IAF deputies) that were raised were that there was no need for this convention, since local laws are sufficient to deal with aggressive terrorism (as opposed to passive terrorism, I presume). Other objections were that it will dry up sources of funds for charities and humanitarian organizations, that it is un-Islamic, and that it will target funds destined for Arab and Islamic resistance in Palestine.

The convention defines terror in its second article:

Any other act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.
This is quite clear. It is not against armed resistance, such as the case in Iraq or in Palestine. So, why were the IAF deputies in a huff about this? One would think that they would be especially careful about associating themselves with enabling terror. However, they threw caution to the wind. My speculation is that there is a lot of mingling of funds between charity and resistance (or terror, depending on the particular operation). Hamas is considered to be a terrorist group by the US State department, but it raises and spends money on charity as well. It is not up to the US to decide who is a terrorist and who is not, according to the convention. However, the financing structure of Hamas would make it impossible to get any money to it, unless it disentangles charity from it's armed struggle. Either that, or it would have to stop operations that would be interpreted to be terrorism according to the convention.

Of course, the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood (the parent organization of the IAF) and Hamas is very close, with some considering the MB to be controlled by Hamas (here is an excellent article on the subject). So, it is quite natural that the IAF deputies would take such a stand. What is lost is the question of who the IAF strives to benefit, Hamas or Jordan? The typical argument is that the interests of the two don't contradict each other. This is one case where it is clear that they do. It is of Jordan's interest, if not necessity, to combat terror. Hamas has diverging interests.

A final point. It is clear that weakening of Hamas would lead to the weakening of the MB, so the issue is of self interest to the MB and IAF.

There is no record on the details of how the vote went, as usual.


Monday, January 09, 2006

How did your deputy vote?

It is quite disheartening to realize that for most votes, there it no publicly available record of how individual deputies vote on various issues. Of course, one might be able to infer some votes by what is said in the discussion phase of the process. For example, yesterday's vote on the treaty with the US on extraditing war criminals was obviously opposed by the IAF deputies. This is clear from the statement by Zuhair Abu Ragheb. On the other hand, Rowhi Shhaltough, Abdelrahim Malhas and Raed Qaqish withdrew from the discussions. So, it was not only the IAF against the treaty. There is no published record on how each deputy voted. Alarab Al Yawm says that 17 deputies voted against, five of whom were from outside the IAF, in addition to the three who withdrew.

The parliament has a website which is quite rudimentary. It contains outdated information, and a simple list of the members of parliament. It is thus basically useless as a source of information on voting trends. The information gleaned from parliamentary discussions on confidence or the budget is useful, but only marginally.

Now, in this age of transparency and accountability, I would say that it is essential to make these records available to the public, preferably on the web. This is the only way that voters can evaluate their deputies in a scientific, objective manner. It would be a tangible move that should be easy to implement, and show that parliament is serious about reform.

Update: Al Rai reports that the five non IAF members who voted against are Abdulkarim Dughmi, Nariman Rousan, Adab Saud, Abdulmunim Abu Zant and Ahmad Kreishan.

I still think that the parliament website should make this type of information accessible.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Parliament ratifies war criminal agreement with the US

The Jordanian parliament today ratified a bilateral agreement between Jordan and the US which exempts US citizens from extradition and trial under the auspices of the International Criminal Court.

Parliament had previously rejected this agreement, saying that it circumvented Jordan's obligations under the Rome statute, which established the court. Amnesty International agreed, but the Senate disagreed and approved the treaty, sending it back to the house. Last week the legal committee of the house recommended ratification of the treaty. Thanks to Khader for the links.

I am somewhat ambivalent about all of this. I certainly agree that US attempts to exempt itself from international law are hypocritical and unfair. On the other hand, fairness has little to with anything, I'm afraid. It certainly isn't Jordan's job to ensure fairness in this world. We don't have the resources or the power, let alone the backing needed to fight this fight.

The issue is largely a symbolic one. In reality, we most probably will never have to deal with a situation where we will need to decide where to extradite a US war criminal to. Even if we did, it doesn't really make a difference to us where we send him (or her). We either pop the individual on a flight to Washington or on a flight to The Hague. So what?

Thus, to me the issue boils down to pros and cons. On the pro's side, we are no longer threatened with the cut of US aid. Personally, I don't think that this is a credible threat, since they are already getting their money's worth as it is now. We are already selling ourselves short as it is. On the con's side, we made Amnisty International unhappy. How much do they pay us, anyway? Bigger on con's side, we missed a chance to put our finger in Bush's eye. That would have been worth something.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

UK closes it's embassy in Amman

News reports are saying that the UK has closed it's embassy in Amman, based intelligence reports suggesting that terrorists want to hit a western target.

Now, the UK is free to do whatever she wants to protect her embassy and staff. However, I compare this attitude with that of the "allies" in Iraq, who have pressured Jordan to keep its embassy open despite a bombing of the embassy and kidnapping of Jordan embassy staff.

Now, the attitude to the Brits here is quite hypocritical, in addition to being cowardly. It's OK for Jordan to risk its people in order to send a message, and "not cave in to terrorism", but when the shoe is on the other foot, this is a different story.

Should we do as they do, or should we do as they say?

UPDATE: The embassy is back in business. No reason given why the eminent terror attack was called off.

Friday, January 06, 2006

On anonymity

There have been a number of posts recently questioning the practice of anonymous blogging. The growing numbers of these posts have a cumulative affect of nagging. I would say it is akin to the off line question often faced in Jordanian taxis and government offices: where are you from? Of course, the subtext of this obnoxious question is: I want to judge you based on your lineage, not on what you have to offer.

As an anonymous blogger, I would like to take up some of the ideas raised in order to at least put some balance on this issue.

First of all, I believe that ideas should be judged on their merit. In Arabic, we say "khudho il hikmeh min afwah il majanin" (Take wisdom from the mouths of lunatics). Therefore, the criticism by Jihad Khazin referred to by Haitham on the religious policemen evades the real issue. Are religious and social practices in Saudi Arabia compatible with today's mores? Are the issues raised by the mutawa worthy of discussion? To me, it doesn't really make a difference whether the author is Al-Hamedi Al-Anezi or Saul Rosenbloom. The failure to discuss the substance of the thoughts presented and the fixation on the identity of the author is a sign of intellectual bankruptcy.

Haitham places a lot of emphasis in his argument on the issue of credibility. This is a point that needs to be clear. Bloggers are not news agencies. Rarely do bloggers actually offer information that is not available from other sources. What most bloggers do is comment on information available from other sources, usually with appropriate links. People don't read blogs to get news. They read them to try and understand the various points on view on various issues.

So, there is no issue of credibility, unless a blogger makes an unsubstantiated statement of fact. This is rarely an issue. Haitham questions whether people should trust anonymous blogs for "Questions of politics, religion, social, safety and so on. I think the readers want to know who you are". Why? Can't ideas be judged on their own merit?

Another interesting statement by Haitham is this one:

Imagine that elections arrived to your town, and an anon people were allowed to cast their vote. They claim that they are from your party, your country,maybe your religion and neighborhood. Would you accept their vote? I guess not. So why do we accept an anonymous commenter or blogger words and give them credibility?

Sorry. I myself don't presume to tell anybody what to do or how to think. If you want to trust somebody to tell you what to think, go to a mosque or a church or whatever authority figure you feel you can trust with your wellbeing and happiness. I give my opinion, and I don't presume to try to change public opinion or to lead.

Finally, Haitham says:

Because bloggers that have enough fortitude to put it out there, knowing that their identity is on the line have far more credibility than those that want to remain anonymous. When reader look at a blogger/commenter of a person who is afraid and refuses to reveal who they are, most of the reader will wonder, if these anonymous bloggers/commenter are going to spend their time to affect public opinion and public policy then why not be man/woman enough to identify themselves?

In real life I express the same thoughts that I blog quite freely. However, in real life I have the ability to judge what to say to whoever I am dealing with. In real life, my audience is not anonymous. On the internet, my readers are anonymous, and so am I. If people want to accept what I say, fine. If they don't, that’s fine too. My only ambition is to make people think. They don't need to know who I am to do that.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

More on media reform

A commentary in Al Ghad today carries a startling admission. The author is anonymous, but presumably a member of the editorial staff of the newspaper. The commentary does not show up in the on-line version, but in the paper one.

The commentary points out, in essence, that the problem with free media in Jordan is not the legal framework, but the intangibles related to the application of the law. Specifically, the author points out that what is needed is the "abolition of the numerous authorities [presumably including the mukhabarat and the press and publications department] that call the newspapers morning noon and night, preventing publication of certain news, and thus building a dam between people and information".

This is quite a statement, and one that should not be viewed lightly. On the face of things, the limit of freedom of the press is the sky. In reality, intimidation continues. I am sure that everybody suspects that this is the case, but for the editors of Al Ghad to be bold enough to print it is a breath of fresh air, and hopefully the start of real reform of the media, rather than relying on more "reviews". More editors need to speak out for this hope to become a reality.

Here is the article:


Monday, January 02, 2006

Media reform- spinning wheels

The spokesman for the government, Nasser Joudeh, today stated that the government will "review the performance of the official media organizations", both in terms of management and product". Moreover, he stated that there are "no prior agendas in regard to the media".


He is thus saying that they want to "review", and that nothing is decided. I seem to remember something called the National Agenda Committee. Wasn't that supposed to do all the reviewing that we need, and to set agendas based on that?

Back in March, 2005, Marwan Muasher stated that the government will establish a communications directorate within six months, in order to "coordinate" the transmission of information (i.e. keeping their stories straight). Later, in October, the NAC leaked that it is recommending the abolishment of the higher council for media, in favor of a new commission created by the merging of the audiovisual media commission and the press and publications department in order to "regulate the media". For good measure, they created a stir by suggesting that mandatory membership to the journalists' syndicate be abolished. A couple of weeks later, the higher council for media struck back, criticizing the NAC for not seriously addressing the problems of the official media and for "rehashing existing legislation using imprecise and ambiguous language". It went on to criticize the NAC for not presenting any justification for wanting to change anything. Of course, the press syndicate made a fuss about the mandatory membership thing.

On another note, the government is pressuring parliament to move on legislation for the media presented to it last November. Two pieces of legislation are on the table. The first is a freedom of information act which has enough provisions in it to enable the government to withhold any information it deems necessary. The second is an amendment to the press and publications law that would prevent the jailing of journalists. The funny thing about these two pieces of legislation is that they were drafted by the higher council for media, and not by the NAC or any committee affiliated with it.

So, what did the NAC exactly do with regard to the media. Well, we don't exactly know, since the agenda is still not public. We can deduce the following, though:

  1. The current government doesn't regard the NAC recommendations as an agenda that it is committed to.
  2. The previous government sent legislation to the parliament on press issues that was not related to what the NAC was doing.
  3. The NAC was leaking recommendations about the press in order divert attention from what they were really up to. This can be deduced by the fact that the NAC recommendations, as they were leaked, bore no resemblance to the actual legislation sent by the government to the parliament.

So, the NAC and the Badran government weren't about the media at all. They just leaked provocative recommendations to keep people amused, while they went about the real issue, which was the economic laws designed to make the rich richer and everybody else poorer.

As for the media, we still need to figure out how to have "responsible journalism". Until we do, reviews and experiments will be ongoing.