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End of the Rope

There is a crisis of trust between Jordan’s citizens and the state, and the old ways won’t work anymore.

The main lesson the Jordanian state should learn from the current crisis is bigger than the issue of the draft income tax law—important though it is—or the rising price of fuel. There is a crisis of trust between the state and the citizen that myself and others have been writing about for years. This has reached the stage where society no longer accepts that the state manage affairs through traditional means.

The current crisis is different from that of 2011 in several fundamental ways. Today’s protesters come from a far wider segment of society than those of seven years ago, including private-sector employees and residents of the more prosperous districts of western Amman; those demonstrating are not only the young; the movement has no leadership, as all leadership has been destroyed; and finally, the street today will not back down as easily as it did in 2011.

Another key lesson is that changes to the government will mean little unless they are accompanied by a clear political will from the state to carry out a comprehensive review of the current approach to governing the country. That requires a clear conviction that participatory decisionmaking is no longer a luxury (if it ever was) and that giving the citizen a real voice is essential to rescuing the country from its economic and political crisis. King Abdullah II clearly supported that stance when he addressed journalists in early June.

Certain steps are required of any new government that aims to not just calm the situation and return protesters to their homes, but also to lay the foundation for a new phase. The new administration should start by setting out a comprehensive economic and political program based on the following principles:

On the political level, it is to be hoped that in the near future a government will be formed that does not rely on traditional methods. It should include a critical mass of reformist figures in addition to reformist Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz, as well as youth activists who cannot be ignored following recent events. It should have a clear goal of restoring the public mandate of the government, even gradually, and of taking back full sovereignty over government decisions and living up to its responsibilities before parliament. That will need different laws for organizing political life in order for citizens to feel that they are being fairly represented and that they are guaranteed that their voices will be heard.

Recent demonstrations have shown that the old elite upon which the system depended, especially during crises, is facing unprecedented criticism and has lost the trust of those in the street. It is vitally important to create a new elite capable of governing, which means in turn that a serious process must begin immediately to cease undermining other leaders and to develop a party-centered political life that is able to produce such an elite. It is time to admit that attempts to calm tensions by offering superficial resolutions that fail to address the real issues, a common practice of the traditional elite, can no longer work.

On the economic level, the state must realize the necessity of simultaneous political and economic reforms. We are facing a crisis that cannot be solved by raising taxes. Instead, it demands a plan to stimulate the economy and raise productivity and growth rates as well as tackling corruption in an institutional way. No government can execute such a plan without genuinely involving society. Ministers must realize the importance of this. If they are not able or willing to talk to society, they should no longer have a place in the cabinet.

Let us be honest. Any plan that demands austerity from the citizen without also demanding it from the government will not be accepted by the public. The government can no longer justify imposing taxes to raise revenues by JD500 million (just over $700 million) while its own expenditures rise by the same amount, as citizens pay for Jordan’s prudent stance in regional affairs. It is time for a culture of government austerity that the state so far has shown an unwillingness to put into practice.

Recent events are a clear lesson to the traditional political elite: This is the age of participation and democracy. Gone are the days when decisions could be made without such participation. Let us always remember that change can be easier to handle than the rot of the status quo.

-MARWAN MUASHER

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