Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Iraqi refugees in Jordan

Human rights watch has a new report on the status of Iraqi refugees in Jordan. Well, HRW calls them refugees, but the Jordanian government calls them illegal immigrants. Whatever they are termed, there are an estimated half a million to a million of them in Jordan right now. Anyway, our government spokesman, Nasser Joudeh, responded to the report, decrying what he called “specialization of this organization in Jordan” and saying that the organization should change its name to “Jordan Watch”. I wonder what Batir would think of this?

Joudeh also criticized HRW for calling for assigning “political refugee” status for Iraqis in Jordan. This is funny, because the report makes no such demand. It calls for a system to protect and temporarily settle refugees for Iraq (Iraqi, Palestinian and Iranian Kurds), and afford them free medical care and their children free schooling. No mention of political asylum.

While these demands seem reasonable on their face, given the human dimension of the issue, I appreciate why the government would be reluctant to adopt them. Affording refugee status implies a temporary arrangement. Given Jordan’s history with Palestinian refugees, there is little to assure anybody that a temporary arrangement does not become a long term political, social and economic obligation. Jordan hosts Palestinian refugees from Gaza who do not enjoy Jordanian citizenship. They have been in Jordan for almost 40 years, with no realistic opportunities to return home. Given the feckless way that the international community is dealing with this issue, why should anybody lend themselves to creating a new situation like that of the Gazans in Jordan? I think that we should have learnt our lesson.

Here is what HRW wants

Minimally, Jordan should admit asylum seekers and tolerate the presence of refugees broadly recognized by UNHCR even if it is not able to provide them with a durable solution. It should refrain from rejecting them at the border or deporting them. It should allow them to work and provide them the basic necessities of life required by international human rights standards, including nondiscriminatory access to education and health care. Finally, Jordan needs to speak up and call upon the international community for help to share the enormous refugee burden it tries to ignore by remaining silent. Pretending that the burden does not exist will neither make the problem go away nor absolve Jordan of its responsibilities to protect and assist.

No matter that our public schools are overcrowded and public healthcare is overstretched. Housing costs are skyrocketing. Not only is HRW asking to provide free services to the refugees already here, but it is also asking to let anybody who wants to enter to do so. Presumably, it we do this, the flood gates of funds from international donors will open and the financial burden created by this will be taken off our shoulders.

HRW must think we are stupid.

It is interesting to note that the report mentions that the government has been more restrictive in it’s entry policies since last year’s terror attacks, which were carried out by Iraqis. The report fails to address the legitimate security concerns behind this. Or does this not matter?

While I am totally sympathetic with what Iraqis are going through these days, I doubt that they will be well served by compromising the security and economic and social stability of their neighbors. The burden of solving Iraq’s problem is that of those who created this situation.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Lucky Ajloun

The Ajloun municipality has been chosen as a model case for the country.

A model for what? The best schools? Tourism investment? Good roads? Sanitation?

Well, No.

The Ajloun municipality has been chosen as a model for one where service is exceptional.

Ajloun is a model for……………..

Collecting taxes!


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

New minister for political development

I had decided not to comment on the limited cabinet reshuffle today. However, the choice of the new minister for political development, Mohammad Oran, is too interesting to let slip by. He is an Arabist political activist, who previously served as a MP from the Tafila district, and as the head of the Jordanian Medical Association.

He is a member of the “Arab Lands Party”, which describes its principles here. They believe that the “nation’s” identity is its Arabism, that Islam is the religion on the nation, that Jordan is part of the Arab nation, all of Palestine (from the river to the sea) is Arab, that peace can be achieved if others concede the rights of Arabs to a good life and sovereignty over their land, respect for international legitimacy (?), rejection of military groupings and alliances, and belief in political pluralism and public freedoms.

Oran flag burning
Oran on the right burning an American flag
(image from Ammon News).

As with most leftist and Arabist opposition figures, Oran has had no problem getting in line with the Islamists on various issues. This has included a call to expel the Israeli ambassador and the annulment of the peace treaty. He was chosen to be spokesman for the National Coalition for Political Parties. So, last June he was a party to a meeting between the leaders of political parties and the prime minister, haggling over laws pertaining to political freedoms (political parties, the election law and the anti terrorism law). During the meeting he also called for the release of the Zarqawi deputies, before they were tried.

Oran will now share in the formulation of political freedoms' laws and policies. It will be interesting to keep track of him.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

The new government e-portal

With much fanfare, the minister of communications and information technology announced today the launching of the new e-government portal. According to the minister, the portal “will become the cornerstone for further launches, where the citizens will be able to receive government services electronically”.

The portal, as it is now, contains lots of information about what is needed for various transactions with the government. For example, it tells you what you need to do to get a special pardon from the king, what you need to set up a watermelon stand, and how to get a replacement passport. While this information is useful, we are still a long way from being able to submit requests on line. For example, check out this lame pdf file for filling out a passport request. You can’t fill it out on line, and so you need to print it out and fill it with a pen. Note the low quality of the scanning.

The site is cool and might save some effort by letting you know what you are getting into when you need something from the government. However, it is still a long way from justifying its huge price tag. Let’s hope that it develops up to the potential of its billing.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

I’m confused

During the height of the Hamas terror cells debate, the Islamists accused the government of fabricating the whole case. The government rounded up a number of suspects and televised the confessions of three of them.

Later, the IAF legal committee (including deputy Zuhair Abu Ragheb) announced that they would represent the accused, and specifically disavowed the three who confessed on television. The IAF said at the time that the three were not members of the Islamist movement, and that they cooperated with the government to fabricate this case.

Last month, on order from the king, the detainees were released, with the exception of the three who testified on TV. Their case was sent to court and they are now on trial.

Now, the funny part is that IAF deputy Abu Ragheb has agreed to defend two of these suspects. Did he forget that the IAF legal committee decided NOT to defend them, because they were tools of the government?

I’m so confused.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Bringing back the draft

The prime minister said today that the government is considering bringing back compulsory military service. In a statement to Al Arab Al Yawm, the PM said that the service will be for everybody who reaches 18 years of age, and will last for three months. I am not sure if he is thinking that women will be included.

Military service was compulsory for young men until the early 1990’s, when the government “suspended” the law. The service was for two years, with a couple of months of training and the rest of the period being largely a waste of time for most enlistees. The officers were trying to figure out to do with all the enlistees. After all, you only need so many to prepare coffee and tea for you. On the other hand, the enlistees doing their best to get assigned cushy jobs near home, and the lucky ones became excellent tea makers.

Technically, everybody is still required to serve, but if you show up asking to enroll, you will be laughed off the camp. So why is the government trying to revive something that it implicitly acknowledges was a failure in the first place?

The PM says that the service is needed to instill the “culture of work and productivity” into the youth of the country. This will allow them to “carry their responsibilities and join the work force”. Basically, he is saying that the youth is spoiled and needs to be forced to face some rough realities. He says that the enlistees will receive military training as well as some vocational training. Frankly, I don’t see how this can be done in only three months.

Now, every generation thinks that their younger counterparts are of lower caliber than they are. So, it is natural for older people to view the new generation as a superficial bunch only interested in ring tones and video clips. No blame is assigned as to why the younger generation is not as well equipped to face the world as their parents. Anyway, this is part of a well known phenomenon known as a generation gap. Should such perceptions guide policy?

I am all in favor of people going through as many and as varied experiences in their life as possible. From this perspective, a military experience in itself will certainly offer a different perspective to many young people. This is all right, as long as it doesn’t morph into a waste of time, as the old system did. It might be a harmless experiment, but I wouldn’t expect miracles from the formula that is being presented.

Friday, November 10, 2006

No ITU for us

The Jordanian delegation at the ITU meeting has withdrawn the nomination of Muna Nijem as our candidate for secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union. After the first round of voting, the candidate from Mali received 53 votes, Germany 45; Brazil 29; Switzerland 14; and Tunisia 9. Nijem received 5 votes. She blamed the lack of support from Arab and Islamic countries for Arab candidates. 19 Arab countries were eligible to vote, and 38 other Islamic countries.

So, the Arab candidates received 14 of the 19 Arab votes. There was more competition for the Islamic vote, as Mali is an Islamic state and a member of the Organization of Islamic Conferences. I wonder if anybody told our delegation this.

Who did Qatar vote for?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Human rights watch and freedom square

Human rights watch today issued a statement criticizing the government for intimidating critics. They were referring to the threat to prosecute Adnan Abu Odeh for having a long tongue (Jordanese for insulting the king). Anyway, he should have known that freedom of speech is only granted to people saying nice things. After all, he was a minister of information and he was personally responsible for shutting down a number of publications. He, of all people, should know the limits of free speech in Jordan. Anyway, threatening offensive speech with prosecution has a chilling effect on free speech, according to HRW. Who would have guessed? Is it article 150?

Now, the ill informed people at HRW seem to be ignoring the government’s promise to establish freedom square. What is the purpose of this HRW campaign? These things take time. Since the government took power about a year ago, it has been moving on implementing this great idea. There were 24 laws on the books that would have prevented the establishment of FS when the Bakhit government took over. Now, after a year, there are, well, 24. So, at this rate, we should march on freedom square sometime in, well, never. But hey, it’s the thought that counts.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

A new rip off

I like to buy the weekly tabloids because, every once in a while, they have something REALLY worth reading. This week’s Shihan has a story about how tankers bringing petroleum to Aqaba are unloading sea water instead of oil at the dock. Unfortunately, the story is not on line.

Apparently, the tankers sell off some of the oil in the open waters, and replace the oil with water. Trucks that transport the oil to the refinery in Zarqa are loaded, without allowing the drivers to inspect what is being pumped into their tanks. When they arrive at the refinery, some or most of the cargo turns out to be sea water. Officials at the refinery accuse the drivers of selling the oil and replacing it with water.

So, Shihan’s reporter went along with one of the tankers from the loading dock in Aqaba to the refinery. Sure enough, part of the cargo was sea water. Drivers and the refinery estimate that about 20% of the oil being shipped is actually sea water.

Jordan imports about 100,000 barrels of oil today. Assuming that all of it is currently coming through Aqaba, this amounts to 7.3 million barrels per year that are missing and we are paying for. Assuming that each barrel costs US $60, then the total rip off is a cool 438 million dollars.

Good investigative reporting. I am waiting to see if Al Rai will catch the story.

Ha Ha!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


An interview with Adnan Abu Odeh aired by Al Jazeerah has been a source of much commentary. Two aspects of the interview have created controversy. The first is related to Abu Odeh’s historical narrative of his role as a key policy maker during the reign of the late king Hussein. The second is his advocacy of what he calls the rights of Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

Many commentators dismiss what Abu Odeh has to say on the grounds that he is a political opportunist who was an integral part of the regime, and is now lashing out to bring himself back to the limelight. Yasser Abu Hillaleh calls him out on some statements of fact that may be misleading or inaccurate. While the case for hypocrisy is obviously easy to make, I think that the message needs to be addressed in a more substantive manner.

The core of Abu Odeh’s message is that Jordanians of Palestinian origin are marginalized in the political system and are underrepresented in key sectors, most notably the security services and in key government posts. He points to the electoral law that under represents urban over rural areas, which ultimately leads to the under representation of Jordanians of Palestinian origin. This, he claims, is evidence of deliberate marginalization of this group.

While I am not always particularly fond of what Nahid Hattar has to say, I think that he hit the nail on the head when discussing this issue. The thrust of Hattar’s argument is that the question is posed in a dangerous way. What is the point of turning the Jordanians of Palestinian roots into an ethnic sect, demanding proportional representation based on their supposed proportion as a sect? Doesn’t this undermine their identities as Jordanians? Does the deliberate attempt to magnify their proportion help their case or that of the Palestinian cause?

In fact, I don’t see Jordanians of Palestinian as a sect. There are no ethnic or religious differences between the two groups, and any sense of identity is purely a personal opinion or sense of belonging. Many Jordanians (particularly the older generation) feel that they are Palestinian, and many of their children and grandchildren have never known any home besides Jordan, and have a sense of belonging to this country that may exceed that of a Jordanian with an East Bank heritage. Why should such people be labeled as Palestinian?

Despite this, there is still an obvious failure at many levels to forge an inclusive Jordanian identity. There are historical residues from the 1970 purge of Palestinian organizations from the country, and grievances involving exclusion from the security services and (perhaps) the government as well as counter grievances related to exclusion from the private sector and academia, sectors where Jordanians from the west of the river were the first to dominate. These are grievances that reflect historical events, and continue to cast shadows on how the two groups sometimes view each other. It is not obvious why it would be difficult to sort out these problems, and build a system based on merit rather than the homes of grandparents.

It is important to point out that many people in rural Jordan feel as marginalized from the power structure of the country as anybody else. Many large tribes, villages and even small towns have never been represented in the authority structure of the country, either as ministers or even a tier lower than a minister. While east Jordanians may be over represented in the political structure, the distribution of this representation is not necessarily fair. Certain tribes and families have always been better represented than others. It is not obvious that the problem is East versus Palestinian Jordanians. Rather, the hereditary nature of distribution of public offices seems to be the main source of complaint.

I am sure that rural areas in the north and the south of the country would gladly trade their overrepresentation in the parliament with better wealth and infrastructure distribution in the country. Many of these areas have severe poverty levels and an obvious lack of economic opportunities, in contrast to urban areas where the situation is notably more comfortable. Since the issue of fairness is being raised, well, let everything be put on the table. I find it amusing that underrepresentation in the security services is viewed as a sign of discrimination. In most countries, it is the more socially and economically disadvantaged people who are the ones who choose to join the army.

But the more fundamental question is not the presence of grievances. It is a question of identity. Is any real or perceived grievance enough for a person to shed their feeling of belonging? Conversely, can a sense of belonging and loyalty be bought? Abu Odeh and his likes are living proof that they can not. Many of the current system’s failures stem from the assumption that they can.