Saturday, October 29, 2005

The missing center

I laughed quite hard when I read this. Apparently, the Jordan Labour Party had rented its headquarters in Irbid. They fell back on their rent, and the neighbors started complain about seedy characters and activities associated with the place. It seems that the head of the party had sublet the headquarters for a billiards hall. I suspect there weren't enough members showing up to play a game of pool, and the local teenagers were looking for a place to hang out. To make a long story short, the police evicted the party from its headquarters in an ugly scene.

This party is one of a number of centrist parties in the country. By and large, Jordanian voters tend to vote for centrist candidates, so it would be natural to assume that parties which reflect moderation and interest in Jordanian interests(rather than Islamic, pan Arab or leftist organizations) would be quite successful. The irony is that they are not. While the majority of MP's are centrist, most were elected as independents and not based on party platforms.

Many would argue that the current makeup of the parliament does not really reflect Jordanian political tendencies, as the MP's were largely elected based on personal or tribal basis. I would counter argue that from a political and ideological point of view, these deputies are a reasonable cross section of political thought in Jordan, and they are not monolithic. Asides from the IAF deputies, who were largely elected based on party platform, the independents range from moderately right of center (such as Mohammad Bani Hani and Abdallah Akaileh) to moderately left of center (Mamdouh Abbadi and Mustafa Shneikat). In the final analysis, they do represent the strong centrist tendencies of Jordanians.

So, back to the point. Jordanians are centrists, and centrist parties are failures. Is this a problem? I believe that it is. First, as a matter of principle, political movements should be organized for them to be successful. It is not enough to elect centrist candidates who have no common agenda, and no way of putting through programs which reflect (and shape) what most people want and need. Second, the lack of strong centrist parties leads to the false impression that were in not for distorted election laws, the IAF will take over the country and impose a Taliban state. Indeed, the absence of strong counterparties makes this a more likely scenario.

Successive Jordanian governments have actively worked at weakening any organized centrist movement in Jordan, in a short sighted view that a strong moderate party would be a threat to the existing order. So, while the IAF states that it in fact does want to change the existing order, it is an acceptable part of the political order in Jordan, various centrist parties that are loyal to the monarchy and to Jordan are considered to be a threat. Democracy in Jordan will not be complete without a strong centrist party.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

University debts

The Prime Minister yesterday met with the presidents of Jordan's public universities to speak about the level of debt these universities suffer. This has reached the unprecedented level of 117 million JD's. What I hate about such press reports is how useless they are. If you want to know what is really going on, you have to do your own research. Fortunately for you, Khalaf has done this for you.

The press report simply states that there was a meeting, and the PM told the presidents that something needs to be done (like they don't know). There is also a thinly veiled threat that the university independence from more government interference is at stake.

There are eight public universities in Jordan, with about 130,000 students studying for their bachelors degrees, 8,700 studying for their masters and 1,400 studying for their doctorate, according to the web site of the ministry of higher education. Public higher education in Jordan is among the finest in the region, as is attested by the success of the graduates of these institutions almost everywhere they go.

The issue of the debts run up by universities is not new. The rapid expansion in university establishment since the 1990's led to high costs in infrastructure development and the purchasing of equipment and the hiring of staff. Initially, a tax called the additional fees for Jordanian Universities was enacted in order to fund the first universities established (the University of Jordan and Yarmouk University). The tax is paid on almost any type of government and municipal procedure that can be imagined. Despite the high transparency of the ministry of finance on their web site, there is no, sign of the amount of the university fee collected in the 2005 budget. All of the fees collected are listed as a single budget item, with expected revenues of 310 million JD. I suspect a large proportion of these are university fees, since people pay them everywhere they go. On the other hand, the government donated 44 million JD as a subsidy for the universities and municipalities in 2002. I can't find more up to date information on the site but I believe that the number has now risen to about 50 million JD. In any case, it seems that the university fees are not being fully sent to the universities. Moreover, successive governments have established new universities with no long term vision as to how to cover shortfalls caused by spreading the cake too thin. So the universities are now holding the bag.

In order to cover shortfalls in their budgets, the universities started to raise tuition fees a couple of years ago. An uproar ensued, and the government took a decision outside its mandate to freeze raising of tuitions. The universities had to start accepting lower quality students in so-called parallel programs, which are the same as regular programs, but with higher fees for students who are not accepted in the normal procedure, but have money to pay. This helped alleviate the problem in some universities. However, the structural problem remains. The government doesn't want to pay a somewhat modest proportion of what they are collecting in the name of additional university fees to cover the cost of university well being. They also don't want the unpopular decision of raising tuitions so that the students will cover more of the cost.

In the final analysis, there are limited numbers of choices. The easiest is to let the quality of university education deteriorate, with inadequate libraries, laboratories, equipment and building maintenance. The second is for the government to pay up what they are collecting for this purpose in the first place. The third is to increase tuitions. A forth alternative, which many people suspect is the reason for all this, is to privatize the public universities. The general feeling is that it is in the interest of the owners of the private universities to let the public universities decay, since they represent competition. I am not in a position to know the reason why all this is being done, but I think it is not as sinister as the conspiracy theory has it. It is just another example of the government trying to achieve good results without spending money. In Arabic we say (Il bied ma bingala bi drat). You can't fry eggs with farts.


Al Ghad has a report on the subject. It is no surprise that none of the university presidents interviewed mentioned the university fee tax, and where the money is going. Their prime concern is keeping their jobs.


Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A new and improved IAF

The Islamic Action front has issued a new document outlining their view of reform in Jordan. As with any new packaging, it is always prudent for the consumer to look for fundamental changes in the product. This is what I was looking for in reading this statement. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it seems that little has changed.

I must note that there is a lot of change in the tone used to put the message through. The IAF (particularly in the fourth section), states that Islam is a religion of moderation and tolerance. We knew that, and it is good that the IAF is recognizing it as well. They go on to state other virtues which they attribute to Islam, and therefore themselves: justice, cooperation, Human dignity, dialog, and vitality. The old refrain that that Islam is applicable in any place and at any time is also suggested, although there is a hint of a nod towards reinterpreting the text in modern context. The IAF still wants to impose Sharia and build an Islamic (theocratic?) society.

The forth section also emphasizes somewhat acceptance of democratic rules, and thus welcomes diversity in the political society. While this might seem somewhat obvious, as anybody who runs for public office must accept the rules of the game, it is good for the IAF to try to alleviate fears that it is using the democratic system to take power once and for all. I note that all references to democracy are always followed by the term Shura (advice). I find this troubling. They accept democracy if they like the results, but if they don't; they can do what they want anyway, since shura is non-binding. I think that playing with words doesn't help the case, but reveals the intent.

There is a notable emphasis on Arabism in the statement. Anybody familiar with the discourse of political Islam might find this surprising. I did. Traditionally, the discourses of the Islamists tried to emphasize the Islamic nation and deemphasize the Arab nation. The document does not really try to talk about the Jordanian nation very much. No surprise here. The document tries to finesse this by stating that there is no conflict of interest between the Jordanian ideal and the Arab and Islamic ideal. Granted, this might be true 99% of the time. Where do they stand in the 1% of occasions where critical decisions need to be made? I think that the answer is clear.

The document (in the sixth section, point 2) wants all laws to be in line with Sharia. This is no departure from the past and doesn't help in trying to convey a more moderate stance. Point 7 suggest sthat the government should bear sole responsibility for running the country's affairs. I think that they mean that the role of the king should be curtailed, which would require a constitutional amendment. Other points emphasis equality between all. I am not sure who is against that, but I will give my read on what the IAF is trying to achieve politically at the end of the post.

The eighth section talks about Human rights. An interesting point is that the government should provide employment opportunities for all. Hmm. I will compare this with their ideas about the economy later. Another Human right emphasized is the right to proselytize. I suppose that that does not include Christian missionaries rights to work freely. I seem to remember that such efforts in the past have been frowned upon by the Islamic movement. I think that they are only talking about their own rights. Another right the freedom to "order righteousness and disallow the forbidden" (Al Amr Bil Ma'rouf wa al Nahy 'an al Munkar). This can be interpreted in different ways. The literal meaning is benign. The applied meaning, used in theocracies such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Muqtada Sadr's southern Iraq, suggests the establishment of official or unofficial ethics police to enforce "morality". This, of course, is quite a different concept from Human rights. Moreover, it is a frightening thought. The fact that what is meant is not clear is another example of word play that should do nothing to ease the mind of the more secularly oriented people.

The ideas for economic reform are listed in section 9. The ideas include capitalistic approaches, such as encouraging investment through lower taxes and tariffs (point 9), mixed with more socialist ideas involving expansion of the public sector, stopping privatization and creating jobs for everybody. There are also old pipe dreams of establishing an "Islamic" economy which eliminates all forms of trade which are considered un Islamic. In essence, this means the elimination of the banking system and insurance companies. Social spending by private organizations should be encouraged to alleviate poverty and unemployment, according to the document. It is well known that much of the support received by the IAF is from the poor who benefit most from the charities that are administered by IAF affiliated organizations. Some people would call it buying votes.

As for women's rights, there is a long list of what are considered to be women's right's in Islam. There is no mention of anti-woman stances taken by IAF deputies in the parliament in the last few years. These have included the maintaining continued tacit approval for so-called honor killings through the allowance of using this excuse as an extenuating circumstance. Another example is the overturning the law which allows women to initiate a divorce. In both issues, the IAF took an anti-woman stance, despite the fact that both stances are arguably unislamic. So there you go. There is no mention of these issues in the document, suggesting that the IAF will continue to pander to the basest elements in its constituency.

The closing sections speak in generalities about national unity, Palestine, Iraq, and Islamic/Arab unity. There are no real surprises here, as they are still against peace with Israel, and the US occupation of Iraq, and for national unity and Islamic/Arab unity.

So, in essence the paper includes interesting shifts in nuance, with a lot of emphasis on inclusion. This is coupled with word play, always following democracy with Shura, without indicating what this is supposed to mean. The old totalitarian core is still there, insisting on imposing sharia, with all of it's social and economic and educational components.

There is an effort to reach out to the pan Arabist constituency which is probably disillusioned with its own weak parties. I doubt that this will work, since there is nothing to suggest that the IAF has changed its strident face and really decided to join the modern era. The IAF will continue to be the party of the poor and disenfranchised, particularly with Jordanians of Palestinian origin. The emphasis on equality and national unity is a nod to this constituency. Our educational system continues to indoctrinate our students towards believing that if we can somehow recreate the society of the seventh century, we will be on our way to Andalusia. It is too bad that people continue to be so gullible.


Saturday, October 22, 2005

A stupid and shortsighted decision

The Ministry of Agriculture has notified the country's poultry farmers that losses incurred as a result of bird flu will not be compensated. This seems to be a sure way to spread the epidemic, if it ever reaches Jordan.

The current approach being adopted in countries where the disease has appeared has been to destroy the entire population of birds where the infection occurred. This means that if it were not for government assistance, the owners of the birds would have to shoulder the entire cost of the loss.

What is scary is that this provides a disincentive for the poultry farmers to report and deal with any problems which might show up at their farms. The result will probably mean that infected birds will be sent to market, instead of being destroyed. Not only will this lead to the transmission of the disease to Humans, but it will lead a severe drop in consumer confidence in Jordanian agricultural products. Like Jordanian farmers don't have enough problems.

I believe that this miserly approach is shortsighted and dumb. There is no way that the cost of covering farmer's losses due to avian flu will be anywhere near the damage that would be caused by encouraging farmers to cover up the problem.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Electronic Agenda

Deputy prime minister and chair of the National Agenda Committee Marawan Muasher today announced (parts 1, 2 and 3) that the NA will be posted on the web for citizen's comments. I am wondering if this is really a way to get people's feedback, or simply good PR. In any case, you can count on your good friend Khalaf to give you his, ahm, humble opinion about this document. So fret not at the enormity of the massive 2500 page document. In my experience, the only parts which will need to be read will probably be about 100 pages, double spaced and 14 point font.
In the press conference, Muasher gave the usual goals that are typically fed to us by politicians. Everybody will be covered by health insurance, 600,000 jobs will be created, unemployment will be halved, incomes will be doubled and so forth. I guess that this is a tacit admission that the current economic/social approach will not lead to these goals. Presumably, economic policies will change from the business friendly (poor hostile) IMF based recipes to a more socially conscious approach which is more in sync with the needs of the common citizen. There is a hint of this in a statement about tax reform. I will believe it when I see it.
There are also a number of hints at more progressive social policies, such as indications that laws which affect women's rights will be reformed. Let's hope.
I will be back later when actual details are available.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Animated Hajjaj

The new product from Abu Mahjoob creative productions is an animated version of Abu Mahjoob on JTV at 7:55 every evening. My feeling is that the animated version is less funny than Emad Hajjaj's genius at still cartoons.

Moreover, it seems that this project is taking too much of Emad's time, leading towards less attention to his regular cartoons, and recycling of his old cartoons with slight modifications.

I hope that Hajjaj maintains his quality work. I believe that he is a world-class talent, and he should stick to what he is best at.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

How conservative is too conservative?

I feel that a lot of people go through a period of introspection in Ramadan. For the most part, spirituality is an important balance in the lives of many people. On the other hand, many people who are not overtly religious fast Ramadan out of social pressure, and conforming to prevalent social standards.

But if the most religious set the social standards in Ramadan, why don't they set them the rest of the year? It seems odd that people somehow that even marginally religious people become more observant at these times. This leads to the conclusion that many people are more religious than they normally let on. This is why standards are allowed to change for the holy month.

But is this healthy? Why is it important to take the feelings of the fasting into account, and not allow smoking, eating or drinking in public? Why should nightclubs and bars close? What if you don't want to fast? Who decides that the guy who is fasting deserves for you to worry about his feelings? Does he worry about yours? And what if you want to go to a nightclub or have a beer? You aren’t forcing anybody who doesn't want to to go to a bar. Why should he care if you want to go? Why is it any of his business? Because you are religious shouldn't mean that you are able to force me to live the way that you want me to live.

Of course, Islamist politicians promise to enforce the Sharia if they come to power. In that case, the whole year will be like Ramadan. If you are religious, you might think that it is a good idea. But if you are not (you will be in the minority even if you are a secular Muslim) shouldn't mean that you don't have rights.

To be honest, the wave of piousness that goes over in Ramadan scares me. I have no problem with people being close to God, but it bothers me that religious people feel that they have right to impose their values on everybody else. Because the next logical step is to enforce religious morality all year long. Why should Ramadan be different than any other time of year?

Monday, October 10, 2005

Where is the straight jacket?

Emad Mujahid, our genius astronomer and seismologist, now has our equally professional Petra talking about the splitting of the moon 1400 years ago. This fictitious report claims that at the time of Mohammad (PBOH), the moon split into two segments, as is stated in the Holy Qura'n.

The report states that the results of the Clemintine space mission show that this event occurred. Looking up the NASA website, the only significant findings from that mission (in 1994) involve possible ice deposits at the poles of the moon. No split in the moon.

I think that Petra reporters need to learn how to use the web before making idiots of themselves.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Bad news for the National Agenda

Elaph has a report on major differences between the government, the National Agenda committee and the parliament on the results of the work of the NAC. Whereas the emphasis is on the press law, I am sure that any substantial output will probably be controversial. Any bold initiatives by definition are controversial, and thus they need to have strong political will and legitimacy to back them up.

At the start of his tenure, Badran avoided stating a program for his government, saying that his program will be clear when the NAC recommendations are made. Now it looks like he really doesn't agree with some of the NAC ideas. Basically, his deputy Marwan Muasher (the coordinator and driving force of the NAC) has a greater say on government policy than the PM himself. This is quite an interesting political dilemma. Of course, it is Badran's fault that he abdicated his right to determine policy from the beginning.

The parliament is against the NAC results because there will be rule changes in the election law which might not favor reelection of many of the MP's. Moreover, if new rules for elections are made, then the parliament should be dissolved and a new parliament should be elected based on the new rules. Thus the opposition of the parliament to the NAC recommendations is normal.

In the face of opposition from the PM and the MP's to the NAC recommendations, the question is whether these recommendations will ever be implemented. As mentioned above, this will need strong political will and legitimacy. I believe that HM the king will probably stand by the NAC, but the legal tools to implement the recommendations are not clear. Legislation needs to be enacted for implementation of many of the recommendations. If the parliament refuses, then the government can enact temporary laws when the parliament is in recess. However, since the government is not on board either, then a new mechanism should be explored. I believe that the only way to give legitimacy to the recommendations is to put them up for a national referendum.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Quakes for quacks

Apparently, the last earthquake rumor was started by an employee in the meteorological service. Petra has a report about how this genius developed a theory on how earthquakes are related to the tides.

This guy studied business administration in a junior college (diplom), and was somehow hired by the meteorology department. Since he had lots of extra time on his hand, he wrote 13 (yes, 13) books on astronomy. Apparently none of his superiors noticed that he wasn't doing any work. Since the field of astronomy was not enough to satisfy his quest for knowledge, he developed his theory about the relationship between earthquakes and tides.

Science is a tough field, and to get a decent education in science requires a lot of hard work as well as innate intelligence, after you get a good grade in the tawjihi. It seems that you can bypass all of those nitpicky details in Jordan, since apparently nobody challenges anything that is blatantly wrong. This poor idiot is convinced that he knows what he is talking about, simply because nobody has the heart to tell him that he doesn't know what he is talking about. Worse, the Petra "reporter" who wrote this report tries to be "balanced". Truthfully, you can't balance between right and wrong. This approach allows people to give credence to positions which have no scientific merit. This is why people slept in the street two weeks ago.

In Jordan, people make outlandish statements everyday. If you have a loud voice, people will believe most anything you say. It is a shame in a country with such a high education level, it is the ignorant who always have the last word.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The struggle over the election law

The political subcommittee of the national agenda committee is struggling with how to formulate a new election law. As with any type of exercise in which people want to determine the outcome, the members are split according to who they want elected. The conventional wisdom is that if there are purely political elections, the Islamic Action Front will walk away with most of the seats. On the other hand, the current system ensures that non political figures dominate the parliament. Thus, in order to please everybody, the subcommittee is suggesting a two-tier system. There will be a national set of seats, which will be voted on based on party slates, and district seats in which independents can run.

The point of disagreement now is whether to allow people to vote for one slate or the other, or to allow them two votes, one for the national and one for the local slate. The IAF representatives want to allow people two votes, in the hope that they will take seats both as a slate and as individuals in the districts. Of course, the government wants to allow only one vote, in the hope of limiting the IAF to the national seats and keeping the local seats for the independents.

The basic assumption in all of this is that there really is only one political party in Jordan. Instead of relying on people's good sense, the government wants to maintain as much of the tribal makeup in the parliament as possible. This does not bode well for the government's professed interest in "political development". It is useful to limit the opposition to a party that most people are afraid of.

In essence, the only political party that has been allowed to flourish over the last 50 years is the Muslim Brotherhood (now using the IAF as a name for the "legal" political party). All recent elections show that over 80% of people don't vote for IAF candidates. Opinion polls also show that 80% of people don't think that the IAF represent their views. Granted, most people don't think that any of the existing political parties represent their views either. I believe that this is because people really haven’t put any effort into studying what each of the 30 or so political parties in Jordan stand for. Simply stated, the electoral system doesn't encourage this. You either vote for an IAF candidate or for an independent.

If we really want to develop political life in Jordan, we would actually limit the ability of independents to run. This can be done by only allowing candidates who submit a petition with a large number of signatures (5000?) to run. If you are a candidate for a licensed political party, then you can run. This would limit the number of candidates and help people focus on issues as well as personalities. I believe that the fear of the IAF taking a majority is a smokescreen, designed to actually increase the popularity of the IAF and to stunt the growth of all the other parties.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

What happened to the weekly tabloids?

I have been looking for a copy of Al Shahed for about three weeks. Their web site doesn't indicate that there is a problem, and they even hint that they have new articles. I simply can't find a copy. Other tabloids are out there, such as Shihan, but it has become so lame that it is not worth buying.

Many people criticize these publications as being sensationalist and unobjective. The government has been trying to come up with a formula which guarantees "responsible journalism". This means that you can say whatever you want, as long as you don't offend anybody. Sounds like freedom to me.

It really is a dilemma. How can you have freedom of the press, and at the same time ensure that nobody offends a government official, a business man, a religious leader (or anybody masquerading as such) or a foreign government? Governments have been struggling with this for about 15 years, and it looks like the latest gimmick is to abolish mandatory membership in the Jordan Journalists syndicate, as has been suggested by the National Agenda committee. While they were at it, they also want to recommend the abolishment of the Higher Council for Media. I guess that these institutions have become the latest scapegoats, an official acknowledgment that we don't have free speech after all. Gee, I would have never guessed.

The Journalists syndicate has been bending over backward for the last 15 years trying to please the government. This included at various times the issuance of various "journalists ethics guidelines", and occasionally punishing members who dare violate these very vague guidelines. Thanks a lot guys. So, after being a self-censorship tool, they are now considered to be part of the problem. Where is my box of Kleenex?

Of course, the real tool for stifling free speech is the government itself through the laws that they enact. The use of vague terminology and tough punishments are enough to scare anybody trying to make a living in the media. The concept of "responsible journalism" is BS. Either you can tell the truth as you see it or you can't. Moreover, the constant attempts at stifling free speech assume that people are too stupid to be critical readers. I suppose that this is a swipe at our educational system. Anyway, publications such as the National Enquirer in the US are considered to be a joke. In Jordan, they have been trying to deal with this for 15 years.

So, to sum up, the national agenda committee:
1- Acknowledges that there is limited free speech in Jordan.
2- Blames the fact that this is so on the Journalists Syndicate.
3- Doesn't want to change the laws that are really stifling free media in Jordan.

I guess we can get a sense of what we are going to get out of the National Agenda committee. Diversionary tactics, and ultimately more of the same. Look out for more of my "irresponsible" comments.