The Limits of Democracy in the Middle East: The Case of Jordan

By Wiktorowicz, Quintan | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

The Limits of Democracy in the Middle East: The Case of Jordan


Wiktorowicz, Quintan, The Middle East Journal


Despite movement toward democracy throughout the Middle East, limitations to political participation persist. In Jordan, the accomplishments of democratic political reform are marred by continued authoritarian tendencies. The presence of repression in the midst of democratic change reflects the regime's intent to perpetuate its political control. This article examines the limiting effect of regime practices on voluntary organizations, demonstrations, the press, and formal political institutions.

Despite the persistence of authoritarianism in the Middle East, recently there has been sp Pe Y movement toward democracy in the region.' Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen have all enacted political liberalization measures which provide new opportunities for expanding the scope of participation. Political parties, elections, and civil society organizations have become more common and incorporate broader segments of society into the political process.

Formal institutions, practices, and participatory structures, however, do not inexorably lead to liberal democratic polities; and lingering authoritarian practices limit the prospects for liberal democracy in the Middle East. Multi-party politics (ta`addudiyya) and elections-the symbols and institutional face of democracy-are frequently accompanied by political repression and manipulation which sabotage the underlying principles of democracy. Though many regimes have curtailed the use of raw coercion, they continue to project power through legal codes, the administrative apparatus, and instruments of repression to constrain opposition and dissent. Democratic institutions and authoritarian practices are temporally juxtaposed as incumbent elites perpetuate their political control. Samih Farsoun and Lucia Port describe such a political system as "an electoral regime embedded in an authoritarian state."2 It is a "facade democracy," guided by regime imperatives rather than democratic precepts.3

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan provides an interesting case study for examining the limitations of democracy in the Middle East. Since 1989, the regime has held three relatively free and fair Parliamentary elections (1989, 1993, 1997); supported the National Charter (a blueprint for democratic reform); legalized political parties; lifted martial law; and enacted political liberalization measures. Jordan is arguably one of the most democratic countries in the region. Yet, despite these remarkable reforms, repressive practices persist. Grassroots voluntary organizations are tightly controlled and managed by the state; public demonstrations are strictly limited; and the press is under siege. There is a disconnect between democratic principles and actual reform.

This article argues that these authoritarian tendencies in the midst of democratic change can be viewed as part of an attempt to channel political participation into a discrete, state-delineated political space, a process which has not changed since King `Abdullah II came to power in February 1999. As in other Middle East countries, democratic reform in Jordan was initiated from above as a tactical strategy to maintain social control in the face of severe economic crisis. Political change was driven by a stability imperative, not by a benevolent desire for enhanced political participation. As a result, the regime attempts to limit political participation to a narrow, relatively stable political space comprised predominantly of formal political institutions such as parties, elections, and Parliament. Political activism outside this space is discouraged by regulative and repressive state practices. After briefly explaining the process and underlying imperative of democratization in Jordan, this article outlines how the channeling process affects the prospects for broader political participation by examining its effects on grassroots voluntary organizations, public demonstrations, and the press. …

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