Freedom in the World 2005

Ratings Change: 

Jordan's civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4 due to the government's modest relaxation of restrictions on freedom of expression.


Despite growing popular anger over the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence, Jordan witnessed a limited expansion of civil liberties in 2004, owing mainly to an informal understanding between the government and opposition groups on the boundaries of acceptable public discourse. Buoyed by substantially increased foreign aid, subsidized petroleum supplies, and a booming export sector, economic conditions in the kingdom improved markedly.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, known as Transjordan until 1950, was established as a League of Nations mandate under the control of Great Britain in 1921 and granted full independence in 1946. Following the assassination of King Abdullah in 1951, the crown passed briefly to his mentally unstable eldest son, Talal, and then to his grandson, Hussein. King Hussein's turbulent 46-year reign witnessed a massive influx of Palestinian refugees (who now comprise a majority of the population), the loss of all territory west of the Jordan River in 1967, and numerous assassinations and coup attempts by Palestinian and Arab nationalists. Although the 1952 constitution provided for a directly elected parliament, political parties were banned in 1956 and parliament was either suspended entirely or emasculated by government intervention in the electoral process for over three decades. While political and civil liberties remained tightly restricted, Hussein proved adept at co-opting, rather than killing, jailing, or exiling, his political opponents. As a result, Jordan avoided the legacy of brutal repression characteristic of other authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.

As a result of the decline of oil revenues in 1980s, which translated into reduced aid and worker remittances from the Arab Gulf countries, Jordan borrowed heavily throughout the decade and was eventually forced to implement economic austerity measures in return for IMF assistance. In 1989, price increases for fuel and other subsidized commodities provoked widespread rioting and mounting internal pressure for greater freedom and representation. In response, the government launched a rapid process of political liberalization and progressively eased restrictions on civil liberties. However, the reform process ground to a halt in the mid-1990s and suffered some reversals.

By the time of Hussein's death in 1999 and the ascension of his son, Abdullah, the kingdom was again faced with severe economic problems. The "peace dividend" expected to follow from Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel, in the form of improved trade with the West Bank and increased investment from Western Europe, had not filtered down to the population at large. Faced with a crippling public debt and 27 percent unemployment, Abdullah launched economic reforms needed to attract international investment and signed one of the Arab world's first free-trade agreements with the United States.

The September 2000 outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada (uprising) in the West Bank and Gaza had an enormous impact on the country, inflaming anti-Israeli sentiments among Jordanians of Palestinian descent, leftists, and Islamists, who dominate much of civil society. As the violence next door continued unabated, the Professional Associations Council (PAC) formed an anti-normalization committee to spearhead mass demonstrations demanding the annulment of Jordan's peace treaty with Israel.

The government reacted by suppressing criticism of Jordanian relations with Israel and banning all demonstrations. In 2001, Abdullah dissolved parliament, postponed general elections scheduled for November, and replaced elected municipal councils with state-appointed local committees. For more than two years, Abdullah ruled by decree, issuing over 200 "temporary laws" that imposed new restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, weakened due process protections, and promulgated economic policies that would probably have been rejected by the outgoing parliament.

Although the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq further inflamed popular opposition to the kingdom's foreign policy, Abdullah quickly moved to restore the country's limited democratic institutions and relax restrictions of freedom of expression. Reasonably free and transparent, though not fair, parliamentary and municipal elections were held in 2003. An informal understanding was reached between the palace and dissident leftist and Islamist groups: In return for limited freedom to express themselves and participate in the political system, the latter agreed to curtail their efforts to mobilize public opinion against Jordan's pro-American alignment as long as progress was being made at the economic level. Buoyed by an infusion of "oil grants" from the Arab Gulf states and a dramatic increase in economic assistance from the United States, Jordan's economy picked up steam and achieved 7 percent growth in 2004.

This comprise between the palace and opposition made possible a further expansion of civil liberties in 2004. While dozens of Jordanians were jailed during the year for security offenses (for example, conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks on American or Israeli targets in Jordan, attempting infiltration into Israel or Iraq, smuggling weapons, or collecting donations for the Zarqawi terrorist network in Iraq), no journalists were sent to prison and only one major demonstration was forcibly dispersed by police. This new climate of freedom clearly rested on negotiated tradeoffs rather than on institutionalized civil rights protections - prominent Jordanian public figures would not have been able to issue a petition in July declaring the government's Iraq policy against "the will of the Jordanian people" without repercussions had they been engaged in more proactive efforts to undermine it.

This political arrangement appeared to come undone in September, when security forces raided the homes of numerous Islamist clerics and detained at least nine of them on charges of preaching without a license. A tense standoff ensued, with Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdul Majeed Thneibat warning that the movement would go underground if his colleagues were not released. After a lengthy meeting with senior Muslim Brotherhood officials, however, Prime Minister Faisal al-Fayez agreed to release the detained clerics and allow them to continue preaching in exchange for the group's commitment to tone down its rhetoric.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Jordanians cannot change their government democratically. King Abdullah holds broad executive powers and may dissolve parliament and dismiss the prime minister or cabinet at his discretion. The 110-seat lower house of parliament, elected through universal adult suffrage, may approve, reject, or amend legislation proposed by the cabinet, but is restricted in its ability to initiate legislation and cannot enact laws without the assent of the 55-seat upper house of parliament, which is appointed by the king. Regional governors are appointed by the central government, as are half of all municipal council seats.

The electoral system is heavily skewed toward the monarchy's traditional support base. The single-member-district system, introduced in 1993, favors tribal and family ties over political and ideological affiliations, while rural districts with populations of Transjordanian origin are over-represented relative to urban districts, where most Jordanians of Palestinian descent reside. (According to the Financial Times, Amman has a member of parliament for every 52,255 voters, while the small town of Karak has an MP for every 6,000 voters.) In 2003, only 27 percent of registered voters went to the polls in Amman, a possible indication that many Palestinian Jordanians still feel excluded from the political system.

Jordan was ranked 37 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. Several high profile cases of embezzlement and abuse of authority by government employees were prosecuted in 2004.

Freedom of expression is restricted. Although the government officially relinquished its monopoly on television and radio outlets and issued several private broadcasting licenses in 2004, all broadcast news media remain under state control. The government has broad discretionary powers to close print publications. In 2003, the government repealed Article 150 of the Penal Code, which made the publication of information deemed harmful to national unity or the reputation of the state punishable by up to three years in prison, and pledged that journalists would no longer be sent to prison for their writings. However, other vaguely worded laws criminalizing expression are still in force and journalists remain subject to detention. In May 2004, the authorities detained Fahd Rimawi, the editor of the weekly Al-Majd, for over 24 hours on charges of publishing an article "harming ties with a neighboring state," releasing him only after he agreed to retract, in the paper's next issue, allegations he had made about Saudi Arabia. A new independent daily, Al-Ghad, was established in 2004 and earned widespread praise for its investigative reporting and editorial critiques of government policies.

There is no official advance censorship in Jordan, but the authorities are routinely tipped off about the contents of potentially offensive articles by informers at printing presses, and editors frequently come under pressure to remove such material. In September, the authorities blocked an issue of Al-Majd from going to press after Rimawi refused to remove objectionable material. The government has not attempted to censor Internet content.

Islam is the state religion. The government appoints all Islamic clergy, pays their salaries, and monitors sermons at mosques, where political activity is banned under Jordanian law. Sunni Muslims constitute 92 percent of the population, but Christians and Jews are officially recognized as religious minorities and allowed to worship freely. In November, a Christian was named deputy prime minister for the first time. Baha'is and Druze are allowed to practice their faiths, but are not officially recognized. Academic freedom is generally respected in Jordan.

Freedom of assembly is heavily restricted. A new Public Rallies Law, issued by decree in 2001 and approved by parliament in February 2004, bans demonstrations lacking written consent from the government. Although opposition groups complained that most of their requests were denied, the government allowed several licensed anti-Israeli and anti-American demonstrations to take place during the year. In May, police forcibly dispersed an unlicensed anti-Israeli protest in a Palestinian refugee camp and arrested 60 people on minor charges, but only after demonstrators began burning the Jordanian flag and destroying property.

While dozens of licensed nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) addressing numerous political and social issues are allowed to operate freely, the government occasionally withholds licenses from NGOs led by people it deems subversive. In October, prominent human rights activist Fawzi al-Samhouri said that the authorities had denied a license to his newly established Jordanian Organization for Human Rights (Samhouri contends that the refusal to grant him a license was politically motivated, although the government denies this charge). Professional associations have come under pressure to abstain from political activities. Workers have the right to bargain collectively but must receive government permission to strike. More than 30 percent of the workforce is organized into 17 unions.

The judiciary is subject to executive influence through the Justice Ministry and the Higher Judiciary Council, whose members are appointed by the king. While most trials in civilian courts are open and procedurally sound, proceedings of the State Security Court (SSC) are occasionally closed to the public. A temporary law promulgated in 2001 allows the prime minister to refer any case to the SSC and denies the right of appeal to people convicted of misdemeanors, which can carry short prison sentences.

Jordanian citizens enjoy little protection from arbitrary arrest and detention. Under the constitution, suspects may be detained for up to 48 hours without a warrant and up to 10 days without formal charges being filed, but courts routinely grant prosecutors 15-day extensions of this deadline. Even these minimal protections are denied to suspects referred to the SSC, who are often held in lengthy pretrial detention and refused access to legal council until just before trial. Many defendants charged with security-related offenses in 2004 claimed to have been tortured in custody.

Jordanians of Palestinian descent face discrimination in employment by the government and the military and in admission to universities. Labor laws do not protect foreign workers. Abuse of mostly South Asian domestic servants is widespread.

Women enjoy equal political rights, but face legal discrimination in matters of inheritance and divorce, which fall under the jurisdiction of Sharia (Islamic law) courts, and in the provision of government pensions and social security benefits. Although women constitute only 14 percent of the workforce, the government has made efforts to increase the number of women in the civil service. Women are guaranteed a quota of six seats in parliament and occupy several cabinet positions. Although the government issued a draft law ending lenient treatment of those convicted of "honor crimes" (the murder or attempted murder of women by relatives for alleged sexual misconduct) in 2003, the newly elected lower house of parliament has repeatedly rejected the law. A royal decree granting women the right to initiate divorce proceedings was also rejected by parliament in 2004 (the law, which was upheld by the upper house, was still being implemented by Sharia courts; a joint legislative session will be held in 2005 to amend, uphold or reject the law).

2005 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)