Thursday, July 31, 2008

A giant step back

Back in the old days (pre 1989), political parties were banned and leftists and nationalist activists were jailed and prevented from employment. Free to organize and act were the members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who colluded with the state to make it look like we had some semblance of pluralism. Since 1999, when the Hamas leadership was expelled from Jordan, and more since 2005, in the aftermath of the hotel bombings, there has been a weakened relationship between the Islamists and the state.

But it looks like we are seeing a change. The Islamists and the government are playing footsie again, with the head of the Mukhabarat (mullah Nader's brother) meeting with both the heads of the IAF and Hamas. Islamists can't hide their glee at getting in the good graces of the government again.

So, now the government is free to arrest and persecute leftist activists again. They recently arrested Saleh Abu Tawileh in Ma'an, demanding that he desist from "political criticism".

Or as Yoggi Berra said, what we have is "Déjà vu all over again".

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Be careful what you wish for

Last year the government reached an agreement with Israel to release four Jordanian prisoners to their custody. This agreement stipulated that the men will remain in Jordanian jails for a maximum of 18 months, and could be released earlier if “Israel freed prisoners who have committed similar crimes”.

So, when Israel released Samir Qintar, families and supporters of the prisoners called for their release on that basis. A sensible request. What happened next?

Well, first the follow up committee of the prisoners’ families reported that the prisoners were told by the minister of foreign affairs and the Jordanian ambassador in Israel that they will not be released now or at the 18 month deadline initially announced. Later, the government spokesman, Nasser Joudeh, denied that the foreign minister and ambassador to Israel had met with the prisoners. He claimed that the ministry of foreign affairs had contacted Al Arab Al Yawm (the newspaper that had carried the initial report) and had asked for the paper to publish a recantation. In turn, Fahed Khitan, the editorial head of the paper said that they had tried to call the ministry and could not reach anybody in charge. He did say that the paper received a call from the ministry that “carried nothing but inappropriate language that did not rise to professional levels or journalistic or media standards”. Ouch.

Anyway, Joudeh is now implying that the government is delaying the release of the prisoners because it does not want to jeopardize talks with Israel about releasing 19 more prisoners.

Khitan today wrote an article suggesting that the original terms for the release of the prisoners may not have been written down or they require further consultations with Israel.

This does not seem to make any sense. First, Israel did nothing to correct the record when it was announced that the maximum time the prisoners will be incarcerated in Jordan will be 18 months. Second, I find the idea that the agreement was not properly documented to be laughable. Third, with regard to the negotiations over the other 19 prisoners, I don’t see what difference it makes to Israel whether the prisoners are released today or next December. As long as Jordan is abiding by the original agreement, then why would negotiations over the other 19 be compromised?

My feeling is that these prisoners are more of a problem for the Jordanian government than they are for Israel. One of them in particular, Sultan Ajlouni, seems to be particularly problematic. He is charismatic and seems to have a political career in his future. And he is east Jordanian. Of course, the more the government drags its heels on releasing him, the larger the stature he will gain. I’d like to see the government spokesman contort words to escape that reality.

Friday, July 18, 2008

There's a sucker born every minute

Over the past few months, Jordan has seen the proliferation of agents working for “bourses”; taking money from people on the promise of 10, 15, 20% or more monthly interest. Ads are even placed in small advertising newspapers offering incredible rewards for “investors” interested in cashing in.

And since greed usually wins over good sense, these brokers are taking in millions from people, collecting more as they make their promised payments on time. Some people believe that tens or hundreds of millions have been collected this way as people empty their bank accounts, sell their assets and even take out loans from banks so that they can invest in the “boursa”.

Another adage says that the law does not protect the gullible. However, many people are wondering why the government is not doing anything about this situation. One story says that the government prevented one of these agents from traveling on his honeymoon, fearing that he wanted to flee. However, little is being done to shut these operations down or, if they are technically legal, to raise awareness on how these people work and what are the risks involved in these investments. Obviously, no legitimate operation can guarantee such high returns. These are either high risk or they are simply scams. In either case, many people will soon be in for rude awakenings.

And some of these schemes are starting to fall apart. One broker is reported to have fled the country, leaving behind over a million dinars in losses. Another is said to be in jail after losing 35 million dinars in oil trading. I am sure more are on the way.

But the question remains: Why is the government so passive about this? Is it negligence, impotence or complicity?

On the bright side, at least we don't have a CASINO!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What about the rule of law?

An update on the assault on the head of Tafileh Tech University.

So, a large delegation (jaha) of tribal leaders, headed by Abdulhadi Majali, came to the ‘Adwan settlement camp (madarib), where they asked for a truce (‘atwa) between the ‘Adwan and the Tafila tribes. As per tradition, they refused to drink the coffee offered to them until their request was met.

After exchanging niceties on how everybody loves everybody else, Sultan Abu Orabi Al ‘Adwan intervened, saying that this visit would be a reconciliation (sulha) rather than a ‘atwa.

And everybody praised the ‘Adwan for their magnanimity.

Meanwhile, MP Insaf Khawaldeh says that Abu Orabi could not be protected if he came back to Tafileh.

This is how problems are handled in Jordan in 2008. Just like they were handled in 1808, and most probably just like they will be handled in 2208.


Sunday, July 06, 2008

Mixing the unmixable

Q: What happens when you mix academia, democracy and tribalism?

A: A uniquely Jordanian concoction, that is difficult to describe.

Here is the story. In Jordan, the formula for developing a local community has come to mean establishing a state university somewhere. These universities are not viewed as a source of community development because they are beacons of knowledge, learning, research or innovation. No. They are simply an excuse to hire janitors, gardeners, secretaries and drivers. And, oh yes, faculty members. So the government, under pressure from local MP’s and community leaders, has established a number of universities in areas where unemployment is high. One such university is Tafileh Technical University.

In order to keep up the pretence that such universities are supposed to be real universities, respected academicians are appointed to head them. In the case of Tafileh Tech, Sultan Abu Orabi, a prominent chemist was appointed to head the institution. Of course, this is a problem. Not because he is a bad scientist or administrator. Not because he is bad in dealing with people. The problem is that he is from Salt, not Tafileh. The people of Tafileh view the university as being “theirs”, and it is taken from them by “the other”. Tafileh notables who lobbied to establish this university make no effort at understanding or explaining that the university is a nationally funded institution; that reason and decency require that the best people should be hired there, irrespective of their origin, and that their sons and daughters studying at the university will be better served with competent staff holding responsibility. Now the problems start.

The local community, especially their notables, views the university as being a source of benefits for them and their constituents. Thus, they try to interfere with the hiring policy of the university and even interfere in the academic affairs of the institutions. The president, under the false impression that he should uphold academic standards and fiscal responsibility tries to control the tide of requests. Almost all succumb to the pressure, and all universities are overstaffed with administrative employees who have nothing to do.

But at some point, the president decides he has to say no, raising the fury of the deputies and local leaders.

Apparently, Abu Orabi fired a driver at the university (obviously for a good reason). So, the driver with a group of his relatives crashes the graduation ceremony at the university, assaulting the president and the deputy governor. The police intervene with tear gas, and a large number of people (including Abu Orabi) end up in the hospital.

The police take the fired driver into custody, and under pressure from local MP’s and dignitaries, he is released on bail the same night. Insaf Khawaldeh, a deputy from Tafileh demanded that Abu Orabi should be fired. Here, many people conclude that the driver and his gang didn’t act alone. He wouldn’t dare unless prominent people promised to protect him, which is what happened.

Next, members of the Adwan tribe, to which Abu Orabi belongs, stage an attack on the home of a former Tafileh deputy named Abdallah Akaileh, who they believed was an instigator of the attack on Abu Orabi. They fired about 70 rounds at Akaileh’s house, damaging windows and roof tiles. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. On the other hand, Tafilis in Amman are also rioting over the incident.

It is not clear how this story will end. If it is interesting enough, I will keep you posted.

So, there you have it. The witches brew of academia, tribalism and democracy in a stinky concoction that only Jordanians can manage to put together. Hold your nose and drink up.

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Cleaning up the mess

Last week, the king gave an unprecedented interview, in which he clearly articulated his views on the issues that are concerning Jordanians these days. I must say that the frankness in the king’s latest interview was a breath of fresh air. After the public discourse was taken over by fear mongering and slander, this interview should set the stage for an honest and open discussion on the issues that we face. Thanks for Nasim for taking the trouble to translate it.

The five most important points (to me) were:

1- We should do our best to attract investments now, because the oil boom in the Gulf will not last forever.

2- It is legitimate debate to question how the money from selling land will be spent, but selling land in itself does not mean that it will leave Jordanian sovereignty.

3- The government owns 80% of land in Jordan (I didn’t know that).

4- The Royal Court has no jurisdiction over the government according to the constitution, and the king is insisting that this is how things are and how they will be.

5- The king is aware of the gossip and rumors, and admonished people to look for facts rather than sensational lies.

Now, the interview was needed simply because the country has been immersed in all kind of rumor and innuendo for the last five months. I agree with the king’s point that this style of interviews should not become a routine thing. However, not doing it would have led to a growing credibility gap between the state and the people. And I thing I should elaborate on this.

First, it is not the king’s job to explain the government’s thinking. It is the government’s job. Because they failed to do this, the credibility gap grew. Actually, it was the PM who started the land sales rumors, and when he lost control he resorted to trying to bury people in bullshit rather than the honest, straightforward approach that the king took.

Second, the fictional “returning of constitutional authority of the government” has only come to public discourse since Dahabi took office. I always thought that this is a ridiculous issue, given that the government has much more power than it really should in Jordan. Of course, this term is a code reference to Bassem Awadallah taking over the government’s mandate, and has taken on unfortunate sectarian overtones. Of course, the Royal Court does not have constitutional mandate over the government. If Dahabi feels that he has to lick Awadallah’s shoe, that’s his problem, not Awadallah’s. Dahabi should stop the cry baby routine acted out through his proxies.

Third, the Jarash festival issue was totally mismanaged by the government from start to finish. Again, this has been through the actions that it took and poor communication with the public.

The interview was necessitated by poor performance of the government and the bickering between the PM and the head of the Royal Court, pure and simple. I would respectably submit that it is not the people’s fault that there are rumors, as it is the people in power who are starting them and using them to further their agendas. This is where the blame should be placed.