Thursday, August 31, 2006

A good session

Yesterday’s parliament session resulted in two significant decisions. The MP’s decided to insist on including themselves as well as the judiciary in the financial disclosure law. They also rejected imposing the sales tax on fuel, natural gas and cement.

The financial disclosure law has been a subject of debate for a long time. The senate rejected imposing the law on themselves, the house and the judiciary, citing a technicality on who should hold the records. The house now insisted on including themselves and their families, also including members of the senate and high ranking judiciary members. Hopefully, the senate will overcome it’s aversion to this law, and approve it. Of course, they risk tarnishing their reputations even further by insisting on excluding themselves.

The house also approved modifications on the sales tax, but rejecting imposition of this tax on fuel, natural gas and cement. There will be higher taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, giving smugglers more incentive to bring these illegally into the country. Also, the tax will be hiked on telecommunications services. Oh well.

It is good to see that the MP’s had the good sense to reject the tax on fuel and natural gas, which would have hurt the economy. It is disconcerting that the press ignored the issue, as did the political parties and the professional unions. Where were they?

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pipe dreams

In the aftermath of sending a new ambassador to Iraq, a deal seems to have been struck with the Iraqi government for discount oil. According to the reports on the issue, the Iraqis have agreed to supply Jordan with 30,000 barrels of oil per day, out of a total of 100,000 barrels which are our total need. Some reports suggest that the total figure might rise later to 60,000 barrels per day. The “preferential rates” that the oil will be supplied at have not been disclosed, presumably to keep economic observers, bloggers and other annoying people from calculating how much the government will make off the deal.

Initially, the oil will be shipped by tankers to Jordan, with a plan to lay a pipeline later. It seems that the pipeline will end in Aqaba, with a spigot in Zerqa to feed the oil refinery there. Questions about the viability of the deal have been raised, given the security situation in Iraq, particularly in the areas near the Jordanian border.

The treatment of the issue of oil grants and subsidies in Jordan is not straight forward. A couple of weeks ago, the government sent legislation to the parliament that included imposing the sales tax on fuel. The argument for this was to make up for the loss which will occur when the prices are floated; despite the fact that the government until now claims that it is subsidizing fuel. Yesterday, Khaled Zubaidi at Al Dustour wrote a critique of this situation, which raises a number of important issues. First, the government is implying that it is paying for oil at the highest Brent benchmark level ($78), despite the fact that they are paying Aramco between $65 and $67 to deliver it to the refinery. Second, Saudi Arabia is paying the Jordanian government $280 million to support Jordan. The grant expired last April, and the government is not telling whether it has been renewed. Third, Zubaidi calls for the lifting of government controls on the fuel market, as the cost in Jordan is higher than in many other world markets, despite the government subsidies. This is partially true (especially the cost of gasoline), but some oil derivatives are sold at lower rates than in Europe and the US (for example diesel). But the major thrust of the argument is valid. Free the market and relieve the government of the subsidies that will need to be reimbursed through the sales tax.

Jordan has two major oil pipelines running through its territory. One is an old line extending from Iraq to Haifa. This line was abandoned when Israel was established in 1948. The second is the Trans Arabian pipeline (TapLine) from the oil fields of eastern Saudi Arabia to the port of Sidon. The pipeline runs through the Golan Hights and its use was restricted after the 1967 war to pumping oil to Jordan. This was discontinued in 1990 after the Gulf war.

So, with such a history, one might be skeptical that the pipeline project will succeed, given how regional political and military events in the past have led to the demise of earlier projects. One thing that we can count on is not exactly knowing what is going on. Ah, predictability!


Sunday, August 27, 2006

Terror prevention law approved

The parliament today approved the terror prevention law, despite some objections from Human rights groups and members of the opposition. Opponents charged that the law is unconstitutional and limits public freedoms.

Despite the opposition, I have seen little in the way of substantive deconstruction of the legislation. Al Ghad today has a report on a round table discussion on the issue. Journalist Oraib Rantawi criticized the bill because it does not contain a clear definition of terror. I think that he has read an old version of the bill, because this is clearly untrue. He also stated that the law punishes intentions and not real actions. This is not accurate either, as the law prohibits terror activity, as clearly defined in the same document, helping to finance or recruit terrorists or establishing or joining an organization for the purpose of committing terrorist acts. Conspiracy to commit criminal acts is a crime everywhere, as far as I know. According to Rantawi’s argument, conspiracy should be decriminalized, since it punishes for intentions rather than actions.

In the same roundtable, deputy Raed Qaqish stressed the importance of careful study of the definition of terror to avoid punishing people who should not be included. I am not sure what he meant exactly. IAF deputy Nidal Abbadi argued that the law is unconstitutional because it interferes with freedom of practicing religion. I find this argument amusing, but I will leave the astute reader a chance to draw his or her own conclusions.

In an ideal world, there would be no reason to enact a law that allows the public prosecutor to put people under surveillance with retroactive judicial oversight. A judge should be the person who decides whether there is enough evidence to trigger the provisions of the law, and not the public prosecutor. However, the mechanism that has been approved clearly aims for an ability to act when time is a factor.

This law is much better than other legislation that could be used for similar purposes, without any form of judicial oversight. For example, the 1954 crime prevention law gives the regional administrators (governors and subgovernors) the right to require written promises (with financial penalties) from anybody suspected of planning a crime, who has a history of criminal activity or anybody deemed to be a threat to society. Anybody who cannot issue such a promise can be jailed at the discretion of the regional administrator. Activists are calling for the repeal of this law, although governors are quick to defend this legal anomaly.

In legal terms, the prime prevention law of 1954 can be used to jail terror suspects just as it can be used for purse snatchers. The passing of the terror prevention law may actually open the door towards repealing the antiquated crime prevention law. Regional administrators and the state prosecutor should not be allowed to usurp the role of the courts. The terror prevention law is probably useful for the conditions we live in today, but should be subject to review in the future to ensure that it will not be used in an abusive fashion.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The MB on Russia’s terror list

The Russian government has issued a new list of terrorist organizations. The list includes the Muslim Brotherhood, which has caused some consternation in Jordan, because of the prominent status of the movement in the country.

The list is different from the US issued list because it not only includes the MB, but because it does not include Hamas or Hezbollah. Published reports on the issue suggest that the Russians are only interested in movements that are involved the separatist movements in the Caucuses. The movement makes no secret about its support for Chechen separatists. The criteria used by the Russian authorities to compile the list include any organization that has ties to militant or extremist groups operating in Russia's North Caucasus. This is probably why the MB is on the list.

The parliament issued a statement asking the Russian government to take the Muslim Brotherhood off of the list, saying that “the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan is a respectable charitable organization that has nothing to do with terrorism, and is part of the national fabric of Jordan.” The head of the MB in Jordan, Salem Falahat, said the decision was “incomprehensible and illogical.” He also said that the MB is a peaceful organization. He suggested that the decision might be to curry favor with the US, despite the fact that the MB is not considered by the Americans to be a terrorist organization. Falahat reiterated the support of the MB for the separatist movements in Chechnia.

The Jordanian government went on to issue a statement pretty much reflecting the content of the parliament statement, with special emphasis on the “Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood”, to separate it from the international MB movement.

But the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood is a part of the international MB, and thus disassociating them from each other is not simply a matter of issuing a statement by the Jordanian government. The Jordanian MB has not disavowed itself from the international movement or its stands on the Chechen issue. This makes for an awkward diplomatic situation, and hopefully the Russians will let the issue slide and not push it. I am not aware of evidence that Jordanian MB members are active in the Chechen insurgency, although Jordanians have been reported to have been killed fighting the Russians. These have been individuals affiliated with Al Qaeda and other such organizations, and not with the MB (I might be wrong here).

The episode raises important issues, however. First, Jordanian foreign policy should be set by the Jordanian government, and not the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. While it is the right of any Jordanian to try to influence the policy of the government through legal and legitimate means, the government should not be put in a position where it is defending a position that it did not take. Second, the Jordanian government is expending political capital defending the Islamist movement. It would be courteous for the Islamists to at least say that they have no business in Russian affairs, rather than continuing their previous stance. Third, it should be noted that the position of the MB on this issue is not based on the national interests of Jordan. It is based on the Pan Islamist tendencies of the movement. Remember that the MB promised to place Jordan’s interests above all others? It was not that long ago.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

Political parties’ law

One of the pieces of legislation to be discussed during the extraordinary session of parliament is the political parties’ law. I haven’t seen the full text of the law, but some of the more interesting components have been disclosed. These include raising the number of establishing members from the current number of 50 up to 250, with stipulations that the establishing members should come from at least five governorates. The proposed law also includes a mechanism for public financing of political party activities.

Despite the fact that there are around 30 licensed political parties in Jordan, only 6% of Jordanians feel that any of them represent their aspirations or interests (see page 10 here). Nahid Hattar has outlined what he sees as the four political trends in the country, which he called the conservatives, (economic) liberals, leftists and Islamists. As I said in the review, I really don’t find myself (and probably most people don’t see themselves) fitting into any of these categories.

Many of the licensed political parties are simple social clubs with no tangible political weight. The notable exception is the IAF. The largest centrist party is the ‘Ahd party built and paid for by Abdelhadi Majjali, the speaker of the house. There is a plethora of small centrist parties, which attempted to merge in the past under the banner of the National Constitutional Party. This merger failed due to personality clashes between the former heads of the individual parties that merged. We also have a couple of Ba’ath parties, a couple of communist parties and other leftist organizations with roots in the various Palestinian movements in the 1960’s and 70’s.

The idea behind the political parties’ law is to encourage the consolidation of the smaller parties and possibly to disband the smaller ones that can’t make the 250 member mark. The funding issue is designed to make larger parties politically and financially viable, and to discourage funding by regional or international forces interested in gaining influence in the country.

The political parties are not happy with the law. The IAF is quite happy with the current situation and is not interested in efforts to encourage other political parties, even if it means not getting public funding. While the coordination committee for opposition parties, dominated by the IAF, is opposed to the law, their only objection is that “the election and public meetings laws should have priority over the political parties’ law”.

Jamil Nimri adds that many parties are worried that they will not be able to meet the requirements of the new law, and that public funding will lead to undue government influence on their agendas and activities. Nimri adds that it would be easy to put safeguards on the way funding is distributed by way of clear mechanisms and formulas which are not subject to government discretion.

I have argued before that much of the weakness of political parties is not organizational or financial as much as ideological. The political parties are more involved in regional political debates than in local problems that touch on the lives of average Jordanians. I don’t think that you can legislate political relevance.


Saturday, August 19, 2006

Will the IAF MP’s resign?

The Islamist movement is studying how to respond to the convictions of Mohammad Abu Fares and Ali Abu Sukkar, who were convicted of inciting sectarianism by declaring Abu Mussab Zarqawi a martyr on pan-Arab satellite television. The movement had hoped that a statement reaffirming their moderation and loyalty to the state would be enough for the government to somehow make the case disappear from the court system. Now, there are obvious splits over the statement and over how to respond to the issuance of the final verdict by the appeals court. Al Arab Al Yawm promised a “surprise statement” by the IAF during the opening of the new parliament session. This did not materialize, suggesting that things are still being discussed (somebody spoke too soon).

From a constitutional perspective, the two deputies will lose their seats in parliament. Paragraph i of article 75 of the constitution says in part that no person shall become a deputy if they have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment exceeding one year for a non-political offence and has not been pardoned. Paragraph ii of the same article states that “Should any Senator or Deputy become disqualified during his term of office or should it appear after his election that he lacks one or more of the qualifications provided for in the preceding paragraph, his membership shall, by a resolution of two-thirds of the members of the House to which he belongs, be considered nonexistent and vacant, provided that such a resolution, if passed by the Senate, is submitted to the King for ratification”.

Supporters of the deputies will try to argue that the sentence is a political one, and thus article 75 does not apply. However, since the deputies were convicted under article 150 of the penal code, it does not seem that this argument will stick.

This means that the remaining step will be for the parliament to expel the MP’s. However, since this issue has not been listed in the royal decree calling for a special session of parliament, then to discuss this issue would be unconstitutional until parliament convenes for a regular session. This will leave the issue of membership of the deputies and filling their seats until the beginning of October, when the regular session is scheduled to begin.

There are two camps in the Islamist movement discussing their response. The leadership is interested in dropping the issue and moving on. They probably hope that the seats will be filled by internal elections in the parliament rather than through by-elections. Shihan suggested that there is a deal to this effect whereby the two vacant seats will be filled by moderate IAF members. This would be done under article 88 of the constitution, which does not really fit the situation.

The more radical elements in the party are demanding the resignation of all 17 IAF members from the parliament, as a protest against government “targeting” of the movement. It is also likely that a boycott at this stage will translate into a boycott of next year’s legislative elections.

The IAF boycotted the elections of 1997, and remained marginalized as a result until the 2003 elections. In historical terms, this boycott did little to enhance their standing, and is probably considered to have been a mistake. The leadership has been dragging its feet on making a decision, first waiting for the state security court decision, then waiting for the appellate court decision, and now still waiting, apparently for tempers to cool. The question is whether they will.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Sales tax on fuel

Recently, the prime minister made a grand announcement concerning the new income tax law. In the list of legislations presented to the parliament in its new session, a proposed modification in the sales tax law is included, which will allow the taxing of the raw crude oil and petroleum derivatives. This information is buried deep into a news item in Al Ghad with little fanfare. I didn't find it in the other newspapers. Also to be included in the new sales tax list will be telecommunications services, cement, alcohol, tobacco and tobacco products and automobiles.

The reason given for a sales tax on fuel is hilarious. The justification is that it is “to make up for the price difference caused by floating the prices and due to the cancellation of the monopoly of the Jordan Petroleum Refineries Company". So, they need to make up for floating the prices, suggesting that they were making more money when the derivatives were subsidized. I have a better suggestion. Why don’t they return the subsidies and lower the prices to the previous levels? Do they think we are stupid or what?

According to the financial report of the JPRC for 2004 (before the recent rises in costs), their sales that year were are 1.24 billion dinars. Slapping a 16% sales tax would gross a cool 200 million dinars. This would dwarf the 30 million that the rejected income tax law would have brought in. This, as usual, will harm the poor and middle class in favor of the richer people who will enjoy lower income taxes. Add to that the tax on the other products and services, and you will soon figure that your government is trying to pull a fast one.


Extraordinary parliament session

Well, Parliament is due to convene next Wednesday for a month long extraordinary session. According to article 82 the constitution, the only issues that can be discussed during an extraordinary session are those which are specified by the royal decree ordering the convening of the session.

And there is a lot to do. The royal decree has about 20 proposed pieces of legislation to be considered. These include modifications to the penal code (canceling the death penalty on some crimes), modification of the press and publications law, the political parties’ law, the income tax law as well as the anti-terrorism law. Many of the provisions of the new legislations promise to be controversial, and it will be interesting to watch the debate on them to play out.

In my opinion, the most interesting will be the debate on the anti-terrorism law. The draft was published today. It defines a terror act as “Any predetermined act committed by any method which may lead to the death of any person or causing bodily harm or causes damage to public or private property or in the transportation system or the infrastructure or the facilities of international organizations or diplomatic missions if the purpose is to disrupt public order or to endanger society and it’s security or to disrupt the application of the constitution or laws or to influence the policy of the state or the government or to force it to implement or abstain from implementation of certain actions or to endanger national security by way of fear, terror or violence”. Earlier leaked proposals for the law drew criticism that they didn’t contain a definition for terror. It is clear that this definition was written to address this concern. The scope of the law is to provide a legal framework for security agencies by which they can preempt any terror activities.

The proposed law allows, among other things, for the public attorney to impose monitoring of suspected individuals, prevention of their travel, searching of their premises and the freezing of their funds for anywhere between three and six months. The decision of public attorney will be subject to review by the state security court and the appellate court. The law does not allow indefinite jailing, as some people have suggested. The law allows jailing of suspects for two weeks which can be extended for another two weeks in "justifiable" cases.

The number of laws being considered is quite large given the time frame available. I would hope that enough time will be available for a reasonable review for all of them. I will try to keep you posted on the most interesting developments.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

“90% of Jordanians will be exempt of income tax”

This is what the prime minister told the heads of the professional syndicates yesterday. According to the PM, the proposed new income tax law will allow up to 14000 dinars per year in exemptions for single income families and 20000 dinars for double income families. The first 5000 dinars above the exemption will be taxed at 5%, the second 5000 will be taxed at 10%, 15% for the third 5000 dinars and 20% of income above that. Retirement incomes will be totally exempt.

The current income tax law has much lower exemption levels (6000 for the head of the household, 1000 for the spouse and 500 for each dependent), and the brackets start at 5% and increase at 5% intervals for every 2000 dinar increase in income up to a top bracket of 25%. Earlier this year, a proposed change in the income tax law was rejected after a large public outcry. The proposed law only had an 8000 dinar exemption, and two tax brackets thereafter (10 and 20%), with anybody making over 14000 dinars a year paying at the top level.

So, the new law is clearly designed to appease the middle class, which mobilized well to get the previous draft law rejected. It is noteworthy that the PM chose to talk to the professional syndicates about the proposed new law, as they were active in the campaign to reject the previous proposal. The political parties did not get involved, and it is clear that the PM doesn’t think they are important in this context.

The prime minister pointed out that only 11% of income tax collected comes from individuals, with the rest from corporations. There has been intense debate as to whether all companies from various sectors should pay at the same rate, or should the more profitable insurance and banking industries pay at higher levels than industries. It seems that the current thinking is to abandon the idea of the unified rates advocated in the rejected law and maintain different tax levels for different types of corporations.

Given the general political climate and the rises in the costs of living driven by rising fuel prices, it seems that the government made the prudent decision not to provoke the middle class with a heavy new tax burden. Good choice.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Last week, the council of ministers unceremoniously fired the mayor of Irbid, Walid Masri, who was replaced by Ahmad Ghazwi. No reason was given for this decision.

In Jordan, the mayors and city councilmen have traditionally been elected by the public. In 2001, then minister of municipalities, Abdulrazzaq Tubeishat (a former mayor of Irbid), pushed through sweeping changes in the structure of municipalities in the country. This was in the heyday of temporary laws pushed through by the government of Ali Abu Ragheb.

The changes in the structure of municipalities were basically two fold. Adjacent municipalities were merged into large aggregate municipalities, cutting their numbers from over 200 to 99. Thus Irbid, for example, was merged with 17 adjacent municipalities to form the Greater Irbid Municipality. The second change was to appoint mayors by government decision, along with half the council members. The other half are elected directly by districts. More details here in English.

The justification for this undemocratic change was that the merged municipalities would have more resources to help serve the public, and that regional planning would be more efficient with larger administrative units. The appointment of mayors was justified based on the poor economic conditions of the municipalities. The argument was that elected mayors were tempted to overburden the municipality by over staffing (in order to get reelected), and they were reluctant to collect taxes from their constituents.

Since then, the issue has been on the table for much discussion. One side believes that democratically elected municipalities are more knowledgeable of local conditions. The government and some observers insist that the financial and administrative conditions for the municipalities are much better now than they were five years ago. The General Accounting Bureau (a government agency) has issued a report suggesting that the changes in the municipalities have not been as successful as its proponents have claimed. A new law is being prepared where the mayor will be elected, with a government minder appointed with him. It is not obvious who will have the final say.

The fundamental issue is the question of who the mayor works for. In an elected system, it is obvious that the mayor works for the constituents. When they are appointed, they work for the government and at the pleasure of the minister of municipalities. The appointed mayors have complained of interference of the ministry in the details of the work of the municipalities. The case of Irbid and Walid Masri is an argument against the concept of government appointment of mayors.

By all accounts, Masri has been an effective mayor for the city. Services are better, the streets are cleaner and there are aesthetic touches that have added pleasure to being in the city. He has been working at utilizing the cultural heritage of the city to draw tourists, and to revive the city center. There are complaints that the municipality is trying to collect too much money, but this was one of the arguments for the current municipalities’ law. The reason for Masri’s removal has not been disclosed, but rumors include disagreements between him and the minister, him and the governor and him and employees unhappy with some of his decisions.

No matter who the former mayor disagreed with, it is clear that being appointed does not allow for a complete mandate that an elected mayor might have and need. It is also obvious that tangible achievements were not enough to keep his job through a full term. I am sure that the next mayor will be more interested in keeping the minister happy than in running the city efficiently.

It is funny that the government readily acknowledges that it can’t run businesses (thus the drive to privatization), but is reluctant to acknowledge that it is not equipped to run local governments.

Samih Maaitah’s take.


Saturday, August 05, 2006

Death penalty

The government has been reconsidering the crimes that are subject to the death penalty in our penal system. Their reason for doing this is to align our system with international norms. In most of Europe, the death penalty has been abolished. On the other hand, this form of punishment is still applied in the United States. In the Middle East, the penalty is quite common, and it is applied without too much introspection.

According to the published sources, the government wants to abolish the imposition of the death penalty on weapons and drug cases, obstruction of justice and the rape of minor females. I don’t know why minor males are different from minor females. Terror and murder are not being discussed at this stage, although the king has indicated that he would like to see the death penalty abolished in the country.

The chief opponent of changing these penalties is the Islamist head of the bar association, Saleh Armoutui. He argues that foreign groups are pressuring the country to abolish the penalty, which he says is an unacceptable interference in the country’s affairs. Presumably, he should be against the abolition of torture, since foreign human rights groups are on that case as well.

Three other lines of argument are provided by the proponents of keeping the death penalty. These are that the punishment is in line with Sharia, that some crimes are so dangerous that their perpetrators should be eliminated from society, and that the abolition would encourage the return of tribal law of revenge (tha’ir).

Now, I am not particularly squeamish about the death penalty, especially with regards to terror and murder cases. People who commit such crimes forfeit any of my sympathy. However, I find that the Sharia argument particularly troubling. Christian countries (and Israel) have managed to ignore the inhumane punishments imposed by the Old Testament, although some fundamentalist Christians in the US would be comfortable with the institution of stoning and flogging as punishments for drunkenness, homosexuality, fornication and blasphemy (I like what Natalia wrote about this). I believe that most reasonable people reject such punishments as incompatible with modern sensibilities and human rights standards. The same can be said of many aspects of Sharia law.

The arguments about removing dangers from society and return of tribal revenge are more compelling. In theory, jailing a criminal for life removes the individual from society. More dangerous criminals are a menace to the other inmates and to the guards. On the other hand, central governments should monopolize imposition of the law by standards that it sets, and modern societies should show no tolerance for people taking the law into their own hands. Revoking the death penalty should not mean that tribal law should be excused, despite the fact that many people would see the justification.

The most compelling argument against the death penalty is the issue of mistakes. The fact that the penalty is irreversible is quite troubling, and mistakes have been documented where innocent people have been put to death. Sufficient safeguards should be built into the system to prevent this from happening.

So, my feeling is that the reduction of cases in which the death penalty is prescribed is a good step. I still believe that terror should be punishable by death. Regular murder is more problematic, and judges should be allowed to make decisions based on the specifics of the cases.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Nasim Tamimi is telling us about the snazzy new busses being put into service in Amman. While I salute any modernization effort in the country (even in Amman), I would like to let people know what public transportation is like in the rural areas in the country, just to keep some perspective.

Traditionally, the government has rationed the distribution of licensed bus lines in the country. The reasons are to ensure that people working on these lines can make a decent living. More to the point, it gives the government a low-cost treat which it can use to buy favors from local political or tribal figures. So, it was common that the government would give away bus lines to members of parliament or their immediate relatives in exchange for burying a corruption case or for getting a vote passed. Because these lines were rationed, getting a license meant cash in the bank. All the owner of the new line needed to do was to sell it for a handsome profit, or to buy a bus himself.

Of course, who cares about the poor slobs who need to get from here to there? Because this situation is designed to be a cash cow (despite enforcing moderate tariffs on the passengers), most lines are underserved, with laughable sights of people stuffed into dilapidated old Coaster busses.

About five years ago, low cost diesel vans started flowing into the country. Any unemployed young man with about 10000 dinars can now buy one and provide a parallel service to the officially sanctioned busses. No matter that police constantly harass them and ticket them for illegal transporting of passengers. The income derived makes it worth while to continue this practice despite the fact that it is not officially sanctioned.

The vans provide a less comfortable ride than the new Amman busses, but if you want to go from Ba’oun to Ajloun at 9 pm, you can do it for a moderate fare and you will be dropped of where you need to go. Forget about the old Coaster. The old guy driving it is in his pajamas watching Al Jazeera.

Thank God for private enterprise.