The Middle East Channel

Jordan’s boycott and tomato woes

The parliamentary elections slated for Tuesday to replace the body dissolved late last year have not exactly set the Kingdom's political life onfire.  Some Jordanians will undoubtedly go to the polls to vote.  But there is no election fever, and flaccid election campaigns have mostly avoided reference to the Kingdom's political and economic woes.  The government launched a massive get-out-the-vote effort to counter widespread apathy, but citizens -- if they talk about the elections at all -- seem most excited by the possibility of winning a car. Popular support for the boycott now coordinated by the largest political party, the Islamic Action Front, and the smaller leftist Jordanian Popular Unity Party (Wihda) remains uncertain, but the boycott shows that at least some Jordanians are rejecting the charade of democratic elections.

Freedom House downgraded Jordan's rating from "Partly Free" to "Not free" in January, largely due to King Abdullah II's early dissolution of the last parliament in November 2009.  The regime has since been eager to repair its image and signal that Jordan is back on the democratization track.  But most Jordanians now view the parliament as more of a tribal assembly than one that represents the citizenry, and a weak turnout at the polls will further challenge the regime's proto-democratic credentials. Outside of elite circles, Jordanians are not talking about the election at all; they are talking about the skyrocketing price of tomatoes, which peaked a few weeks ago at two Jordanian dinars (JD) a kilo, 10 times higher than normal.  This vibrant public debate demonstrates that Jordanians can indeed be engaged in politics, but the regime has been unable to capture that energy.

Decisions to participate or boycott in elections offer a window into Jordan's political development. Two decades ago, Jordan was a model for political liberalization in the Arab world. King Hussein called for elections in 1989 in response to riots against unpopular IMF economic reforms.  But Jordan paid dearly for refusing tosupport the US-led and UN-sanctioned coalition to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1990-91: the United States and several Gulf nations severed aid to the Kingdom, and hundreds of thousands of Jordanian migrant workers were sent home.  To restore relations with Washington, King Hussein offered his most valuable prize: peace with Israel.  Because a treaty would need approval from the parliament, the regime devised a new elections law to return a compliant assembly in 1993; all political groups participated, despite their concerns about the new rules, the opposition's presence declined, and the 1994 Wadi Araba treaty was signed a year later.

Jump to the 1997 elections.  The regime made only minor changes to the unpopular elections law, preserving the "sawt wahid" system -- one person, one vote -- which sounds reasonable but in practice has ensured that local notables and tribal elites have considerable advantages over political parties. Combined with a districting system that under-represents regions with large Palestinian populations, the regime de facto disenfranchised most voices critical of its political and economic policies. This time, a broad coalition of parties launched a boycott, which also condemned changes to the press and publications law that forced some two-dozen political newspapers to close until they could raise substantial amounts of capital required by that law. Supported by two former prime ministers, the boycott captured the reasonable and widespread fear -- correct, it turns out -- that Jordan was becoming yet another authoritarian state holding meaningless elections.

The 1997 boycott failed to pressure the regime to change the elections law, though the press and publications law was revised after being found unconstitutional by the Court of Cassation in early 1998. From the perspective of the Islamic Action Front, the 1997 boycott was a particular failure, as it saw moderate Islamists isolated from the political system until the next election (which came only in 2003, after King Abdullah postponed elections in 2001).  The IAF expelled six party members for violating that boycott by running in the elections.  But ironically, the two successful candidates became the Islamists' only connection to the assembly.  Having learned that exclusion from the assembly is not desirable, why has the IAF decided to boycott again this year?

Part of the reason is the widely acknowledged (except by the regime) electoral fraud in 2007 -- which saw the IAF's 16 seats from the 2003 vote reduced to six seats (with no other party winning any seats at all).  In 1997, enough pressure might have forced the regime to restore components of the elections law that provided for real competition, giving political parties a chance to compete against prominent tribal leaders.  Today the democratic opening of the early 1990s is a distant memory.  IAF leaders were divided on whether to boycott, split along an internal moderate-hardliner fissure that has troubled the IAF party as well as the Muslim Brotherhood for at least two years.  Both the IAF and the Brothers polled their membership and nearly 75 percent favored a boycott. Ironically -- and not for the first time -- Jordan's moderate Islamists engaged in more substantive democratic practices than has the regime.  The IAF repeatedly asked the regime to consider substantive revisions that might reintroduce real political competition and dialogue, but to no avail.

A few IAF members have again defied the boycott and registered as candidates.  At least seven IAF candidates and three Muslim Brotherhood candidates -- the latter also voted to boycott the elections -- face expulsion from those organizations. TheIAF/Muslim Brotherhood ban on its members participating has been largely resolute, although one female Islamist running in Jerash, Seham Bani Mustafa, has not yet been threatened with expulsion.  Like other Islamist candidates, she has positioned herself on a tribal platform and is hoping to vie for one of the 12 women's quota seats.

The Wihda party launched its boycott independently of the IAF, specifically targeting students and younger voters.  Its "Boycotters for Change" campaign has sought to reach Jordanian youths largely through the Internet and a Facebook page, although its visibility in Jordan has been limited to a few small events and newspaper coverage.  One boycott event coordinated with the IAF resulted in the arrest of some dozen protesters, although a similar protest outside of Parliament this past Saturday ended peacefully even though the governor had denied a permit for the event.  The presence of international election monitors likely affected the decision of the security services to exercise restraint. 

For its part, the Jordanian government has been struggling to get out the vote, launching its own youth-targeted campaign, "Let's Hear Your Voice."  The voice that the government is hearing, however, is not that of a citizenry excited about elections.  Save for newspaper articles  --  which have been consistently enthusiastic about the upcoming poll --  few people in Jordan other than candidates and the boycotters are talking about the elections at all.  What they are talking about is tomatoes. 

Jordanians are estimated to consume some 800 tons of tomatoes per day.  Prices have soared as a result of both extraordinary summer heat and the spread of an invasive moth, Tuta Absoluta, which likely entered Jordan from Egypt around the end of 2009. This summer's yield was an abysmal 50 percent of average, although fortunately the pest did not spread to the Jordan Valley or to Irbid in the North.  The Minister of Agriculture, Mazen Khasawneh, announced renewed efforts to protect uninfected areas and to aid areas hit worst, pledging JD 1.7 million toward the eradication of the pest, JD 350,000 (USD $493,300) this year, and JD 1.35 million (USD $1.9 million) next year.  But Jordanians have been less than impressed, as market prices remain high and pesticides are simply too expensive for many farmers.

Despite the tomato shortage, the kingdom has continued to export some 550 tons of tomatoes daily.  To meet its domestic needs, it has also been forced to import tomatoes, which many Jordanians imagine to be the very tomatoes the kingdom exported. On October 1, Consumer Protection Society president Mohammad Obeidat called on the Ministry of Agriculture to entirely halt tomato exports in order to lower domestic prices, which are not likely to stabilize until the Jordan River valley crops enter the market in mid-December. Whether or not Jordanians are actually buying back their own tomatoes sent abroad, the pitch of anger and frustration at the government's inability to stabilize prices has led to some of the most vibrant public debates about policy in years.           

Indeed, debate is animated not only among newspaper columnists but also in the blogosphere and printed political satire. Since September, Imad Hajjaj'spopular "Mahjoob" comic strip has drawn five references to tomato crisis. One cartoon published October 1 depicts a doctor beside a bandaged and bruised patient. The doctor asks his patient what has happened, and the patient explains that the local produce prices have caused his condition. Another from October 17 depicts two men walking past political banners that appear to advertise large tomatoes, noting the similarity between shopping for tomatoes and politicians.  And a cartoon from October 19 juxtaposes a government propagandist and a street tomato seller -- the former declaring that the boycotter will be sorry, while the latter suggests that it is the poor who will be sorry.  The cartoons reflect both the immense distrust of government and the widening gap between Jordanians and the regime. 

Thus as some Jordanians go to the polls next week to elect a new parliament, the regime will be hoping that the spectacle of election day -- complete with multiple international monitoring teams, the first in Jordan's history -- will quell domestic discontent while re-earning a "Partly Free" rating from Freedom House.  Steadfast in their boycott, Jordan's moderate Islamists are nonetheless concerned about losing what little remaining political power they have; a great deal is riding on their ability to mobilize their sizable constituency to boycott.  Looking ahead, the Muslim Brotherhood and Wihda party have announced the formation of anational pro-reform coalition calling for substantive political reforms.  Their more radical approach to delegitimizing the newly elected government aims, in part, to demand that the assembly and the regime live up to the promise of the constitution and National Agenda: that Jordan is a constitutional monarchy in which the elected assembly plays a major legislative role.  In this sense, the success of the boycott in limiting voter turnout may be a crucial indicator of the potential support for an impending conflict between the regime and this new reform movement.

Meanwhile, the current electoral system -- favoring tribal candidates and under-representing a majority of the population -- is tearing at the social fabric of Jordanian society, bringing tensions between Jordanians of Palestinian origin and those with East Bank roots to a boiling point.  For more than a year, tribal clashes have spread into urban areas where such violence was seldom known.  As long as the parliament is viewed asmore of a tribal council than a democratic assembly, these tensions are only going to worsen. In this sense the boycott tells us a great deal about how Jordanians see the elections, and perhaps stands as a more authentically democratic political act than participation in meaningless elections.  Either way, the deputies elected in Tuesday's poll will undoubtedly enjoy the fruits of their offices, while average Jordanians will once again get stuck with the check.

Jillian Schwedler is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Faithin Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. Josh Sowalsky is a graduating senior in the Commonwealth Honors College of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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The Middle East Channel

Time for Obama to call his opponents' bluff on Iran

With Republicans now sharing the burden of governing in the next Congress, President Barack Obama has an opportunity to define the terms of the Iran debate instead of spending two more years capitulating to a Democratic Congress worried about appearing weak or out of sync with hardliners on the Iran issue.

For a president who ran on the promise of fighting the "smallness" of Washington's political discourse that is unequipped for the immensity of the challenges America faces, few issues suffer more from that "smallness" than the Iran debate. In Washington, when in doubt, Iran saber rattling always seems to pay -- and the implications for our Iran policy could not be more disastrous. Obama had offered the promise of fighting this paradigm and supporting a new strategy of engagement, which is the only effective means to resolve the nuclear issue, address the human rights situation, and create space for pro-democracy activists in Iran.

Unfortunately, instead of fighting the Bush paradigm that rewards policymakers on the basis of bellicosity towards Iran, Obama has by and large perpetuated a political metric that defines success on Iran only in terms of pressure. Only if Obama raises the consequences of the dire alternative to a successful engagement strategy -- war with Iran -- and stakes out a new path to create his own political space for diplomacy, can the president effectively navigate the new reality in Congress and pursue a successful Iran agenda.

The picture for Obama in Congress is bleak enough, but particularly so on Iran. Bipartisan Iran sanctions advanced in the Democratic Congress imposed significant new restrictions on the president and give the Republicans significant ammunition to undermine Obama. Opportunities to hold the president's feet to the fire regarding enforcement of unilateral sanctions on China and Russia will not be ignored, and the president will be punished for failing to get "tough enough" on Iran, despite his many efforts to do just that. By failing to realign the metrics for success, and by allowing the outgoing Democratic Congress to undermine his political and policy flexibility, Obama and the Democrats in the 111th Congress have handed Republicans a valuable tool with which to bludgeon the president in the 112th.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the incoming House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman, has been a consistent Bush-esque Iran demagogue who has fiercely opposed any engagement efforts and, as a strong advocate for the sanctions regime against Cuba, has argued stringently for a similar regime against Iran. She is also an ardent supporter of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a pro-war Iranian Marxist group that, in spite of being designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department, manages to maintain an extremely active presence on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, nearly fifty Republicans endorsed a resolution this past summer expressing support for Israeli military strikes against Iran -- signaling a dangerous willingness to take on the president and the U.S. military leadership on the issue of Israeli strikes and potential war. While Ros-Lehtinen has not signed on to that resolution, Dan Burton (R-IN) did, and he may become the Middle East Subcommittee Chairman in the next Congress.

Meanwhile, while Democrats will retain a narrow majority in the Senate, Obama's old seat will be filled by Mark Kirk, a perennial Iran saber-rattler who played a leading role in advancing sanctions that he argued should punish ordinary Iranians. Evan Bayh's Senate seat will be reclaimed by Dan Coats (R-IN) who has warned that, for Iran, "The only option now is potential military action if we're going to stop this."

The Senate scenario is troubling given that it took an eleventh hour effort by the administration, working with John Kerry, to halt an effort by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-TX) to sneak Iran sanctions through the chamber last December. Kyl attempted to circumvent regular procedure to pass the bill and undermine Obama's outreach at the U.N. to assemble multilateral sanctions. While the administration's efforts to hold off Kyl were successful then, the stakes for procedural games will be even higher now under a razor-thin Senate majority.

But Obama's troubles with the next Congress on Iran may come from his own caucus as well. It has been Democrats who have offered new sanctions legislation that threaten to consign Obama to a "pressure-only track" by further eliminating his flexibility and closing opportunities for engagement. Among these proposals, Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) introduced a bill just prior to the elections that would remove the president's ability to approve the export of civilian aircraft parts for humanitarian purposes to Iran. This would revoke yet another tool the president has for negotiations, not to mention the humanitarian implications that denying spare parts has for the innocent Iranians who must take to the skies, despite Iran's abysmal civilian flight record. But Sherman also subscribes to the notion that sanctions must punish ordinary Iranians.

To pro-war demagogues, it is of little consequence that Obama is the first U.S. president to implement unilateral Congressional Iran sanctions against a foreign company. While Democrats may tout this as evidence of Obama's success on Iran, it is a pyrrhic victory. In spending the past year focused on sanctions, the president failed to seize opportunities to capitalize on negotiations that could have created measurable progress on the Iran issue -- including the removal of significant stockpiles of uranium from Iran, a potential reduction in Iran's enrichment levels, and, most importantly, the opening for ongoing negotiations that hold the only opportunity for success. Instead, the administration and the Democrats have been stuck with touting the suffering of ordinary people in Iran as evidence of successful "pressure" against the country.

Some, like Sarah Palin, Elliott Abrams, and even David Broder, have advocated that the best approach the president can take would be to abandon his principles and run to the right of Republicans on Iran. Broder suggested the president should cynically spend the next two years "orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs" to boost the U.S. economy. Palin has suggested that a sound reelection strategy for Obama would be to bomb Iran. None of these proposals offer solutions to our problems, but are endemic to a broken political discourse that Obama must fight head on.

The lesson from the last two years on Iran vis-a-vis Congress is that going along with the hawkish approach has earned little for Obama domestically. Far from creating political openings to pursue real progress for a potential peaceful resolution, an absence of strong presidential leadership has generated just enough political space to ensure that engagement opportunities are suffocated -- not just talks, but promises like the licensing of internet software and hardware, and the expansion of educational exchanges for Iranian students.

Because Obama has failed to set the terms of the debate on Iran, the administration finds itself trapped. Even the upcoming talks with Iran are now being construed by White House spokespersons as "pressure". The so-called "dual track" approach has ebbed into an approach focused solely on pressure, because this is supposed to be politically palatable. But if Obama is standing behind a podium in September 2012 across from Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin, and the criteria for a successful Iran policy is ‘who can be most confrontational', the candidate willing to spew the most insane, bellicose, and counterproductive Iran tirade wins the debate. And no matter how far Obama is willing to run in this direction, he will face a challenger who is more than willing to run even further.

In failing to establish any alternative criteria for progress on the Iran issue other than pressure, the administration risks continuing to perpetuate the Bush paradigm on Iran and accepting a measurement for success that, regardless of reality, only plays into the hands of Obama's pro-war, anti-engagement opponents. It would be disastrous for Obama to embrace the 2002 Democratic foreign policy strategy, when they adopted a Bush-light approach and supported the Iraq war out of fear. It wasn't until Democrats developed a strong message against the Iraq war in 2006 that they reclaimed Congress. And it wasn't until a presidential candidate staked out his own paradigm and established his own political space through leadership on his anti Iraq-war principles that ultimately a Democrat reclaimed the White House.

Jamal Abdi is policy director for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).

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