Jordan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 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 rating declined from 5 to 6 due to King Abdullah's postponement of elections and his continued rule by decree.


In the face of continuing domestic opposition to its pro-Western foreign policy, the Jordanian government continued to suspend indefinitely representative political institutions and impose restrictions on civil liberties.

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, in 1953. 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 assassination and coup attempts by Palestinian and Arab nationalists. The unlikely survival of Jordan's monarchy during this period was mainly the product of Hussein's remarkable political skills, his firm alliance with the West, and a considerable amount of luck.

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 rescheduling its debt. In April 1989, price increases for fuel and other subsidized commodities provoked widespread rioting that left eight people dead and hundreds detained. Facing mounting internal pressure for greater freedom and representation, the government launched a rapid process of political liberalization. Free elections were held later that year and restrictions on civil liberties were progressively eased. The reform process ground to a halt in the mid-1990s and suffered some reversals.

By the time of Hussein's death in February 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 matched expectations. Because of rampant government corruption, even this limited economic return did not filter down to the population at large, which suffered from 27 percent unemployment. Faced with a crippling public debt of $11.5 billion, Abdullah launched economic reforms needed to attract international investment during the first two years of his rule and brought Jordan into the World Trade Organization.

The September 2000 outbreak of the "Al-Aqsa Intifada" in the Israeli-occupied 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 formed an anti-normalization committee to spear-head 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 January 2001, after the committee issued a blacklist of individuals and businesses with ties to Israel that included the chief of Jordan's Royal Court and other prominent figures, the government arrested seven of its members on charges of "participating in an illegal organization" and "endangering citizens' lives." When an estimated 1,000 Jordanians defied the ban on demonstrations on the anniversary of Israel's founding in May, security forces responded with batons and tear gas. In April, a majority of lower house parliamentary deputies petitioned the government to end the prosecution of anti-normalization activists. Two months later, Abdullah dissolved parliament and postponed general elections scheduled for November, apparently because of concerns that nationalist and Islamist dissidents committed to canceling Jordan's peace treaty with Israel would sweep the polls. The government also replaced elected municipal councils with state-appointed local committees.

The September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, followed by the American war in Afghanistan and campaign to bring about regime change in Baghdad, helped transform the anti-normalization movement into a broader current of opposition to Jordan's pro-Western foreign policy. Abdullah postponed legislative elections again in August 2002, citing "difficult regional circumstances." Although legislative and municipal elections have been promised for the spring of 2003, most Jordanians recognize that they are not likely to be held until regional tensions subside.

For over a year and a half, King Abdullah has ruled by decree, and issued more than 100 "temporary laws" that are exempt from legislative approval until parliament is reconvened. Many of these laws imposed new restrictions on the freedoms of expression and assembly and weakened due process protections. Others promulgated domestic economic policies, intended to secure loyalty from the ruling political and commercial elites, that would have almost certainly have been rejected by the outgoing parliament.

The crackdown on civil liberties intensified in 2002. In October, the government ordered the closure of the Jordanian Society for Citizens' Rights (JSCR), ostensibly because of irregularities in its annual financial report. In November, the judiciary dissolved the 10member council of the Engineers Association--the richest and most powerful of the trade unions--and declared the Professional Associations Council to be illegal, a ruling that Prime Minister Ali Abul Ragheb threatened to enforce if it continued to "practice political activities." The government's subsequent release of three members of the PAC's anti-normalization committee who had been in detention for two months was both a gesture of reconciliation and an implied threat. The crackdown coincided with a public relations campaign, dubbed "Jordan First," designed to discredit the idea that the country's well being should take a back seat to Palestinian or Iraqi interests. With hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and an estimated 400,000 Iraqis residing in the kingdom, Abdullah fears that widespread opposition to the United States could become a violent challenge to his rule.

Following the killing of a senior American diplomat in Amman on October 28, the government arrested dozens of Islamist militants and deployed thousands of police and soldiers to sensitive locations around the country. The following month, troops backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers clashed with supporters of a renegade Islamic preacher in the town of Maan, leaving up to 10 dead and scores wounded, and arrested 136 suspects.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Jordanians cannot change their government democratically. The king holds broad executive powers and may dissolve parliament and 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. Political parties have been legal since 1992. However, in 1993 the government introduced a single-member-district electoral system, designed to favor traditional elites over party candidates, which resulted in fewer opposition victories in elections that year. The government's refusal to rescind the law prompted boycotts by several opposition groups in 1997. A July 2001 temporary electoral law benefited traditional elites by slightly increasing the proportion of representatives from less-populated areas, but also met two long-standing opposition demands by transferring supervision of elections from the Interior Ministry to the judiciary and stipulating that ballots be counted directly at polling stations, rather than at a center run by the Interior Ministry.

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 State Security Court (SSC), who are often held in lengthy pretrial detention and refused access to legal council until just before trial. Defendants charged with security-related offenses frequently allege the use of torture to extract confessions. Government monitoring of telephone conversations and Internet communication is routine.

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 SSC are closed to the public. A "temporary" amendment to the State Security Court 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, in Jordan, can carry short prison sentences).

Freedom of expression is greatly restricted. The state owns all broadcast media and has wide discretionary powers to close publications. An October 2001 temporary amendment to the penal code allows the SSC (rather than the press court) to close publications and imprison individuals for up to three years for publishing information that harms national unity, instigates criminal actions, inspires fanaticism, spreads false rumors, or is "harmful to the state's reputation and dignity." Another temporary law prohibited civil servants from signing petitions that harm the "integrity of the state."

On at least one occasion in 2002, the government pressured newspapers not to run paid advertisements placed by the anti-normalization committee to announce upcoming demonstrations. In January, the editor of the weekly Al-Majd, Fahd al-Rimawi, was detained for four days on charges of publishing "false information and rumors which affect the standing of the government." In May, prominent journalist and former member of parliament Toujan al-Faisal was sentenced to 18 months in prison for publishing an article on the Internet claiming that the prime minister's family profited from a temporary law which increased mandatory auto insurance premiums. After a hunger strike drew international attention to her case, King Abdullah commuted her sentence to time served. Hashem al-Khalidi, editor in chief of the weekly Al-Bilad, was detained for four days in March for reporting the same allegation. In August, the Interior Ministry shut down the Amman bureau of Qatar's Al-Jazeera satellite TV station and withdrew the credentials of its staff after one of its talk-show guests called Jordan a historic traitor to the Arab cause. During the clashes in Maan, the government issued a statement banning the press from speaking to residents of the town. Jordanian human rights activist Hisham Bustani was detained for two weeks in December after he criticized conditions in an Amman prison in an article for a Lebanese magazine.

Freedom of assembly is heavily restricted. A temporary law on public gatherings introduced in August 2001 bans demonstrations without written consent from the government and allows officials to disperse gatherings if they stray from their stated purpose. An 11-year old Palestinian refugee was killed during an anti-Israeli demonstration in April and around 50 people were injured by police during a similar demonstration the following month. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are routinely licensed in Jordan, and dozens of NGOs address numerous political and social issues. Professional associations have recently come under pressure for their role in the anti-normalization campaign.

Workers have the right to bargain collectively, but must receive government permission in order to strike. More than 30 percent of the workforce is organized into 17 unions. 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 falling under the jurisdiction of Sharia (Islamic law) courts, and in the provision of government pensions and social security benefits. Jordanian law provides for lenient treatment of those convicted of "honor crimes"--the murder or attempted murder of women by relatives for alleged sexual misconduct--mandating a minimum of only six months in prison. Although women constitute only 14 percent of the workforce, the government has made efforts to increase the number of women in the civil service. In December, the government announced plans to guarantee women a quota of seats in parliament.

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. Baha' is and Druze are allowed to practice their faiths, but are not officially recognized. Jordanians of Palestinian descent face discrimination in employment by the government and the military and in admission to universities.