HashtagDebates go offline to discuss political reform

By Thameen Kheetan
AMMAN - Political reforms can be realised by finding common ground between citizens of different origins to reach a consensus on a civil state of law and institutions, according to a group of young Jordanians.

In a debate earlier this week, participants said East Bank Jordanians and those of Palestinian origin should start looking for common factors that unite them in their struggle for a better life in a country of equality and merit-based opportunities, rather than favouritism through personal and tribal links.

Organised by local blogging website 7iber.com, the HashtagDebates are a continuation of similar online dialogues about democracy and political reforms, which have been taking place on Twitter and other social networking websites, the main tool used to mobilise the recent popular revolutions and protests in the Arab street.

Revisiting the relationship between the three authorities in a constitutional monarchy, coupled with the enforcement of an accountability system, is a main cornerstone for awaited political reforms in the Kingdom, the dozens of participants in Monday’s debate said.

They said combating corruption in public institutions and pushing for more transparency in the state budget can be unifying factors for all residents of the Kingdom.

They also called for revamping the “outdated” education system and strengthening the media sector.

“I expect reforms to achieve equality between all people regardless of their origin,” said 22-year-old blogger Lina Shannak, one of three main speakers in the debate.

“I know some will not like this because they’re afraid of the alternative homeland issue,” she added.

Shannak was referring to local fears that Israel and the West would pressure to give Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who constitute more than 42 per cent of citizens, more say and representation in the Kingdom’s politics at the expense of their right of return to their homes in Palestine, which would make Jordan their “alternative homeland”.

“Those who discriminate only represent themselves. It was us, Palestinians and Jordanians, who built this country,” noted Rawan Shamaileh, a participant from Karak.

Jawad Abbasi, another keynote speaker, believes Jordanians are divided according to their economic situation, not their origin. “I do not fear origin-based divisions or the alternative homeland… there is real hope for change,” he said.

“Those who talk about the identity dilemma forget that all these identities are an invention of Sykes-Picot,” the 1916 agreement that divided Greater Syria (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and historical Palestine) between Britain and France.

“We need reforms and democracy because we want our children to grow up here,” Abbasi noted.

Sufian Obeidat, the third keynote speaker, said equality before the law and granting all citizens their full rights does not mean Palestinian refugees in Jordan will have to abandon their right of return.

“When equality is achieved… I don’t care if people in power are related to me or of my origin… this will no longer be significant,” he remarked, warning against a system of political quotas that would copy the Lebanese model, where decision-making posts are divided among rival religious denominations.

The lawyer said the “weakness of representative bodies” in Jordan pushes people to take to the streets to make their voices heard, explaining that demonstrations are an important tool in the hands of the public to achieve change.

“I believe that change is usually grasped by people, and not granted by governments,” he told the participants, calling for constitutional amendments that apply a system of checks and balances to maintain the principle of accountability on all authorities.

The discussion also touched on ideas and perceptions that have filtered down to the younger generations from their parents, school and university curricula as well as state-controlled media.

University of Jordan student Mohammad Shawarbeh said there is a perception among many young people that talking politics will get them in trouble with security bodies.

Meanwhile, Alaa Qubain wondered why none of the debate participants were members of existing political parties.

“Any party in the world should seek power, and current laws do not allow that in Jordan,” one participant responded, referring to the elections and political parties laws, widely criticised for undermining political activism and favouring tribalism.

One participant proposed that those taking part in the debates get together to form a new political group and expand the discussion to include more people and focus on more specialised aspects of reform such as economy, law, politics and society.

Another female participant noted that Jordanians have not properly studied the modern history of their country, explaining that key turning points in the Kingdom’s history are neglected in the curricula.

Participants pointed out that to be influential, the debate has to reach out to more segments of society in Amman and other governorates.

“Basically this discussion is elitist. How can it expand to reach remote areas?” asked Maysa, from Irbid.

Those who could not make it for the two-hour debate were updated on Twitter and their tweets appeared on a screen during the event.

“We shouldn’t worry about elitism. Elitists are entitled to change,” one tweet said.

“I’m glad having been able to say my opinion,” a user named Mayyasi tweeted a few hours after the debate.

“I see Hyde Parks blooming all over Jordan,” tweeted Yasmine.