Monday, October 30, 2006


One of the more obscure aspects of government in Jordan is the role and criteria for choosing governors (muhafidhin), and heads of the districts (mutasarifin) and other levels of centrally appointed representatives in the various governorates and districts in the country. These bureaucrats are appointed by the minister of interior, and exert heavy influence on the administration of the country, particularly outside Amman. The question of administrative, legal and political reform in the country can not really be addressed without scrutinizing this issue.

The role of the governor includes the public security as defined by the crime prevention law, the control of public meetings, and the assurance that tribal disputes are solved according to the traditional code, among other less glamorous duties. The governor exerts influence on the running of municipalities and all central government affairs in his governorate.

The laws ruling the governors almost always give him complete authority. For example, under the crime prevention law of 1954, the governor has the authority to indefinitely jail people who he deems threats to public order. They do not need to have committed any crime, and no judicial review is needed. The governors defend this right on the grounds that it is only used against ex convicts, it protects society and that the judicial process is unfair to the poor. Naturally, human rights activists don’t buy it, and argue that jailing people without proper judicial procedure is unconstitutional. Some people have successfully appealed against such decisions in the courts, but why should they have to?

The governors are also charged with deciding whether or not to allow public meetings or demonstrations, with their decision being final and without having to give justifications.

The implementation of tribal laws at the expense of civil law is anachronistic, as I have argued in the past. The modernization of the state should ultimately mean that people are equal under the law, and nobody should be punished for the acts of others.

So, who are these people who are given these near-dictatorial powers? Few people know, as only a small item in the newspaper announces the appointment of a new governor somewhere, with no indication of why the new governor was chosen or what his qualifications are. The only pattern that anybody can see is that certain tribes and geographic regions have a greater genetic propensity to be governors, and governors are never appointed to the governorates where they originate. This probably makes sense.

Asides from perfunctory duties and strangling civil society, there is no particularly useful role that governors offices perform that a more appropriate agency couldn’t do better. The previous minister of interior had to ask employees in these offices not to download CD’s of games on their official computers, as this habit leads to inadvertent infestation of viruses on the machines. I am not sure how they are getting along with not being able to play Red Alert any more.

On the other hand, a modern state would do better to phase out such positions in favor of empowering municipalities, police and the courts.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Muna Nijem's reply to my query

Natasha has pointed out that our ex telecommunications regulator, Muna Nijem, is running for the post of the secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union. She has a web site to advocate her case.

Since everybody is interested in the Umniah case, and she was the head of the TRC at the time the license was issued, I wondered what Ms. Nijem had to say about the controversy. On a suggestion by Natasha, I left a comment on her blog, and she has been kind enough to answer my question.

Much of her reply is really the official line, which states that the opening of the communications market is better for the consumer. The most controversial aspect of the licensing process, in my opinion, was the price paid to the treasury. This became an issue after a similar license was issued in Egypt for a third cell phone operator which paid out licensing fees of almost thee billion dollars. Of course, people realize that the Egyptian market is much larger than the Jordanian one, but the difference between the two deals (1:500) is not close to the ratio between the sizes of the two markets.

Nijem alludes to this by pointing out that the actual revenues of the treasury should be calculated on the life time of the license (15 years), and not simply on the up front licensing fees paid in the beginning. She implies that the Egyptian license is different because the government will not share the revenues of the operator, which is the case with the Umniah license. The government has previously stated that the treasury will collect 240 million dinars over the period of the license. I don’t know if the Egyptian deal is similar or not. Clarification of this point specifically should dispel the doubts that surround this issue.

I would like to wish the best of luck to Nijem, and to thank her for the professional response to the voices of the blogosphere.

UPDATE: The following comment was left by Ms. Nijem. I thought it should be placed on the main post as well:

I want to thank all of you for taking the time to visit my site and for the show of support. The Umniah licensing is exactly what I stated; clean, pure and simple. It was done by transparent "due process" and with the approval of Council of ministers at every step. I am at your disposal, at a later stage, to hold a meeting w/all who are interested from you to explain things in the minutest details.

I thank you again, and promise all of you that I never compromise on honesty and honor, and I set extremely high standards for honesty and honor for myself. God, the Almighty, is always watching every small deed we do.

You are the future, and I believe in you. I lead by example and pray to God, and with your support that together we will do our utmost to serve humanity at large, to the best of our capabilities. God bless.

Monday, October 23, 2006

PR gone wrong

The IAF has been trying to give the impression that the relatives of the victims of the Amman terror attacks have forgiven it's (ex?) deputies for calling Zarqawi a “martyr”. Their web site features a story of an iftar banquet. The headline states “The relatives of the Amman bombing victims honor deputies Abu Faris and Abu Sukkar”. The story goes on to explain the businessman Thaher Amro held a banquet in honor of the (ex?) deputies, which was attended by “a number” of the victims’ families. The story is dated October 19.

The same day, Ammon news agency carried a similar story. Apparantly, Al Arab Al Yawm carried the same story yesterday, which prompted Thaher Amro to send the newspaper a letter explaining the invitation. According to Amro, there was only one relative of the victims who was invited because he is Amro’s cousin. The invitation was not made in the names of the victims’ families, and only the cousin happened to be one of them. Amro praised the Islamists charity and social work, but disavowed their political practices. He also pointed out that were it not for the king’s pardon, the invitation could not have taken place.



The last (lost) day

The end of Ramadan, like the beginning, is determined by the sighting of the new moon. This occasion is marked by the Eid el Fitr festival, where people visit each other, perform social obligations, go out and dine and generally enjoy the fact that they don’t need to fast any more.

Because this occasion is marked by the sighting of the moon, nobody ever knows exactly what day the Eid begins. Different states in the same region, and even different sects in the same country, might celebrate the Eid on different days.

The government last week announced a holiday beginning on Monday (today) just in case the Eid happens to fall on this day. Last night, it was announced that the Eid will actually begin tomorrow, and that today will be the last day of Ramadan.

So, everybody has a day off today, because this was decreed last week, and the Eid is tomorrow. Preparations have already been made; food and sweets for guests have already been purchased. So, people are not at work, not preparing for the Eid and are fasting. What good is such a vacation?

Of course, productivity drops precipitously during Ramadan anyway. However, this is built into the system. This one day has no functional, social or recreational value at all (except for collecting good deeds for the hereafter). It would be better for people to work (such as work is in Ramadan, especially towards the end) rather than hanging out brooding. Can this be fixed?

The beginning of Ramadan and the Eid can actually be calculated. While fundamentalist interpretations reject astronomical calculations, many respected scholars have no problem using modern approaches to this problem. The use of a semi-random approach to this simple problem runs contrary to the policy of a state purporting to advocate science and technology as a solution to our problems. What is science and technology good for if it can’t be used to plan ahead?

Happy Eid to all!


Saturday, October 21, 2006

A new approach

The royal pardon and release of the two deputies jailed for glorifying Abu Musab Zarqawi and the recent release of Islamists involved in the Hamas weapons case has been somewhat of a puzzle. Why would Jordan compromise its security to appease violent Islamists?

A series of commentaries in the press today probably explain this. In Al Rai, Sultan Hattab suggests that there is an internal message imbedded in the decisions. He thinks that the message is that the Islamists are not being targeted, and they should know that. The implication is that a “turn the other cheek” policy is at work. Call me cynical, but I don’t think this will work. The Islamists will continue to claim that the government is targeting them, because it is politically expedient and useful, and it diverts away from them dealing with their own ill intentions and misbehavior. Moreover, individuals working to undermine the security of the country will perceive their release as an affirmation of their strength and of the government’s weakness. This is hardly an incentive for them to change their behavior.

Hattab has a more interesting point regarding the desire to open a new page with Hamas, in an effort to try an influence the deteriorating conditions in Palestine. This point makes more sense, although it has not been fleshed out as well as other articles talking about the issue.

Two articles in Al Arab Al Yawm also support this theory. Fahed Khitan points out that the Hamas weapons case is still not closed, and that three suspects are still under arrest. Moreover, Jordan has not abdicated its right to demand information and clarifications regarding this case. On the other hand the release of nine of the suspects might pave the way for smoothing relations between the Jordanian government and Hamas.

Nahid Hattar writes an important piece where he emphasizes the importance of stopping internal fighting between Fateh and Hamas, and the strategic importance of Jordan helping in facilitating reconciliation between the two parties. He goes on to elaborate the required outline of the agreement between the two parties. He says that US and Israeli conditions should be set aside because they are not serious about any peace accord anyway. The agreement should be on power sharing, possibly the formation of a technocratic government. To achieve this, Jordan can help by making up with Hamas, pressuring Fateh to accept Hamas’ rule, trying to end the blockade on the Palestinian people and going as far as threatening abrogating the peace treaty with Israel to pressure them to return to the negotiating table.

It is clear that the king and the Jordanian government view the situation in Palestine as a serious issue that has important ramifications on Jordan. While the security issues raised by the Hamas weapons case are grave, and not minor as suggested by Khitan and Hattar, the situation in Palestine is an even greater danger. We still need to watch our back, though.

Blood sports

In Jordan, there lacks any clear criteria for who gets appointed to posts of prime ministers or ministers, and there are no limits on how long or short the term of the government is, and no obvious evaluation checklists for evaluating people and retaining them.

In essence, the officials serve at the pleasure of the king. This means that the king needs to make judgments based on his own instincts as well as what his circle of advisors might think suitable. Inevitably, this circle of advisors is influenced by what is said in political groupings or what are known as “political salons” in Jordan. They rarely are influenced by what the average Khalaf thinks. Thus, political salons with unemployed ex officials and aspiring wannabees looking to work their way into the political class (and king’s advisors) begin to wield disproportionate influence in a murky uninstitutionalized “system”. This is exasperated by the lack of political timelines whereby changes in government are a constitutional requirement.

So, soon after any government is formed, these political classes (except the ones lucky enough to get into the government) start to pressure for another change in government. Any sense of weakness or vulnerability becomes a signal that a new fox hunt is on. Some governments are lucky enough to last a couple of years. Adnan Badran’s government’s pelt was taken a few short months after it was formed.

Sometimes the PM needs to sacrifice some of the members of his cabinet in order to save the rest (and himself). Often, this diverts the fox hounds long enough for the rest to get away. For a while that is.

Marouf Bakhit has the hounds at his tail now. Aside from the usual diversionary tactic mentioned above, he seems to be attempting a high risk approach of actually fighting back. His government has been dusting off corruption files and sending them to the prosecutor’s office. Of course, most of these files involve ex officials and their cliques, who are the same people sitting in the political salons.

So, will it work? It certainly will make many ex officials scared, and give them extra incentive to get his hide. On the other hand, sending some really big names to the prosecutors office will boost his popularity, and give him some level of immunity. If he is removed the impression will be that the king is protecting corruption. I doubt that the king will want to enforce such a perception.

So, the current level of “fighting corruption” is only enough to scare and anger the established corrupt political class. However, a more bold approach that will involve ex prime ministers and many more high officials will achieve the reprieve he wants. Ammon news has a report suggesting that the salons are backing away for now, probably trying to make him complacent.

Does he have the guts to make it an all out war on corruption? We will see. His skin depends on it.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Election delay?

The last week has seen a full blown attack against the idea of delaying parliamentary elections due next summer. No official has said that a delay is being considered. So, who set up this straw man for people to kick around?

As far as I can tell, the whole thing started a week ago, when Samih Maitah wrote an article suggesting that a date should be set and confirmed, to give people time to plan and to start preparing. Past experiences, he suggested, made people skeptical that the elections will take place on time. He claimed that elites and decision makers always prefer to delay elections because of the “regional situation”. He didn’t say that anybody is suggesting this now, and this is an assumption he made based on past events.

A couple of days later, Fahd Khitan wrote on the same subject. In this article, he gives arguments made by “callers for delay”. Who are they? His barber or the taxi driver he took a ride with? He makes no mention that they have any official capacity, and he states explicitly that the government is not interested in a delay. Anyway these “callers for delay” are worried about the Islamists winning the elections, especially the Islamist supporters of Hamas. Of course, he goes on to argue that this delay is a bad idea and that a new election law should be implemented for the upcoming elections.

The next day, Rana Sabbagh, drew a nightmare scenario in which an Islamist victory in Jordan would unite with the Hamas government in Palestine to form an Islamist state in Jordan and parts of Palestine. She highlights the fact that leading Jordanian Islamists view the 1988 disengagement between Jordan and the West Bank as unconstitutional (Hamas leaders don’t recognize the disengagement either). She draws her concerns from unnamed officials and influential MP’s (who have a vested interest in extending the life of the current parliament). Her analysis is that the parliamentary elections will be delayed for a year or two.

In the last press conference conducted by Nasser Joudeh, he refused to answer a direct question about the issue. Instead, he tersely said that the decision is the prerogative of the king. The minister of state for political development, Sabri Rbeihat later attempted damage control by saying flatly that the elections will be held on time and according to a new election law. This didn’t prevent Al Ghad from continuing speculation over the matter, always citing unnamed sources.

So, the chatter continues, as does the debate. Jamil Nimri doesn’t think that the government is interested in delaying the elections, but calls for changing the election law in the mean time, despite the lack of any consensus on what the new law would be like. I personally don’t think that the election will be delayed, despite some of the concerns. If I am wrong, I will change the header on my blog.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Fighting corruption

The Bakhit government has so far initiated legal action over four major corruption cases. These are the Jordan Magnesia factory file, the Islamic Center Charity Society, the General Union for Voluntary Societies and the Ministry of Municipalities used garbage trucks and pressers case. The last case implicated the former minister of municipalities, Abdulrazzaq Tubeishat, who apparently authorized the purchase of used sanitary equipment to the tune of 4.5 million dinars. The specifications required for the equipment were not met, but the purchase was approved anyway.

The government, as all governments before, has vowed to fight corruption mercilessly. It seems to living up to its pledge. The prosecution of a former minister is noteworthy, as it has been quite rare that such high level officials be questioned about their actions. The notable exception was the former head of the intelligence service, Samih Batikhi, who was sentenced on corruption charges three years ago. According to local lore, he spent his sentence in luxurious house arrest in Aqaba, and is now in London.

In the last two days, a new scandal broke involving forged bank documents being used to give residency permits to Arab “investors”. Apparently, employees at the ministry of trade and industry were involved in allowing the use of bank documents from a fictitious bank. Again, the government is following up.

Jordan’s ranking in the 2005 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index is 37 with a score of 5.7. The highest score of 9.7 goes to Iceland. So Iceland is over 50% more transparent than Jordan, according to business “perceptions”. I would say we still have a long way to go, although it can be easily argued that many countries are more corrupt than Jordan.

So, is the government gaining any credibility for its efforts? Many people think that there are bigger fish than Tubeishat who should be questioned. Ziad Abu Ghanimeh is skeptical, and relates a hilarious story about a past minister who wanted to help somebody by hiring him. So he hires the guy as a teacher, despite his protestations that he is illiterate. “Don’t worry”, says the minister. “I will hire you as a teacher but your job will be to be my office boy”. So, it goes well until one day the illiterate teacher/office boy shows up in a panic in the minister’s office. “It is a catastrophe, a scandal!”. “What is the problem” asks the minister. “The government is checking if all the teachers recently hired are qualified, and they have set up a committee to examine them all”, the guy franticly says. “We will be scandalized and disgraced”. The minister laughs. “Why are you laughing?” “Didn’t you hear?” responds the minister. “I have appointed you as head of the committee to examine the teachers!”

For me, I think that these prosecutions are important for scaring would be crooks. I smile with relish as I think of corrupt officials tossing and turning at night, wondering if they are next. Or maybe I am just another naïve soul. Only time will tell.


Saturday, October 07, 2006

Jordan’s image

Jordan has been worried about its image recently. We worry what Al Jazeera and the Los Angeles Times say about us, as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It is important to worry about your image if you are selling shampoo or mosquito repellents, but if image doesn’t affect your bottom line, how important is it?

Currently, the United States, Israel, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and a host of other countries are suffering serious image issues. Most of these countries protest that the media is unfair, and that coverage does not reflect the realities of their countries or their policies.

To a certain extent, it is true that the media likes to focus on negative aspects of any society, culture, behavior or policy. So, there is an inherent unfairness related to this. On the other hand, nobody seems to bother getting on Norway’s case. The only bad thing people know about Norway is that it is cold. Hardly headline material. Bad press require some basis of substance to happen. Many people worry about the image more than the reality.

So, how thick or thinned skinned should we be? It is human nature to care about how people think of you. A good image encourages tourism and investment. It also discourages other people from bombing or invading you (for fear over their own image). It also validates what you do and makes you feel good about yourself.

Trying to keep everybody happy all the time, on the other hand, can be an oppressive task. The nature of how things are require that you sometimes take stands that are unpopular or controversial. In the case of security, I believe that any PR considerations should be of secondary value to the task of fighting terrorism. This does not mean trampling human rights or free expression. Human rights have an inherent value irrespective of image considerations.

However, we should not shy away from the fact that terrorists and their supporters would use democratic freedoms to indoctrinate, recruit and incite young people into carrying out horrific acts. We also should not shy away from the fact that many in Israel would like change the regime in this country in order to establish an alternative homeland for Palestinians here. This would pave the way to expelling the remaining Palestinians from their lands, and allow for the resolution of an important obstacle in the path of peace between Israel and Lebanon.

Added to that, Arabists and Islamists like to blame the entire state of the nation on the “treachery” and “clientism” of the Jordanian regime. This regime is a convenient scapegoat, and diverts attention from the many failings of Arabists and Islamists themselves.

Therefore, achieving a perfect image is an impossible task for Jordan. Compromising our security and allowing the mass exodus of Palestinians from their homeland would appease most of our critics, but I would prefer a bad image.

To fight back, we need an independent, appealing, strong and credible media. Our print media is reasonable, but its effect is limited to the local population. There is lots of room for improvement, but a wide variety of critical coverage and commentary can be read here. Broadcast media, on the other hand, is a total disaster. This is disturbing because what others see of Jordan is mostly based on the broadcast and not the print media. The only way to improve our image is to allow the flourishing of independent broadcast media as well as an even more independent print media.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

We are mad at Qatar

Our government spokesman today announced that Jordan has recalled it’s ambassador to Qatar, presumably to protest Qatar’s backing of the Korean Foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, as secretary general for the United Nations. Jordan has nominated Prince Zeid Raad al-Hussein, and Arab foreign ministers (including Qatar) had vowed to back his nomination. Nasser Joudeh said that the Jordanian government is unhappy because Qatar didn’t stick with the Arab consensus. The implication is that Prince Zeid’s losing is of secondary significance. Joudeh also suggested that the Qatari stance towards Jordan is due to the alignment between us and the Saudis.

Many people feel that Qatar has negative attitudes towards Jordan, and cite how Al Jazeera covers our issues. Of course, many people besides Jordanians think that Qatar is against them because of Al Jazeera’s coverage of them. While one might argue about how independent, fair or neutral Al Jazeera is, the channel is popular because it offers people view points that they would like to see. I am not a big fan, but there you go.

To be honest, in the grand scheme of things Jordan and Qatar are both small fry. Both would like to assume roles larger than their geographic, economic or demographic realities would dictate. From this perspective, the squabble between the two governments is a small, insignificant side show. As a Jordanian, I am more concerned about the jobs of 15000 Jordanians in Qatar than I am with securing a job for Prince Zeid.

I wish somebody would break up this fight and make each child stand in the corner until the end of the period.