Despite its gravity and sensitivity, what is happening in Jordan today — massive protests and the expulsion of ministers in various municipalities and the general sense of frustration and popular discontent with the draft income tax bill — is ironic. Why?
Over the past few years, Jordan was regarded as an exceptional case, compared with other Arab countries. It passed through the Arab Spring with minimal political damage, maintaining its stability and security despite regional upheaval. It was an island of calm in a stormy sea, and its foreign relations weren’t affected by what was happening around it, nor did it suffer domestically.
Today, though, seven years after the Arab Spring, Jordan seems to be facing unprecedented domestic challenges, and is witnessing a rise in popular action and movement with greater momentum than it saw at the height of the regional uprisings. In light of the new tax law, citizens have resumed their demands for the government to tackle corruption and implement fundamental political reforms.
Those following the discussions in Jordan feel as if the clock has turned back seven years, and citizens have just remembered what their demands were at the time. Parliamentary elections, changing the electoral law, constitutional amendments and the series of official reforms seem to have evaporated then; observers are now saying, “Welcome back to square one.”
We have gone back to the debate about what political reform is and what is required from the development of the electoral law and the parliamentary government, and the guarantees of doing so. It all seems a bit déjà vu, but behind the scenes lies the fundamental idea that the people want real change in managing public affairs. However, we must not ignore the question about whether or not this shift is dependent on political decisions, popular political awareness and pressure, or on the development of the means for social mobilisation and the ability to protest and thus bring down a government or a law. Or do we need a political mechanism offering alternative options?
The other irony is that what actually moved the masses is the economic crisis, and the proposed income tax bill, which seeks to expand the taxpayers’ base. This is a big leap from a state that grants jobs, privileges and funds (a rentier state) to one that takes from its citizens and fails to provide them with the services they need.
However, economic-social protests progress quickly to the political level. Talk of corruption then begins, along with demands for recovering embezzled state funds along with political reforms that give the public real authority, thus creating a true expression of the principle of balance of power.
Funnily enough, the actual step that the current government, and any other government, can take to rescue the financial situation in the country and face up to the danger of debt and deficit is to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund. As such, the economic solutions are pretty much pre-determined.
This leaves the margin for movement in the political sphere in order to combat corruption, protect public money and emphasise the citizens’ right to rule and be represented, on the basis of no taxation without political representation. This is good and needed, but the countries that have witnessed reforms, either through revolutions, like Tunisia, or parliamentary governments, like Morocco, have not seen corresponding improvements in their economic and financial situations. They were forced to resort to the IMF and are suffering similar crises to Jordan’s; the only difference is the manner by which they manage the political equation.
The point is that political reform is necessary today and it is the lifeline for many countries. By reform, I mean genuine and fundamental democratic reform, as well as parallel and simultaneous financial, economic, social and cultural reforms. We also need a new culture based on the concept of the rule of law, citizenship and wise governance that relies on a strong system of national accountability.
Economic reform alone is not enough; political reform on its own is also insufficient. There can be no trade-off between either, as they are both necessary; as are, indeed, educational, cultural and religious reforms, perhaps even more so.