In December 2009, a civil servant in Jordan’s ministry of justice did something remarkable: He turned in a bribe.
A private company seeking favors had offered the official 50,000 Dinar, which he then turned over to the minister of justice. The justice minister, in turn, offered him a 200 Dinar reward.
The media, online commentators and even some of the official’s coworkers, however, were less impressed by his honesty. “He would have done better to keep the 50,000,” U.S. officials wrote in a diplomatic memo summing up the common reaction among bloggers and television commentators. The cable was obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
The incident highlighted the deep cynicism among Jordanians toward the pervasive corruption in their country’s government. As U.S. diplomats noted in the January 2010 cable, bribery and favor-trading were so rampant that most Jordanians found “acts of whistle-blowing laughable.”
Now, apparently, they are no longer laughing.
Stirred by mass protests in Egypt and Tunisia, Jordanians of all political allegiances and ethnic backgrounds have come together in pursuit of a common goal: ousting the government. The country’s Palestinians, East Bank Jordanians, Communists, leaders of labor unions and the powerful Islamic Action Front have all united, inspired by the unrest sweeping the Arab world, to call for widespread political and economic reforms.
Sameer Jarrah, a Jordanian lawyer and human rights activist, said in a telephone interview from Amman that the protesters there — which numbered in the thousands, according to media reports — were fueled by “a true feeling of injustice, social injustice, corruption spreading.” The prime minister at the time of the bribery incident, Samir Rifai, was the son and grandson of two former prime ministers, contributing to the sense among Jordanians that their country, as Jarrah put it, was “family-owned.”
Jarrah is the founder and chair of the Arab World Center for Democratic Development and Human Rights, a non-profit organization that advocates for social and political reform. A senior human rights lawyer who has served on several national committees and parliamentary task forces in Jordan, Jarrah has been monitoring the protests in Amman in his current role as regional director for Freedom House, which conducts research and advocacy on democracy and human rights around the world.
Jarrah was amazed, he said, at how the protests in Egypt and Tunisia have unsettled Jordanian politics, prompting King Abdullah on Tuesday to dismiss Rifai’s government and install a new prime minister, Marouf Al-Bakhit, a respected military leader who is seen as free of corruption. Some opposition leaders applauded the move, but Jarrah cautioned that the decision would not placate human rights activists unless it is accompanied by far-reaching social and political reforms, such as free and fair elections.
“They are not satisfied,” Jarrah said of the opposition, adding that some of the demonstrators, while cautiously optimistic, suspect the appointment of a new prime minister — a close confidant of King Abdullah who briefly served in the post from 2005 to 2007 — may be “like a kind of trick.”
Jordan is one of the most stable countries in the Arab world, influential both as an American ally and as a sophisticated military power and source of intelligence. But the economy has lagged and faith in the political process has plummeted, after King Abdullah’s decision to dissolve parliament in 2009 and install Rifai. As the U.S. ambassador to Jordan, Stephen Beecroft, noted in a February 2010 cable to Vice President Joe Biden, “Jordan continues to face some of the most troubling challenges of King Abdullah’s 10-year reign.”
As Jarrah noted, Jordanians have traditionally been apathetic about politics, mostly because of state control over elections and the economy. Freedom House downgraded Jordan from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” in its annual survey of social and political conditions across the world last year, and gave the country poor marks for its rigidly controlled political process and King Abdullah’s decision in 2009 to dissolve parliament and postpone elections.
The mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt, however, appear to have stirred Jordanians of all ethnic backgrounds to action and prompted what Jarrah said was an unprecedented level of political activity. “The Jordanian people are not that much into politics, but I think it did have a great impact on the region,” Jarrah said of the turmoil in Egypt. “Even the government, even those who are in office, are witnessing that too.”
Whether King Abdullah’s surprise move to dismiss the government and install a new prime minister quells the unrest or emboldens the opposition will be determined, in part, by what the new government does, Jarrah said. Most of the protesters in the capital are concerned as much with economic fairness as they are with political reforms, calling for “social justice” and shouting slogans against unemployment. “Most of them had stated that they are not against the system, but they are against the government,” Jarrah said, adding that it was unlikely the monarchy itself would become the target of the protesters.
According to the official announcement of Al-Bakhit’s appointment, the new prime minister will be charged with “taking practical, swift, and tangible steps to launch a real political reform process, in line with the King’s vision of comprehensive reform, modernization and development.” Already, Al-Bakhit has begun consulting with opposition leaders to appoint new ministers, and said he is reconsidering laws that restrict freedom of expression, especially by the press.
That, Jarrah said, is evidence of how deeply the tremors sent by Egypt’s uprising have been felt across the Arab world.
“It’s amazing. I never saw the Jordanian public as they are,” Jarrah said. “Everyone is watching Al Jazeera. Everyone is talking about Egypt. Everyone.”