Jordan reform talks slow amid 'explosion' warning

Calling for sweeping reforms

Jordan is struggling to stave off growing popular discontent after the Islamists rejected a government-led dialogue plan, while analysts warn of a "risk of explosion."
The government formed a national dialogue commission on March 14 to amend the electoral and political parties laws within three months, in line with King Abdullah II's instructions.
But four Muslim Brotherhood leaders who have been invited to join the talks refused to take part, demanding the panel discuss "constitutional reforms to empower the people," Zaki Bani Rsheid, head of political office of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), said.
To the dismay of the committee, independent political activist Labib Kamhawi refused to join in its work, while the leader of the retired officers' movement Ali Habashnah, has decided to "suspend" his participation, he said.
Senate president Taher Masri, who heads the committee, which now groups 64 members, said on Thursday that he is still trying to convince the Islamists to participate in dialogue.
To encourage them, "the commission decided on Wednesday to include the issue of constitutional amendments to its electoral law discussion," Masri said.
"It will examine means to enforce judicial supervision of elections, instead of the interior ministry, and review the term of lower house speakership as well as legislative session period -- all of which require constitutional amendments," he added.
"How far can we go in our debate? It is not clear."
But this is not good enough for the Islamists.
"These proposed amendments are superficial. We want substantive change to allow the formation of parliamentary governments," said Bani Rsheid.
The Islamists and other groups have been calling for sweeping reforms, including a new electoral law that would lead to a parliamentary government and elected prime minister rather than one appointed by the king.
"This does not look good. It is clear that the committee is floundering and its agenda is limited," said a former minister.
"People are feeling that this is a waste of time. Jordan in 2005 drafted a National Agenda plan for reforms, including all these issues, but nothing was implemented," he said, adding that failure means a risk of explosion."
Mohammad Masri, a researcher at the University of Jordan's Centre for Strategic Studies, agreed.
"An explosion is possible if the regime does not act quickly," he warned.
"Failure of dialogue could push those who call for reform to establish their own popular committees to examine constitutional amendments and increase their demands, ignoring the authority of the state."
Masri said "things could go radical."
The IAF, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, has urged the king to carry out reforms similar to measures taken this month by his Moroccan counterpart.
Mohammed VI announced comprehensive reforms on March 9, including greater independence for the judiciary, enhanced powers for the premier, and the separation of powers, in an apparent move towards a constitutional monarchy.
Jordanians have held protests since January demanding reforms and more efforts to fight corruption, but did not call for regime change.
King Abdullah on Tuesday urged "decisive" government measures to achieve reform and "uproot" corruption, telling his Prime Minister Maaruf Bakhit in a letter the he "will not accept any excuse for delaying" reforms.
"Taher Masri feels he is walking through a minefield," a source close to the dialogue committee's head said.