Not one week ago, a rare public debate was held in Amman. The audience was made up of 550 people, among them - student activists, former and current ministers, and diplomats representing a wide range of opinions and experiences.
The event was orchestrated by a project called the “New Arab Debates”, launched by English television journalist Tim Sebastian in 2011. The format is as follows: a resolution is chosen. Two speakers are brought in, one is affirming the resolution, and the other has the task of negating it. They debate one full round, and then the discussion is moved out to the audience. At the end of the discussion, the audience is asked to vote on the resolution.
On December 10, a resolution that read, ‘This House believes Jordan is on the brink of serious political turmoil and unrest’, was passed by a narrow majority of 54%. Past debates have dealt with other sensitive issues, among them Islamism in Tunisia, democracy - or lack thereof - in Egypt, and peace treaties with Israel.
Hassan Barrari, a political scientist at the University of Jordan spoke for the motion, and did not mince words. He accused the King of changing governments, “as fast as he changes his knickers,” and said that the same official were being recycled, “like musical chairs.” Barrari warned that Jordan is “ going to elections as a society divided on key issues and this will trigger the political crisis in Jordan."
While Barrari was the democratic vitor, the other narrative came astoundingly close. Argued for by former senator and Minister of Justice, Trade and Foreign Affairs, Salaheddin al-Bashir, the negative team tried to quell the fears of the audience. "Jordan's state institutions and socio-political features are robust and we are gradually and surely responding to those challenges in a way that will get us out of the turbulence," he reassured. But the majority of listeners didn’t buy it.
The answer to the resolution will be discovered in a matter of weeks, as Parliamentary elections are scheduled for January. Some parties have already hinted at a possible boycott.
True, there is a human bias towards sensationalism. More often than not in the past few years Jordan has seemed like a freight train tearing through the last stretch of tracks towards a gaping cliff. But things always have a way of working themselves out. There is always too little water, too many Palestinians, Iraqis or Syrians, and too many new governments in too short a time. Yet, Jordan soldiers on.
The debate was recorded at the Landmark Hotel and is just that. Several of the attendees interviewed remarked that this sort of critical debate was usually reserved for private gatherings or, more recently, the internet. The Jordanian public sphere has been bubbling to the surface as of late, and in such a setting, it would be nearly impossible to crackdown on it. The debate will be televised on December 19 and accessible online in both English and Arabic shortly afterwards.