04 February 2011

Egypt: The Ripple Effect


We are in the eleventh day of the anti-government protests in Egypt. This day has been dubbed “Friday of Departure”. I’ve been monitoring the protests very closely these past days. The protests that started out peacefully turned ugly last weekend when pro-Mubarak factions engineered an “anti-protest”. Suddenly the police and security forces who had been so highly visible and active disappeared from the scene. Everyone wondered why and, where did they go? I speculated to my friends and on Twitter that they were plotting some malevolent scheme in an attempt to squelch the protests.

Suddenly, last weekend the protests were visited by violent gangs of thugs. They were armed with sticks, guns and molotov cocktails. In the ensuring violence many of the thugs were captured and imprisoned in ad hoc jails around Tahrir Square. In many cases their identity cards showed they were actually members of the police and security forces. Others confessed they were hired to attack the protesters. They were paid anything from 50 to 500 Egyptian Pounds for their services to the regime.

While it is sad, and certainly disconcerting that Egyptian citizens would turn on their neighbors in such a way it shouldn’t be completely suprising. Consider the fact that the average (greater than 95%) Egyptian lives, or attempts to live on less than $1.50 per day. They have to feed their families and themselves. Desperate times will lead men to do desperate things. While they should’t be completely absolved of their culpability, some compassion should perhaps be extended to them in addition to the disdain and anger.

Ripples In Jordan

The demonstrations in Egypt, and those preceding them in Tunisa appear to be having a ripple effect on the Arab world. All across the region leaders are scrambling to improve the living conditions of their poorest citizens and in some cases, promising not to stand for elections at the end of their terms. Our own monarch, King Abdullah II has been making surprise visits to some of the towns and villages hardest hit by poverty to make personal inspections of the living conditions and interview residents. He has ordered houses built and refurbished and food trucked in as well as ordering patients to be treated at King Hussein Hospital at his own expense. These actions speak to the compassionate heart of our Monarch, but sadly they are also viewed with suspicion by many in the poorer districts of the kingdom.

In addition, His Majesty sacked his government and appointed a new Prime Minister who is tasked with forming a new government and giving attention to the economy and to the citizens of the kingdom. It remains to be seen whether this new (ex-) Prime Minister will be an improvement. His record during his last term in office doesn’t speak well for him. According to the people I have interviewed Marouf Bakhit was as much a part of the corruption problem as any who preceded or succeeded him; particularly his alleged engineering of the 2005 elections fiasco that resulted in his resignation.

When His Majesty ascended the throne ten years ago he stated that his goal was to achieve a constitutional monarcy modelled on Great Britain, with the Prime Minister and House of Representatives elected in popular elections. To date, he has yet to institute that process and continues to micromanage all aspects of government. The corruption, nepotism that have evolved may or may not be a result of his action. However, it cannot be denied that a government elected by popular vote with strict term limits would go a long way toward eliminating, or at least reducing the corruption that permeates every aspect of government. Politicians are corrupt by their very nature, I reckon, but term limits and a very open and public system of checks and balances would limit opportunities that might tempt the weak politician to dip into the public till in one way or another.

The vast majority of citizens in this kingdom are of Palestinian descent. Most arrived on the heels of the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe) when the Zionists first occupied Palestine and established the Jewish state. Another wave of refugees came after the 1967 war. These refugees were granted citizenship in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Unfortunately, that citizenship now is under threat. The social security numbers of the Jordanian citizens of Palestinian descent contain one extra digit to identify them as refugees. A great many of these citizens have lost their social security numbers by having them revoked by the government. From all I have heard in the streets, it seems the tiniest infraction or even perceived infraction can cause the number to be revoked. From time to time I have also heard of citizens losing the number when renewing ID cards or passports.

The citizens are not deported; to where would they be deported? The Zionist state won’t allow them the right of return. So, they become, in effect, “half-citizens”. They are no longer allowed to travel, operate a business or any of the dozens of things that you and I, and the average “native” Jordanian citizen takes for granted.

One wonders whether His Majesty will address this issue and make these people who are already living in crushing poverty full citizens equal to their “native” counterparts and relieve them of the fear of becoming “half-citizens”?

In his meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front on Thursday, His Majesty was keen to stress the importance of enhancing public freedoms and citizens’ security and dignity. It is hoped that the enhancement of security will include removing the threat of revoking social security numbers.

Preparation For New Government

In the Letter of Designation, appointing Marouf Bakhit to the post of Prime Minister the King said the new government must “take practical, speedy and tangible steps to launch real political reform” to achieve comprehensive modernization and development. To that end, His Majesty put forth the following points:
·         Some have put personal interests before public interests, narrow-minded arguments, fear from change and reluctance by many of those…to take decisions
·         Comprehensive reform must be translated into practical steps through serious reform policies
·         There is no going backward because of pressure by any powers rejecting reform to “safeguard their personal interests and to serve their special agenda and narrow goals”
·         Implementation of an institutional mechanism for the launch of comprehensive national dialogue
·         Recommendations for a clear program engaging the various components of society to reach a consensus over a new elections law.

The MuslimBrotherhood described their meeting with the King as candid and clear and dealt with different issues of national concern. They also emphasised the need for serious, practical and speedy efforts to implement reform that will restor people’s confidence in governments, Parliament and the entire political process and defuses public anger.

As we look around us we see other governments who have worked to provide meaningful employment for their citizens. I’m not privy to the compensation of Indian and other Asian workers, but I do know that many hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States have been exported. If our government would shop around in European Union and the Western Hemisphere I believe Jordan could import jobs as well. Call centers, factories, accounting, project management and human resources are the first, and most frequently outsourced jobs, that come to mind. One-on-one, person-to-person and independent contractor/consultant outsourcing are huge sources of employment. The kingdom could benefit in a massive way by investigating these possible avenues. With people working again the economy will take a huge leap forward and the populace will be happier and more satisfied.

Only time will show whether His Majesty and his new government will make serious attempts to lift the citizens of Jordan out of record poverty, hunger and unemployment. Considering the current mindset in the Arab World right now, time may not be on the side of the government. Much needs to be done and it needs to be done quickly, efficiently and without corruption and wasta.  The big question in the mind of the average man in the street is whether recent events are posing and window-dressing or a demonstration of genuine desire to come to the aid of the kingdom and her people. It is this writer’s hope that he will break with the records of the past and raise Jordan up as a shining example of what Arab society can be.

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