Mixed reaction in Jordan over amendment to expand king’s power

Jordan’s Parliament has been presented with 30 constitutional changes. (Reuters/File Photo)
Jordan’s Parliament has been presented with 30 constitutional changes. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 28 November 2021

Mixed reaction in Jordan over amendment to expand king’s power

Jordan’s Parliament has been presented with 30 constitutional changes. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Political activist: Reforms ‘reassure public that we are moving closer and closer to elected government, which will change the way Jordan is run’

AMMAN: Jordan’s Parliament has been presented with 30 constitutional changes that aim to reform electoral law while also increasing the powers of the king within the executive branch.

MP Salah Armouti, former head of the Jordanian bar, and Mamdouh Abadi, former Amman mayor and deputy prime minister, were among those who voiced criticism against what they described as “unnecessary amendments.”

Among the changes is the “constitutionalizing of the National Security Council with wide-ranging political and security powers.”

The new council, headed by the king, will include the prime minister, army chief, directors of the security forces, foreign and interior ministers, as well as two other members that the king will appoint.

The concern is that the council will “create a new body that will be parallel to that of the executive and legislative branches of government.”

Jordan’s monarch will also be able to appoint and fire the chief justice, head of the Sharia court, the general mufti, the head of the Royal Hashemite Court and advisers, adding to existing control over the chief of the army, head of the gendarmerie and head of the intelligence service.

In the past, all these appointments were made based on the recommendations of the prime minister.

Samar Mhareb, director of Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development, told Arab News that there is “no justification” for the amendments.

“These amendments will deepen the lack of trust with government and will propel the palace into the unilateral decision-making process on the account of sovereign bodies that are supposed to carry out issues of national accountability,” said Mhareb.

The message behind these amendments is that the elected bodies are not able to take such important decisions, he added.

“As civil society activists, we reject these amendments, which reflect a paternalistic attitude in terms of who can decide on important security and foreign relations issues.”

However, Haytham Ereifej, a lawyer and a political activist, told Arab News that he welcomed the constitutional amendments, which he said have “a single goal.”

He added: “The goal is to prepare for the creation of elected governments while issues of security and foreign affairs stay clearly in the hands of the king.

“The elected prime minister will have local powers in areas of economics, health and education, as well as in other areas,” said Ereifej.

He believes that the amendment “sends messages of comfort and reassures the public that we are moving closer and closer to an elected government which will change the way that Jordan is run.”

Saad Hattar, a former BBC reporter and an investigative journalism trainer, told Arab News that the amendments are “not needed” and “will weaken democratic reform efforts.

“By ceding powers from the government to the palace, the amendments will put the king in a vulnerable position, because on the one hand he is immune from criticism, but now that his appointments will not require recommendations from the government, it will be difficult to uphold his immunity if things don’t turn out well,” Hattar said.

Etaf Roudan, manager of Radio Al-Balad and a member of the MENA region WAN/IFRA gender committee, told Arab News that the amendments “have not been available for discussions among the public.

“Some argue that these amendments came because of the weakness of the government, but it is important to remember that the decision to appoint and remove prime ministers is in the hands of the king.”

Ahmad Awad, the founder and director of the Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies, told Arab News that those behind these amendent “did not consider the dangers on the operations of the government and the effects that they will have on the king as a unifying symbol of the country.”

Awad said: “I think this will trap the king into administrative issues even though according to the constitution, he is not accountable. I believe that the king should stay above reproach by means of upholding the current constitutional checks and balances.”

The Jordanian government responded to critics through Minister of Political Affairs Musa Maaytah.

The minister said that the constitutional amendments will create a national security council “that will help coordinate between the military and civilian institutions of the country.”

Responding to a question in parliament on Tuesday, Maaytah said: “The recent challenges such as armed conflicts, wars, terrorist acts and drugs are all issues that affect the national security of the country and this is what caused the push to come up with this idea and to constitutionalize it.”


Jailed French tourist to appear in Iran court on spying charges

Jailed French tourist to appear in Iran court on spying charges
Updated 58 min 23 sec ago

Jailed French tourist to appear in Iran court on spying charges

Jailed French tourist to appear in Iran court on spying charges
  • Benjamin Briere was arrested while operating a remote-controlled mini helicopter in a desert area near the Turkmenistan-Iran border
  • Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners in recent years, mostly on espionage charges

DUBAI: A jailed French tourist in Iran, Benjamin Briere, will appear before a Revolutionary Court on Thursday on spying charges, his lawyer said on Wednesday, over a year after his arrest while operating a remote-controlled mini helicopter in a desert area.
“Benjamin will attend the court to be tried for spying and acting against national security charges,” one of his lawyers Saeid Dehghan told Reuters.
Briere has been held since May 2020, when he was arrested after flying a helicam — a remote-controlled mini helicopter used to obtain aerial or motion images — in the desert near the Turkmenistan-Iran border. He was charged with espionage and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
His trial comes as the United States and parties to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal including France are trying to restore the pact, which was abandoned in 2018 by then-US president Donald Trump. Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners in recent years, mostly on espionage charges.
Rights activists have accused Iran of arresting dual citizens and foreigners to try to win concessions from other countries. Tehran denies holding people for political reasons.


US warns against travel to 3 Arab countries over COVID-19

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning against three Arab countries. (Shutterstock)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning against three Arab countries. (Shutterstock)
Updated 19 January 2022

US warns against travel to 3 Arab countries over COVID-19

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning against three Arab countries. (Shutterstock)
  • Countries have been included in “Level 3: High” category, which advises against unvaccinated and non-essential travel

LONDON: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a travel warning against three Arab countries due to rising COVID-19 cases. 

Bahrain, Egypt, Qatar and 19 other countries have been included in the “Level 3: High” category, which advises against unvaccinated and non-essential travel.

Other countries added to the highest warning level for the first time include Albania, Bolivia, Cape Verde, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Sao Tome and Principe, Suriname, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.


Twelve Syrian police wounded in bus blast: state media

Twelve Syrian police wounded in bus blast: state media
Updated 19 January 2022

Twelve Syrian police wounded in bus blast: state media

Twelve Syrian police wounded in bus blast: state media
  • The device exploded near Jisr Saida in Daraa province, SANA said
  • Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20 attacks have been recorded in Daraa province since the beginning of the year

DAMASCUS: Twelve members of Syria’s internal security forces were lightly wounded Wednesday in a bomb blast on a police bus in the southern province of Daraa, state news agency SANA reported.
The device exploded near Jisr Saida in Daraa province, SANA said.
Daraa province and its capital of the same name, the cradle of Syria’s 2011 uprising, returned to government control in 2018.
However, holdout rebels who stayed on in a southern part of the city called Daraa Al-Balad continued to battle regime forces last year.
A Moscow-brokered 2021 truce saw dozens of opposition fighters bused out of the city, but some have stayed on.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has an extensive network of sources inside Syria, said 20 attacks have been recorded in Daraa province since the beginning of the year.
The war monitor says 16 people have been killed in those attacks, including eight civilians.
In October last year, two bombs planted on an army bus in the capital Damascus killed at least 14 people and wounded three others, the worst such attack there in four years, according to SANA.
The Syria conflict, which broke out in 2011, has killed close to half a million people and spurred the largest conflict-induced displacement since World War II.


Algeria shuts schools for 10 days as COVID-19 infections surge

Algeria shuts schools for 10 days as COVID-19 infections surge
Updated 19 January 2022

Algeria shuts schools for 10 days as COVID-19 infections surge

Algeria shuts schools for 10 days as COVID-19 infections surge
  • University staff and health authorities should decide whether to continue with in-person classes: Statement
  • Tebboune urged officials to set a “robust testing structure” in public heath facilities and in private laboratories

ALGIERS: Algeria's leader on Wednesday ordered all elementary and high schools closed for 10 days because of surging COVID-19 infections in the North African country and authorities tightened entry requirements at airports.
The decision by Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune to cancel classes starting Thursday came after an emergency meeting Wednesday of the Council of Ministers, members of the COVID-19 scientific committee and the country's security officials.
The presidential statement said university staff and health authorities should decide themselves whether to continue with in-person classes.
Algeria is battling infections from both the delta variant infections and the fast-spreading omicron variant. On Wednesday, heath officials reported a daily record of 1,359 omicron cases and 12 deaths.
Tebboune urged officials to set a “robust testing structure” in public heath facilities and in private laboratories.
In December, Algeria started requiring a vaccine passport to enter many public venues, seeking to boost the country’s low inoculation rate and overcome vaccine hesitancy that has left millions of vaccines unused. Less than a quarter of Algeria’s population has had even one vaccine dose.
The pass is also required for anyone entering or leaving Algeria, as well as for entering sports facilities, cinemas, theaters, museums, town halls and other sites like hammams — bath houses that are popular across the region.
Official figures show Algeria has seen 6,433 COVID-related deaths since the pandemic began, but even members of the government’s scientific committee admit the real figure is much higher. Out of fears of being blamed for getting the virus, some Algerians keep their infections secret, which then puts others at risk.


UN launches $1.6bn appeal to support Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

UN launches $1.6bn appeal to support Palestinian refugees in Lebanon
Updated 19 January 2022

UN launches $1.6bn appeal to support Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

UN launches $1.6bn appeal to support Palestinian refugees in Lebanon
  • The number of Palestinian refugees displaced from Syria to Lebanon had decreased from more than 40,000 to 18,000, according to a census by the Palestine Liberation Organization

BEIRUT: The UN on Wednesday launched a special international appeal for $1.6 billion to help improve living conditions for Palestinian refugees in crisis-hit Lebanon.

Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, made the donations plea for “vital humanitarian assistance” as part of the agency’s focus on this year’s “funding requirements and priorities.”

Addressing a press conference at the UN’s Beirut office, he said: “UNRWA is seeking to obtain $1.6 billion from the international community in 2022 to support Palestinian refugees.

“This funding will enable UNRWA to cover the needs of millions of Palestine refugees and provide them with vital lifesaving services and programs, which include education, health, and food aid, as well as additional emergency funding to meet the humanitarian needs arising from crises in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, Syria, and Lebanon,” he added.

The appeal came in the wake of an open sit-in carried out by dozens of Palestinian refugees in front of the UNRWA headquarters in the Lebanese capital. The demonstrators have been protesting the agency’s decision to cancel a rental allowance for Palestinians displaced from Syria to Lebanon during the Syrian war.

They set up a tent dubbed Tent 194, in reference to the international resolution that stipulates the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes.

The number of Palestinian refugees displaced from Syria to Lebanon had decreased from more than 40,000 to 18,000, according to a census by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Some had returned to Syria, while others had legally migrated from Lebanon to Europe, specifically in the context of family reunification, and a number had drowned off the Lebanese coast while trying to escape by boat.

Lazzarini said: “UNRWA is facing a chronic funding shortfall that undermines its efforts to provide humanitarian support to some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world, whose needs are constantly increasing, while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose serious health risks and exacerbate economic difficulties across the region.

“An estimated 2.3 million Palestinian refugees are now believed to live in poverty. Anguish and despair prevail among the Palestinian refugees, and many in Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon have expressed their willingness to use any means to try to emigrate outside the region,” he added.

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, similar to Lebanese citizens, are having to contend with the fallout from the country’s economic collapse.

Hisham Debsi, director of the independent Palestinian center Tatweer for Strategic Studies and Human Development, told Arab News: “There is no food crisis in the Palestinian refugee camps because more than 16,000 Palestinians receive their salaries from the PLO in US dollars, and employees of UNRWA and Islamic organizations in the camps receive high salaries in US dollars.

“A large number of refugees receive social benefits in US dollars, and those who are not paid by the Palestinian factions, are provided financial assistance by the active Palestinian civil society organizations.

“Refugees struggle with health and educational services. The beds allocated to UNRWA in hospitals in various Lebanese areas are limited, and the Palestinian health insurance is limited to Red Crescent hospitals, whose health services the refugees find questionable, and the UNRWA budget, as it claims, does not allow it to increase health coverage.

“The greatest harm is in the education sector because UNRWA services do not cover all tuition fees, so schools are being merged, which leads to overcrowding, thus resulting in a decline in the educational services,” he said.

The biggest issue being faced by the latest generation of Palestinians has been a lack of job opportunities. Debsi noted that a Tatweer study had found that most young Palestinians were looking to immigrate to a third country to obtain another nationality that would secure them a better life, while many no longer had plans to return to Palestine.

“These young people have recently launched movements in search of resettlement in a third country. They succeeded in collecting the files of 10,000 Palestinian youth, and they delegated a group on their behalf to transfer their files from the UNRWA to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as individuals who want to emigrate and not as Palestinian refugees.

“This action has provoked the Palestinian factions, that tried to suppress these movements,” Debsi added.

Ayham Sahli, an assistant researcher at the Institute for Palestinian Studies in Lebanon and an activist for Palestinian refugees who fled from Syrian to Lebanon, told Arab News: “The reduction in the UNRWA budget allocated to Palestinian refugees who fled from Syria to Lebanon was unjustified. It reduced the aid from $115 per person to $25, citing lack of funding.

“Not all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon receive aid; many suffer under extreme poverty, especially those who are not affiliated with any Palestinian faction and are not in contact with any civil society organization.”