image courtesy of tareeq
I’ve always felt that the pillar that tends to hold a country together is it’s justice system. Ours, while better than most, is far from perfect. The independence of the judiciary is constantly being tested by our executive (and legislative) branch, and often, high profile cases are immersed in the blurry gray, rendering it difficult to distinguish between who exactly is giving orders. This distorted relationship has been tested extensively this past year in the context of this ongoing domestic reeling, where combating corruption is at the top of protester demands.
Reading up on the Omar Maani case, both online and offline, I’ve managed to come to a few conclusions that have helped shape my opinion. The first is the fact that this entire conversation about Maani’s jailing has centered on subjective voices. They relate to the man, rather than the issue. Those that deem him innocent are his supporters, and those that deem him guilty are his opponents or even enemies. This subjectivity is to be expected, for the court of public opinion rarely takes in to consideration the broad spectrum of issues, nor their intricate details unless of course the media dictates otherwise. This subjectivity, or focus on the “man” over the issue, is also due to the second reality: a media blackout on the case. Realistically speaking, no one knows anything. We don’t know specifically what this case entails other than the ambiguous charge of “failing to carry out his official duties,” which was leaked to the media. Any details we “hear” from people who are “in the know” are at best, unverifiable, and at worst, rumors.
These two realities alone seem to paint a picture where no one really knows anything, and despite the knowledge gap, most of those vocal about the case are fairly subjective. And in Jordan, subjectivity takes on a whole new meaning, especially when a rally calling for your release is lead chiefly by your tribe. Even online, discussions taking place or groups being formed, are rather subjective.
Like everyone else, I have my own feelings with regards to Maani. I do think he was a relatively good mayor, especially compared to his predecessors. I do believe he did good things for the city, or at least sought to – which, again, is more than one can say about his predecessors. He is also somewhat noted for having “saved” the city from inevitable urban planning doom it was due to face from the influx of foreign investment (aka money laundering in some cases), which would have likely seen menacing towers going up in the middle of dense urban areas. Thanks to Maani and his team, much of Amman now has sidewalks, numbered buildings, clear street names, and bus stops. But I do believe like most Jordanian officials he was a terrible communicator. As many incidents in these past few years have shown, many of the policies undertaking by the Greater Amman Municipality, which impacted local communities in the Capital, tended to shut out those very communities from a public discussion.
However, personal feelings aside, looking at this case I see two things. I see a government that is scrambling to quell the domestic discontent, and the endless call for holding the corrupt accountable, and I see a judicial process influenced by the executive in an effort to meet those demands. In other words, there is a show being put on and we, as citizens, are all audience members. This approach isn’t something novel for the Jordanian state, nor most governments in most countries for that matter. When things get tough and the local discontent rises, people want to see heads roll, and any government interested in remaining in power (which is essentially the goal of any government, anywhere) will always be more than willing to make that happen; to march a sacrificial lamb to the guillotine in an effort to appease the hungry, maddening crowd below. Today, the guillotine is simply the justice system and the courtroom. Even in the US, for instance, we tend to see incumbent mayors, governors or even presidents, sporadically cracking down on crime around election time, in an attempt to gain favor with voters who see crime as a priority. It’s pre-emptive policy making, as opposed to our more domestic variety, which tends to be reactive; a half-measured afterthought.
I do not have a problem with holding people accountable or prosecuting the corrupt. In fact, I would argue that having mechanisms of accountability is at the core of my personal vision for Jordan. But in my mind, accountability comes through instilling a set of practices that ensure citizens, and officials are held accountable for their actions by systematic mechanisms, which are applied to everyone. It is a system based on social justice, where everyone is treated equally before the law, and no one is above it, or falls between its cracks. However, what we are seeing today is a far cry from such a reality. What we are seeing today is an arbitrary sacrifice; a showcasing, as opposed to a genuine pursuit of systems of accountability. And like most shows, it is designed to be crowd-pleasing, grandiose in nature, and more importantly, short-lived. The evidence of this is as clear as day. Accountability and the prosecution of corrupt officials has never been systematic, and if it was we would see a whole lot more of it, and we would likely see it in a more timely fashion rather than several years after the fact. Instead, it’s very, very recent. It’s also very, very rare. Especially when it comes to the more high-profile variety.Â
So when it comes to the Maani case, or even the Shahin case, or even the Akram Abu Hamdan’s Mawared case – it is an event. Media blackouts are imposed to keep things interesting, rumor-driven, and subtle. When it comes to having public officials being held accountable, the citizens are never in the know. They are simply fed headlines and outcomes: guilty or not-guilty. The court of public opinion is shaped far from the judiciary, and this alone emphasizes the extent to which we are being offered an entertaining show, as opposed to a genuine national pursuit. It is why the two biggest “opinions” one hears these days with regards to the Maani case is either in the form of “Oh they must have something on him, or else they wouldn’t have thrown him in jail” – or – “He must be innocent. He did so many great things for the city.” Neither opinion is really valid or of relevance, but its simply the kind of opinion that emerges from a case that is more likely designed to serve as public entertainment. It is also why whenever a high profile person is prosecuted, you’ll often hear people say that this specific individual must have either fallen out of favor with the King or is the subject of an old score being settled by a current Prime Minister, or even “elected” members of the legislative branch. Such opinions are a clear acknowledgement by many, that the judiciary is not independent from the influence of the executive or the state, and can easily be influenced by either. In fact, the entire process can be influenced, even from its instigative origins.
And for the sake of the show, rules and rights are often bypassed to ensure that this show goes on, and that it remains entertaining. Investigations are held behind closed doors, decisions are made behind closed doors, charges emerge seemingly out of the blue, and allegations are thrown around arbitrarily, the outcome of which is a figure being held with or without charges, and denied bail and the opportunity to prepare their defense. In short, the policy that is undertaken for the sake of this show is one where everyone is guilty until proven innocent. Instead of the burden of proof being on the state, it is an obligation shifted to the accused, who must fight the premeditated guilty verdict thrust upon them.
When it comes to public officials being charged with corruption and marched to the courtroom, the majority of the public could care less. In authoritarian systems where mechanisms of accountability are either absent or neglected, the public is nothing more than a hungry mob, cheering, and thirsty for a fight. Few honestly care for systems, judicial review, or due process being upheld. This domain is usually left to the minority who care about individual rights and/or have the forethought to fear the precedent being set; to fear that they themselves could fall under the mercy of such a judiciary. For if a public official is deemed guilty until proven innocent, what chance does an average citizen have when faced with the same judiciary? It is only when the majority are faced with that question that they begin to see things in a different light:
If the Maani case has demonstrated anything thus far, it is simply this: a public official is being charged with corruption, and seems to be receiving a different kind of treatment from the court in an effort to uphold an appearance of a state being tough on corruption. In an effort to send a message to the public. In an effort to appease. In an effort to quell discontent. In an effort to entertain.
Whether Maani is eventually found innocent or guilty is, by now, almost entirely besides the point. What is relevant (at least to me) is this ongoing affirmation that the judiciary remains lacking in independence, that people are considered guilty till proven innocent, and that corruption cases remain opportunities for the state to appear serious without having to actually be serious about it. As a citizen who believes that the judiciary should never be a window-dressing platform, the Maani case is a harsh reminder that even in the domain of law and order, both can be rendered unreliable at a moment’s notice.
All of this begs the classical question: who will guard the guards?