In an exclusive interview, MEE speaks with Laith Shubeilat, one of Jordan's leading dissidents
Laith Shubeilat has the distinction of having been Jordan’s most popular MP. As an unremitting and outspoken critic of autocracy and an internationally respected supporter of human rights and democracy, he has been a thorn in the side of two Jordanian kings, Hussein and Abdullah.
Here Shubeilat speaks to Middle East Eye about Jordan, his meeting with Bashar al-Assad, the Arab Spring and the increasing turmoil that he predicts lies ahead.
MEE: When did you start pushing for political reform in Jordan?
LS: After pushing for reform all through a first term in parliament (1984-1988), I came to the conclusion that no reform is possible without constitutional reforms. I was the first to say in 1989 that we a need a constitutional monarchy. Actually, we have sort of a constitutional monarchy, but it is not applied. I said this to King Hussein twice. Once, when he came to collect me from prison in person and the second time was when he called me for an audience after a previous prison term. I told him: “You created a problem for me and for yourself. I was elected head of the Jordanian Engineers Association and you chose me as a member of the National Consultative Council. At 40, you plunged me into politics. I read the constitution for the first time in my life, and then I applied it. Your Majesty, this constitution is not made to be applied.”
For example, in our constitution, the first article says that we are a parliamentary, hereditary monarchy. Whenever parliament is mentioned in the constitution, it precedes any reference to the king, and the cabinet is responsible for the king's decisions, which is significant. When the 1989 general elections came, I ran for office in a liberal constituency, a difficult proposition for an Islamist like me. I got the highest percentage of votes in Jordan. Fifty-three percent out of a field in which 15 to 20 candidates were running against me.
By that time, it was clear to me that whatever I am doing, was not enough. I did not want to open the issue of constitutional reform, because if I raised the subject, the government was always going to prevail. So I said: “Look, I want us to go back to the 1952 constitution before the several amendments that were introduced. I am a revisionist by going back. You have made so many amendments that ruined this constitution.” Nobody stood with me, and I paid the price.
MEE: By going to prison?
LS: In 1992, I was head of the parliamentary investigations committee, and we were investigating the prime minister and about to send him to be indicted. One month later, I was in prison for a “plotting a coup d’etat”. Four months later, I was condemned to death. Two days after that, the king gave a general amnesty. He called my brother, a friend of his, and said: “This is for your brother, and tell him to stop messing around with the constitution.”
I returned to parliament. The king wanted to change the election law because he wanted to pass the Wadi Araba Treaty [the peace treaty with Israel]. In order to pass that, he needed everyone to be present in the House when the vote was taken, but in numbers that would permit the bill to be passed. For this, he needed every faction to be represented in parliament.
Everybody was against a new election law, which was written by the US ambassador at large Edward Gergian. Both opposition and pro-government deputies warned it would shatter the country’s social fabric. But the king insisted, and the Muslim Brotherhood and all other parties who had vowed not to run for parliament changed tack. The king made a very harsh speech. He said: “I am changing the law, and you are going to run. And if you don’t run, I will be angry.” So when I heard the speech, I said the knees of the Muslim Brotherhood will tremble. They could not take this burden.
Four days later, their leader, the late Mohammed Khalifa, came up to me and said: “The king has called, and we obey.” So the next morning, I announced that I was abandoning political activity, but not political thought. I would give my opinion, but would not run for parliament, nor accept office, nor organise politically.
MEE: When did you fall out with King Abdullah?
LS: Luckily for me, 9/11 helped divert attention from what I revealed publicly about the confiscation of land to the personal benefit of the king. I was giving a lecture and somebody gave me a document, which revealed that King Abdullah was confiscating land in his name, thousands of dunums [a dunam is 1,000 sqm] which nobody dared to speak about, except for the distinguished liberal lady Ms Toujan Faisal (she also paid for that later). So I said this is illegal. Al Jazeera filmed me, but they did not broadcast it.
The palace sent theirs thugs around and smashed up my car. Next morning, the head of the Amman police told me: “Next time it is your neck.” I said to him: "Then you attest that you are behind the first time.” The officer cried: “Don’t put words in my mouth.” Al Jazeera aired the quotation, but two days later, 9/11 happened and everybody focused on that. That’s why I was lucky the first time. The second time, the issue came up in 2010, thugs attacked me in a bakery after following me.
MEE: But that did not stop you from speaking out.
LS: People say to me: “You say that you have retired, then why are you always in front?” I tell them I am not in front. I have occupied the same ground since 1993, but people around are retreating, so by default, I become the pole bearer. Between [the events in] Tunisia and Egypt, I penned a 13-page letter to the king. In it I said: “You sent me messages that you are ready to assassinate me. It is common knowledge that you are to blame if anything happens to me. (The head of Intelligence, Mr Qaysi told me once: "We are on tiptoe hoping that you do not trip on a stairway as we will be accused of arranging that.”)
Al Jadeed TV in Lebanon put me on for one hour on the programme on corruption about this letter where I said that corruption arrives at the doorstep of the king. I returned to Jordan. Next morning, my house was surrounded by police. I was not in it at the time. I called a friend and asked him to check what was happening. So he called some people he knew in the police and they said: ”No, no, don’t worry. It’s not bad.”
The police told me that His Majesty ordered them to put a security detachment 24 hours for you and they will be under your command. So, OK, fine. He protected me for six months. What’s nice is he said we have orders to shoot anyone who comes close to you, even if it is from other departments.
MEE: What is the difference between King Hussein and King Abdullah?
LS: The father was charismatic and loveable. He had some nobility to him. He was much closer to the people, although he had some unacceptable policies. King Abdullah had a difficult task to become more popular than his father. However, what is serving him lately is the consensus on fighting terrorism in Jordan. He is posing as a strong resilient leader capable of achieving the mission. However, the negative side are his family's links with corruption.
You know that his aunt's husband is a convicted criminal sentenced to 37 years of jail and the return of many millions of dinars? He is at large. That is a small example, I do not need to mention several other cases; the confiscation of land is another.
Moreover, he seems to rule the country by remote control as he is always away from the country. I said this in the letter to him: "You are spending one million dinars [$1.4mn] per diem.” A former prime minister told me that it was now 2 million dinars a day. (It’s hard to believe why a former prime minister should tell me this). A private plane for him, a private plane for her. Maybe planes for the kids. Other than the expenses of the entourage.
This is a very poor country with no oil. When I did that interview, he reduced his travel and the travels of the queen to a minimum for that year.
The official record is 25 percent of his time is outside Jordan. No head of state does this on earth. He should enter the Guinness Book of Records. Is there any head of state who leaves his country for one quarter of his time?
The chief chamberlain then, Mr Naser Lozi, visited me and I confronted him with my criticisms. Lozi said they had not been out of the country for several months. I said: “Good for you keep it up.” Then in answer to my criticism that the king is running the country as if it is a sort of presidential monarchy, he wants to be president with an advisory staff, hiring a staff of around 5,000 and be monarch in a country whose constitution gives the day-to-day executive powers to a cabinet responsible to a parliament.
This is completely unconstitutional. The constitution stipulates that the king practises his powers through cabinet ministers and not [through] a shadow government in the palace. He told me he cut down the staff to 2,000! This is laughable. Anyway, the number of staff has grown since.
MEE: Do you still believe in an Arab Spring?
LS: No, not now; at the beginning, yes. Then, after fouling up and after the usurpation of the movement by foreign and local intelligence bringing back the old state, no.
The first time people called for a demonstration, it was in January 2011. Right after Mohamed Bouazizi [the Tunisian street seller] burned himself alive. So a demonstration was called. Then I heard that the Muslim Brotherhood refused and the professional associations as well. So I told my friend: ”Now we have to go to the demonstration. We can not leave those youngsters alone." I did not walk in the first row. I walk behind. I did not want to give a speech but they insisted, so I gave a short talk.
I said: ”Look, don’t have faith in my generation. We sold you out. 1989 and democracy came and we used it to feather our own nests. We became lousier than the people before us. If you are successful in your move, do not invite the likes of me to this. We should walk behind you. Then after you succeed, you choose who is clean from us.”
So they created a movement for this, and a movement for that, and I wrote a programme for them against absolute monarchy. I said that the young people should choose their own leadership and then push for a national conference to which they could decide whom to invite. Then I discovered that the youngsters suffered from the same disease we had. It is all about who is boss. Nothing has changed. So this is how we spent what went under the name of a spring.
MEE: What role did Saudi Arabia and the Emirates play?
LS: Unfortunately, other than Israel, the only institutional powers who compete for dominance partially or wholly in the region are Turkey and Iran. On the other hand, almost all the Arabs' policies are chaotic.
Let's start first with Iran before getting to the Arabs. Iran after Khomeini is completely pragmatic with a nationalist programme carrying in its heart a sectarian dream. Regardless of all the antagonism between them and the US, they were tangoing together to the sound of some hard music. They facilitated the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, without which it would have been an impossible endeavour.
The Americans did a very dirty job in Iraq and eventually handed the country over to the Iranians, who are the occupiers today. Saudi Arabia, who used Saddam Hussein against Iran, turned against him and the result is that they are today facing Iran alone and without the expertise of the Iraqi army.
At the time, in 1991, the Iraqis asked me among others to make sure Iran would stand against American invasion. I went to Tehran, where eventually I harshly criticised their so-called revolution against the Great Satan. I handed over to [the Supreme Leader] Khomeini a critique co-written by the late Hassan Turabi of Sudan and Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia.
I met the head of the foreign policy committee in the lounge of Istiqlal Hotel. He stood up, angrily saying that he would not allow such harsh criticism in Tehran. I shouted back: "Sit down! Sit down! Do not forget that [the by then former US National Security Adviser Robert] McFarlane [of the Iran-Contra scandal] was on the 10th floor here (the Hilton)! So sit down!” He sat down. At the end, the nuclear agreement instituted Iran as the power in the region.
The Saudis, having lost the leverage of Saddam Hussein over Iran and discovering that the Americans handed Iraq to Iran, knew that they were screwed. What they are trying to do is to rebalance the balance of power. That brings the matters to Syria and Yemen.
But what is happening is sheer madness. It short-circuits any computer programme fed with the input. Any sane politician knows that what is happening is madness. They want to fight Iran, yet they want to fight the Muslim Brotherhood, who are not their enemies. Yet they cooperate with the Brotherhood in Syria and Yemen, but are categorically against them in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and they want to have warm relations with Israel?
They were not being attacked, but they are anti-revolution in any part of the region. What is strange is that they are for the revolution in Syria. They financed the July 3 coup in Egypt and they financed Libya. They tried to destroy Tunisia's revolution.
MEE: But you are also critical of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the nationalist camp.
LS: The Brotherhood are strong, but they are politically mediocre and not up to the standard yet as they do not cooperate honestly with other reformist factions. They want to be the sole owner of things. I criticise them a lot, but if I were to vote, I would vote for them, because the others are lousier.
I told King Hussein, when he was driving me out of prison: “Why don’t you bring the Brotherhood into government and let’s get rid of them. The people will kick them out. People want their bread and butter, and if they fail, the people will kick them out, and if they succeed this will add to your strength and popularity. Why make heroes out of them?"
Take now, If you keep outlawing them, like what is happening in Egypt now, you cannot expect the reform of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood are focused on [President Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi, not on their mistakes. I used to criticise them a lot, but once 3 July happened, I issued a statement in which I said: ”Now you have stopped me from criticising the Brotherhood, because you idiots have done something terrible. This is a military coup and the nationalists are lousier.”
I am a member of the Arab National Conference. Unfortunately, most nationalists take positions because they hate the Brotherhood. Nobody takes positions because he loves his country. I love my country, so that I can deal with someone I hate. So all those nationalists stood with Sisi. [Journalist] Abdel Bari Atwan’s positions are like mine. He told me, something is wrong in this conference, is it possible that only you and I from this conference see this as a coup d'etat?
The Islamists made a terrible mistake. They went for foreign intervention in the Syria National Council in Istanbul in 2011. Then the nationalists committed another offence. They pampered the military. Both of them made terrible mistakes, but it is wrong to say that Islamists and nationalists cannot reconcile because of ideological difference. The fact is that untruthful nationalists cannot meet untruthful islamists.
We had joint conferences where nationalists and Islamists agreed on two main slogans: these were – No foreign intervention and No militarism. Both these slogans have been trampled on.
First each side should meet alone, and they have to announce they have made a grave mistake. Nationalists should meet and they should announce that it was wrong to support a coup that turned very bloody. And the Islamists should confess to the sin of soliciting foreign help. When these two conferences are clean, then we can work on getting them together. I refuse to go to both now. I cannot sit with untruthful people. They are lying. We are gambling with our countries' fate, so it is not only the king and presidents who do that.
MEE: You met Assad before the protests in Deraa started.
LS: When Tunisia and Egypt succeeded, everyone was very happy. But I was sad. I said if anything happens to Syria, we are doomed. I used to go to Lebanon by car. So I called Bouthaina Shaaban [the Syrian presidential media adviser] and met with her. She said: “Please, Mr Shubailat you should see the president. He has to listen what the likes of you are saying. When I say it, the other gang around us gives me trouble.”
So she called me in 15 minutes and said the president would like to see me. This was the 3 March 2011, 12 days before Deraa started.
So we sat for two hours. It was a very good meeting. I liked him then. We differed. But he was not a liar. As usual I was very frank. I opened all subjects, Alawis, corruption, etc. He told me that he [had] started cleaning, he put some of his relatives in prison because they smuggled cigarettes. He even told me that he will trim the feathers of the tycoon Rami Makhlouf, his nephew. He told me about his reforms.
I said to him: "Look Doctor. The tempo of your reforms is too slow. The pace of events is much quicker. Something is going to happen in Syria.” He said: “No, no, no. We are nationalist and we have a very good foreign policy, anti-Israel.” I insisted: “Look, something is going to happen, Doctor." I addressed him as doctor. "I disagree with you. I don’t want it to happen. But it’s going to happen. If it happens, I beg of you, side with the people against those centres of power." He said: ”I don’t have centres of power.”
After our meeting, I wrote him a letter, saying I am not satisfied with the outcome of the meeting, his programme of reform was slow, the tempo of the demands was much faster and that the mundassin [infiltrators)] are actually within his ranks and not in the popular movement. On the 15th, it happened. On the 24th, I passed by Syria and gave the letter to Bouthaina Shaaban. I published it four months later. He had said there are infiltrators. I said the infiltrators were in his regime. I said: “For heaven's sake, go to Deraa, as King Hussein did in Maan in 1989, you will be well-received by your people. They had put their hopes in you. Do not listen to the hawks. They are spoiling things between you and the people.”
One of the major opposition people was in jail. He is the only friend I visit while in Syria, Haitham al-Maleh, head of the judiciary committee of the coalition today. He was in prison. I told the president, why are you keeping this old man in prison? He is honest, he has very good ideas. You should listen to him.” Assad released him, and I said to Maleh later on: ”Don’t militarise the uprising. Please stay in Damascus and don’t go to Brussels. That will be the beginning of the downfall of your movement.” He did not listen.
I wrote a letter recently to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I told them not to repeat the mistake that their mates had made in Syria. Don’t give the regime legality. If you militarise you give the regime legality to use force. Now, whatever he is doing, it is illegal. In Syria, I told them, if you are going to fight, fight, but at the end of the day you are going to sit together. You cannot get Assad and his people out of the country, and he cannot get you out of the country. You will have to learn how to live together. So why don’t you do it, without hundreds of thousands of people dying? Stupid. Like we do in engineering work, when I submit a bid, I think of something I can deliver, a deliverable, and I work back from that to arrive at my price.
You have a deliverable in your dreams, a beautiful country, that has only Islamists, no Alawites, no Christians. This is crazy. This is a sick dream. It’s a dream of somebody who should be put in an asylum. But even so, it’s a dream. Don’t you have enough brains to realise this is a dream that cannot be applied ? Okay, they are in power. So what we want to do is to lessen their power and [you] can get more power.
[Former president of Yemen] Ali Abdullah Saleh was toppled. Is he out of the game? He is one of three sides in the Geneva [talks]. Not as president, but as the head of a militia. You removed Ali Abdullah Saleh, but did you finish with him?
I have never seen more children playing with politics than we are seeing today. The Gulf folks created Daesh [the Islamic State group]. They created al-Nusra. You create this. They let this genie out of the bottle and are trying to put it back again. None of the negotiators in Geneva control anything on the ground. The ground is controlled by Daesh; they have destroyed Syria.
MEE: In what sense is the king the custodian of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem?
LS: They are protecting the Israelis and not the Aqsa. What a custodian that is. When Mossad tried to poison [the now leader of Hamas] Khaled Meshaal [in Amman in 1997], King Hussein called [US president Bill] Clinton and said that if the Israelis do not bring the antidote immediately, Jordan would sever relations with Israel. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu said in Davos that Israel never has had better relations with Arab states, and he was referring to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the Emiratis. And Jordan.
Netanyahu and the Arab heads were coordinating during the Gaza war. Something new is coming up which is neither under the control of Hamas nor Fatah. A generation is arising. Is anything positive going to happen? No. But is it going to end? Are the people going to accept to be controlled? Also no. Its turmoil everywhere.
MEE: Do you see a proper Sunni leadership developing?
LS: I don’t see it developing, unfortunately. It is certainly coming as a heavenly promise, but I don’t see it. The West are the culprits. Now they are paying the price. North Africa is just across from Europe, and they have about 50 million Muslims being antagonised. You create problems in Africa and the Middle East and you cannot stop immigrants.
That is how civilisations were built. They used to move because of lack of water, when they come in tribes from starvation to a place. If the West wants to solve the immigration problem, they have to solve this Israeli-Palestine problem, and stop pampering dictators. They covered the bare statues in the Vatican for [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani’s visit. So I wrote how powerful Iran had become. I am not discussing whether the Shias are good or bad. I am discussing how politically strong Rouhani has become.
MEE: And all the while the Islamic State is growing.
LS: The only force that can get manpower is [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-]Baghdadi. If he stopped thinking of everyone else as idolaters, he would get much more. Young people don’t care. They are fed up with their governments. They are fed up with the likes of me also, opposition figures who cannot deliver. They don’t have a livelihood and they will go with Baghdadi.
Eight days before the Israeli’s attacked Lebanon in July 2006, I gave a lecture entitled: Who has the say tomorrow? Is it the regimes, the peaceful opposition, or the militarised opposition? I proved I had vision. It came less than five years later.
MEE: Do you see light at the end of this tunnel?
LS: No not yet, I see more turmoil. This is very unfortunate.