Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Mediocre is good enough

Fahed el Fanek has finally articulated what we practice, but don't like to say. In his article today, he says that it is not important to have excellent people as cabinet members. He argues that some ministries are important, such as the Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs are important, and exceptional people were in fact chosen for the posts. He sarcastically asks if it is the PM's job to find brilliant people to take our breath away.

He goes on to fudge, claiming that most of the chosen ministers are technocrats. The implication is that technocrats just need to take orders, the recipe is there in the national agenda, and there is no need for these technocrats to be smart, imaginative or visionary.

I wonder if Dr. Fanek would let a nurses assistant who is good at taking orders perform heart surgery on him, or if he would like to have a good 16 year old mechanic's assistant fix his car. Is it important that our finances and foreign relations are ok, but other aspects such as public works, health, water, agriculture or energy are not? Is our foreign minister supposed to think for himself as well as for water and energy?

Besides, since there is no shortage of people willing to become ministers, why not choose the best? Dr. Fanek is an economist. Shouldn't we try to get the best value for our money?

The implication of Fanek's argument is that good people are hard to find. Is that true? I mean, we pride ourselves as being some of the best educated people in the region. The most distinguished one percentile of the adult population of Jordan comes to about 25000 people. Can't we find 25 of them? Can't we figure out a mechanism to pinpoint them. Is it easier to find a terrorist than to find a distinguished professional in Jordan?

A deeper issue, of course, is our sheepish acceptance of mediocrity. A Ph.D. from Darfur university is quite willing to claim that he is more qualified than a Ph.D. from Harvard. You can be sure that nobody will ever challenge his contention, and he will find people sympathetic with the injustice that he is suffering.

A typical refrain is "he is not the worse". I go nuts when I hear this. Instead of raising the bar so that the excellent can improve, we lower it to the point that being able to crawl under it would be difficult. When will we learn to encourage and reward excellence, and put the average nincompoops in their proper place?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

New government (yawn)

General Marouf Bakhit has formed his new government. It looks like he played it safe and avoided anybody who might be controversial. Some reports had suggested that Saleh Gallab would be appointed as minister of information, a ministry which was abolished a couple of governments ago. The new government does not have a ministry of information portfolio, which was abolished because of complaints that it was a barrier to free speech.

Fears that Bakhit would form a military government seem to have been misplaced. The minister of interior is Eid Fayiz, who is a business man and served previously as minister of labour. The minister of transport (Soud Nuseirat) is an ex-officer, but he is a hold-over from Adnan Badran's cabinet.

The economic portfolios are similar to the previous government, with the notable exception of Dr. Ziad Fariz. Dr. Fariz is a well respected economist who is currently the chairman of the Arab Banking Corporation (Jordan), and was previously the governor of the Central Bank of Jordan. He served as minister of planning in the early 90's. Sharif Zoubi and Suhair Ali kept their portfolios, but Taisir Smadi lost his job as the "minister for development of the public sector". He threw an embarrassing temper tantrum about three weeks ago, complaining that he was not being given enough money. Presumably, the economic team will now all sing in key.

There are actually few new faces in the government. Dhafer el Alem was the head of the Jordan Valley Authority and was promoted to Minister of Water and Irrigation, and Akef Zoubi was the undersecretary for the Ministry of Agriculture, and was promoted to Minister of Agriculture. Munir Nassar is an investor in various tourism projects, and was appointed to the Ministry of Tourism. Adel Tuwaisi is a professor of English literature and was previously the head of the Hussein and Al Al Beit Universities. He was appointed minister of culture. Thus, these appointments make sense, and will not be controversial. The only funny appointment was the minister of Social Affairs (Suleiman Tarawneh), who is a civil engineer. Presumably, they are old friends from when Bakhit was at Mu'tah.

Most of the cabinet (15 out of 24) are ex-ministers, either held over from the previous cabinet or from earlier versions. This is a sensible investment, since they are being paid anyway.

In all, Bakhit steered away from controversy. His team seems to be mature and balanced. I would not expect anything particularly imaginative, though. This is a good first step in restoring some gravitas to the government, although, in the final analysis, it will be achievement that will be expected. Achievements will not be made by avoiding controversy.

Correction: It looks like I refered to the wrong Suleiman Tarawneh. The minister is a military man , who taught at Mu'tah. So I was partially right (Sorry, Naseem).

Thursday, November 24, 2005

First impressions

General Marouf al Bakhit has been chosen to be the new prime minister by His Majesty King Abdullah. A brief CV has been published by Petra (in Arabic). General Bakhit is a career military officer, who joined the army when he was 17 years old. He rose through the ranks and retired from the army in 1999, after serving for 35 years. During his service, he obtained a Ph.D. in military science from the University of London and managed the military wing of Mutah University. He also lectured there in political science. After retiring, he was appointed as our ambassador to Turkey and then to Israel.

General Bakhit was appointed to the post of director of national security about a week ago, suggesting that he was initially not in the running for this new post. It is clear that he has the confidence of the king. But what can we read into his record?

Jordan has not had a military prime minister in recent memory. The only possible exception was Sharif (later Prince) Zaid Bin Shaker. Sharif Zaid was kept for the specific purpose of organizing elections (with assurances that THIS TIME, the elections will be fair). Asides from the case of Sharif Zaid, army officers have not been appointed to the post of PM.

General Bakhit seems to be a largely self-made man. Whereas most recent PM's have come from privileged childhoods, he joined the army when he was only 17. To be able to achieve what he did required intelligence, hard work and loyalty. Clearly, these characteristics are admirable and I am sure that they will be useful in his new position. Being self made, one would hope that he would respect merit over pedigree. Not knowing the man, this is only a guess, and we will know more when he chooses his cabinet. If he lives up to this hope, he might be the man to deliver the long awaited reform that people are waiting for.

One cautionary note also comes from his background. The military is not a democratic institution. Therefore, I wonder if he has the type of experience needed to deal with parliament, political parties, the press and the syndicates. Cooperation with these groups is needed if the hope of reform is to be achieved. Dr. Badran mismanaged his relationship with these groups, and one might argue that his downfall was being too accommodating to them. I hope that General Bakhit doesn't take the other extreme and try to be too tough. Democracy doesn't work that way. The balance requires some experience, which he doesn't seem to have.

In all, I hope that General Bakhit lives up to the promise of his record. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

New government (Again!)

I am feeling quite depressed today. It seems that a new government is in the making. I am not feeling blue because Badran is leaving, although some good things may be said about him. And it is not because Khalaf hasn't been called. I make sure that my phone is always with me and well charged, though. What is bothering me is that I feel that these changes don't seem to serve any purpose, except to keep people amused, while the fundamental policies stay the same. Just an elaborate game of musical chairs, and people are waiting to see who will not get a chair when the music stops.

There is a lot of speculation about who will form the new government. Most of the names thrown around are the ones which have been published by Elaph. Now, not wanting to spoil anybody's fun, but what difference does it make? Presumably, whoever will be chosen will implicitly or explicitly have to adopt the national agenda as a framework for the government program. So, the policy has already been decided.

The question becomes, how successful will the new government be? Will I have to write about waiting for a new government in a few months? The thought is immensely depressing, I have to admit. It seems that there are no clear metrics as to define what successful is. Is it how quickly the political class will become bored with the new government, or how intimidated they will be by the personality of the new PM? What about actually achieving something? Doesn't that take time?

The problem seems to be that few of the recent PM's were of obvious leadership material, and have the charisma needed to stave off attacks by the parliament and the political salons. Another problem is the way in which individual cabinet members are chosen. The general impression is that these are largely chosen to please various power bases within the state. Thus, they are chosen based on who they know and who is supporting them, with little meritocracy involved. The laughable thing is that after they are chosen based on these crooked criteria, these cabinet members have the audacity to lecture everybody else about reform. Of course, the mess starts to smell in a few months, and the music starts again. In the end, the taxpayers end up paying life-long salaries for all the incompetents who only served for a few months. There are hundreds of them on the payroll already. I don't know what the purpose of paying them is.

This is why I am depressed.

Friday, November 18, 2005

A centrist movement now

In the past week or so, three articles in three major US newspapers have been published on Jordan. The first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, and was on the topic of Jordanian intelligence cooperation with the US, with concentration of the issue of "extraordinary renditions", and allegations of subcontracting of interrogation and torture to the Jordanian GID. The second was in the New York Times, and was on heavy handed suppression of dissent by the GID, and how it preventing of development of democracy in Jordan. The third is in the Washington Post web site, and focuses on the covert cooperation between Jordan and the US in the period prior to the invasion of Iraq until now. Marwan Muasher vehemently denied this report, but ignored the other two. He didn't criticize the Washington Post, but Al Jazeera, which had repeated the WP report.

Now, one would have to be pretty naïve to think that this is all coincidence, and that the US press has suddenly decided, at the same time, to discuss various embarrassing aspects of US-Jordanian cooperation and Jordan's political freedoms. While there is probably partial truth in all of these reports, I want to focus on what this means and it's implication on Jordan.

First, these revelations are largely to embarrass George Bush. Traditionally, the press gets after the US president after he is reelected, in order to disable him, probably. This happened to Clinton (Lewinski), Reagan (Iran-Contra) and Nixon (you know). Now, the failed Iraq invasion and the ongoing Valarie Plame investigation promise to hobble the president for the rest of his second term. Second term presidents become free of election considerations, and become more critical of Israeli policies. The fact that the administration was lying about Iraqi WMD before the war was clear to most observers and for many parts of the CIA at the time. The press ignored this, and the democrats meekly went along. Cheney and Bush are right in saying that the democrats publicly agreed with him. I am sure that privately they did not, but they were too chicken to say it out loud. My point is that now that Bush has done what the Israelis want, he has become a burden, and the press is working on crippling him.

Second, if these published reports are true, then King Abdullah has intricately tied himself to Bush and his (failed) agenda. I am sure that the Israelis are uncomfortable with a strong working relationship between Jordan and the US. Such a relationship takes from the types of roles that Israel likes to play, and gives it to a rival Arab country. Moreover, this strong relationship is a significant because it can be used to ward off pressure on Jordan vis a vis the solution of the Palestinian problem at Jordan's expense. Making this relationship an embarrassment will pressure the US administration to lean on Jordan, just to prove that they are not beholden to Jordan.

Third, the failed Iraq policy is the major reason why Jordan has become so important to Bush and his administration. When the US leaves Iraq (probably pretty soon), the King will be left high and dry, with no leverage to use. Even Jordan's cooperation in the war on terror might become a liability, since it seems that the press has decided to put it in a negative light.

Fourth, in the event of a collapse of the US in Iraq, we can expect renewed pressures on the monarchy. These will come from the inside and from the outside. Internally, the opposition will seize the opportunity to call for what it calls more democracy. Of course, the opposition (the IAF mostly) wants more freedom for itself. Abdul Majid Thunaibat, wants the government to hand over sermons in mosques to activists of the IAF. Certainly, the IAF has gained advantage by using religion in the past to further its political agenda, and it wants to continue to use this unfair advantage over its political opponents. Any systematic deconstruction of Islamist discourse has never been allowed, and the IAF is surly not the party to call for this to happen. Therefore, the IAF will pressure for a self-serving form of increased democracy, where it benefits from greater freedom of action, and at the same time does not allow anybody else to argue their point, since that would be perceived as anti-Islamic. I look forward to comparing the restrictions that will be placed in the National Agenda on the press with what will be proposed with regard to election campaigning.

External pressures will intensify in order to take advantage of Jordan's weakened state, possibly to try and fix the Palestinian problem through Jordan. I doubt that there will be an attempt to transfer Palestinians from Lebanon and Syria to Jordan. However, pressure will probably build to establish a confederation between Jordan and whatever Israel feels it wants to give up in Palestine. The majority of Jordanians and Palestinians reject this scenario, but who will be able to resist?

An anti-terrorism law is being drafted. I think that the point will be to muzzle criticism after US efforts in Iraq go down the tube, and more embarrassing disclosures are made. I have previously said that discourse justifying terrorism should be restricted and punished, and I stand by that. However, I worry that this is not what the government has in mind. I will withhold judgment, but what has been published is not encouraging.

I have previously argued that the Jordanian state has systematically weakened centrist movements. Even a poem by Sameer al Qudah was enough to jail him for a year. He is not an Islamist, but that is why he is deemed dangerous.

I would argue that the politics of the past are becoming increasingly untenable. The majority centrists are without an agenda or organization, and the state is using a threatening Islamist movement as a stick against the moderate center. This political status quo will be extremely fragile if external pressures are brought to bear in order solve the Palestinian question by way of Jordan and at Jordan' s expense. If this happens, the IAF will likely lean towards such a solution, as it has in the past. The business class will also lean towards this option, since it means more business for them. The king will have to bear the pressure alone.

A strong organized centrist movement can help in many aspects. It will allow for the development of real democracy, and deal with the challenge posed by the fundamentalists. This, of course, is contingent an allowing real free speech, that includes the right to challenge the use of religion in political discourse. Another advantage will be that Jordan's decision would be that of Jordan, and not that of the king. The reason that nobody can make Israel do what it doesn't want to do is that it is a democracy that allows the entire political spectrum to take part. Jordan will be stronger if does the same thing.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cleaning house

Changes in the Royal court have been announced. The changes seem to fall into a number of categories. On the security front, the most notable change is the removal of Saad Khair. Previously, he had headed the intelligence services, and recently was kicked upstairs to form an "office of national security". The word at the time was that the concept was to to remove the functions related political freedoms away from the intelligence services (the mukhabarat) into this new office, and enabling better coordination between the various security services. Clearly, this has not happened, and the New York Times has given us a black eye for it. My analysis is that Khair's removal has more to do with his lack of achievement rather than being scapegoated for the hotel bombings, which I think most people would conclude. He is being replaced by Ma'arouf al Bakhit, who was appointed as Khair's deputy a couple of months ago, presumably in preparation for this change. Bakhit had previously served as our ambassador to Israel.

The removal of Faisal Al Fayez, the former prime minister from the post the head of the Royal court might be in preparation to install him in the senate. I am sure he would much prefer to stay in the court, but I doubt that his performance as the head of the court was any more impressive than his performance as prime minister. So, he has been replaced by Salem Turk, from within the court.

The changes in religious advisors is notable. Both the head of the supreme religious court, Izzidin Tamimi and the advisor, Ahmad Hilliel, have both been removed. My guess is that in the light of the terrorist bombings, changes in religious discourse are required. A new terrorism bill is being discussed, including sanctions against discourse which justifies or condones terrorism, and the king has stated that "We will not accept for any person, group, or party to justify or defend ideas which feed and support violence and harm to innocent people". Naturally, this is music to my ears. In any case, a new type of religious discourse needs different religious leaders to do it. It will be interesting to see who replaces Tamimi, and how he performs.

The rest of the changes seem to be the removal of deadwood. Hani Mulki was given a job as scientific advisor to the king after a disastrous stint as foreign minister. Apparently, even a job that does not require doing anything proved too much for him. Mohammad Malkawi was given the post after his removal as the head of the armed forces, and Tahseen Shurthum was given the job after removal from the head of public security. It is not obvious they were doing anything. Aqel Biltaji was appointed after removal from the Aqaba Special Economic Zone, after some accusations of irregularities. It is more likely that he was in poor health, as the stories that were later circulated stated. He is an able man, whose greatest contributions were as minister of tourism. It is common for people in high posts to be appointed as advisors for a while after their removal from office, to soften the blow, I suppose.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Our security services

Typically, Jordanians have mixed feelings about their security services, particularly the intelligence service, or mukhabarat. On the one hand, in normal circumstances, much of what they do comes off as heavy handed and obtrusive. On the other hand, these services are remarkably effective. In a sense, they are so effective that we take security for granted in this country. The country is not a police state, in the sense that there is a high profile and presence wherever you go. So, there is an intricate balance between security and normalcy which is quite remarkable, especially in the Middle East.

This Elaph report says that the Zarqawi terror cell does not seem to have had any contact with Jordanians, which is probably why they were not caught in time. I believe that the capture of Sajida Rishawi will yield important information about what happened and will make it even more difficult for such things to happen in the future. Thus, her capture is an important achievement for the investigation, which is ongoing. The police and mukhabarat certainly know much more than what they are telling us, which is a good thing. I am sure that Zarqawi feels pretty stupid giving up this important clue. But he just had to brag about his great achievement.

So, I would like to salute the police and mukhabarat, and hope that they keep up their exceptional standards.

Back to work

Now that we have soaked in the horror and its lessons, I am happy to go back work. The damage done by these terrorists should not be compounded any further by lowering our productivity. In the end, they wanted to damage our psyche and our economy. So, the best answer to that is to grieve, learn our lessons and move on.

As part of my catharsis, I would like to tell Nariman Rousan and Rakan Majjali to stuff old shoes in their mouths. It was not the Mosad or the CIA, so shut up and deal with it.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Massacre in Amman

Last night, triple terror attacks on hotels in Amman left 57 dead and 115 wounded. Apparently, many of the casualties were Jordanians, attending a wedding reception in the Radisson SAS hotel. The fathers of both the bride and the groom were among the dead.

While everybody is condemning the atrocity in the strongest possible terms, I believe that we should look at ourselves with more scrutiny than we are comfortable with. The truth is that while who the actual perpetrators are is not yet known, what has happened follows a pattern that continues from New York, Madrid, London, Jerusalem, Riyadh and Baghdad, to name a few. The extremist ideology driving the terrorists is well known, if not totally comprehensible.

The uncomfortable fact is that while we nurse our historical grievances, we have allowed ourselves to lose ourselves in a culture of victimization and self pity. Thus, Arab and Moslem discourse typically finds room for justification for such horrors, especially if it happens somewhere else. In some cases, people who do such things are considered to be heroes. Heroes, indeed. Just yesterday I had a post pointing to the fact that some elements of the IAF are looking to Zarqawi as a potential leader for their movement. People dance and give sweets when this happens in Israel, and if it happens in Iraq, well, they deserve it because they are Shiites and Shiites are not fighting the occupation as we think they should. Of course, we felt that 9/11 was a big victory. Now we have one of our own. Let us think about this.

Religious extremism is a major driving force for the young cannon fodder who are still too young to know any better. This is a fact. Our governments tolerate and enable all sorts of forms of religious intimidation and indoctrination. We pretend it is all benign. Well, it is not all benign. When you walk the path of extremism, some people are going to take it its logical conclusion. Talk all you want about tolerance in Islam, but the fact that we must face is that religious discourse is what is driving these young men to blow themselves up in crowds of innocent victims.

We owe it to the victims, their families who grieve and ourselves to learn the lessons of this, and to take stock in them. This is not a trivial matter.

May God rest the souls of the victims, alleviate the suffering of the families and shield humanity from future outrages such as this.

May God protect Jordan.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Trouble in the IAF

Elaph has a report explaining that political disputes in the Islamic Action Front may soon lead to its fragmentation. The report explains that a schism has developed between Jordanians from Palestinian origins and the East Jordanians in the movement, largely over the amount of energy and resources that should be devoted to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. This is an old debate, and it is not clear what factors are bringing it to a head at this point.

What is bizarre about the report is that it claims that East Jordanians are interested in Abu Musaab Al Zerqawi as a potential leader, on the condition that he gives up "apostatizing opponents, slaughter, terror and murder". I suppose that asides from these small character flaws, he would be a perfect leader for the East Jordanian IAF.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Selling the National Agenda

Al Ghad today has a story on the marketing of the National Agenda. It seems that the Executive Privatization Commission is putting out a tender to find an advertising agency to sell the NA. Now I checked out the web site of the EPC, and I can't find the advertisement. What is surprising is that government tenders in Jordan should be announced and analyzed by the General Tenders Department (hence it's name). From a procedural point of view, the GTD should offer tenders, not the EPC.

Of course, the EPC is full of smart young executives who use Power Point, getting good pay on a contract basis. These guys don't flinch at spending lots of money needlessly. On the other hand, the GTD is laden with jaded middle aged underpaid bureaucrats in cheap suits. These guys study tenders all day long and actually know the value of a Dinar. Only somebody looking to save money would offer a tender through the GTD. Moreover, it seems that our reform process has led to enough duplication in our bureaucracy that we can choose which department we want to get the desired results. Maybe more reform will lead to greater choice, akin to actually using market forces to achieve competition between the various government departments. I digress.

So, all this got me to thinking. The NAC wants to sell the NA, and wants to spend money. Since I have been accused of taking 50 dinars to trumpet the governments position, maybe I can make money by using my blog to market the NA by way of the internet. Jameed thinks that the minimum I should accept is 85 dinars, since that is the minimum wage in Jordan. Asad Abu Khalil calls his blog the Angry Arab News Agency. If I get the contract I will change the blog to the "Bemused Ajlouni's News and Advertising Log" (BANAL).

So, now that I have announced my price, which is negotiable, I will tell you about the campaign. It is difficult to summarize 2500 pages into a five word sound bite, and I believe that the campaign should be multi pronged, to suit the various segments of the population. Here are some examples:
1- For the environmentally conscious: We destroyed a small forest to do this, please don't make us do it again ©
2- For the paranoid (taking a page from GWB): They hate the NA because they hate reform ©
3- For the paranoid (again): We didn't kill Hariri, but why take a chance? ©
4- For the business minded: Even Khalaf can make money off of this ©
5- For the religious folks: Guys with beards were involved ©
6- For centrists: Its better than the guys with beards' program ©
7- For leftists: See, the public sector is actually expanding ©
They might be clunky, but they are still better than the Jordan First slogans. Please note that these slogans are copyrighted. Any attempt to use them without giving me my cut will result in legal action, or guys in a pickup with ganwas showing up.


Monday, November 07, 2005

Is the National Agenda dead?

While Marwan Muasher and his crew are still fixing the typos in the 2500 page National Agenda, speculation on the ultimate fate of the document continues. Abu Aardvark believes that the ultimate fate of the NA is in the dustbin, along with Jordan's claim to be on the road to genuine reform, whereas Jamil Nimri suggests that this is probably not the case.

Whether the NA is ultimately accepted and implemented is contingent on whether Jordanians like it. I believe that the idea of it being totally discarded is probably wishful thinking on the part of Nimri's "highly placed source". Maybe the NA was just another brain storming exercise which will not yield the hoped results. However, I wouldn't frame partial or total rejection as being failure of reform, as Abu Aardvark suggests.

The NAC is an extraconstitutional royal commission. As such, the constitutional framework of the country would need to be changed in order to give the commission legislative or executive powers. Given that the 26 members were not elected, I would argue that letting these people have the final say would be the antithesis of democratic and legal due process. In other words, if civil society, the parliament or the executive change some of the recommendations or ignore them, this would be a healthy sign. Reform can not and should not be dictated by an unelected commission.

On the other hand, constitutional hiccups might arise. An article in Addustour today points out that the Jordanian constitution stipulates direct election of members of parliament. Thus the idea of electing party slates instead of individual candidates would be unconstitutional. So much for the entire debate about electoral reform. The idea of constitutional amendments was outside the mandate of the NAC.

A lot of hard work went into the NA. I say that when it is finally released, every aspect of it should be judged based on its merits. It was probably a good idea to draft the original recommendations by a small group, and then latter solicit input. Having discussions about the recommendations before ideas are put forward would have taken forever. However, the new ideas need to be incorporated in order to achieve acceptance by various Jordanian interests. I believe that the discussions generated after the release of the NA will be as important, if not more so, as the discussions that occurred within the NAC. The way Jordan deals with the final product will be the true test of our commitment to reform, whatever is meant by this term. I think people will show more interest when there is something to talk about.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Discussions with the left

Surprisingly, the most critical comments that I have received thus far are now coming from the left of the political spectrum, as anybody who has followed the comments on my latest post have seen. I have been quite critical of the IAF, but I haven’t given the left much attention, until Khadder began commenting on my posts. I would like to expand on some of what I have been arguing in my various posts, in order to clear myself of the accusation that I am some apologist for the government, which is what many of my readers already know.

I believe that government should work to achieve the best achievable standards of living for the most number of people without significantly damaging the social and physical environment of the country. Starting here, it is important to:
1- Safeguard the rights of the poor.
2- Keep the economy strong.
3- Reflect the will of the people in a way that does not jeopardize the rights and freedoms of the minority religious, ethnic, social or political groups as well as women.
4- Protect the environment.
5- Not get involved in the spiritual life of people, which is tempting, because it doesn't cost anything.

I have criticized the government for ignoring the need for a decent mass transport system, and substituting this with a silly decision to allow the importation of scooters. I have also criticized them for not doing more to get money from the rich Gulf countries. While I don't necessarily think that there is a problem in the way the economy is being run, I have called for a more rigorous debate on economic policies, which I think is the most important aspect of political dialog. From this aspect, I hope that more serious discussion of economic policy is initiated. I think that tax reform is an important aspect of more equitable wealth distribution, and I hope that reform is on its way, as part of the NA. I have welcomed the government's decision to pay down the debts of the public universities, and increase their budgets. This is in the direct interest of poor and middle class people. In fact, a fair reading of my blog would lead to the conclusion that I am interested in pushing the government towards more socially and environmentally equitable policies. I am also a centrist.

The problem with the left in Jordan is that they equate centrists with being pro-government (or pro-regime). By and large, we are pro-regime, but this does not mean that we are always pro-government. At the same time, the left tries to align itself with the Islamic movement, since they feel that they share the same label (the opposition). In fact, it was the centrists in the parliament who went after Bassem Awadallah and the economic team of the government, while the IAF stood by passively and watched, trying to figure out how to maximize their gains.

The natural allies of the left are the centrists, and not the Islamic right. As long as the left doesn't understand who its allies are, it will continue to be used by the Islamists and will never develop its unique and viable identity.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Should Badran be given a second chance?

Ever since the formation of the government of Adnan Badran, it has gone from one crisis to the next. From the start, there was the fiasco involving the issue of representation of various geographical and social sectors in the government. Then there were the two gas price rises. Recently, his reluctance to embrace the recommendations of the National Agenda Committee has put even more stress on the government, and it looks like this issue will lead to the choosing of a new PM.

Much of the trouble facing Badran is his lack of experience as a politician. He agreed to become PM without fully understanding the consequence of not having a working program from the start, as he wanted to defer to the NAC, and use their recommendations as guidelines for his government. This inexperience also led to the unfortunate choice of ministers, and later the unfortunate caving to the MP's on the issue of representation. Finally, the issue of fuel prices caused by the constraints imposed on him by international oil prices and the numbers given to him in the budget he inherited from the previous government. In the final analysis, the vultures are hovering. Should they have to wait?

I would argue that Badran is not as bad as his luck and inexperience would suggest. The fact that there are problems between him and Abdulhadi Majjali, the speaker of the parliament, is expected. There is a long history between the men, going back to the time when Badran was the head of Yarmouk University and Majjali was the head of public security. In 1986, students at Yarmouk University staged demonstrations, which ultimately led to heavy handed security intervention, killing at least three students, and wounding hundreds. Badran was forced to resign after that. At the time, Badran's brother, Mudar, was the PM and Majjali's brother, Abdulsalam, was the head of the University of Jordan. Abdulsalam later moved on to become PM. Complicating things, Abdulhadi has ambitions of his own at becoming prime minister. The fact that Majjali doesn't like Badran shouldn't be taken against him. Moreover, the fact that the IAF is against him (having joined the government of Mudar in the old days) is a point for and not against Dr. Badran.

The major reason why Badran is in trouble, according to the yakking political class in west Amman, is that he is reluctant to accept the NAC recommendations. This is quite disingenuous, since most of these ex officials are against the NAC as well. In any case, any reasonable person should give him/her self a chance to study the massive 2500 page document before adopting it. I think that Badran wanting to give himself and the government a chance to study this monster is fair. Granted, much of the document will be uncontroversial rehash of existing legislation and policies. But what is the problem with reading it before passing judgment and adopting it?

Badran is fundamentally a decent man with old fashioned tendencies. His government is showing active concern for environmental issues, including closing down factories that pollute their surroundings, and pulling licenses of vehicles with unacceptable levels of emissions. It is easy to imagine how he can make enemies for shutting down polluting factories. It also seems that he is planning on paying up the debts of the universities and increase their budget (was it the power of the blog?). Plans are under way to improve services in low income areas. Even his comical interest in the price of sugar before Ramadan shows a streak of compassion that should be noted. The general picture, as I see it, is that while the government is still very pro business, it also is interested enough in environmental and social issues to put its money where its mouth is. This is a departure from previous governments, I believe. I would also note that one reason that Bassem Awadallah was forced to resign was to remove what has been perceived, fairly or unfairly, as the driving force for unrestrained capitalism. So his removal actually seems to have worked in this regard.

The greatest weakness of Dr. Badran lies in an apparent over eagerness to please. The MP's intimidated him into modifying his government before they even started (a first in Jordanian politics). Later, the journalists syndicate was able to pressure him into disavowing the NAC recommendations regarding compulsory membership. The impression of weakness diminishes a leader's ability to push what he believes.

The indications seem to be that Dr. Badran is a socially and environmentally conscious liberal man. This in itself made him a number of enemies. If he has the stomach to fight the good fight, I think that he should be given the chance to work positively with the NA, especially with regards to reforming the tax system and liberalizing the laws governing the press and political parties. In order to succeed, he needs to rethink the composition of his cabinet. If he is not willing to fight hard for what he believes, I believe that he should step aside.