Political reform in Jordan is only way forward

Jordan has been unable to stem opposition protests, and needs to offer genuine political reform to change the public mood.

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There was nothing particularly new about the demands made in central Amman at the weekend. Banners called for expanded voting rights, a renewed fight against corruption and the seating of a constitutional court.

Rather, what made Friday's Muslim Brotherhood-organised march noteworthy was the size: an estimated 10,000 protesters gathered in one of the largest Jordanian protests since the beginning of the Arab uprisings early last year. The response of the government was another promise of political reform.

That frequently repeated promise is failing to convince opposition groups to set aside their protests. King Abdullah II has been seen as a reformer since he assumed the throne in 1999, yet he is facing difficult choices in a deeply troubled neighbourhood. Governing in Jordan means balancing the interests of powerful tribes, Jordanians of Palestinian descent, native citizens and a seemingly unending flood of refugees, most recently from Syria. Maintaining consensus in this stew of interests will always be a struggle.

The most frequent solution has been simply to dismiss the government - the country has had 11 prime ministers since 1999 - but that has not appeased elements of Jordanian society that are calling for change. The king dissolved parliament a day before Friday's protests and announced new elections, in a move that many interpreted as an attempt to shut Islamists out of the process of drafting a new elections law.

King Abdullah's government has good reason to be cautious as Muslim Brotherhood-related groups seek to expand their power in politics across the region. The fringes of Jordan's Islamist groups verge on extremism, and even their more mainstream brethren in Egypt and Tunisia have not yet definitively demonstrated that they are committed to a representative democracy now that they are in power.

But for those on the margins of Jordanian politics today, the perceived lack of representation is already troubling. The majority of parliamentary seats are reserved for individual candidates, meaning parties like the Brotherhood will never be satisfied. More importantly, though, is the perception that only connected members of society with strong business interests can prosper in Jordanian political life.

Morocco offers a possible model. A new constitution approved by voters in July 2011 devolved some of King Mohammed VI's powers to the prime minister, although the king still controls the security apparatus. Looking at unrest in Libya, Egypt and Syria, most Moroccans were satisfied with incremental reform.

Similar moves could work in Amman. Jordan deserves some credit: unlike in some Arab states, protests have been met with a peaceful response. It is now crucial that the government gets ahead of events and own the process.