1998 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 4.5
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 4

Ratings Change

Jordan's Civil Liberties rating changed from 4 to 5 due to increased restrictions on freedom of expression.


Restriction of democratic freedoms, political scandal, economic stagnation, and the failing health of King Hussein fueled public anxiety about Jordan's future in 1998.

Great Britain installed the Hashemite monarchy in 1921 and granted it full independence in 1946. The current monarch, 62-year old King Hussein, ascended the throne in 1952. Under the 1952 constitution, executive power rests with the king, who appoints the prime minister and can dissolve the national assembly. The assembly currently consists of a 40-member Senate appointed by the king and an 80-member, directly elected Chamber of Deputies.

In 1989, after rioting erupted over fuel price increases, Hussein eased tensions by lifting restrictions on freedom of expression and ending a 32-year ban on party activity. In November of that year, the kingdom held its first elections since 1956 with the participation of the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). The Islamists took 22 seats. The electoral law was soon amended to allow "one man, one vote" instead of votes for parties. The changes were meant to prevent an even stronger showing by the IAF in the 1993 elections in which Islamists won 16 seats.

Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in October 1994, formally ending a 46-year state of war. In part, the treaty was an attempt by the king to improve his international standing after the Gulf War, in which Jordan supported Iraq. In July 1995, municipal elections, pro-government candidates won significant victories over IAF candidates opposed to the peace accord.

In 1997, nine opposition and Islamist parties, led by the IAF, boycotted the November parliamentary elections. The parties objected to normalization of relations with Israel, government restrictions on public freedom, ineffective economic policies, and the 1993 amendments to the electoral law, which leaves Islamists at a disadvantage vis-a-vis tribal leaders who support the king. The boycott was partly to blame for the 54 percent voter turnout – the lowest since 1989.

By August 1998, Prime Minister Abdul Salaam al-Majali's government was engulfed by a scandal over contaminated drinking water and inaccurate economic statistics. King Hussein, who acknowledged his long illness to the Jordanian people for the first time in August, allowed his brother and designated successor, 51-year old Prince Hassan, to remove Majali. Hassan appointed Fayez al-Tarawnah as the new prime minister. Tarawnah then reshuffled the cabinet and prioritized the economy as well as the elimination of public and private corruption.

Although Jordan has been cited as a model country in following IMF policies, this resource-starved nation still faces significant economic challenges. In 1998, independent sources estimated that 27 percent of Jordanian families lived in poverty. Unemployment continues to hover at 25 percent. Privatization of Jordan's telecom, utilities, transport, and construction sectors has slowed. Although it provoked Jordan's population, half of whom are of Palestinian origin, normalization with Israel has led to greater economic cooperation. However, it has not created the rapid, widespread prosperity that the government had expected. Jordan has also become increasingly dependent upon Iraq. Because of its support for Iraq during the Gulf war, Jordan lost favor with oil rich Gulf states. Now, much of Jordan's oil comes from Iraq through barter agreements that are exempt from the UN trade embargo.

Many observers are skeptical about whether an ailing King Hussein can maintain good relations with Israel and the U.S. as well as preserve the trust of his people and Arab neighbors. In February, the Jordanian government cracked down on pro-Iraqi demonstrations in the southern city of Ma'an. The conflict resulted in Jordan's worst riots since 1989. Scores of citizens were detained and the military conducted house to house searches for weapons. A prominent former assemblyman and opposition member was charged with inciting the riots and spent several months in prison. In September, prime minister Tarawnah, in an attempt at reconciliation, appointed two critics of the Israeli peace accord to the upper house of the assembly. Yet many Jordanians still perceive the government as hostile to their interests.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Jordanians cannot change their government democratically. King Hussein holds broad executive powers, can dissolve parliament, and must approve all laws. The electoral districts favor the king's rural stronghold. Constitutional changes are unlikely, since they require a two-thirds majority of the 120 parliamentary seats, and the king approves the entire 40-member Senate.

Authorities frequently arrest Islamic fundamentalists arbitrarily, and police abuse detainees to extract confessions. The judiciary is not independent in sensitive cases. Defendants in state security courts often lack sufficient pre-trial access to lawyers.

Amendments that severely limited press freedoms and were enacted in 1997 by the government without public or parliamentary debate were ruled illegal on technical grounds by the Supreme Court in January 1998. The government proceeded to devise a new set of amendments that triggered a long period of conflict between authorities and the Jordanian press. At least a dozen journalists were detained and intimidated by the government, and both domestic and foreign publications were censored. In April, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Prime Minister Majali as one of the world's top ten enemies of the press. Journalists and lawmakers were allowed to read and comment on the drafts of the new press amendments. Their objections and alternative proposals, however, were ignored. By September, the new amendments had been approved by prime minister Tarawnah's government and signed by Prince Hassan. The amendments require publications to have many times their current capitalization in order to operate and to give the government unchecked power in issuing and denying licenses. They also prohibit the publishing of material that is critical of the king, "corrupts morals," or represents the ideas, opinions, or stands of Jordan's professional associations, which are the government's traditional opponents. In November, the government closed a satellite TV station for reporting "intentional assaults against the Jordanian people and political regime."

The government grants permits for demonstrations. In the interest of not offending allies such as the U.S., Jordan has had a long-standing ban against pro-Iraqi demonstrations. During 1998, however, students and women were allowed to hold limited demonstrations supporting Iraq and opposing U.S. policies. Women's groups have also been allowed to protest against "honor killings."

Some 30 to 60 women are victims of "honor killings" by their male relatives each year for alleged moral offenses. Greater newspaper coverage of these killings and activism by Jordanian women and international agencies is prompting change. In October, the government began to consider tougher penalties for "honor killings." Women must receive permission from a male guardian to travel abroad and are discriminated against in inheritance and divorce settlements.

Islam is the state religion. The government does not permit the Baha'i faith to run schools, and Baha'i family legal matters are handled in the Islamic Shari'a courts. As of 1997, Christian students in public schools have been allowed to study their religion, using a curriculum from Syria since. Islamists have criticized the decision to teach Christianity, asserting that it will breed sectarianism that will lead to disputes.

Private sector workers may join independent trade unions. The government can prohibit private sector strikes by referring a dispute to an arbitration committee. Some government employees can form unions but none may strike. The International Confederation of Trade Unions has called for greater protection against anti-union discrimination.

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