To Jordanians of all stripes, Marwan Muasher hardly needs an introduction. The former diplomat and statesman made a name for himself in the upper echelons of government, reaching the ranks of Minister of Foreign Affairs (2002-2004) and Deputy Prime Minister (2004-2005), before leaving government altogether and becoming one of its most outspoken critics. He developed an international reputation for integrity and candor, authored two books—The Arab Center, and The Second Arab Awakening —and most recently took senior positions with the World Bank and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In 2014, Muasher returned to Jordan after residing in Washington, DC for a few years, to engage in what he calls “field work.” His years in government taught him that political change doesn’t occur unless a large public constituency rallies behind it and pushes it through. He had a vision for building that constituency, and realized he could only do that by engaging with the Jordanian citizen.

In this exclusive interview with Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, Muasher tells Venture about his time in government, his return to Jordan and work in civil society, the upcoming elections, and the challenges of being a liberal in the Arab world today.

Many people were puzzled by your decision to come back to Jordan in 2014 given your skills and experience were so in-demand globally. Why did you come back, and was it  the right choice to make?

I felt that I could not talk about reform while I was abroad, and that I had to be closer to the field. I am very happy with my decision. I have no personal ambition other than seeing a future for the country in which my children can live, in a peaceful prosperous society. I never intended to stay out of the country for a long time. I don’t think anyone is larger than their country, and I have very strong roots here. I decided to come back and work mainly with civil society. I tried working within government to implement reform, and it did not work. I now understand that this is a long process, that needs to happen, but has to happen through efforts from outside the government.

What exactly does your work here in Jordan entail?

On an individual level, I am very active in touring around the country and talking to different groups, particularly the youth. I am slowly getting to know what their interests and needs are, and developing a platform with them for political, economic, and social reform. On an institutional level, I am involved in setting up a number of NGOs that are concerned with particular aspects of society. Right now we are in the middle of setting up an NGO for education reform, to make our curricula and education system more inclusive and promote issues like critical thinking, and acceptance of different points of view.

We are on the cusp of a parliamentary election with a new electoral law. Tell us about the new law: is it understandable? Does it make sense? Is it a significant departure from the old law? Are the parliamentary outputs going to be markedly different?

First of all, we need to agree on the objective of any electoral law. In my view, that should be the creation, even gradually, of a legislative body that is strong and able to exercise authority, in terms of monitoring government performance and internal proper legislation. For that body to be effective, it needs to be political party-based. Any parliament based on individuals cannot perform that function. We are a long way from [having a political party-based legislature]. The new election law is certainly an improvement in the sense that it is a departure from the one person – one vote system, and it introduced the concept of lists. Where it is lacking in my view is that it is lacking national lists, because district lists do not have the chance of putting people in parliament [whose loyalty extends beyond the district]. Having said that, I am of the opinion that participation is always better than not participating, but I do not expect the new parliament to be far different from previous ones. I think that as soon as the elections are over, the shortcomings of this particular law [will rise to the surface], and there will be a push once again by society to have a new election law. Any election law needs to be inclusive, and needs to take into account—in a serious manner—the views of the electorate, so that people feel it is representative and fair. That has not taken place yet, and until it does all election laws, current and future, are going to be criticized.

But isn’t it difficult to convince people to participate when they haven’t been consulted about the process? Do you think there’s a marketing effort here that the government has undertaken to try to convince people that elections are the only way change will occur?

In marketing, there is a basic rule: it’s very difficult to market what’s not on the shelf. This is not a marketing exercise. It is not a PR exercise. One first needs to produce an inclusive election law. Unfortunately, people have lost trust in political institutions in the country – in particular, in parliament. I think the government is partly to blame for that. When you have election laws that are structurally designed to produce weak governments, and when the executive branch regularly interferes in the work of parliament, it is natural that people will lose trust and therefore will not feel that going to the polls will make a difference.

So what’s the point of participating?

Because not participating is going to produce worse results. Participating is not a sign of approval for the election law, but it is one step along the way to improving election laws in the future.

Why don’t we see candidates running on purely economic platforms? And why don’t voters seem to cast their votes based on economic and distribution concerns?

So long as parliament and the election law are based on individuals, you’re not going to see economic programs. You will only see economic programs when you have national lists of people running on ideological or programmatic grounds. Tribes elect people based on their affiliation of kinship, not based on their economic program or their ideology. We cannot deny the structure of Jordanian society, but we cannot also be constrained by it forever. The way to get out of this, is through election laws that promote political parties.

Why did you become such an outspoken critic of the political process only after you left public office? Does public office necessitate withholding your opinion on how things are run? Do you think that trend, of officials criticizing the system after they leave, drives the public to lose credibility in them?

I have a problem with the question, because it ignores what people—including me—have done while in government. From my first senior job in government as Minister of Information twenty years ago, I not only called for the abolishing of the Ministry, I wrote a law to do it. While I was in government, I was head of the National Agenda, which still today is the only numerical, results-based, performance-based political and economic reform document in the whole Arab World, not just in Jordan. There is no question that when I left government I became more critical, but that is the reason I left government: I no longer believed that reform from within is possible. When you believe in that, you naturally work to achieve that silently. But when you no longer believe in that, that experience is the one that makes you more critical publically, and vocally… [What people don’t realize is that] there is no way for individuals to affect change, even if they have liberal or reform-minded views. Many have tried, I’m not the only one. They found out, as I did, that affecting change through working individually doesn’t work.

For some commentators, talk of political reform is a luxury given the economic realities. The top priority, they argue, should be for economic, and not political reform. You probably disagree, right?

Of course I do, because people’s perception of political reform is traditional. We are not just talking about abstract concepts like democracy and diversity and individual rights. This is not only what constitutes political reform. What constitutes political reform is the development of a system of checks and balances, so that abuses can be [made accountable], so that corruption can be checked in an institutional way, so that people have a say in decision-making, so that the system of wasta is eliminated or reduced. None of that is possible without political reform. Economic reform has been tried in this country for decades, and it has not led to a better quality of life for people. On the contrary, what people have seen is that because there was no parallel development of a system of checks and balances as economic reform was attempted, what took place was a dramatic increase in corruption – as the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index shows.

Many regard our public sector as being massively overstaffed. Is there any way it can be significantly reduced? Or would that be too costly politically?

What’s not a possibility is [sustaining] the status quo. It’s not possible to maintain 42 percent of the work force employed in government. In the past we used to depend on outside aid to do that, so whatever budget deficit existed because we overspent on public sector jobs. And now we’re under-spending on education, healthcare and such services. The solution is not putting people out of work – it’s transitioning to a system where the private sector becomes the job provider for these people. For that to happen you need to empower people who do not have the necessary skills. We are talking about a plan that looks at our educational system and dramatically overhauls it; empowerment in areas other than Amman; focusing on labor-intensive projects in the first phase to alleviate our unemployment problem; targeted safety nets for people who are not equipped to leave government and find other jobs; a national health plan to make sure everyone is insured. We are not talking about a plan that is market based only, without paying attention to the social aspects.

What you’re talking about is a substantial revision of the social contract, correct?

Absolutely. The social contract in this country as well as in many neighboring ones had two components. The first one was that the government provided basic services: health, education, jobs, and subsidies, in return for [the second component of] people having little say in decision-making. Now, because the government has become bloated, it has no ability to create more jobs, the quality of health and education has gone down, subsidies have [been removed]. There was a serious imbalance in the first component, but in the second one – the government still expects people to have little say in decision-making. Obviously that doesn’t work. You cannot just expect [people] to pay the price of a bloated bureaucracy and at the same time have no voice in decision-making. While we make the transition to a merit-based economy, that transition is going to be difficult, and it is made more difficult by the day if we don’t move now. But there is no magic formula where you just transition to a merit-based economy without sacrifices. For these sacrifices to be made, people need to feel they are part of the decision-making process. If they do not feel like that, they would see these measures as only [targeting] their pockets with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Do you think you are able to influence the discourse and practice of politics outside the political system?

I think I may have contributed to the public debate, at least. I have been vocal myself, but not in a sensational way. I am using my experience in the government, what I learned while I was in the system, to point out its shortcomings. Does that make me an oppositionist? I don’t believe that. I am a product of the system, I have worked in government for 21 years, and I feel I have a responsibility to point out the shortcomings. But I also need to work collectively, I cannot affect change as an individual. A lot of people think that means establishing a political party from day one. I don’t believe in establishing a party first and finding a constituency second. I am doing it the other way around. I am building a constituency, talking to people, developing a program – which is not just the product of my thinking only, but of others as well. Once the critical mass is achieved, then we can talk about a political party. One cannot [keep looking] for shortcuts to democracy. You have to work in a sustained way. You cannot create institutions that don’t exist today overnight.

Would you call yourself a liberal?

Very much so.

Would you call yourself secular?

Very much so.

Given the liberal and secular label that you are comfortably adopting, do you feel there is a large enough social base to back you up?

I am helping develop a social base behind that, but I think there is a base. That doesn’t mean everyone is from that mindset; there are people who support religious parties, there are people who support traditional segments of society. But there is a place for everyone in this country. There should be a place for everyone. Mine is a very specific liberal secular point of view that has components that are supported by some and opposed by others. That is democracy.

What we’re seeing from some liberals and secularists is that they are relying on a top-down method of instigating liberal reform, thereby relying too much on state patronage.

[Laughing] … That is exactly why I’m not doing that. In my previous jobs in government, mostly in diplomacy or as foreign minister, I have not had the chance to talk to [the man on the street], especially outside Amman. Now I have the chance, and I am doing it consistently, very regularly. I talk to people outside Amman more than inside Amman. I want to listen and have a real feel for the needs of the average citizen. I am the first to admit that I cannot just talk about liberal values without associating it with socio-economic problems. My ideas are not limited to the liberal views of individual rights and respect for others and so on. I talk about a socio-economic problem that is very specific, in how to transition out of the rentier system that we are in. I also talk about societal values and citizenship. This country has still not achieved a level where national identities trump any other sub-identities. We still think of ourselves as Christian or Muslim, as East Jordanian or Palestinian, from the North or the South or the Center. This is not going to lead to the development of prosperous societies. My program has different components, and does not just talk about political reform in the traditional absolute sense. It has a specific socio-economic program, a specific societal program, and I talk about education reform as a central component for building democratic societies. The present educational system is not doing that – it is exclusionist, it does not promote diversity, it does not promote the acceptance of different points of view, it does not promote the fact that we are a very diverse society – and we need to respect that diversity, and treat it as a source of strength, not weakness. I talk about all these things, and frankly every program has its supporters and opponents, but it’s a mistake to think that [no one] believes in this. I see it first hand when I go to places outside Amman. It does not mean that people agree with everything I say, but I think there is wide acceptance for the need for political reform, the need for reform in general, the need to widen the circle of decision-making.

What are the hopeful trends you see in the country and the region?

The youth. You see a lot of young people who are not waiting anymore for the government to dictate their lives. We have seen a lot of startups in the country by young people who have been extremely successful. It started by initiatives such as Maktoob, but today we have many initiatives by young Jordanians who have made it outside the traditional constraints of their society. That doesn’t mean there’s a critical mass yet, we are far from it. But it does mean that you are increasingly seeing people who are no longer willing to live by the rules of their parents. That needs to be encouraged. Civil society is vibrant in this country, and not in the traditional way of charity provision. More and more, we’re seeing organizations that are advocacy groups, like the Jordanian Transparency Center. You’re seeing such initiatives, increasingly by young people who want things to be different. It’s going to take time before they evolve into a critical mass that will push for change but it’s happening. I see it everyday in the country, and it gives me hope.

This interview was originally published in Venture, a monthly business intelligence magazine based in Amman, Jordan.