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Tribes and politics

Feb 17,2014 - Last updated at Feb 17,2014

The conditions required to support a thriving and functioning democracy (such as a democratic culture) do not exist in present-day Jordan.

And yet, there are many activists who push for genuine reform.

Unfortunately, Jordan has failed to seize the opportunity offered by the Arab Spring to effect the desired change.

Thus far, Jordan has managed to weather the political storm that has swept across much of the region since 2011. But long-time observers of Jordanian politics argue that barring genuine political reform, the status quo is untenable.

Last week, Jordanians were caught in a divisive debate about the role of tribes in politics. Whether by design or default, tribes have been very influential in politics.

Back in 1957, King Hussein dissolved the Parliament and banned political parties. This step politically empowered both tribes and the Muslim Brotherhood.

This is not to say that tribes impede the transition to democracy. Nor that tribes would oppose a top-down package of reform.

When the National Dialogue Committee (NDC) recommended an electoral law that could have improved the quality of parliamentary work, no single tribe took to the street protesting the law.

The government could have pushed for a more democratic electoral law.

Many activists fall in love with the idea of blaming tribes for the drawbacks in politics, as if tribes were making decision on behalf of the state.

First, as my colleague Nermeen Murad correctly wrote in her column, “tribes” are not a uniform group with equal standing in the Jordanians system. In Jordan, there are tribes who have and tribes who have not”.

But in her article, she also wrote: “The truth is that “some” tribes received benefits, “some” tribal figures were behind large-scale corruption cases and “some” tribes are turning into “non-militarised militia” working outside the law “to their own narrow advantage”.

I have two points regarding this statement. First, it is true that some tribal figures were behind corruption cases, but there are many non-tribal figures also behind large-scale corruption cases. Second, there is no single tribe that has turned into non-militarised militia. Those who act outside the law are individuals who can be tribal or non-tribal.

It is the single non-transferable vote system, in addition to the weak political parties, that push people to identify with their sub-national identities.

It is not as if authorities were oblivious to the political consequences of this voting system. On the contrary, the adoption of this voting system in 1993 was a conscious decision to reinforce tribalism and produce a parliament amenable to a peace treaty with Israel.

Interestingly, no single tribe opposed the adoption of a multi-vote system of 1986. Therefore, insinuating that tribes impede the transition to a civil state is misleading to say the least.

Missing in the debate is the context that led to the rise of sub-national identity, and this is not confined to tribes.

With the trust gap between ruling elite and society widening at an alarming rate, people fall back on their sub-national identity as a means of protection.

The debate about civil state and citizenship should not make one come up with statements that can be seen as an affront to any component of our society.

We should promote a healthy debate that focuses on the right to be different.

I believe that pluralism is a source of strength to our society, and demonising can lead to hate speech.

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