Monday, May 29, 2006

God protect us from extremism

According to a report in Al Rai today, IAF deputy Mohammad Abu Fares and a group of thugs accompanying him assaulted an imam in an Irbid mosque last Friday. The imam did his job by preventing Abu Fares from giving the Friday sermon. He was subsequently beaten up and insulted by Abu Fares' entourage.

Last January, Abu Fares denied fellow deputy Raed Hijjazin the right to criticize IAF actions because he is Christian. The IAF failed to apologize for that.

Meanwhile, the IAF head, Zaki Bani Ershaid warned that "continuation of repression of people's choices will lead to atmospheres where extremism can thrive replacing the moderate Islamic groups". Basically, he is threatening everybody that if his "moderate" party doesn't get what it wants, violence will ensue.

The failure of the IAF to rein in loose canons such as Abu Fares (who IS a member of the IAF) really doesn't bode well for their ability to restrain extremism. I essence, they don't seem to have neither the will nor the ability to prove themselves to be the force of moderation they claim they are.


Saturday, May 27, 2006

Jordan and Iran: What's going on?

Ever since the exposure of the Hamas terror cells, the government has been trying to underplay the role of Iran in the case. This is despite the fact that Iranian weapons were among those which were found smuggled from Syria.

Two weeks ago, the Iranian foreign minister visited Jordan, where he discussed Iran's nuclear program, the situations in Iraq and Palestine with both King Abdullah and Prime Minister Bakhit. The weapons issue was underplayed in the media releases, although "the security and stability of both countries" was emphasized.

Jordan endorsed the right of Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program, and called for the resolution of the nuclear crisis through diplomacy. For their part, the Iranians endorsed Jordan's legitimate interest and role in Iraqi affairs. There was no hint at any agreement on what is going on in Palestine.

Since the visit, mixed signals have been made. On one side, the speaker of the house, Abdulhadi Majali, called Iran "A real threat to Jordan's national security". On the other, King Abdullah is going to Germany next week, where he will probably make the case for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear crisis with Iran. It is not obvious if Majali's statement reflects current official thinking or not.

In the final analysis, it is not in Jordan's interest to have more instability in the region. On the other hand, it does have interests in Iraq and Palestine, as well as its own security concerns. It will be interesting to follow Iranian involvement with Hamas in the near future, and Jordan's moves on behalf of Iran in the west.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

New plan to combat unemployment and poverty

Under the cover of the latest terrorist arrest, the government unveiled a new plan to combat unemployment and poverty. Of course, Al Rai is all excited about it. Most people realize that an endorsement by Al Rai isn't worth much.

The plan is supposedly based on the letter sent by the King to the PM last April. In one part of the letter, the PM was requested to find ways to help the poor, through better ways of delivering aid and more microfinancing sources. The plan revealed yesterday is supposed to address this request.

It is interesting to note that the link between poverty and unemployment seems to be wearing away. Most of what will be done is more handouts to the poor, with little concrete effort to create jobs, except by replacing guest workers with Jordanians. In essence, the plan consists of four components.

The first component is based on establishing a "social solidarity commission". The purpose of this commission will be to coordinate existing efforts and encourage charitable donations to help the poor. Presumably, a newly established data base will be used to provide charitable organizations with information on the needy. This will help reduce duplication in efforts and streamlining of criteria for eligibility for help. Apparently, a nation-wide survey has shown that the greatest demand by poor people is the creation of a new bureaucracy for them to hassle with. The PM and the ministers are under the impression that giving people hand outs is equivalent to fighting poverty.

The second component consists of stripping the public universities of the meager "support" that they are given, and using the money for scholarships and loans for needy students. The universities are already deeply in debt, after being deprived of the university fee that is collected in their name. It certainly takes a lot of audacity to claim that further starving of public universities is meant to help the poor. Maybe if they declare bankruptcy it will ultimately save students the expense of getting an education in the first place.

This is where the third component comes in. More vocational training will be needed as public universities are driven to deterioration. The government has vowed to encourage and support "accredited" vocational colleges and institutions. A special committee will be created to determine what specializations will be needed in the market place. Here a bit of recent history might illuminate what is meant.

When Bassem Awadallah was the minister of planning, millions of dinars were funneled towards the "Ammon College for Hospitality & Tourism Education", which is a private college devoted towards training personnel and staff for hotels. It has a working hotel, in which the students receive practical training. A couple of months ago, Al Shahed reported how the ministry of planning funded the transformation of this institution to a university college using public funds. Here is a report in Elaph about the same subject.

In Jordan, private education is a for-profit enterprise. For public money to be used to enrich business men seems preposterous, and no answers were ever given to explain why this was done. It seems that the government plan is to funnel even more public money to enrich even more entrepreneurs. What is really hilarious is that the government is not planning on funding students to get their educations at these institutions, but seem rather inclined to give the money directly to these companies. So, public universities will not receive public money, but private for-profit "institutions" will.

The Jordanization of the workforce is a popular common sense approach that the government is planning to implement. This is the fourth element of the government plan. The problem is that it is based on a gross fallacy. Most non-Jordanian workers working here are day workers. The idea is that if their number is reduced, the cost of hiring them will go up, encouraging young Jordanians to take their place. This sounds reasonable, but is not. Jordanians working as day laborers are still considered unemployed. They have no work records, no social security and no health insurance. I would encourage the PM to visit a few construction sites, where he will meet many young Jordanians working there. The issue is not a "culture of shame". It is more related to having a viable career. Young Syrians or Egyptians can work here for a few years, save up enough money to start a project back home and live well off after they "retire" from Jordan. The idea that a Jordanian who is 20 years old can mix and haul concrete is OK. What about when he turns 50 or 60? What if he pulls a muscle or falls off a scaffold? This is not a career path which will solve unemployment. Sorry guys.

In short, the plan is to give handouts to the poor, and to give even more handouts to businessmen "investing" in vocational training. It is a terrible plan.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Terrorist caught in Iraq

An unnamed government official has told AFP and Petra that a senior Al Qaeda member has been captured by Jordanian intelligence in Iraq. It seems that the GID has taken a more proactive stance since the terror attacks in Amman last November.

The report doesn't say how or when this person was captured, and only says that he will be a star on JTV tomorrow night.

While it is good to learn that the GID is working in Iraq to protect Jordan, it is not obvious what use it is to let the world know about this. My guess that announcing the capture of this operative is intended for psychological affect on Zerqawi. Could it be that we are close to catching him?

UPDATE: Details of the creep's confessions are here. It was difficult watching him.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Playing with fire

Rana Sabbagh has an important article in Al Arab Al Yawm today, where she describes the resurgence of the Fateh movement in the Beqa'a refugee camp. The article tracks how, under government auspices, the movement is regaining control of bodies such as the camp athletic club, which had been controlled by Hamas. According the Sabbagh, the government is worried about the growing influence of Hamas and its Islamist allies, and thus is quietly encouraging the return of Fateh to open activity.

So, the government encouraged the growth of Hamas in the past, to stem the influence of Fateh and the leftist Palestinian movements, and now is using Fateh to stem Hamas and the Islamists. Remembering the lessons of the past, it would seem shortsighted to simply look at these movements as pawns to be played against each other. Both Hamas and Fateh are Palestinian organizations, with agendas that may at certain junctures be compatible with those of the government. However, when these agendas start to diverge, problems start and new rounds of damage control need to be implemented. Reasons against considering the tactic of using Fateh to stop Hamas can be listed as follows:

  1. Internal consistency. Hamas' leaders were kicked out of Jordan for interfering in the county's internal affairs. Politicians working in Jordan need to have Jordanian agendas, no matter what their affilation.
  2. National unity. The concept that Jordanians of Palestinian origin should have exclusive parties is divisive and dangerous. Strong nationalist secular parties should encourage all Jordanians to work together. The scenes described by Omar during the student elections are saddening, and reflect deep problems that should be worked out.
  3. National security. The political divisions in Palestine have the potential of developing into a civil war. We should do our best to stay out, instead of inviting the parties to spread their activities here.
  4. Minding our own business. Palestinians need to work out their problems for themselves. Taking sides will only create more enemies in the long term.

Both Hamas and Fateh have bitten the hands that fed them in Jordan in the past. Both their activities should be restricted, and those parties which view Jordan, with all of her components, as being their central concern should be encouraged to fill the gap. It would be sad if we keep repeating the same mistake.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Arabized English

I enjoy trying to figure out the roots of commonly used words in Jordan. It started when I was at school, when fellow students were extolling the virtues of a car called a Jimce. I never really knew that they were talking about until I was standing at a red light one day (many years later), looking at a GMC truck. Gee Em See. Read as one word it is Jimce. Wow. That is what they were talking about!

Young army recruits used to be transported in trucks called Kontintals. Only latter I learned that Kontintal is actually an Arabized form of the word Continental. The army folks use many English words which were inherited from the time of Glubb Pasha. These include foteeck (fatigues), jerikan (Gerry Can), munawara (maneuver) and tarmeej (from the verb Rammaja, retirement of age).

There are many words that are less than obviously of English origin. Here are some of my favorites, from the more obvious to the less:

  1. Benshar (flat tire): Puncture.
  2. Baleh. Used or unsold clothes. These come in bales (note that transliterating does not occur correctly if you don’t know proper pronunciation. Thus the silent e at the end of bale gains a sound, thus baleh.
  3. Stokat (plural of stock, unsold merchandise, particularly clothes).
  4. Lumbah. Lamp.
  5. Bugjeh. Package.
  6. Qit. Cat.
  7. Shilin (shilling; an old English monetary denomination).
  8. Ta'ariefeh. Tariff.
  9. Rutoush: Retouch.
  10. Kazoz (aerated soft drink). Actually, a gaseous drink.
  11. My all time favorite. Balgham. Transliterated from phlegm (pronounced flem).

Sorry for the silliness.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Student council

Normally, the election of a student council at any university any where in the world doesn't elicit much attention. In Jordan, the issue is different, as it is used as a yardstick to measure present and future trends of the Jordanian state.

This week, the students at the University of Jordan will elect half of their student council. The funny part is that the university administration will choose the other half. This strange arrangement was put in place five years ago, ostensibly to limit the influence of Islamists in the council. This year, the Islamists are feeling especially feisty, and have decided to boycott the elections to protest the rule that only allows the election of half the council seats. As usual, the pan Arabists and leftists are taking their cues from the Islamists, and are boycotting as well.

Many observers, such as Ali Mahafza, have drawn a link between student violence and the lack of an avenue for political expression. Moreover, Mahafza has suggested that the state has encouraged the growth of the Islamic movement as well as narrow tribal loyalties as a way to curtail the growth of Pan Arabist and leftist movements. Khadder Kenaan has a detailed narrative which conforms to this story, and admonishes leftist students to beware of conforming too closely to the Islamist agenda.

Batir Wardam suggests that the growth of tribalism on campuses is a result of a conscious effort to stem the growth of the Islamic movement. Given the marginal importance of the leftists and Pan Arabists, there is really little variety that students can choose from. It is clear that a decision to depoliticize the student body has been made. It seems that officials are still gun shy of students 20 years after the Yarmouk University riots, which led to the death of four students. The problem of parties from outside the university manipulating the student movement is also a consideration. In the final analysis, given the narrow choices available, no wonder there is so much apathy towards politics in the student body.

To me, the end result is a shame. The best context in which to teach young people the workings of democracy is on campus. My feeling is that the much maligned tribalism and apathy in the student body reflects a rejection of the Islamist agenda. Despite the Islamist bogeyman that is commonly overemphasized, parliamentary elections consistently show that less than 20% of people vote for Islamists. The deeper story is that the 80%+ of the people who vote based on tribal and other bases are consciously choosing not to vote for Islamists. It is interesting to note that at Yarmouk University, where all the student council members are elected, the Islamists consistently do poorly. Thus, the argument that the appointment of half the student council members protects against Islamists taking over the council doesn't stand up. If anything, it allows them to portray themselves as victims. This is just another example of results being different than the portrayed objective. A trend?

The problem is the lack of any viable political party that can actually articulate a progressive inclusive nationalistic agenda. I have argued before that the lack of such a party leaves us exposed and vulnerable to outside interference.

The latest events related to the Hamas terror cell have shown how politically weak we really are. The MB/IAF took over the political discourse, with no political party to argue for the sanctity of Jordan's sovereignty and security. A strong non government affiliated centrist party would have made us look less like a dictatorship and more like a mature democracy protecting its interests. It would have organized various events to reject interference in our affairs and the endangerment of our security and national unity. Alas, all of that was missing.

Lina narrated an interesting story about student reaction to the terror events of November 9. Despite attempts to manipulate students' feelings at the time, these students showed a mature and reasoned sense of center.

Let them elect their entire council.

The water's coming. I'm going to water my garden.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Islamic banks and the financial blockade

Part of the rising tide of Islamism has led to the concept of Islamic banking. The basic need for "Islamic" banking arises from an injunction in the Holy Quran against usury. Under strict interpretations of Islam, bank interests are considered to be a form of usury. So, Islamic banks don't pay or charge interest.

One must not get the impression that Islamic banks are charitable organizations, because they are not. They make lots of money. How, I hear you asking, can a bank make money without charging interest? The answer is to rename interest and call it profit.

Say you want to buy a car, and you don't have the money and you want a halal loan. You go the Islamic bank and they will buy the car for you. Then they sell it to you at a higher price (making a profit on the car) and scheduling your loan over a specified period of time. Typically, the Islamic halal loan is about 25% more expensive than the bank that engages in usury…ooops, I meant charges interest. It is ironic that an injunction meant to protect people from exploitation is used to exploit people. I doubt that Allah would be impressed by this blatant interest laundering, but in the end it is up for Him to decide.

Getting money collected in favor of the Palestinian government to its final destination has been blocked by the refusal of commercial banks to transfer the money. The banks are afraid of the repercussions of angering the US and the EU. The US treasury department has threatened unspecified actions against financial institutions that deal with Hamas or the PA.

Yousef Qardawi has called on banks to break the blockade and suggested boycotting banks that refuse to transfer funds to the Palestinian Authority. A gathering to clerics in Qatar has also called on banks to break the boycott, warning that they "could launch a boycott asking Muslims to close their accounts and move them into Islamic banks".

Of course, the question arises whether Islamic banks are doing anything to transfer funds to the PA. If they did, then the problem wouldn't exist. So, clearly they are behaving the same way as all the other commercial banks.

It seems hypocritical that banks that are using religious cover to rip people off would ignore calls by Hamas and the religious scholars in Qatar. It is not that the US or the EU have the power to put them out of business. They can make things unpleasant and hurt their profits. But isn't the success of Hamas and the survival of the Palestinian cause worth the sacrifice?

Islamists are always challenging Jordan to behave against its interests under some vague ethos of sacrifice (more like masochism). Why don't they put their money where their mouth is?


Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas

Jordan Television has finally showed some members of Hamas confessions to conspiring against the security of the country. The terrorists looked composed and in good physical condition. They were not handcuffed, and they even got to keep their beards, which in the past used to be shaved for such occasions. Their identities can be easily verified by individuals such as Sami Khouri, who employed one of them and is lucky to still be alive.

JTV also showed a scary arsenal of weapons which the terrorists brought in from Syria. It looked like what might be used to start a war, not simply to carry out a few terror operations. The government is convinced there is more out there, and is demanding that Hamas help Jordanian authorities find them. Presumably the head of Palestinian intelligence, Tareq Abu Rajab, was given details and specific questions that should be answered.

To me, the issue of attempted sabotage and interference in the Jordanian affairs is simply the price we pay for being in the Middle East. It is unacceptable, but it is a fact of life. What really bothers me is that parties that purport to be Jordanian and interested in the welfare of the country are blatantly siding with Hamas. The initial excuse was that the government is not giving any evidence. So, here is evidence. Does it change the mind of the fundamentalists in Jordan? Of course not. The head of the IAF, Zaki Bani Irshaid told Al Jazeera that "Confessions are always extracted under torture, and some defendants who have been convicted based on such coerced evidence have subsequently been acquitted". He made this statement before airing the confessions, indicating that no amount of evidence would ever change his mind.

Now, I have argued before that sewing suspicion in the motives of the government and security services encourages terrorists, since being caught will end up embarrassing the authorities in Jordan more than the terrorists themselves. To that argument, I would add now that we have a full blown fifth column in Jordan. It is clear that the MB are defending Hamas as if they are defending themselves. Any self-respecting Jordanian who cared about the welfare of the country should stand up and tell Hamas to keep their hands off of Jordan. Smuggling weapons into the country, monitoring the movements of members of security forces and tourists and planning to commit terror is not a game, and this should not be a subject for political football. Naseem is right is saying that people are living in a state of denial. Before the terror in Amman, some members of the IAF toyed with the idea of installing Abu Musaab Zerqawi as their leader. How many November 9's are needed for us to wake up?


Case against Abu Qatada extracted by torture

It looks like the deportation case against Abu Qatada is based on evidence extracted by torture. The Americans beat it out of one of his friends at Guantanamo.

Will the hypocritical Brits now stop extraditing criminals to the US because of their poor human right's record?

Excuse me while I laugh my ass off.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

We're just not good enough

Legal deliberations are underway in the UK to determine whether to send a hate and terror instigator back to Jordan. Lawyers for Abu Qatada claim that the legal agreements with Jordan are not enough to protect their client if he is sent here. The government lawyer disagrees, saying that there is no substantial reason for "believing that the cleric would be at real risk of proscribed ill-treatment on return to Jordan". He is not arguing the provisions in the agreement are enough to protect Abu Qatada.

In other words, Jordan has not proven itself worthy enough to receive this terrorist from the UK.

I agree. The Brits should keep him.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Teachers union

A long running debate in Jordan has centered on the issue of whether teachers should be allowed to establish a professional union. The minister of Education, Khaled Toukan, yesterday flatly rejected the idea. He cited the rejection of the higher council for interpreting the constitution, which said that public employees have no right under the constitution to form professional unions. Toukan also articulated an adamant rejection of politicizing the teaching process.

On the other hand, several teacher activists have written a memo to the prime minister, asking for his permission to establish such a union. In the memo, they cited a designation letter from the late King Hussein to Abdulkarim Kabariti, where he expressed a desire for the establishment of a teachers union, and the Jordanian constitution which allows Jordanians to meet and form societies and unions. The exact wording of clause ii of article 16 states that "Jordanians are entitled to establish societies and political parties provided that the objects of such societies and parties are lawful, their methods peaceful, and their by-laws not contrary to the provisions of the Constitution."

Setting aside the constitutional debate about the subject, the ramifications of the establishment of such a union would at best be benign and at worst devastating. Toukan referred to the politicization that would probably occur if this union is established. I totally agree. To be more specific, a small organized group of Muslim Brotherhood members would end up controlling the union, in a manner similar to what has happened in most of the other professional unions. While the façade is democratic, in reality a small fraction of the membership actually organized enough to impose their will over the apathetic majority. This week about 2200 members of the engineers union elected their leader, who is an Islamist. 85 voted for his opponent, which leaves 57000 out of the total 59000 engineers who didn't bother to vote. While the process is technically democratic, it is unreasonable to assume that such elections produce representative leaders.

So, one might ask what is the problem with the teachers having such a union. The answer is also derived from the behavior of the existing unions. For example, unions have been intimidating members and threatening to expel them if they decide to "normalize" with Israel. While most people are against normalization, especially in the current political climate, the fact of the matter is that it is legal for people to go to Israel and contact Israelis. It is peoples' right, whether they choose to practice it or not. So, threatening to expel people (and thus threatening their livelihood) is an illegal deprivation of a person's right. The (weak) rationalle is that the general councils of the unions, composed of all the members, have passed resolutions against normalization. The general councils, who show up when there are elections, are only a fraction of the total union membership. Moreover, they are not a legislative body that has the authority to deprive people of one of their rights.

Thus, if one were to picture a teachers union, what would happen if the general council decided not to teach "unacceptable" parts of the curriculum? The modern curriculum places a lot of emphasis on religious tolerance and civil rights. Having a group openly opposed to the Jordanian state and its welfare representing teachers, who are entrusted with sowing positive attitudes into the consciousness of new generations, is indeed a scary thought.

The only positive aspect that can come from an organization for teachers is a demand to improve their living conditions. Teachers are painfully underpaid for their efforts, and I would hope that the government can find a way to compensate them without the need for an organized movement. Such a movement will ultimately be harmful to all involved.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

Can I get a license to do this?

Petra has a story on charlatans who come to people's house, blow in their face, rendering them of "stolen will". It states a story of a lady who had people with a carpet come to her house and blow in her face. After that, she gave them her money, and signed two checks in their names, all with her "will stolen". Imagine. Signing a check under a spell.

The story goes on to say that 53 cases have been recorded in the last two years of people falling swindling by religious charlatans. And get this, most victims are educated!

Now, I have trouble with believing all of this. First, I have known people whose breath can incapacitate me, but at that point I wouldn't be able to sign a check. Second, this whole "stealing of will's" thing is hard to swallow. Is it hypnosis? The story doesn't explain, and one gets the impression that the writer believes in this mumbo jumbo. The spokesman for the police explains that the "Holy Quran is used taking advantage of poor religious education".

Sometimes I feel like I am living in some kind of anthropological theme park.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Productive foreign workers

An article in the New York Times today exposes large scale abuse of foreign workers working in the apparel industry in Jordan. I mentioned yesterday that the government gave these same industries deferrals on implementing the new minimum wage rate, ostensibly because Jordanian workers are "less productive" than their foreign counterparts.

The article cites cases of excessively long working hours (20 hours per day), non payment of salaries and the holding of travel documents to prevent these workers from leaving.

Applying Jordanian labor laws stringently towards both Jordanian and guest workers is both a moral and an economic duty. It is unacceptable that these abuses continue under the pretence of encouraging investment.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The seen and unseen in Jordan

Under popular pressure, the government today agreed to raise the minimum wage in the country to 110 JD per month. Supposedly, the 15 dinar increase will help cover the shortfall created by increasing fuel prices. In a notable exception, the raise will not cover workers in the clothing industry, as their raises have been deferred until the beginning of next year.

Owners of clothing factories take advantage of preferential treatment in US markets because of a free trade agreement between Jordan and the United States as well as a Qualified Industrial Zone agreement requiring input from both Israel and Jordan in the final product. Such factories typically gravitate towards countries which have very cheap labor. However, do to quota restrictions, are limited in their ability to sell in the US. So, they set up shop in Jordan where they have better access to the large markets, and import labor from China and other Asian countries. Local labor consists of young women who need income, no matter how small. Thousands of jobs are available in these factories, but owners are finding difficulty in enticing people to work there, largely due to the low salaries.

Zuhair Kayed, head of the higher council for population says that 733000 people in Jordan are living on less than a dinar a day. So, the dilemma is whether low paying jobs in sweatshops are better than not offering any economic opportunities for the poor at all. The implication is that the factories can easily be relocated to other countries with cheaper labor. Given the alternative, I would grudgingly go for providing choice for people. Fahed Fanek suggests that the owners of the clothing factories are overplaying their hand, and that they can afford to raise the wages of their workers in the country. If his math is correct, I don't see why the government went along with deferring raising of wages in these factories.

On the other end of the spectrum, agents who recruit domestic help from southern Asia organized a demonstration today. They are claiming that the government is placing limits and obstacles in the way of bringing in Sri Lankan and Indonesian domestic workers. According to ministry of labor numbers, there are about 70000 foreign domestic workers in the country. Assuming that each one of these ladies is working for one family, then one would conclude that 7% (1 in 14) families in Jordan have a foreign live-in maid. Now, not being judgmental, and realizing that in some cases (where the family is old or one of the members is infirm) live in help is needed, one wonders how much of this workforce is actually necessary, as opposed to factors such as laziness and jealousy being the reason behind such a large population of domestic help.

According to Zuhair Kayed again, there are 170000 births and 137000 deaths in the country every year. This averages out to 375 deaths per day. Reading the obituaries daily, one would have the impression that there are about 20 deaths per day. As the ex-editor in chief of Al Rai, Mahmoud Kayed, once said, one is not really dead in Jordan unless his obituary appears in Al Rai.

Another saying in Jordan goes like this "Ithnain ma btidri anha ilnass; sharmatat il ghani wa mout il faqir". Rough translation: Two things go unnoticed; the whoring of the rich and the death of the poor.