Jordan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Jordan's political rights and civil liberties ratings declined from 4 to 5 because of the dissolution of parliament, the delay of general elections, and the enactment of temporary laws that restrict civic freedom.


Escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians during 2001 stirred up frustrations among Jordan's largely Palestinian population and presented King Abdullah with the most serious challenge of his short reign. Facing increasing domestic opposition to Jordan's peace treaty with Israel, as well as discontent over poverty, unemployment, and official corruption, the government increased restrictions on civil society and free speech, dissolved parliament and delayed general elections, and cracked down on antinormalization activists. These moves, along with Abdullah's unwavering support of the United States in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, sent the king's popularity plummeting as he was seen to be out of touch with popular sentiment.

Great Britain installed the Hashemite monarchy in 1921 and granted the country full independence in 1946. King Hussein ascended the throne in 1952. His turbulent reign saw the loss of all territory west of the Jordan River in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, assassination and coup attempts by Arab nationalists, and sporadic efforts to make peace with Israel. Under the 1952 constitution, executive power rests with the king, who appoints the prime minister and may dissolve the national assembly. The assembly currently consists of a 40-member upper house appointed by the king and an 80-member, directly elected lower house.

In 1989, Hussein responded to riots over fuel price increases by easing restrictions on freedom of expression and ending a 32-year-old ban on political party activity. The Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), took 22 seats in general elections that year. The electoral law was amended to prevent such a strong showing in 1993 elections, in which Islamists won 16 seats. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, formally ending a 46-year state of war. In 1997, nine opposition parties, led by the IAF, boycotted parliamentary elections to protest normalization with Israel, restrictions on public freedom, ineffective economic policy, and the electoral law, which left Islamists at a disadvantage with regard to tribal leaders who support the king.

In January 1999, an ailing King Hussein dismissed his long-standing heir, his brother Hassan, and named his son Abdullah crown prince in a surprise decision. Abdullah assumed power upon the death of his father in February. Although the late king's motives for naming Abdullah were unclear, the new king's credentials as former commander of the elite internal security force and his marriage to a Palestinian woman help ensure the critical support of the military and of Palestinians, who constitute about 60 percent of Jordan's population.

Abdullah inherited a kingdom beset by 20 to 30 percent unemployment, rampant poverty, and an inefficient bureaucracy perceived by most to be widely corrupt. The economic "peace dividend"-improved trade with the West Bank and increased investment from Western Europe, expected as a result of normalization with Israel-has failed to materialize, while sanctions against Iraq block Jordanian exports. In an attempt to address these issues, Abdullah has made economic development his major priority. His government has initiated intellectual property and tax laws, decreased import duties, and privatized state-run freight railway and telecoms systems. In 2000, Abdullah brought Jordan into the World Trade Organization and obtained a free trade agreement with the United States. In May 2001, he launched the Aqaba Special Economic Zone, a duty-free area for residential communities, tourism, and light and heavy industries, schools, hospitals, and business parks. The same day as the launch, the government unveiled a $500 million joint Egyptian-Jordanian tourism project. Future plans include building an advanced information technology industry, overhauling education to provide for computer and English-language training, and privatizing the energy and phosphates sectors.

Despite these efforts, both political and economic liberalization have suffered in the face of rapidly intensifying public opposition to normalization of relations with Israel and perceived worsening corruption. The deterioration of the Middle East peace process into ongoing violence in the neighboring West Bank has inflamed the frustrations of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, as well as the leftists and Islamists who dominate much of Jordanian civil society. Antinormalization activists have issued "blacklists" of journalists, politicians, academics, artists, and businessmen who advocate cross-cultural and economic ties with Israel. Though antinormalization activists have been generally nonviolent, an apparently new group called the Nobles of Jordan claimed responsibility for the shooting death of an Israeli businessman in Amman in August. In May, 20 members of the Professional Association's Anti-Normalization Committee went on trial for seditious libel and other charges related to the blacklists. Two other suspects were sent to State Security Court for possession of bomb detonators.

As the antinormalization movement picks up momentum among professional associations, the media, and members of parliament, the government increasingly suppresses all forms of dissent. Demonstrations were banned in late 2000, and officials responded with batons and tear gas when some 1,000 Jordanians defied the ban in May 2001 to protest the anniversary of the founding of Israel. About 50 protesters were injured. Also in 2001, the president of Al Bayet University and a member of the upper house of parliament were both forced to resign after authoring articles criticizing the government. In April, a majority of lower house parliamentary deputies petitioned the government to end the prosecution of antinormalization activists "as long as Israel maintains aggression against Palestinians." In June, Abdullah dissolved parliament, ostensibly because it had failed to adopt a new election law, and in July he postponed general elections scheduled for November. Observers speculated that the polls might have brought to power nationalists and Islamists whose first priority would be canceling the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.

In the absence of parliament, the government endorsed more than a dozen temporary laws, including an Elections Law, which maintains the current controversial system but increases the membership of the lower house to 104 and reduces the voting age to 18; a Law on Public Gatherings, which stipulates that public demonstrations may be held only with written permission three days in advance; amendments to the penal code that restrict a long list of vaguely defined violations in writing and speech; and amendments to the State Security Court Law, which abrogate due process and increase the scope of security offenses. In addition, the government merged the 328 municipalities into 100, replacing municipal councils with state-appointed local committees. The committees' mandate runs until the next scheduled municipal elections in 2003.

Prime Minister Ali Abul Ragheb defended the enactment of temporary laws, saying, "It is better to go a step backwards, and then proceed, rather than to go back 20 years in time." Still, the "massacre of public liberties," as one observer called it, has added to the ranks of the opposition and harmed the king's popularity. Abdullah's close relationship with the United States has also cost him popular support. Perceived U.S. support for Israel against Palestinians and the continuing U.S.-led embargo on Iraq have infuriated Jordanians, as has Abdullah's unflinching support for U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. Bin Laden's anti-American message and proclaimed support for the Palestinian cause resonate among many Jordanians, whose membership in Islamist organizations has reportedly increased by 20 percent in the past two years.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Jordanians cannot change their government democratically. The king holds broad executive powers and may dissolve parliament or dismiss the prime minister or cabinet at his discretion. Parliament may approve, reject, or amend legislation proposed by the cabinet, but is restricted in its ability to initiate legislation. In October, 60 public figures, including opposition activists, professional associations, and human rights defenders issued a public statement denouncing the dissolution of parliament and the enactment of temporary laws, which they assailed as undemocratic. Political parties and journalists have moved to contest the laws, calling them unconstitutional because there was no national emergency to justify enacting them.

The electoral law has been a point of contention since its implementation in 1993. Its first-past-the-post system is seen to favor Hashemite strongholds, and the opposition favors a proportional-representation system of lists. The new electoral law leaves the system intact, but increases the number of constituencies from 21 to 45, changes the voting age from 19 to 18, increases the number of lower house parliamentary seats from 80 to 104, and calls for special committees that include members of the judiciary to supervise elections. King Abdullah dissolved parliament in June, and elections were rescheduled for September 2002. The Islamic Action Front (IAF) and other opposition parties have not announced whether they will contest the polls.

Security forces arbitrarily arrest and detain citizens, particularly Islamists, and abuse detainees in order to extract confessions. Such arrests escalated after September 11. Suspects in cases involving state security enjoy few procedural safeguards. Amnesty International protested the sentencing of nine men to life imprisonment by the State Security Court (SSC) in July 2001 for alleged involvement in a series of politically motivated bombings in 1998. This was the second trial for the defendants, who were ordered retried after the SSC earlier sentenced them to terms of up to life imprisonment. Amnesty International asserted that the suspects' confessions were made under duress, the court procedures fell short of international standards of fairness, and the suspects may have been tortured. Temporary amendments to the State Security Court Law in 2001 allow security forces to detain a suspect for seven days before referring him to a prosecutor, and give the prime minister the authority to refer any case to the SSC.

The judiciary is subject to executive influence through the justice ministry and a committee whose members are appointed by the king. A January Jordan Times report quoted an attorney as saying that most judges "feel threatened and insecure because they might be retired or demoted if they do not comply with certain demands." A plan announced in November to overhaul the judiciary drew skepticism from legal experts, who stressed the need to end favoritism in judicial appointments.

A number of laws, including the State Security Law, the Contempt of Court Law, and the Law for Protecting State Secrets and Documents, contain provisions that may be used to restrict freedom of expression and the press. In 2001 the penal code was amended to allow for the trial of publishers and journalists in the SSC for vaguely defined offenses related to terrorism. The amendments also provide for the imprisonment of those who harm national unity, instigate criminal action, incite hatred or malice, instigate acts of religious fanaticism, insult the dignity of individuals, promote "deviation from what is right," or incite strikes or sit-ins, among other offenses, in speech or in writing. Publications may be closed for publishing false or libelous information, or for undermining national unity. King Abdullah announced in October that the information ministry would be dissolved and replaced with the government-appointed Higher Media Council. In November, journalists reacted to the new Higher Media Council draft law with uncertainty over its purposes and powers. Members were appointed by royal decree in December, and the council is expected to become operational in January 2002. Six Israeli journalists were barred from an Arab summit in Amman in March because officials claimed to be unable to ensure their safety. Two journalists from Qatar's Al-Jazeera television were detained and questioned in December while covering demonstrations in support of Osama bin Laden.

The new temporary Law on Public Gatherings bans public assembly without written consent from the government and allows officials to disperse demonstrations with force if they stray from their stated goals. Authorities used the law to ban a march in November protesting Israeli and American "aggression" against Iraqis, Palestinians, and Afghanis. On September 30, about a dozen Islamist and leftist activists were arrested for holding a pro-bin Laden rally.

Political parties and other associations are licensed by the government. Dozens of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) address numerous political and social issues. While the government may restrict NGO activities, Islamists call upon authorities to crack down on foreign financing of associations, which is seen as an attempt by Israel and the West to control the country. In June, 21 University of Jordan students were referred to a disciplinary committee for staging a parallel student council election in protest against the university's decision to appoint half the student council. Some unions revoke the membership, and thus the right to work, of members who associate with Israel.

By December, at least 19 women had been murdered by male relatives for allegedly violating family honor. The penal code reduces the prison sentences for such murders from execution or life imprisonment to a minimum of six months. In December the government adopted amendments to the Penal Code and the Civil Status law proposed by the Royal Commission on Human Rights. Penal Code amendments exempt from penalty or reduce punishment for men who kill their female relatives found committing adultery, and reduce penalties for those who commit a crime in a "fit of fury" (which is always a defense in honor crime cases) from execution or life imprisonment to a minimum of one year for the former or six months for the latter. Changes to the Civil Status Law allow women to divorce their husbands by paying them monetary compensation, raise the legal age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18, and require a husband to inform his wife of his decision to take another wife. Women may drive, vote, stand in elections, and pursue careers in many professions. Still, they constitute only 14 percent of the workforce and hold no legislative seats. The government announced in October that it had appointed a woman to each of Jordan's 100 recently merged municipalities. The Judicial Council appointed 5 new women judges in 2001, raising the total number of women in the judiciary to 12.

Islam is the state religion; more than 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Christianity and Judaism are recognized faiths, and the government does not interfere with worship. Although not recognized as a religious minority, Bahais may practice their faith. However, they face legal and social discrimination, and their personal status matters are heard in Sharia (Islamic law) courts. Palestinians face systematic discrimination in government and military employment and university admission. In June, the government announced increased restrictions on entry to Jordan from the West Bank, citing concerns about a new influx of Palestinian refugees.

More than 30 percent of workers belong to trade unions. All unions belong to the sole trade federation, the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions, though membership is not mandatory. Workers have the right to bargain collectively and may strike with government permission. Jordanian labor laws do not protect domestic servants, most of whom are South Asian nationals. Abuse of these workers, including beatings, rape, long work hours, and inadequate food, is reportedly pervasive, but many domestic workers fail to report mistreatment for fear of deportation.