The Middle East Channel

Fragile hopes for Jordan’s new prime minister

AMMAN—Hundreds of activists filled the streets of downtown Amman on Friday, reiterating their weekly demands for the Jordanian government to implement political and economic reforms. But this week, the chants ringing from the crowd carried a more optimistic tone, as demonstrators and Jordanian lawmakers are cautiously welcoming King Abdullah's appointment last week of a new prime minister, Awn Shawkat al-Khasawneh.

Khasawneh is a man unknown to most Jordanians. He has spent most of his long career in public service away from the limelight, as a legal adviser to the late King Hussein and senior official in the foreign ministry. Since 2000 he has served on the International Court of Justice in The Hague, including three years as the ICJ's vice president from 2006-09. Yet many Jordanians believe Khasawneh represents the best chance since the Arab Spring began for Jordan to achieve meaningful reform. With his legal talents and lack of political entanglements, many hope that he will be able to bridge the kingdom's deep political divides and tackle the corruption that is pervasive throughout the Jordanian government.

But such visions of a more productive and inclusive government are already fading. Upon accepting his new post, Khasawneh invited the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, to participate in discussions about the formation of his new cabinet. The IAF, which for months had boycotted dialogue with the outgoing prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhi, met with Khasawneh for several hours last week. The meeting fueled hope that the IAF would accept a position in the new government, a historic move which would have strengthened the credibility and agenda-setting power of the Khasawneh govenrment. But on Saturday, IAF leaders announced that they had turned down positions in the new government, saying that they could better push for their cause from the outside, rather than from the cabinet table.

Khasawneh's appointment brings temporary break in tension that has been building since Bakhit took office last February. King Abdullah had presented Bakhit as a reformer who would address the demands of demonstrators, emboldened by protests in Tunisia and Egypt, for reform and an end to corruption. But Bakhit failed to win the confidence of the Jordanian people. Bakhit's critics charged that he had been ineffective during his previous term as prime minister, from 2005 to 2007. They were further enraged when it later emerged, during a corruption investigation known as "Casinogate," that as prime minister in 2007 Bakhit had personally authorized a secret deal to build a casino on the Dead Sea. On Sunday, following several weeks of demonstrations in Amman and around the country, 70 members of Jordan's Parliament signed a letter to the King Abdullah demanding that Bakhit and his cabinet be replaced.

Though bolstered by his refreshingly untarnished image, Khasawneh will face critical challenges in the weeks ahead. This week he introduced his new cabinet. Observers are anxiously waiting to see if he will be able to truly lead it.

As Dr. Hassan Barari, a professor at the University of Jordan and columnist for the daily al-Ra'i newspaper, pointed out, Khasawneh may have an impressive background but he has never held executive office and is untested as a national leader. Critically, Barari said, the new premier must demonstrate that his agenda will not be overshadowed by inter-agency competition, including on the part of the Jordanian intelligence service, the GID, and the Royal Court. "We need to see if he will be the one to call the shots," Barari told me last week.

This sentiment has not been lost on King Abdullah or his new premier. As a part of last week's cabinet reshuffle, the king also replaced the director of intelligence. The new GID director, Faisal al-Shobaki, has spent less time in the shadows and in more public positions, most recently as ambassador to Morocco. In public remarks following initial cabinet discussions on Wednesday, Khasawneh went to great lengths to stress that he has full control over the composition of the new government and that "there will be no shadow governments."

The next challenge will be to deliver the promised reforms, and the clock is ticking. Political reforms are the stated priority, including changes to laws that govern participation of political parties, and the introduction of new measures to guarantee transparency of local and national elections. Khasawneh will have to work quickly to satisfy the demands of the growing number of political groups seeking greater participation in Jordan's government. But the slow, judicious process of legal reform will undoubtedly challenge their patience. Earlier this month one group blocked the airport road for several hours to demand their own municipal government. Already Khasawneh has announced that he may have to postpone the scheduled December 27 municipal elections in order to have more time to make the necessary changes.

Khasawneh may enjoy a grace period of a month or so. But if last Friday's demonstrations are any indication, they Jordanians stand ready to quickly increase the pressure on the new government if it does not deliver tangible reforms. And while political reforms may be the focus right now, economic reforms are as important -- if not more important -- among the Jordanian public. More than 30 percent of young Jordanians are unemployed and many families are slipping into poverty. Economic grievances are particularly acute in the kingdom's southern cities and rural governorates, which have also seen some of the most frequent and vocal protests. Ongoing projects to decentralize government and state expenditures are intended to address these issues, but it is unclear how far and how quickly the new government must go to fully satisfy these restive communities.

If Awn al-Khasawneh is able to capitalize on the rare amount of confidence placed in him and make positive steps toward change, his appointment last week will mark a quiet milestone in Jordan's reform process. But the stakes are higher than ever: Khasawneh's footing is precarious and dependent upon the patience of a country with little tolerance for the political stumbles of the past.

Christina Satkowski is a Fulbright Research Scholar based in Amman.


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