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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 December 2004, 11:42 GMT
Arab reform dreams run aground

By Jon Leyne
BBC correspondent in Amman

Across most of Amman you could hear the guns blasting out their ceremonial salute, as King Abdullah arrived for the state opening of the Jordanian parliament just a few days ago.

His uniform glittering with medals, the king delivered a speech to the assembled parliamentarians, announcing plans for the parliamentary term.

King Abdullah at opening of parliament
King Abdullah is said to be behaving more like a president
The only interruptions came as members vied with each other to shout out their praise of the country's leader.

A quaint hand-down of a tradition from the old imperial power, Britain, you might think.

But at Westminster, the Queen is just a mouthpiece, reading a speech written for her by the elected government.

Here in Jordan, it is the king who still runs the show.

Jordan was meant to be a showpiece for democracy - an example of the sort of reform the Americans would like to see happening across the region.

Instead, the process of reform has stalled. If anything the king is acquiring more power.

Palace power

US President George W Bush's initiative to spread democracy across the Middle East is being reviewed at a meeting in Morocco this weekend, attended by his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and ministers from across the region.

The Americans have this idea that democracy is good and therefore we are going to promote democracy in the region
Moin Rabbani
International Crisis Group
When it was announced two years ago, Mr Bush's initiative was seen as a bold plan to stir up the stagnant politics of the Middle East.

In an interview last week, Mr Powell said there was now a "wave of reform" in the region.

Many observers believe precisely the opposite is the case.

There has been little to show for the initiative, and the Americans are already scaling back their ideas.

In Jordan, most members of parliament are still appointed, not elected.

The electoral system helps to divide the opposition.

And most power is held by the palace, the king ruling by a system of "temporary laws".

President Bush meets with the King Abdullah of Jordan in the Oval Office of the White House on 6 December 2004.
The US appears to have toned down its ambitions, critics say
"Our monarchy has been moving very much to be more centralised," argues Leith Shubeilat, an Islamist politician in Jordan who has been jailed three times for criticising the king.

"The king is not a constitutional monarch, he runs business, even day-to-day business, which is what a president does."

Abdulatif Arabiyet, a former head of the Islamic Action Front, argues that democracy in Jordan is only skin deep.

"We are not practising the full meaning of democracy," he says.

"We are trying to do something, but we only have a few centimetres of democracy, not enough to develop the full meaning of democracy."

Chickening out

One of the keys tools of the Bush administration to tackle this issue is a policy initiative called the Middle East Partnership Initiative or Mepi.

It is a multi-million dollar programme designed to kick-start political reform.

But according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution in Washington, "in its first year-and-a-half, Mepi has chosen to nibble at the margins of the reform problem by funding a wide variety of uncontroversial programmes and largely working within the boundaries set by Arab governments".

Indeed, it takes no grand studies to spot President Bush's continued support for unelected governments in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to name but three.

Washington, in short, has chickened out.

"If you look at the rhetoric that was going round in 2002 and 2003, Washington was basically announcing the beginning of a new era," says Muin Rabbani, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Amman.

"I think those days are long past."

Doomed sponsorship

The American policy always had a fundamental contradiction.

Washington relies heavily on strong support from undemocratic Arab governments. More democracy is almost bound to mean less reliable support.

The American track record is very well known. - they don't support anything except dictatorships
Leith Shubeilat
Islamist politician

Take the case of Jordan. A popularly elected government here would come under huge pressure to renounce the peace treaty with Israel - and would probably try to reverse social reforms on issues like women's rights.

Hardly the sort of policies Washington could live with.

Moin Rabbani believes this dilemma was never really examined in enough detail.

"The Americans have this idea that democracy is good and therefore we are going to promote democracy in the region," he says.

"They feel quite strongly that the absence of democracy in this region is somehow connected with the growth of radical and violent Islamist organisations, such as al-Qaeda."

"But looking at the further consequences for American interests, I think they didn't think it through."

Leith Shubeilat is more harsh, but his judgement would be echoed across the region: "The American track record is very well known. They don't support anything except dictatorships."

"Any democracies they do support are quasi-democracies, pseudo-democracies that deliver to them what they care about - their interests."

Here in Jordan, despite a veneer of modernity, society is still basically tribal.

And the trouble is that any attempts by the Americans to help change that are doubly condemned because of the virulent anti-Americanism in the region - a result of what is happening in Israel and Iraq.

In other words American sponsorship of any project for reform - whatever the motive - is pure poison.

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