A letter sent by King Abdullah to influential General Intelligence Directorate (GID) head Gen. Ahmad Husni on Feb. 17 is keeping the kingdom’s political class guessing over what the king really wants. In the lengthy letter, the king praised the GID’s role over the past years but called on Husni to continue the process of renewal, modernization and development of the department.
The king said that as the kingdom marks its second centennial, the time has come for the department “to allow the country’s institutions to immediately step up to their constitutional and legal responsibilities in order to release the GID from the great burden it had to carry over the years.”
The king said the GID “must remain a model of efficient intelligence in countering terrorism and security threats to our nation” so that “it may develop its tools and methods to provide the best modern intelligence assessments to decision-makers in the political, economic and security-related fields, away from the regulatory and oversight roles that the circumstances had at times imposed on the department in areas that lie within the specialty of others that had not possessed the tools to practice them properly, but now do and must, therefore, undertake these roles in full, without delay.”
Analysts here took this to mean ending the GID’s “oversight” over the domestic political, legislative and economic affairs, which had increased in the past two decades. This comes after the king said in an interview last month that the time has come to review laws regulating the political process such as elections and political parties. It also comes a few days after the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index labeled Jordan an authoritarian country, retreating by four steps from its 2020 ranking.
Analysts here also believe this is a message to the Biden administration ahead of the king’s expected trip to Washington next month. It also comes at a time when the economy is facing major challenges in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, where cases had recently spiked.
On Feb. 21, the lower house of parliament approved what has been described as the most difficult budget in the kingdom’s history, with an estimated post-foreign aid deficit of 2.06 billion Jordanian dinars ($2.89 billion), or 6.5% of the gross domestic product (GDP). This comes as the kingdom battles a more than 23% unemployment rate and a shrinking economy.
Writing in Al-Ghad daily on Feb. 20, political commentator Fahd Al-Khitan said the king’s letter to the GID head is related to pure internal circumstances and had nothing to do with foreign developments in terms of its content and timing. “The royal letter is not meant to scale down or weaken the GID’s role but redraws its responsibilities within its core specialties after the country had gone through exceptional local and external developments, during which the concerned state’s institutions were less able to deal with them, forcing the GID to step in,” he said.
“This comes after a series of careful royal revisions to respond to the needs for reform and modernization, and it will be followed by meaningful steps in the coming phase at more than one level, including political reforms,” he added.
For years, the GID was believed to have “influenced” the tide of political life in the kingdom from “managing” election results to the way lawmakers voted on key bills. But its role also extended to fighting money laundering and other economic crimes, including corruption in the public sector. Now the king is asking it to focus on its core responsibility in fighting terrorism and addressing external threats to national security.
The royal letter came a few days before US President Joe Biden made his first debut on the international stage on Feb. 19, when addressed a virtual meeting of the Munich Security Conference where he outlined the foundations of his administration’s foreign policy. Biden underlined his commitment to defend democracy and shared democratic values, adding that “our partnerships have endured and grown through the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values. They’re not transactional. They’re not extractive. They’re built on a vision of a future where every voice matters, where the rights of all are protected and the rule of law is upheld.”
Analysts here believe that democratic reforms and human rights will be at the center of Biden’s ties with regional leaders. On Feb. 23, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, during a call that human rights will be “central” to ties between Cairo and Washington.
Political commentator Rana Sabbagh said that after reading the letter many times she wondered if the king was really ordering the scale down of the GID and its restructuring, or if the real reason was to prepare the ground for the monarch’s upcoming visit to the United States. In a post on her Facebook page on Feb. 18, Sabbagh said “the meaning of the message was to directly justify the intervention of the GID in everything that had to do with the political, economic, educational, legislative, social, governmental and judicial aspects, and then to relieve it from the big burden that it carried over the past decades.”
“The latest letter is tantamount to a white coup and a 180-degree shift, but executing the royal order to disengage the GID from non-intelligence missions that it had carried over the past three decades will take years to achieve and may end up being suspended along with other royal initiatives,” Sabbagh said, adding that the timing of the message must be linked to preparations for the king’s upcoming visit to Washington and what the Biden administration may be expecting from Amman.
Maher Abu Tair, a political columnist at Al-Ghad daily, agrees with Sabbagh. He told Al-Monitor that while Biden’s election last November was good for Jordan in terms of the two-state solution and the Palestinian issue, the truth is that Amman was much happier with the previous administration when it came to domestic files such as public liberties, elections, political reforms and professional unions, where there was no pressure from Washington.
“Washington will be looking at the issues of democracy, political reforms and human rights as a priority, and we have seen how the US ambassador to Jordan (Henry Wooster) has been pushing recently for these domestic issues and his agenda will reflect that of the Biden administration,” Abu Tair said. “This means that the year 2021 will see fundamental changes with regard to the domestic agenda, and this requires a genuine change in policies and people who will execute them,” he added.
“Washington will be looking at the fact that Jordan has been dubbed an authoritarian state on the democracy index and already knows of the shameful interference in the last legislative elections, which produced a lame parliament that constituted a lethal blow to all the promises of reform and change,” Sabbagh said. “The new administration will no longer buy into our excuses for postponing meaningful reforms, and here lies the importance of the king’s letter.”