Potential for genuine reform

The visitor from Washington, who represented an independent democracy foundation, asked two questions to a group of Jordanian intellectuals: "Where do you see the potential for genuine reform in Jordan and the Arab region? If we were to fund any particular group which would it be?

As expected, initial responses focused on the blame game. The United States is not honest in its push for democracy in the region, an Islamist media activist said. His fact-based argument made some sense. He related how the Americans talk about reform only as long as it doesn’t affect their special relationships with rulers in the region.

"When it comes to their interests, the push for democracy suddenly disappears," he said.

The visitor, who is of Arab origin, went back to asking the audience where they saw the potential for reform in their countries and region, irrespective of what Americans or others do. Again a round of diversionary tactics were employed, the lead of which being the need to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

A leading Jordanian blogger quoted a senator as saying recently that genuine reform will not take place in Jordan unless the Palestinian issue is resolved. Palestine was included in further arguments that tried to prove that Western countries are not serious about reform and democracy while they support undemocratic occupations.

Another argument was that in Jordan a rift is deepening between East Bank Jordanians and fellow Jordanian citizens of Palestinian roots, which exhausts all local debates, thus diverting attention from issues like reform, transparency and accountability. Some argued that this internal rift causes some local elements to support sectarianism and tribalism rather than focus on citizenship and better governance.

The guest kept pushing for an answer about where the intellectuals present saw the best potential for reform. He asked questions like: Will reform come from the elite or from the common person? Will it be from the bottom up or will it need to come from the top?

What are the means needed for serious political reform in countries which are relatively moderate and liberal yet lag behind in terms of basic elements of democracy: power sharing, accountability and transparency?

The third round of interventions brought forward some elements of an answer. One rather young journalist commented that the future does not lie in parties in Jordan, but rather in empowering women and the youth who are, in that order, underrepresented in political and social leadership, and the majority of the population and thus present the best potential for change.

The issue of women brought forward an interesting set of discussions. Not all women organisations genuinely represent women. They might receive much funding for their traditional women programmes, but these organisations have not made a real dent in this group that represents half the population. Supporting handicraft or literacy projects might be useful, but it is unlikely to cause a breakthrough.

Few organisations are working on political empowerment and on encouraging real change makers among women, at all levels and of all backgrounds. The results of these organisations have been very poor.

The potential of youth was also discussed; one participant noted that the youth movement Dabahtona, which is working with college students and protests university actions, has succeeded despite not having any local or external funding. The blogger agreed, but noted that the movement succeeded because some independent media organisations and online media have been covering them even though traditional media avoided them initially.

While identifying women, youth and new media as some of the potential sources of hope for reform in the region, one further problem was seen as clearly in need to be addressed: the unity of these reform forces.

There are many individuals and groups that have very good agendas and impressive success records, but they work in isolation. Very few attempts have been made to get the leaders of these groups to meet, discuss and create the kind of alliances that can turn individual success stories into an effective movement.