King Abdullah II’s February 1 appointment of Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit, replacing Samir Rifai, was in a sense nothing unusual; al-Bakhit is the seventh prime minister in the past twelve years. What distinguishes this change is that it comes at a time when regional politics are in a flurry and the domestic scene is increasingly tense due to economic hardships. The new government’s basic task is to carry out concrete, immediate, and significant political reform measures. Reforms are expected to fall short of the Islamist opposition’s demands, however, particularly demands to amend the constitution and make the prime minister’s position elected rather than appointed. Reform decisions are likely to be guided by a fundamental strategic concern, namely that Jordan pass through this stage unscathed and remain insulated from regional events.

The composition of the new government has brought few surprises. While only six ministers retained their posts and some opposition figures appear in the 27-member cabinet, important posts went to familiar names such as Foreign Minister Nasser Joudeh, Finance Minister Mohammed Abu Hammour, and Planning Minister Jaafar Hassan. Bakhit's cabinet also includes former Muslim Brother Abdelrahim Okour (Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs), former chairman of the Jordan Bar Association Hussein Mujalli (Minister of Justice), and journalists Taher Adwan and Tareq Masarweh (Minister of State for Media Affairs and Minister of Culture, respectively). The new minsters can be described as economically conservative, but some have been on record suggesting political reform. Overall, the government is less technocratic in makeup than its recent predecessors. 

The Islamic opposition (the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front) initially rejected the new prime minister’s appointment, demanding instead a figure that would be seen by the public as being more neutral. The Islamists’ position suggests they believe that they can press for major reforms as a result of regional events and Jordan’s economic conditions, which have led to an unprecedented level of discontent.

The Islamists are opposing Bakhit based on his record as prime minister from 2005 to 2007, when he was entrusted with forming a government in the wake of the bombings at three Amman hotels by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda-linked group in November 2005.  Bakhit is experienced in security and strategic affairs, with a background as a military general, university professor, negotiator in the peace talks with Israel, and an ambassador to Turkey and Israel. He does not have a strong economic and political reform record, and it is not clear yet whether he will deliver on significant reforms he once opposed.   

Bakhit's economic reform orientation is closest to the social market economy approach followed in several European countries, particularly Germany and Scandinavia. This is a capitalist philosophy that advocates a competitive, open-market economy, but also takes into account the repercussions for vulnerable socio-economic classes, and so calls for an active state role in providing welfare for these citizens. In this sense, Bakhit is in the middle of the ideological spectrum, between those who want a completely open free market system in Jordan and assume that society will adjust to it, and the traditionalists who believe in preserving the state’s role of protecting the middle class economically and enhancing security and stability. Bakhit’s own middle-class background might have helped to solidify his economic perspective, which is expected to make him popular with the spontaneous, unorganized opposition that has emerged lately in response to difficult economic conditions.

Political reforms have not been Bakhit’s strong suit. In his previous term in office, a municipal election law was passed granting women a 20 percent parliamentary quota and ending the practice of appointing half of the municipal council members; these decisions were widely praised by the Jordanian opposition. Despite this progressive law, however, the 2007 municipal elections were fraudulent to an unprecedented degree, which prompted the Islamist movement to withdraw three hours after polling stations opened their doors.

Bakhit nonetheless managed to persuade Islamists to take part in the parliamentary elections held three months later, which he promised would be fair, unlike the municipal elections. Bakhit insisted on the Brotherhood’s participation because he wanted the elections to be credible and competitive enough to win international and domestic recognition, and the Islamists’ eventual consent to take part was counted as a political victory for him. The 2007 parliamentary elections were once again fraudulent, however, as was widely recognized by both the Jordanian public and decision makers. Islamists blamed the Bakhit government, which had promised fair elections, even though they and most of the political elite realized that his government at the time had been unable to control the technical management of the electoral process.

Between his first government’s resignation in 2007 and his appointment this month, Bakhit has discussed his ideas about political reform in several lectures and symposiums. At the core of his vision is that Jordan should adopt a political reform program over a span of 30 years with the declared target of eventually reaching a fully democratic state. Bakhit’s vision does not seem to be consistent with the royal emphasis on "immediate" reform, however, and is also at odds with the extraordinary regional situation. Consequently, it is yet to be seen whether he will adjust his vision and adopt concrete reform measures as per the king’s directives.

The anticipated political reforms include redrawing the geographic boundaries for parliamentary sub-districts, giving more independence and integrity to the management of the electoral process, and perhaps introducing a partial proportional representation system to increase political parties’ representation in parliament (a step Bakhit has opposed in the past). The demand that the constitution be amended so that the prime minister is elected will probably be disregarded, not only because of the belief that the Jordanian political scene is not ready to take such a big leap, but also because the current constitution already allows the parliament to vote to dismiss any prime minister.

The change of government by the king can be seen as a positive response to the demands of the organized and spontaneous opposition movements. It remains to be seen, however, how Bakhit will put the king’s directives into action. His appointment can also be viewed as a preemptive reform policy in light of current events in the region, despite the essential structural differences between Jordan and the other countries facing a wave of demands for reform. Jordan is different in that it has always maintained a minimum level of respect for freedom and human rights, and because the king enjoys the consensus support of all of the political movements, including the Islamists. 

Mohammad Hussein al-Momani is an associate professor in the political science department at Yarmouk University. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.