Jordan: A Crisis for All - A Chance for Everyone

Analysis21.04.2020Dirk Kunze
Amman_Corona
Empty Streets of AmmanDirk Kunze / Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Middle East and North Africa

All over the world, governments are currently fighting a fearsome battle. Lives have become physically constrained and more virtual than ever before. The world has become more fragmented and less interconnected. While some states face the danger by transferring more responsibility to their citizens (Sweden), others have changed legislation to manage the crisis (Germany), declared a state of emergency (Japan), or even gone as far as going to war against the virus by declaring a state of defence (Jordan). It has been proclaimed: "the first casualty of War is Truth". But in this war against an army of sub microscopic agents that replicate rapidly, it seems that - to a very great deal - trust and personal freedoms are among the victims. In the Arab world, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan gained a questionable reputation of being exceptionally strict in its war against Corona. Now, after one full month of "lockdown", constant curfews and very restricted possibilities to do business, it is time to reflect on the situation. How much freedom has had to be sacrificed in order to gain safety? Was it the "right" approach? And – more importantly – what chances open up through this epochal change?

At War against a Virus

For the longest time, the official numbers suggested that Corona would not hit Jordan. On the 9th of March, it was even officially announced that the Kingdom’s only coronavirus patient was “completely free” of the virus. Jordan was considered to be insulated from COVID-19, at a time when international reports abroad unsurprisingly indicated otherwise. It took only one week for reality to catch up - a Royal Decree was issued, approving the Cabinet’s decision to reinstate a Defence Law from the year 1992, to "protect the health and wellbeing of our fellow Jordanians and ensure their safety". So within only a few days, the Kingdom managed to change the narrative completely. Any credibility that may have been lost in the weeks before in the Kingdom’s response to the issue was soon going to be regained with an impressive display of dedication to combat this enemy with full seriousness: in order to fight a virus, Jordan was now put in a state of defence - Jordan was going to war against an enemy of no geographical boundaries.

The original orders of King Abdullah II were clear: "the Defence Law and the orders issued under it will be within the most limited scope possible, without infringing on Jordanians’ political and civil rights, but, rather, safeguarding them and protecting public liberties, and the right to self-expression enshrined in the Constitution and in accordance with regular laws currently in effect". However, what ensued were more Defence Orders and regulations as well as a nation-wide curfew, in an effort to contain the virus – to date, corner stores and selected supermarkets are only allowed to operate between 6am and 6pm; citizens and residents are still only permitted to walk to these stores between the hours of 10am to 6pm.  And almost everyone is prohibited from driving cars. 

The measures not only appeared to be incisive, there was also public announcement that they would be enforced with “no lenience”. The government’s powerful actions were designed to reduce the risk of infection, prevent the health system from collapsing, and thus save lives. In mid-March, a time when the number of infections was exploding worldwide, this hard, radical and sharp intervention was justified as an emergency measure. However, fundamental rights of each citizen and democratic control of the executive always apply, even in times of crisis.

The International Community wants a stable Jordan

Jordan is not just fighting a simple fight. The precise actions against the spread of the virus were meant to gain the attention of the international community. The kingdom has a reputation as a reliable partner of the West and developed a "business model" out of this position. Almost ten percent of the total state budget is foreign aid and much more capital is flowing into the country for humanitarian aid, education, water and infrastructure projects.   The Royal Court is not the only actor interested in maintaining this sustainability. It also plays to the benefit of the international community - especially Germany – who are pursuing strategic interests in the region. As a country lacking natural resources, coupled with its strategic location, Jordan is the promise of stability in an extremely volatile region, where economies collapse and full-blown protracted wars are ongoing in neighbouring countries. In this crisis-ridden region, Jordan is a safe haven for economic investment and an always welcoming partner for politicians from around the world. 

Hence, while the international media framed Jordan to have the "the world's strictest lockdown", this fact was received favourably locally: "The world is impressed with the measures taken by Jordan to control the pandemic," said Member of Parliament Kais Zayadin, the Rapporteur of Parliament’s Foreign Committee in charge of representing Jordan’s parliament abroad. And while the state of defence was vigilantly enforced in the last weeks, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and others signalled – through financial contributions – their “confidence” in Jordan’s economic reform process and its efforts to mitigate the impacts of the virus. The Jordanian message did not miss its target: the custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem showed its assertiveness and capability in being a reliable partner for the international community. 

The bearer of all burdens: The Jordanian population

The third relevant group affected by the government’s COVID-19 defence actions is the general Jordanian population. Even before the onset of Corona, Jordan's economy was growing slower than the population at 2 percent annually. Furthermore, the unemployment rate among young people is almost 40 percent. While remaining calm for the longest time, the sudden and radical changes brought on by the defence laws led to predictable confusion and frustration among citizens. Shops were overcrowded and goods became rare, which was a major setback to the general positive public perception of government decision-making. Until that time and while face masks and toilet paper became a scarce commodity even in Germany, pharmacies in Amman still had plenty in stock for all. Now, the private sector is set to take the biggest hit - commerce has essentially stopped and international trade and imports have dropped, disrupting supply chains.

But the situation is even direr: More than one month after declaring the state of defence, people are still not allowed to walk their dogs, athletes can’t jog, relatives can’t be visited and multi-generational households have been stuck together for weeks. Soon, a continued curfew will have repercussions for public "happiness" and mental health. Women Rights Groups and official sources already register a significant increase of domestic violence over the last weeks. 

Resume after one month under “Defence Law”

The Corona caseload is low, the number of new infections is going down and the international community witnessed an assertive and capable country take matters in its own hands. But, the general population had to pay a high price by giving up essential, inherent individual freedoms. A total shutdown certainly keeps a lid on the spread of the virus. But it also loses sight of the needs of the individual and incapacitates responsible citizens. Disturbing in this context is the absence of representative officials over the last weeks. The Jordanian Parliament is not needed for decision-making under the Defence Law. MPs are rarely seen discussing oversight of government activities or commenting on the consequences of the current situation. Likewise, political parties are absent from the conversation. This is concerning in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections in a few months’ time, especially as signs of a new narrative emerge. Public officials of the Public Security Directorate, have announced that the restriction of movement has “almost brought down crimes such as theft, burglary and intended violence to zero”. This should certainly not be the thinking of a society that is “protecting public liberties” as King Abdullah II states in his above-mentioned Royal Decree. He reminds us, that even in a crisis, not every government action should be allowed. The government should be receptive to the fact that while state restrictions are necessary in the Corona crisis, they must remain an exception, be proportionate and expire as soon as possible. The current rules are not only too general - they are above all disproportionate and no longer necessary. With differentiated approaches, the population could be protected and free at the same time. Shops could operate with a maximum number of customers in the room; protective masks would allow for some level of social interaction; restaurants operating with minimum table spacing could generate business. Less as before – but more than now. The same should apply to mosques, schools and universities, where a new maximum flexibility would lead the way to giving people the dignity to decide.

Connect hope with innovative creativity

Jordanians have shown a tremendous amount of stamina in the last weeks. They have shown the ability to be reasonable and unreasonable at the same time, just like any other people in the world during this crisis. Even more importantly, they have shown an increased sense of citizenship that could contribute to something completely new. Jordan’s officials and civil society should approach the effects and situation caused by COVID-19 with an open mind to connect hope with innovative creativity. Multiple initiatives have been created which take this epochal change as an opportunity: Charity funds to help day labourers, lobbying the government to support day labourers, campaigns to adopt pets which have been abandoned by their owners, donating funds to provide bread to those in need, donating groceries to those in need, campaigns to combat misinformation online, or campaigns to send gifts to those quarantined in hotels. 

The Jordanian Government has started a process of lifting some restrictions for certain economic sectors. This is good but needs to continue. Now is the time to inspire the technological transformation of traditional sectors, to potentially open completely new markets and transform traditional industries. Now is the time to encourage engaged individuals to provide food for thought, to stimulate discussions and to promote proactive efforts. Initiatives like "A Crisis for All - A Chance for Everyone" are not only restricted to entrepreneurs and the private sector. The government should use this chance not to tighten the grip, but to strengthen the social contract between those who govern and those who are governed. The government should proceed to enact differentiated approaches instead of applying "one size fits all" solutions. Officials should participate in platforms where measures are publicly discussed in detail and where the current restrictions on fundamental rights are constantly reviewed through public debate. With this, Jordan might not only become an international beacon for stability, but also become renowned for transparent and inclusive processes and a sustainable democracy.