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Iraqi Election Challenges Jordan to Speed Reforms

In his State of the Union address this week, President Bush said the elections in Iraq will inspire democratic reformers throughout the Middle East. The Iraqi vote is widely seen as a challenge to leaders in the region to democratize their own countries, but the ruling monarchy in Jordan is struggling to balance democratic reforms against fears of rising Islamic fundamentalism.

Jordan's King Abdullah said the Iraqi elections reinforced Jordan's commitment to democratic change.

The king's position has been that the Middle East needs reform, but that it cannot be forced from outside. He says Jordan will follow its own reform route and he recently announced that direct elections for new local councils would soon be held.

Government spokeswoman and Culture Minister Asma Khader says through these elections, and other measures, the king hopes to strengthen the bond between his government and the public.

"Its part of what we are as a government trying to implement, which is allow citizens to follow up what's going on in the high level of decision making," said Asma Khader.

Jordan held parliamentary elections in June of 2003, when independent candidates allied with the monarchy won most of the seats. The Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, returned to parliament as part of the opposition. And, a special quota system was devised to also bring in a number of women.

But the king's critics say such elections are not enough and Jordan still falls far short of being a true democracy and what little political reform has occurred has come too slowly.

Labib Kamhawi, former vice president of the Arab Organization of Human Rights, says while the king's efforts may be genuine, his government continues to limit free speech and stifle dissent.

"You have the invisible hand of the security establishment becoming stronger and stronger," he said. "So the ability of the average Jordanian to express his emotion is severely curtailed."

Jordanian officials say they are only moving to limit the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

Joost Hiltermann is the regional director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. He says Islamic fundamentalism is a real threat in Jordan.

"You do see a growing trend towards religious fundamentalism; you see more arrests of people who are accused of plotting attacks in the kingdom," said Joost Hiltermann.

Last April a Jordanian court sentenced eight Islamic militants to death - six of them in absentia - for killing American diplomat Laurence Foley on the doorstep of his home in Amman in October 2002. Among the six fugitives sentenced to death was Abu Musab Zarqawi, the alleged mastermind of the killing. Zarqawi, believed to be a senior al-Qaida operative is now the most wanted terrorist in Iraq.

But Jordan's Islamic opposition leaders say they are not the violent and dangerous force the government describes.

Laith Shubailat is the former head of an influential engineers' union and a leading voice for the Islamic opposition.

He says the government uses the threat of Islamic fundamentalism as an excuse to stifle valid political opposition.

"They are against any of us, whether it be Islamists or nationalists, leftists, anybody who asks for freedom is taboo," he said.

Mr. Shubailat says the government faces a key decision: accept a moderate Islamic opposition that favors democracy or, by failing to open up the system, create a far more militant Islamic underground bent on direct confrontation with the monarchy.