Saturday, March 31, 2007

More irrelevance

The “opposition” is dusting off its old issues in preparation for the upcoming elections. After being spared from hearing about “normalization” [with Israel] for the last four years, the drums are again beating on this. Last week, the Bar association held its election; complete with beating up a normalizer (kind of makes you feel secure in the knowledge that we have such strident believers in the rule of law).

Anyway, keeping up the “anti-normalization” theme, the opposition has been holding rallies to send home the message. And last week, the latest victim was Aqel Biltaji. Biltaji is a former minister of tourism and is currently a senator. Anyway, he invited the Israeli ambassador to meet him in the parliament building. They discussed a tourism related conference to be held at Bethlehem University under the sponsorship of the European Union.

The Islamists and other opposition groups seized the opportunity, loudly decrying this, and demanding that Biltaji resign from the senate over this outrage. Saleh Gallab (one of my favorite columnists, no matter what anybody says) ridiculed the whole issue, pointing out that the Jordanian parliament had ratified the peace treaty in the same building.

So, it looks like the new political season will be like the old. Instead of the opposition discussing issues of concern and relevance, we will be treated to the same old slogans. It is not surprising, only depressing.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Sell outs

Remember when the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood stuck up for Hamas? They accused the Jordanian government of falsifying the weapons case, and earned the anger and scorn of said government. One would think that gratitude for such loyalty would be in order, no?

Well, Hamas has sent a letter to the MB, saying that they don’t want to be affiliated with them any more. This Dear John letter is somewhat puzzling, since both Hamas and the MB have always denied any organizational links between the two movements. I guess that the whole world misunderstood them. Here, Salem Falahat, Head of the MB says that “So there is a difference; Hamas is a Palestinian Islamist movement that has its special duties, while the Brotherhood in Jordan, as in Egypt and other countries, are independent movements. There is no organizational overlap at all. Hamas is not part of the Brotherhood; it is an independent organization with its own leadership, by-laws, and special councils”. Oh well, I guess that confusion is the result of an honest mistake.

So, the MB met to discuss the request for separation from Hamas, and decided to refuse. Rana Sabbagh has been following this story. Here, she reports that the impasse between the MB and Hamas has been referred to the world head of the MB in Cairo by Khaled Meshaal. The Cairo decision is pending.

Anyway, the hawkish Meshaal seems to be at odds with the hawkish members of the MB, who were the ones who refused to agree to the breakage of the linkages. Meshaal’s move seems to be more related to internal Hamas politics rather than any grand political principle. He is trying to out maneuver the internal Hamas leadership in Palestine by achivening legitimacy through the Palestine National Council. Jordanian officials are worried that Hamas will try to organize itself as an alternative to the MB in the refugee camps. Remember this? On the other hand, the question of recognition of the 1988 severance between the West Bank and Jordan seems to have been resolved.

Both the internal and external Hamas factions are getting in line trying to make amends to the Jordanian government. Ismail Hanieh is scheduled to come to Jordan next week with Mahmoud Abbas, on their way to the Arab summit in Saudi Arabia. Meshaal has also stated that he is eager to resume a good relationship with Jordan. In fact, one of the biggest sticking points between Hamas and Jordan has been the interference of the Palestinian organization in Jordanian politics, specifically the MB.

So, after everybody kisses and makes up, the MB will get the short end of the stick. Where is my Kleenex?


Friday, March 23, 2007


The last few days have brought a couple of humorous (if not sad) situations. Here I would like to share.

The first story involves the new press law. Abdelraouf Rawabdeh, who had spearheaded the campaign to tighten restrictions on the press, was quite pleased that the press had accepted the crumbs that the senate had thrown to them. In the parliament session where the senate modifications were ratified by the lower house, he said that “the press had welcomed and blessed the decision by the senate scratching the section imposing jail sentences in opinion cases. So the parliament should not be more compassionate on journalists than they are on themselves”. He claimed that the earlier house version banned jailing except for the four provisions that were in article 38. In any case, it is clear that the press could have gotten better conditions if they had pushed their case farther.

The second story involves the Jordan Medical Association elections. In the run-up to these elections, the leftist block running on the “green slate” tried to allow for Iraqi members of the association to get to vote. The Islamists “white slate” vehemently opposed this, on the grounds that the Iraqis are not exactly full members. The ministry of health sided with the leftists. Finally, the whole issue was settled when a legal opinion was requested from the legislation bureau in the prime ministry. They decided that no non-Jordanians should be allowed to vote. This actually turned out to be a blow to the Islamists, who drew support for West Bank Palestinian members of the JMA. Oops.

Be careful what you wish for!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

In search of relevance

Our thirty something (number, not age) political parties are angry with the government. They are vowing that they would not meet with the prime minister even if he asked them to. They think that such meetings are useless. Obviously, the prime minister has similar sentiments.

Why are they angry? Maybe it is because the PM met with the professional unions, and not them, to discuss the election law. That is not what they say. They wrote a letter to the king, saying that the government and the parliament are not to be trusted with legislation meant to promote public freedoms and public participation. They specifically cited the press and publications law and the political parties’ law. As usual, the IAF joined the statement, even though their deputies voted to allow jailing for press crimes, and conveniently decided to walk out of the session (on an unrelated issue) where the number of required founding members for political parties was raised from 50 to 500. Talk about speaking out of both sides of your mouth. They want the king to impose democracy by decree, with no sense of the irony that such a demand entails.

Anyway, the political parties seem to be worried about the stipulation that they need to raise their membership in order to stay licensed. While the deputies seem to have had their self interest in mind, the consolidation of these parties may ultimately be a healthy development, as Nahid Hattar suggests. This remains to be seen. The more immediate impact is that few of the existing parties will survive this change.

As a matter of principle, I see no problem with only one person setting up a political party. If it proves to be appealing, it will grow. If not, it will be irrelevant (as most parties are). On the other hand, any political party that can’t scrape together 500 members from five (out of twelve) governorates will probably have little to impact on public life anyway. In fact, I suspect that none (until now) have done anything to increase their membership after licensing. I myself have approached a couple of political parties to join in the recent past, but they didn’t show any interest. These are run as social clubs, not as political parties.

So, it is laughable that the parties are threatening to boycott the upcoming elections unless the law is changed to ensure that party lists are elected. In the first place, who will notice? Secondly, they are asking for preferential treatment, ostensibly because they have something different to offer. What do they have to offer? Antics like this or this?

It occurs to me that somebody like Abdelrauf Rawabdeh, former prime minister and current deputy, did not run in the last election on a party slate. Moreover, he belongs to a small family from the town of Sarih (Irbid second district). He clearly could not win based on tribal considerations alone. And yet, he knew that no political party would have helped him win.

For all of the many faults of the politicians currently occupying their seats in the lower house, it seems that they understand their constituents and their needs more than the members of the political parties. They speak of their issues, and are interested (genuine or not) in their problems. None of the squawking irrelevant parties have convinced anybody that they are important or that they represent the needs of the people. Polls consistently show that people do not believe in them. I have said it before, and I will say it again: relevance can not be imposed or legislated.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

An odd policy shift

Today, Al Ghad has a report on a meeting between Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit and the heads of the professional unions. They discussed how the election law might be changed.

Now, there are a couple of strange things about this story. First, consecutive governments have been emphasizing the need to keep the professional unions out of politics for the last 15 years. There have been many cycles of pushing and pulling on this, but the message that the government has (until now) consistently advocated was that the role of the unions is to take care of the professional needs of its members, and to leave political activities to the political parties. From this perspective, discussing the election law with the unions contradicts this long standing position.

Second, there is nothing that the professional unions have to add to the debate on the election law. The National Agenda Committee discussed the issue at length in late 2005, and ended up without any conclusive resolutions. The Islamists want to go back to the old multiple vote law in order to artificially magnify their presence in the parliament, while the government wants to keep the one vote law in order to preclude that from happening, and to keep the tribal makeup of the parliament. Some compromise formula might be made, but I suspect that every available idea has already been put on the table. The politically affiliated heads of the professional unions will repeat the positions of their respective political parties (mostly the IAF). This discussion is a waste of time, and the purpose of it is unclear.

Thus, the government conceded the political role of the professional unions for no particularly good reason. I find that strange.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The slick senate

The press is excited about how the education and media committee of the senate has recommended removal of jail penalties for four additional offences added by the lower house to the proposed press and publications law. The proposed new law had added new offenses that can land a journalist in jail. These are (1) publishing anything that would lead to degrading, libeling or belittling any of the religions afforded freedoms in the constitution, (2) insulting or maligning any of the fathers of the monotheistic religions by writing, drawing, photography (?) or any other method, (3) what can be construed as insulting the feeling or religious belief or inciting sectarian or racial hatred, (4) maligning the dignity of individuals and their personal freedom or publishing false information or rumors about them. The meanings of many of these terms are open to interpretation, which was meant to chill the drive for more press freedoms.

To make sure this sticks, the parliament also listed similar offenses in the modified penal code, as well as “offending the dignity of the state”, equating many of these offenses to terrorism.

Now, the senate gesture is practically useless. It still allows for the jailing of journalists under the 23 other laws that constrict freedom of expression. Added to that, the senate legal committee approved the controversial changes to the penal code.

While commentators are favorably comparing the senate with the lower house, I would grant that they are slicker than the lower house. As for the press being happy with this, I would use the term pathetic.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Running scared

It is difficult to explain the recent behavior of the lower house of parliament in ways other than fear. After failing to pressure the government into extending the life of the house, they passed the municipalities law that allowed them to run for municipal councils as well as the parliament (the senate overturned this). Obviously, they wanted to hedge their bets.

Then, they passed the press law, and yesterday the passed a new political parties’ law, which requires parties to have 500 founding members. This will threaten the existence of many of the existing political parties that are too small to fulfill this requirement.

It seems that the MP’s want to be immune from criticism (the press law), and don’t want to deal with the threat posed by organized political parties in the elections. Obviously, they hope to sabotage political reform so that they can get reelected during the upcoming elections under the old rules that are favorable to them.

The problem is that predators become more vicious when they sense fear.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Scientific research

The press has been interested in the issue of scientific research in Jordan the last couple of days. Yesterday, under the provocative title “Universities cost the treasury billions of dinars a year due to weakness of scientific research”, Al Arab Al Yawm tried to deal with this issue. Citing “specialized studies”, the article claims that “the national economy suffers great losses due to the decline in the quality of university graduates”. So, the author equates the treasury with the national economy, scientific research with quality of graduates, “great” losses with “billions” and his article with journalism.

What about the “specialized studies”? Who published them? What methodology was used to reach the conclusions? In short, how reliable are they? There is no credible substantiation for the incredible claims made in the beginning of the article or its title.

The article goes on to gives us a predictable litany of reasons why scientific research is weak in Jordan, citing the vice president of Jordan University, Nabil Shawaqfeh, and the head of the friends of scientific research society, Anwar Battikhi. Shawaqfeh blamed poor graduate studies theses on the lack of motivated full time students and the lack of incentives for excellent students, as well as high work loads for faculty members. Battikhi suggested that there are not enough researchers per capita in the country in comparison with more developed countries. He also blamed poor funding for research in university budgets and by the private sector. In a refreshing counter argument, the former head of JUST and current head of the National Center for Diabetes, Kamel Ajlouni, blamed faculty members themselves, claiming that despite their high degrees, they are poor researchers.

Today, Al Ghad took a different angle, by emphasizing the economic potential that is wasted due to poor linkages between research and society needs, citing economic analyst Hussam ‘Ayesh. ‘Ayesh also linked poor scientific capacities to the brain drain from the country. On the other hand, pharmaceutical industry association general director, Hanan Sboul is cited pointing out that research investment by Jordanian pharmaceutical companies have increased substantially in recent years, leading to notable increases in exports for these companies.

A while back, I wrote about the financial conditions of Jordanian Universities. I raised the issue of the "additional fees for Jordanian universities", which are collected for the universities, but are not used for the benefit they are raised for. Today, the higher education council was to divide government “support” for the universities, with a total amount of 50 million dinars for nine universities (notice the lack of mention of additional university fees tax).

This is not to say that university funding is really linked to the supposed poor research in the universities. As far as I can tell, the indicators used to measure quality of research seem to rely on the number of articles published and where they are published. This is an easy yardstick, but it is self contradictory. Why? Because “relevant” scientific research is almost by definition geared towards local issues. International journals tend not to publish research, no matter how high the quality, that is not of interest to an international audience. Often, high quality papers are rejected because they are of “local interest”. So, researchers publishing in local journals for working on “relevant” local projects are viewed poorly, while researchers who work on “irrelevant” (to local issues) projects and publish in international journals are viewed favorably.

But a bigger issue is that nobody in a position to make decisions actually reads research results anyway. This is a well known problem, and the sad fact is that getting officials interested enough in genuinely innovative research projects and results is almost impossible. Reading is a bother, and finding a fundable research line will mean that it should be funded, meaning less money for officials to travel around the world looking for experts. The issue is a red herring. Instead of bothering to actually read research papers to determine if they are in fact worthy of consideration and implementation, it is easier to brand all local research as being poor and irrelevant. This makes it easier to hire foreign consultants, who are more credible just because they are foreign.

As for the friends of scientific research society, they are doing a disservice to scientific research, by conceding that research is poor (indicting themselves), and blaming this on the lack of funds. A real breakthrough will require decision makers to read and fairly consider the results of local researchers, and move from there. The pharmaceutical industries' experiment should be used as a case study.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Parliament and the press

As part of long awaited reform in Jordan, the government sent a new press and publications law to the parliament. The parliament was already unhappy with the press, with the head of the parliament, Abdulhadi Majali, threatening them with tough legislation if they keep criticizing the MP’s. This developed later into MP’s actually beating up reporters in the parliament.

So, the parliament took the opportunity to live up to its threat. They modified the legislation to allow prohibitively high fines and jailing of journalists for “press crimes”. In what seems to have been a childish atmosphere, MP’s taunted the press during the session, refusing to revisit the issue of jailing. The legislation passed and is now in the hands of the senate, where journalists hope that the legislation will be fixed.

Now, in my humble opinion, any politician who goes out of his way to antagonize the press is a complete idiot. Columnists are having a field day ridiculing the parliament, at a particularly interesting time, considering that the chamber will be dissolved soon and new elections are to be held.

Some of the commentary is blunt and straightforward. Samih Maitah published a long laundry list of parliamentary excesses and failures, whereas Jihad Momani (who was jailed for republishing THE CARTOONS) accused the MP’s directly of disregarding the national interest. This line of debate is more subtle but has devastating implications.

Fleshing this out, Salameh Dir’awi (Al Arab al Yawm) argues that Millennium development funds worth over 500 million dollars may be on the line, as granting countries may view the new law as a retreat from the reform that these funds are to reward.

Another important point that is being made (in a somewhat subtle manner) concerns the future makeup of the parliament. Most agree that the current election law will end up producing a parliament similar to this one. Given the anti-democratic nature of the parliament, the message goes, this is unacceptable. So, what is required is a new election law. Now, given that the parliament has proven itself untrustworthy in dealing with public freedoms’ legislation, a new law should be passed without their input (as a temporary law, which most people find distasteful but may accept given the alternative).

So, the pressure is on to produce a new election law to revamp the make up of the parliament, without them having a say in the legislation.

Did I mention that angering the press is stupid?

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Seeing the light

Yasser Abu Hillaleh, the often harangued Al Jazeerah reporter and Al Ghad Islamist-leaning columnist, is shocked, SHOCKED, at the behavior of IAF deputies in the parliament. He was expecting them to side with freedom of the press, and to vote against the jailing of journalists in “press cases”. Poor fellow. Wait until he hears that Santa Claus is not real.

Honestly, where did he get the idea that Islamists supported free expression? Of course, they often call for the right to free expression, but that is only when they are referring to their own right to express themselves, and not other people.

I am glad that Abu Hillaleh has the honesty to criticize the IAF in this case, instead of the usual apologies. I am always glad when people see the IAF for what it is.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Elections this year

King Abdullah today announced that municipal and parliamentary elections will be held on schedule this year. He called on parliament to move forward with laws affecting the political development of the country. Judging by the current behavior of parliament with regard to the press law, substantial changes in legislation on the election, political parties’ or the public assembly laws are probably not going to happen. Of course, outside pressures may induce them to change their minds.

Five months ago, when the press created the “election delay” issue, I predicted that the elections will not be delayed. I pledged that I would change the header on the blog if they were. Actually, I was looking forward for a chance to change it. It is kind of pretentious, don’t you think?

Well, maybe next time.

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