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Prosperity, personal freedom and good governance cannot be traded in power politics

Dec 08,2018 - Last updated at Dec 08,2018

As I was writing this column, I was also watching updates on the demonstrations at the Fourth Circle. The demands of the demonstrators, as heard over the many videos that were recorded of their chants, cover a whole range of issues, from calls to cancel the new income tax law, pull the cybercrime draft law from Parliament, end the detention of political detainees, introduce a general amnesty, review the economic agenda of the government as a whole, up to and including calls for an elected government and a more fairly representative Parliament.

It was cold and raining outside and Jordanians had mostly opted to keep warm and stay at home. But judging by the level of support these demonstrations were getting from regular Jordanians on social media and in formal and informal circles, it is safe to assume that most of these demands resonate with a majority of Jordanians. 

In fact, most of these demands were articulated very eloquently by the representatives of civil society, who met with Prime Minister Omar Razzaz last week. The meeting, which in my opinion, surpassed in selection, content and transparency earlier meetings the premier had with “intellectuals” and “columnists”, delivered to the prime minister a very important and worthy summary of where we are today.

The civil society activists basically laid out the expectations of most Jordanians of the government, reflecting honestly the mood in communities across the country, as well as pinpointing where Jordan stands today in terms of meeting its international obligations on personal freedom and democratic behaviour.

Most importantly they delivered a clear message on what people had expected of Razzaz and his government, and where they believe he failed to meet that expectation when it came to delivery. The gap, civil society activists told Razzaz, is a significant one and raises concerns over whether this government has the political will and authority, or even has the people’s confidence, to move us to better times. 

It has to be said that the dynamics of holding a dialogue with different sectors of society, at least at face value, are healthy and reflect a unique level of openness, and elegance, that has been established with Razzaz and must be recognised. But therein lies the conundrum. Meetings are now being seen as a government tactic to release popular pressure only, and in no way can be assumed to lead to any government action that respects or seriously takes into account the grievances of Jordanians.

The narrative that the premier shared with the civil society activists, in which he presented his analysis of the power forces in the country and assigned them to different categories, was understood to be honest and heartfelt. But equally, it increased the exasperation and frustration of the activists, who walked out feeling that while Razzaz stayed true to his reputation of decency and deep thought, he again failed to project a convincing image of leadership, vision and ownership of the way forward.  

Many of the activists worried that the premier appeared to have forgotten his duty to lead and instead saw himself as an arbitrator and consensus-builder between the power bases he analysed. Activists expressed concern that he appeared to assign all these power houses, regardless of their value system, ideological drive, ethical tools and commitment to democracy, the same level of authority and influence on his decisions and his government’s path. They argued that they felt that the premier’s need to build consensus among what he saw as the influential forces and which, by his own admission, are pulling the government in completely different directions at all times, is crippling the government’s ability to take action and make decisions.

Examples they cite are plenty. One day there is going to be a ban on chips in schools, the next day the ban is reversed. One day there is respect for freedom of speech, the next day there is the cybercrime draft law institutionalising detention and hiding a security grip behind soft language about hate speech. One day there are nationwide conversations on the income tax law, the second day conversations abruptly end and the law is passed as is. One day there are ambitious slogans of national renaissance, the next day we have an academic analysis of the impact of crippling power dynamics. One day we talk about political reform, the next day we issue our government plans minus political reform. One day we say we intend to reduce the sales tax, the next day, we raise the income tax and conveniently leave the sales tax as is and, in fact, we pop a little test balloon saying we might even increase it in 2019. One day we announce we are giving full exemptions on penalties for those who paid their tax bills, the next day we reduce the exemptions to 50 per cent and then 75 per cent. One day we say we are going after a corrupt businessman who never paid his tax bill, the next day we give full penalty amnesty to those who never paid but penalise those who had paid.

Even taking decisive action to deal with the inefficiency that led to the unnecessary deaths from the floods fizzled out into making a couple of well-performing ministers scapegoats and sweeping the whole affair under the carpet after that. The “social contract” that formed the backbone of the government’s plan in its first days shrunk in size and over multiple stages, into shy statements here and there about “needing time” and balancing priorities.

There is a worrying list of indecisive and mismatched decisions and actions showing how difficult it has become for the government to stick to its guns on any issue. The impact of the push-and-pull factors is evident, and with that scene playing itself out in front of people, it is no surprise that the conclusion everyone is coming to is that the government is only dodging bullets and hoping to extend its life, rather than taking a leadership executive role that befits its constitutional mandate and the requirements of the times. Not only that, but the impression is that the government is saving its own skin but, at the same time, sending citizens into a more authoritarian environment where the margin of free expression is continually shrinking.

A recently published global index on prosperity, compiled by the UK-based influential Legatum Institute, makes a compelling argument for listening to the people if the ultimate objective of leaders is to safeguard the country from risks to its long-term stability and prosperity. 

The Legatum Institute Prosperity Index for 2018 marked Jordan at 91 of 149 countries in a noted drop from its 86th place in the 2017 index. This index is important because it measures the structural drivers of prosperity in any particular country and analyses trends by looking at the general features of the “losers” versus the “winners”. A combination of movement on several indicators were noted by the index for Jordan: Unemployment has gone up, education quality has gone down, personal freedoms have dropped and security has gone up.

The “trade-off” between a “strong” safety or security indicator and a shrinking personal freedom space is noted by the index’s analysis of the results of similar trends in multiple countries. It notes that the temporary benefit of an increased safety measure is exactly that: temporary. And the true determinant of the long-term security of a country, and, therefore, an improved business environment and prosperity, is expanded good governance protecting the “integrity of the government” and increased personal freedoms, in order to build the people’s trust in the state and other institutions. 

In short, what the index’s review of multiple countries shows is that without good governance and expanded personal freedoms, tighter security measures and, we can conclude, legislation à la the cybercrime draft law, as well as punitive detentions in Jordan, can only hold off instability but they cannot prevent it in the long term.

Or to put it even more succinctly, weak personal freedoms have been found to form a “dangerous trigger point” for instability because the people, under that scenario, cannot be reasonably called upon to protect the country’s institutions, public and private, when and if prosperity falls.

How does all this link together? 

Razzaz was elevated to the Prime Ministry after wide-scale popular demonstrations that demanded serious reforms of the public sector and its institutions, closer scrutiny of big money and business, as well as reforming the political and economic package of legislation that was blamed for the perpetuation of a rentier mentality and the alienation of many circles of citizens distanced from the political decision-making centre. 

That was the baseline that the people set for the prime minister and against which they are judging his government’s performance today. It is no secret that this baseline has been shifting since Razzaz assumed his post, and that both the integrity of the government and the space for democratic reform or personal freedom have both taken a serious hit. Needless also to say that prosperity is as far off an objective, if not further, as it was when those desperate Jordanians took to the street many months ago.

In summary, we expect that the prime minister, especially when he is not backed by a political party that can safeguard a serious programme, must at times play power politics. We also expect that, at times, there are trade-offs or compromises to stave off attacks from influential forces. But we also expect that the objective of prosperity for the country, based on solid government and happy, engaged and involved citizens is not up for negotiation at any time.

That objective must not be compromised by the prime minister, who I believe has received that message not only from the demonstrators at the Fourth Circle, but also the civil society representatives meeting with him and even from international risk analysts who have studied global trends.

 

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