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The Razzaz conundrum

Feb 09,2019 - Last updated at Feb 09,2019

You want to support Prime Minister Omar Razzaz. He, as a person, embodies the values and ethics that we want to see reflected in the country. He also personally projects moderation in voice, behaviour and mannerisms that gives us a break from the masculinity-charged, aggressive behaviour of most government officials and parliamentarians in Jordan.

We wanted soft spoken, measured, educated, soulful, positive, egalitarian, clean and ethical leadership of the executive authority. When Razzaz was appointed as prime minister, we, perhaps gullibly, thought we had arrived at that turning point towards good governance that would do away with corruption, inefficiency, nepotism, mismanagement of state funds and bridge the disconnect between government and people. We thought an era of celebrating meritocracy, building mechanisms of government accountability and adopting policies sensitive to the needs of the people would immediately become a reality.

And then, we found ourselves seesawing between being disappointed with government decisions and actions, yet still remaining hopeful and holding onto the promise of Razzaz as a prime minister. One week we see that things are moving in the right direction only to change our minds the week after. No prime minister has so closely engaged the Jordanian people in such an emotional rollercoaster and created such confusion over who we are and where we are heading and, in fact, who he is and where he is heading. 

It is important to reflect and understand what is causing Jordanians to express disappointment in Razzaz’s performance, how much of that disappointment is real and justified and how much of it is promoted by Razzaz’s detractors and political rivals, and where we are heading, having now witnessed in real time the successes and failures of this government.

Jordanians are disappointed for many reasons: They expected that more would be achieved faster, they built up unrealistic expectations of the one man and underestimated the push back from the deep state guardians, who are fiercely defending their turf and fighting to hang on to their long-held benefits.

Jordanians are also disappointed that Razzaz’s government allowed everyone to see evidence of its political inexperience and vulnerability and even, in some cases, helplessness in the face of underhanded antics and attacks by its political opponents. 

Jordanians are disappointed that Razzaz, who arrived to his post based on his reputation as a secular, open-minded, humanist able to carry the worries of Jordanians to the executive authority, shed that robe immediately after he assumed his post and attempted to rebrand himself as a quasi-moderate friend to the Islamists, who want to govern through consensus building, a move that many Jordanians saw as translating into unnecessary concession and appeasement.

Many critics believe that when he turned his back on his so-called “liberal” power base, he effectively lost an important cache of political experience and dedicated advice that could have served him well in his first months. Instead, they believe, he hung himself precariously and alone in an unsteady negotiating stance with the more politically mature, organised and shrewd opposition groups of “Jordanian nationalists” and Islamists, as well as open to attack from the politically disorganised but nevertheless damaging individuals with a sense of entitlement.

This latest debacle with the public-sector appointees, who were found to be all close relatives of current parliamentarians, is a case study of what Jordanians find disappointing in how the Razzaz government does business. Why would a government that declares that it is fighting corruption and nepotism decentralise the selection of senior public appointments and lay open inroads for abuse of the process? Why would the government then come out publicly and declare that it was not consulted on those appointments? Apart from showcasing how weak and marginalised it is, the government is saying it did not actively enforce the meritocracy process nor its own much-lauded public sector reform policies.

We all know that every appointment in Jordan is scrutinised by the public against a unique Jordanian index to gauge which tribe is getting more, which geographic area is getting more, the ratio and percentage of “origins”,  “religions” and gender, perceived financial benefits to appointees and their immediate family, friends and community. And then, despite all those non-professional yardsticks, the appointment is given a final go-over to check for political messaging, corruption and nepotism monitor and finally professional merit.

Recognising that former prime ministers were “blessed” with less scrutiny and lower expectations from the public and, therefore, got away with more, Razzaz, because of the high expectations of ethical professionalism that was associated with his appointment, was expected to be personally on top of each and every senior appointment in the public sector, setting a new standard of meritocracy-based selection and sending a strong political message about his commitment to a higher standard. Saying that he was not consulted or that those appointments were made independently by the management of those semigovernmental bodies just does not cut it.

There is still hope that the government, as it learns from these hard lessons, does begin to see itself as people hope it would be and, therefore, begin to deliver as people expect it to deliver. When saying the government is combatting nepotism, the premier himself must be seen as fighting nepotism, not the control bureau, not a video machine taping interviews, not a unit in the prime minister, the premier himself. When the government says it hears the pain of the people, the prime minister must be seen responding to that pain. When the government promises to take note of the rising cost of living, the prime minister must publicise the package of steps that reduce those costs instead of allowing ministers to leak snippets here and there that only add to the confusion.

Many Jordanians remain hopeful. Many Jordanians see that the premier is being targeted by power-hungry individuals and political opponents. Many Jordanians understand that there is higher level of ethics and professionalism already in play. Many Jordanians understand the government is, more often than not, working for the Jordanian people. Yet mistakes can no longer be accepted or tolerated.

Statements by ministers must be scrutinised for their impact. Decisions must be reviewed before they are fully adopted and made public. Any hint of concession to any political party must be measured against its long-term value and not short-term popularity returns. Every single appointment today must send a political signal serving to cement perceptions of what this government represents and stands for politically and in terms of how it operates. To that end, authority must be centralised until a new culture takes hold and all control mechanisms are in place to safeguard that culture.  Failure is not an option.


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