Thursday, August 30, 2007

An attack on mansaf

The government is planning on severely cutting back it’s subsidies on livestock feed. Rises in the costs and the fixing of the price of this feed is expected to cost the treasury 160 million dinars per year. In order to cut this cost, the government wants to give cash payments to owners of small numbers of sheep and goats, and cut the subsidy of the feed. This would eliminate government support of cattle and poultry, as well as support of large stocks of sheep. Moreover, the proposed cash payments for the small owners would not cover the difference in feed costs which will result from the lifting of subsidies.

Naturally, livestock owners are furious, and today they demonstrated in southern Amman, cutting off the main highway between the capital and Aqaba. Police have now reopened the highway.

Jordan is largely a pastoral country, both in nature and in society. Thus, raising livestock in rural areas is a major source of income. The carrying capacity of the land has long ago been exceeded by the numbers of livestock that are being raised, requiring additional feed to sustain this industry. Lifting of subsidies will raise the cost of doing business, driving many herders to abandon this profession. Costs to the consumers are expected to rise dramatically. Thus, aside from the economic argument, it is imperative to look at the social costs of this decision. We are looking at more unemployment, more migration to the cities, more smuggling and other crime and more anger. There are definitely important security implications for this decision. Of course, this is not the first time that this government has taken such a callous approach to the ambitions and needs to rural areas, but the effect of this decision is more widespread because it affects a larger number of people.

Jordan imports massive amounts of meat at cost that far lower than that of the local meat, which is largely viewed as being superior in quality. Local lamb costs over 6 dinars per kilogram, which is over double the cost of imported meat. No decent mansaf can be made other than with local lamb baladi meat. The same goes for jameed (dried yogurt) made from sheep and goat milk. Thus, the issue has sentimental value as well.

In principal, I am one to believe that economic activities should comply with real market conditions. However, in this case I have reservations about this development. It should be pointed out that agricultural activities in the US and in the west in general enjoy substantial government subsidies, because food security and stabilization of rural communities are desirable goals. The same should apply here, despite the fact that we are quite far away from being self sufficient in food production. Another point is that the costs of meat and poultry and especially of dairy products will rise, which may have implications on public health as people cut back on dairy products. The most important point is that successive governments have mostly failed in providing economic opportunity to rural areas in the country. When enough reasonable opportunities are created, then an attack on the traditional income sources might be considered.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The centrist "current"

Abdulhadi Majali and a group of like-minded politicians have been going around the country to initiate what they call a nationalist “current” that would replace the large number of centrist parties that have proven to be largely impotent. Majali started this initiative shortly before the dissolution of parliament, apparently in the hope that he can forestall elections until his new party was ready. In his meetings he says that it is unfortunate that he was not given enough time to prepare this “current” before the next elections, which are due in November. Four years was more than enough time.

This is not the first time this has been attempted. Before the 1997 elections, the major centrist parties back then joined together in what was known as the national constitutional party. Shortly after the election, the party broke up as the major figures fought over leadership. Most people believe that this experiment was aborted following state intervention. NOW, it is suggested, the state DOES want the establishment of such a party. Is this true? More importantly, will it work?

I have suggested a few times that Jordan needs a large centrist party that can speak for the majority of Jordanians. Nahid Hattar divided political trends in Jordan into four groups. According to the Hattar classification, such a grouping would fall under the “conservative” heading. Will people find such an umbrella appealing? To a large extent this will depend on whether they find the politicians fronting it appealing. This is a major problem.

While Majali and the others insist that they do not aspire for leadership roles in the new organization, few people are willing to take their assurances at face value. I have heard of one participant of these gatherings asking why it is our fate to have to deal with the same politicians in dictatorship and in democracy. This, I think, sums up the problem. Majali is not a particularly popular politician, and he won his seat in 2003 with a little more than 5000 votes amid allegations that his supporters were ironing out indentations pressed into their plastic ID cards so that they can vote more than once. His democratic credentials are lackluster at best.

So, we have an unpopular politician who started an initiative so that he can forestall having to face voters again. The “current” will be irrelevant in the next elections because there is no time to prepare. More importantly, the present voting system (which Majali, as speaker of the house, made sure was not changed) ensures the election of the same types of people who would be attracted to work within the new current. Why would politicians associate themselves with Majali and his cohorts if they can be elected based on their personal and tribal affiliations? Even more relevant, why would people vote for a state inspired party? I mean, does the state not have enough power already? Should we give them more?

Thus, it seems to me that Majali’s new current will not get very far. This is too bad, because we do need such a party with strong programs and convincing politicians. Some columnists think that the idea deserves a chance. It will have its chance, but from what I can see people are skeptical because of the history of such attempts and because of the personalities fronting the effort. I think that this is too bad.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Oil politics and economics

Prime Minister Bakhit last week announced a freeze in rises in the prices of oil derivatives, after creating the groundwork for it. In the aftermath of this, finance minister Ziad Fariz resigned. Is it a case of good politics and bad policy? Or were the reasons offered by the government and its media tools not as sound as they originally seemed?

It is difficult to answer these questions because full data is not available. What is well known is that poor and middle class Jordanians are having trouble coping with already high fuel prices because their income levels are not going up at the same rate as the rises in prices (despite government assurances that inflation levels are much lower then peoples perception of them. Go figure). The official line is that the current price levels are set based on the assumption the world oil prices are 60 USD per barrel, rather than the current level of over 70 USD. The 10 dollar differential costs about 1 million dollars a day. So, how do preferential oil deals, like the recent one with Iraq figure into the equation?

The Iraq deal is for a discount of 18 dollars per barrel for 30,000 barrels per day (daily imports are 100,000 barrels). An anonymous government official tried to minimize the importance of the deal, citing a 13 dollar per barrel cost to transport the oil. Presumably it costs nothing to transport oil from other sources. It just drives itself over, unlike the lazy Iraqi oil.

The Iraqis seem to be confident that the security issues related to transporting the oil have been solved, and so as long as the security situation is good then there should be no problems in implementing the deal.

So, the Iraqi oil deal should be enough to cover most of the losses incurred due to the rise in world oil prices, especially after factoring in prices that were as low as $52 last spring. The were making money back then.

The government typically accounts for such deals as follows. The $18 price differential will be considered a grant, and the treasury will be charged for the oil at regular market rates. This accounting scheme account for how the government was losing money even when Saddam was giving them oil for free. Of course, this gives a misleading impression. Although economically speaking trying to build an economy on real prices prevents distortions and discourages waste.

Samih Maaitah says that the best was to deal with future surprises, after the liberation of the energy sector next year will be to pay people salaries sufficient to cover basic costs of living. How radical. I doubt it will happen. How else can we always be beholden to the government?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Should Raghad be extradited?

The Iraqi government has issued an arrest warrant for Raghad, Saddam Hussein’s daughter. She is being accused of working to support the insurgency in Iraq. Currently, she and her family are living in Amman.

The Jordanian press says that the warrant does not require them to turn her in. This is despite an agreement between the government and Iraqi security officials to exchange wanted individuals. Naturally, most people instinctively would reject repatriating the woman.

I have written before defending Jordan maintaining good relationships with the various Iraqi parties. However, this request seems to cross the line. As the Iraqi government looks for scapegoats to blame for the miserable security situation that they have, they have already lost legitimacy themselves with large segments of their population. Jordan should not attempt to take the Iraqi government’s side for both pragmatic and moral reasons.

From the pragmatic perspective, it will be supporting a clearly losing side. Moreover, a good relationship with the Sunnis is an asset both to Jordan and to any long term reconciliation process in Iraq. There is no obvious reason to alienate the Sunnis, and there is little to convince anybody that Raghad is actually a factor in the Iraqi liberation movement.

From a moral perspective, it is more likely than not that she will be executed after a kangaroo trial, just like her father. There are no guarantees of a fair trial, and it would be morally reprehensible to have anything to do with such an outcome.

Jordan still seems to be vacillating about executing Sajida Rishawi. It is possible that her sentence will be commuted for humanitarian reasons. How could we justify commuting the sentence of a known terrorist, and send a politically expedient scapegoat to her death at the hands of lawless militias?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Shawerma banned

After the third mass shawerma poisoning within the last year, the government has decided to banish the greasy treat from the country’s restaurants. This ban will last until they figure out how to keep it safe.

I suppose this is prudent, although it punishes clean establishments for the sins of the unhygienic. Maybe they should prevent people from drinking water as well.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Talal Abu Ghazaleh and the Amman municipality

In 2003, a large area in central Amman, previously designated as land for the headquarters of the army and other security services, was earmarked for an ambitious urban renovation project lead by the Hariri group. Thus, the Abdali project was born.

The 350 dunum parcel of land belongs to a government owned company called Mawared. While the government, through Mawared, is a partner in the project, this initiative is a purely capitalist endeavor.

So, when the investors became more ambitious, they attempted to purchase adjacent properties. While some sold at handsome prices, others refused. The Talal Abu Ghazaleh Group refused.

According to the website set up by Abu Ghazaleh, the Amman Municipality first prevented their company to build on the land they own in the area. Later, the mayor tried to mediate a sale between the Abdali project and Abu Ghazaleh, threatening to confiscate the land and buildings if Abu Ghazaleh refused to sell. This is what later transpired, with the municipality publishing a notice of confiscation for the land.

According to Jordanian law, the government can only confiscate land if it is for projects of public benefit. To get around this, the municipality published a map showing that the land to be confiscated will be used to open a street and for parks. Fahed Fanek wrote a commentary practically dismissing the municipality’s claim that the confiscation is for public benefit. The municipality in term responded by insisting that the confiscation was necessary for expanding the road system in the area.

Yesterday, Abu Ghazaleh threw a bombshell. They revealed that the municipality had confiscated two pieces of land in the area last May, only to resell them to the Abdali project in July. It is obvious that the municipality is abusing its power for the benefit of the Abdali Project. Abu Ghazaleh is appealing to the supreme court. I think they have already won in the court of public opinion.

Another fuel rise

The screen play for raising fuel prices has become monotonous. The boring show starts with an “independent” columnist at Al Rai starts to wring his hands about the budget deficit. Next, press leaks to the effect that there is a budget deficit, and that government subsidies are going to help the rich. Here it is forgotten that the government blames high inflation (which actually hurts the poor) on fuel price increases. This is a simple example of trying to have things both ways: subsidies don’t help the poor, and inflation is due to the elimination of the subsidies. Next there is an exaggerated rumor as the extent of the price rise. This is to make people grateful that the rise was not as bad as it might have been. Next, a promise to float the prices so that they reflect world oil prices, implying that someday prices might actually go down. Ha Ha.

At least this time we might be spared the coupon shtick. You never know.


Saturday, August 11, 2007

Iraqi travelers at QAIA

I have been reading with some embarrassment the criticisms of how Iraqi travelers are treated in Queen Alia International Airport. While all of the concerns of my fellow Jordanians are valid, I have a problem with the way this is dealt with. It is backward and demeaning for all parties. Moreover, it may be unnecessary.

People have figured out a long time ago how to deal with unwanted influxes of people. It is quite simple, actually. If people want to come to your country, you have to issue them a visa first. Even when there are no embassies, councils can do this job. Have a consulate in Baghdad to screen people who want to come or travel through Jordan. Approved people can be given a visa, and at the airport you can deal with them in a civilized manner. It is easy to understand why the situation can deteriorate quickly at the airport, because all the standard screening processes have to take place on the spot. Sometimes it takes a while to decide if you want to let certain people in. This is why the visa system was invented.

If it is impossible to establish an embassy or consulate in Iraq, then this situation can not be avoided. Given the problems in Iraq, no responsible government in the world will allow people in without thorough security screening. It is sad, but not as sad as the reality in Iraq.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Is it politics or professional wrestling?

The struggle between the Islamist movement and the government is passing what seems to be a point of no return. Following loud accusations that the government was involved in forging the municipal elections, the prime minister launched an all out attack on the Muslim Brotherhood. Abu Aardvark has an excellent review of the details.

Lost in the scuffle is whether cheating actually occurred. Most people and a lot of anecdotal evidence suggest that there was cheating, although the scale of this is not yet known. I tend not to be persuaded with what most people think, as many Jordanians are more than willing to believe even the most absurd rumors. The government response has evaded the main charge and focused on MB intentions. Jamil Nimri’s editorial suggests tacitly that the state has decided that “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure” and that they will use “available tools without timidity or fear of accusations of bias”. This does not leave much to the imagination. They will do whatever it takes to prevent the Islamists from taking power. This was not an outcome that would have transpired anyway, because the number of Islamist candidates was too small, their popularity was too low and the elections were for municipal councils that have little bearing on state policy.

Yasser Abu Hilaleh suggests that this will increase the popularity of the MB. I am not sure that if this was not the desired outcome. The popularity of the Islamists was in a slump, with many people angry and distrusting of them. What better way to give them a boost than to arrange an elaborate theater? I can think of no other reason to intervene blatantly in elections in favor of the side that was going to win anyway. The only other explanation I can think of is plain stupidity.

Jordanian politics is a lot like watching the Harlem Globetrotters playing the Washington Generals. Of course, the Globetrotters always win, because the Generals are there for the specific purpose of losing. In the final analysis it is a theater which needs to maintain some semblance of competition. The removal of the Generals would mean that smart, credible political parties with Jordan’s interest at heart may start to rise from the shadows. Notwithstanding all the theater, the powers that be in Jordan are not interested in such an outcome.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Irbid election results and the cheating charge

Five candidates ran for mayor in Irbid. The winner, Abderaouf Tell, received 41995 votes. In second place came Abdelnasser Bani Hani (22262 votes) and in third place came the IAF candidate, Nabil Kofahi (16479 votes).

The margin of victory for Tell over Kofahi, who withdrew his candidacy at around 1 in the afternoon, was over 25500 votes.

The IAF claims that the military bussed in voters to vote for Tell. Assuming that in the remaining four hours of voting (after voting had been going on for six hours) Kofahi got double his number (doubtful), then his total would have reached about 33000 votes.

Thus, the vote differential between Tell and Kofahi would have been on the order of 9000 votes.

Assuming the busses carried 50 soldier voters each, the total number of busses needed to overcome Kofahi by this margin (assuming that they were tied) was 180 buses. There are 23 voting places in Irbid, which means that 8 full buses per station were needed to achieve this, but much more if the government wanted to play it safe.

Now, the government does not deny busing in soldiers to vote. It denies that they were ordered to vote for any specific candidate. My guess is that each station saw 2 or 3 buses. Even five loaded buses would not have made a difference.

Of course, this rough analysis does not mean that cheating did not occur, but it implies that the scale would have been massive for it to have made a difference.

The IAF has made contradictory statements as to whether the soldiers voted verbally (illiterate voting) or whether they had pre-filled ballot cards. Ballot cards have to be signed by the head to the box committee. So, in case this is investigated, it will be easy to determine whether boxes were stuffed with pre-filled ballots by simply looking at the signatures on the ballot cards. Illiterate voting means that the ballot card was filled by one person at the box charged with writing in the voters’ wishes. The number of ballots with these persons’ handwriting can also be determined by an impartial analysis.

This issue should be resolved through an impartial investigation, either by the courts following an official IAF complaint or by an independent committee appointed by the government. Since the government is the accused, the best way to settle this is by judicial inquiry.