At the end of 2009, King Abdullah II of Jordan dissolved Parliament halfway through its four-year term, claiming that it was handling legislation poorly. Prime Minister Samir Rifai assured local media that parliamentary elections would take place no later than the end of 2010. In the midst of this controversy, key findings of Freedom House's latest "Freedom in the World" report were released – with Jordan in the "not free" category, due to the regression of political and civil rights in the country.
In the past decade, Jordan has strived to overcome the political, legislative and social obstacles preventing full democratisation and the emergence of a strong civil society. However, the emergence of a genuinely influential and politically independent civil society still remains a distant – though not unachievable – goal.
In the 1980s, Jordan faced an acute economic crisis when declining oil prices in the Arab Gulf States resulted in reduced remittances and foreign aid to Jordan. By the end of 1980s, the economic situation deteriorated with the devaluation of the Jordanian dinar, rising unemployment and popular unrest. To resolve the economic crisis, the country agreed to accept a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In return, a number of political reforms had to be implemented, including building a more active civil society. As a result, the number of civil society organisations (CSOs) grew.
Although the concept of civil society is relatively new in Jordan, the history of CSOs dates back to the country's beginnings. Throughout much of Jordan's 64-year statehood, CSOs have focused mostly on charity and development. Currently, there are over 1,600 of them across the country.
However, the proliferation of CSOs was not a bottom-up process or the result of pressure from civil society groups, but part of Jordan's obligation to implement political reforms in exchange for international aid. Therefore, CSOs were not created for the purpose of strengthening a functioning society independent of the state, as is theoretically their goal.
As such, their role as active players able to make a social and political impact in Jordan is yet to be realised. And they will not be able to achieve this role without the necessary institutional and legal framework.
Jordanian law is not conducive to the independent functioning of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In July 2009, the government passed a law strengthening administrative control over establishing, operating and funding NGOs. Under this new law, groups receiving foreign funding must notify the government of the sources, conditions and purpose of funding. The government also has the power to dissolve the leadership of any organisation and appoint a temporary Board of Directors.
This is not to suggest, however, that the state is solely responsible for the weaknesses of Jordanian CSOs.
CSOs in Jordan suffer from a number of internal weaknesses, including limited organisational capacity, lack of funding and lack of mass support. As such, these organisations must conduct internal reforms. At the same time, the monarchy and the Jordanian government must also recognise that opening up the public arena is in everyone's best interests as it creates avenues for grassroots participation and reduces the incentive for citizens to act clandestinely and circumvent restrictive laws.
The monarchy should work to remove legal impediments to the independence of CSOs. In addition, the government should establish an independent constitutional court, which would decide on the constitutionality of laws, check the power of the executive branch and effectively curtail the direct control it has on various CSOs.
CSOs should not be seen as a panacea for all of Jordan’s problems, but their emancipation is crucial for political development. The Jordanian case demonstrates that the mere existence of CSOs is not sufficient for the creation of a burgeoning civil society. What matters is their effective functioning, responsiveness to people's needs and the ability to exert pressure on the government. They must be given opportunities to organise peacefully and advocate for their needs and priorities to increase Jordan's overall security and stability, as well as its prospects for effective democratic reform.
* Sameer Jarrah is a Jordanian international lawyer with extensive experience in democracy and human rights, as well as Project Director of the New Generation Program in the Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).