Jordanian Politics


Before I proceed to blog the last month of living in Jordan, I want toshare with you some insights into the its political system I may do the same for Israeli politics, because Israeli politics are cray-cray. If you don't understand the political system of Israel, it really is impossible to fully understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The political system in Jordan is a faux democracy. Everybody says they love King Abdullah II and his wife Queen Rania, but in reality people don't talk smack because they're afraid al-mukhabarat might be within earshot--secret police that'll nab you for talking badly about the royal family. Brock remembers talking to one of his friends and asking "Do you think you have free speech here?" His friend responded "Yes, absolutely!"

"Oh, so you can say whatever you want about the King or government?"

"What?! No! But other than that, we have free speech."

For a general overview, here are snippets of the Wikipedia article on the basic outline of the Jordanian government. I'll insert bolded commentary along the way.

Executive Branch

Executive authority is vested in the king and his cabinet. The king signs, executes, and vetoes all laws. The king may also suspend or dissolve parliament, and shorten or lengthen the term of session. Get that? He can dissolve parliament. If you think our government is inept, can you imagine how completely ineffective it would be if President Obama could just get rid of Congress as he saw necessary?! Usually what happens in Jordan is that whenever parliament makes a decision that appears populist or, y'know, actually democratic, the King dissolves parliament. This has happened three times in the past two years (nine times in King Abdullah II's twelve-year rule!). It actually happened while Brock and I lived there. In October 2011, the King dissolved parliament and replaced the prime minister in response to widespread public dissatisfaction with government performance (which the King promised to improve in a major televised speech in June, in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings) and escalating criticism of the premier because of public concerns over his reported involvement in corruption. A veto by the king may be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both houses of parliament at his discretion, most recently in November 2009.

He appoints and may dismiss all judges by decree, approves amendments to the constitution, declares war, and commands the armed forces. Can you see how unilateral his power is? Absolutely no checks or balances. Cabinet decisions, court judgments, and the national currency are issued in his name. The Cabinet, led by a prime minister, was formerly appointed by the king, but following the 2011 Jordanian protests, King Abdullah agreed to an elected cabinet. Oh, how nice of him. The prime minister is responsible for choosing all the other ministers in the cabinet (with the King's approval). You would not believe how many ministries there are. There has to be plenty of room for nepotism and playing favorites in Jordan's government, so the more ministries the better! The cabinet is responsible to the Chamber of Deputies on matters of general policy and can be forced to resign by a two-thirds vote of "no confidence" by that body.

There was a fantastic opinion piece in the New York Times last month titled "Jordan's Club of Has-Beens." I highly recommend it. Here's a pull-quote:
In political terms they are, quite literally, the quick and the dead. They are the rapidly expanding club of former ministers of King Abdullah II — several hundred, by some estimates — who came to the well, drank as best they could and were then sent home to think about what they’d done wrong. 
They sign on for a limited season, aware that they are scapegoats in suits, cloned to take the rap whenever another palace policy bites the dust and the public demands fresh blood. 
“You appoint governments and then you change them like knickers,” says a once important official. “A new team arrives and spends a few months blaming its predecessors and then the same thing happens all over again. There’s no policy, no vision. It’s just a way to buy time.” 
So there are currently few incentives for climbing Jordan’s political tree. The average career expectancy of a prime minister has fallen to around eight months — hardly long enough to give birth to a cogent thought, let alone an innovative policy. 
Imagine the hapless head of government, all but dead on arrival in his office, staring disconsolately day after day at his telephone, wondering only when someone will be instructed to call him a cab.
Legislative Branch

Legislative power rests in the bicameral National Assembly. The National Assembly (Majlis al-Umma) has two chambers. The Chamber of Deputies (Majlis al-Nuwaab) has 120 members, elected for a four-year terms in single-seat constituencies with 12 seats reserved for women by a special electoral college. This is the Jordanian equivalent of the House of Representatives. I think its 120-member composition may be based off the Knesset in Israel, which also has 120 members. For Israel, there's special meaning in this number: 120 members is symbolic of 12 tribes of Israel. Also, considering that women in Saudi Arabia just barely got the right to vote, Jordan is pretty forward-thinking in terms of women in politics. In addition 9 seats are reserved for Christians and 3 for Chechens/Circassians. While the Chamber of Deputies is elected by the people, its main legislative abilities are limited to approving, rejecting, or amending legislation with little power to initiate laws. "Little power to initiate laws?!" That's the point of our House of Representatives! Also, can you imagine what our House might look like if there were quotas to meet regarding its composition like there is in Jordan? The Assembly of Senators (Majlis al-Aayan) has 60 members appointed by the King for a four-year term. These guys are basically all the King's buddies. The Assembly of Senators is responsible to the Chamber of Deputies and can be removed by a "vote of no confidence".

Judicial Branch

The judiciary is completely independent from the other two branches of the government. The constitution provides for three categories of courts--civil (in this case meaning 'regular'), religious, and special. Regular courts consist of both civil and criminal varieties at the first level – First Instance or Conciliation Courts, second level – Appelette or Appeals Courts – and the Cassation Court which is the highest judicial authority in the kingdom. There are two types of religious courts: Sharia courts which enforce the provisions of Islamic law and civil status, and tribunals of other religious communities officially recognized in Jordan. The court system is interesting because it rarely interferes with tribal matters in Jordan. Tribal culture is definitely still strong in the country, which adds a complex dynamic to the government. I'll write more on this later.

Political Conditions

King Hussein ruled Jordan from 1953 to 1999, surviving a number of challenges to his rule, drawing on the loyalty of his military, and serving as a symbol of unity and stability for both the East Bank and Palestinian communities in Jordan. One of the main reasons Jordanians espouse love for King Abdullah II (the current King of Jordan) is because they ADORED his father. He made sure to not only please the West Bankers (who primarily live in Amman), but the East Bankers who are thinly spread throughout rural regions of the country. King Hussein ended martial law in 1991 and legalized political parties in 1992. In 1989 and 1993, Jordan held free and fair parliamentary elections. Controversial changes in the election law led Islamist parties to boycott the 1997 elections.

King Abdullah II succeeded his father Hussein following the latter's death in February 1999. Abdullah moved quickly to reaffirm Jordan's peace treaty with Israel and its relations with the United States. Abdullah, during the first year in power, refocused the government's agenda on economic reform.

Jordan's continuing structural economic difficulties, burgeoning population, and more open political environment led to the emergence of a variety of political parties. Moving toward greater independence, Jordan's parliament has investigated corruption charges against several regime figures and has become the major forum in which differing political views, including those of political Islamists, are expressed.

On February 1st 2011, it was announced that King Abdullah had dismissed his government. This has been interpreted as a pre-emptive move in the context of the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution and unfolding events in nearby Egypt.


King Abdullah II and the Jordanian Government began the process of decentralization, with the Madaba governate as the pilot project, on the regional level dividing the nation into three regions: North, Central, and South. The Greater Amman Municipality will be excluded from the plan but it will set up a similar decentralization process. Each region will have an elected council that will handle the political, social, legal, and economic affairs of its area. This decentralization process is part of Jordan's Democratization Program. Sounds interesting. We'll see how this ends up working...


According to Transparency International, Jordan is one of the least corrupt countries in the Middle East. Woo hoo! What a badge of honor! Jordan ranked 47th out of 180 nations in the Corruption Perceptions Index. The Constitution of Jordan states that no member of Parliament can have any financial or business dealings with the government and no member of the royal family can be in the government. However, corruption remains a problem in Jordan despite progress. Corruption cases are examined by the Anti-Corruption Commission which is likely corrupt itself... and then referred to the judiciary for legal action. Corruption takes the form of nepotism, favoritism, and bribery.

Whew! Wasn't that fun? :) Jordan is in a precarious position for several reasons. One of them has to do with its reputation as a peaceful Middle Eastern country--it has friendly relationships with both the United States and Israel. Jordan feels intense pressure to keep up that image as it is heavily reliant on foreign aid. This is something that its citizens are all too aware of. That's not to say, however, that Jordanians are mindless robots who keep opinions to themselves. I was so impressed with a recent Facebook posting of one of my Jordanian friends:

The first incident to which my friend refers has to do with a Jordanian man's self-immolation this past Monday--something that has never happened before in the country. From the linked article:
Ahmad Humoud al-Matarna reportedly torched himself on Monday after he failed to find a solution to pressing financial difficulties. According to Jordanian media, the man, who was also a father, had been unable to pay moutning bills, especially after he was made redundant and had a limited retirement income.

The second incident refers to a young man's burning a picture of the King yesterday in Madaba just yesterday. Here is the AP story:
AMMAN, Jordan — A military prosecutor says a young Jordanian activist has been charged with harming the king’s dignity for burning a street portrait of the monarch. 
The prosecutor says Odai Abu-Issa, 18, has been detained for two weeks for interrogation. He faces up to three years in jail.

The prosecution says Abu-Issa burned a portrait of Jordan's King Abduallh II in front of a government office in the western city of Madaba on Wednesday.

He belongs to a small group of young Jordanians who have taken to the streets to demand that the king's powers be curbed. Abdullah is an absolute ruler who has the final say on all matters.

The prosecutor spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to make public statements.

Free speech, indeed. But intelligent Jordanians are becoming less and less afraid to speak out, as demonstrated by my friend's gutsy Facebook post above (also, notice how 10 people "liked" it). Sadly, however, there will always be idiots who have no sense of morality:

I'm so proud of my friend for not putting up with this bullcrap. And you know what? He's not the only one. I met many young, hyperintelligent Jordanians while living in Amman. They work hard at their studies, speak amazing English ("You sordid microbe"--gotta learn how to say that in Arabic!), think progressively, and often study complex subjects in English-speaking universities. Can you imagine majoring in computer science or biology in your non-native language? Unreal.

Unfortunately, most of these people want to leave Jordan.

Anyway, I doubt anybody is still reading at this point, so I'll quit blathering on. I'll close by saying that it was so eye-opening to learn about and live in a foreign government. It gave me an appreciation for the functionality of my own country's political system (hate it all you want--it works) and for the fact that I enjoy real freedoms instead of quasi ones. It'll be interesting to see what the future of Jordan holds, and I pray for its well-being.


  1. After a summer living in Jordan, I'm currently writing my thesis about entrepreneurship education in Amman. Really enjoyed your article!! Sounded a lot like my experience there.


© Raesevelt All rights reserved . Design by Blog Milk Powered by Blogger