Jordanian politics is a lot like driving in Amman: chaotic, unorganized and dangerous. That’s by western standards; by Jordanian standards, this is normal. A mini political scandal erupted two weeks ago in Amman over the news that the Prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhiet, has paid all or some members of parliament between 2-3,000 JD ($3,500) as a “bribe” to pass certain laws in parliament. Several MPs I met with later confirmed the payments to me not as a “bribe” but rather as payments that would be distributed to the poor in their districts.
In commenting on this news MP Mamdouh al-Abbadi said: “The prime minister has ‘miscellaneous’ account of about 10,000 Dinar a month ($15,000) that he can use for whatever reasons.”
Al-Abbadi who is one of the most powerful political figures in Jordan, and well liked for his pro-Palestinian politics, did not see anything wrong with the money because it was intended to be distributed in accordance to a list that the MP submits to the office of the Prime Minister.
Salamah al-Darawi, the economic editor of Al Arab al-Yawm daily, who reported the story, wrote in his column earlier this week that the payments showed that the prime minister is not serious about reform and that he behaves like his predecessors in trying to engage in corrupt practices.
When I posed the question to popular MP Khalil Atieh he fired back rhetorically: What’re two or three thousands dinars? (One dinar is $.70.)
“This past holiday alone my family spent over 400,000 Dinar ($600,000) in my district on charitable work.” He said this to me while he was driving to a late night political dinner and simultaneously answering his cell phone that was ringing off the hook even past midnight. The phone calls were from people in and out of his district seeking favors and assistance on issues ranging from obtaining scholarships and jobs, to financial assistance, to help with legal problems.
The Jordanian government provides all members of parliament with one employee to answer the phone and an office in the Parliament building which means MPs do not have any official representation in their districts. Well-heeled MPs, however, open their own representative offices in their districts. Atieh has two.
Not having enough of a budget for MPs to open offices that serve their own constituencies makes their jobs harder and complicates their relationship with the electorate.
I asked the same question to al-Abbadi, who was riding with us to the late dinner, which is normal in politics here; it is where political horse trading deals are normally made.
“I spent nothing,” he replied. “I am not as rich as this guy,” he said, pointing to Atieh. “But I intend to apply for the money because some poor people can use it.”
Atieh, meanwhile, continued to express dismay that some people, especially members of the Jordanian media, saw the prime minister’s money as a “bribe.”
Atieh hails from a wealthy family that made its fortune in the construction business in Jordan in the early ‘60s.
Capitalizing on his family’s name, Atieh founded the most powerful political machine in Jordan that, since 1997, has enabled him to win his coveted seat in parliament.
His district includes the al-Hussein Palestinian Refugee Camp ─ the second largest camp of its kind in Jordan ─ and large swaths of western Amman. In fact Atieh told me that he is from that refugee camp.
Even after reaching our destination where a heavy meal of rice and lamp had been prepared, Atieh was still on his cell phone, answering calls from his constituents seeking his help and patronage for jobs, scholarships, or even personally bail people out on jail for minor civil violations.
His style of politics is a cross between the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley who ran the city through an efficient political machine that proved vital in delivering the presidency to John F. Kennedy in 1960 by securing the Chicago votes and Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader who ran politics for decades by surviving plots and conspiracies through patronage and political deals with friends and enemies alike.
“Khalil Atieh is a phenomenon in Jordanian politics” said Bassam Badareen who is one of the most influential Jordanian political writers and the Bureau Chief of Pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.
“His powerful political machine is unrivaled,” he said, referring to Atieh’s strong electoral popularity and successful re-election bids.
Atieh’s rise to power is rather exceptional in a country where power and politics are dominated by tribal affiliations and political connections. His Palestinian roots and humble background lend him a charismatic aura which enabled him to retain his seat all these years.
Khalil’s father, Hussein Atieh, or the “Old Man” as he refers to him, was a Palestinian refugee from the city of Lod before it was occupied and became part of Israel in 1948; he founded the Atieh construction company in 1961.
That company today is the largest construction company in Jordan and is credited with building most of the country’s major roads, bridges, towers, and tunnels that form the modern infrastructure of Amman.
According to Badareen, Atieh is one of only two prominent leaders of note in Jordan of Palestinian origins, the other one being former Prime Minister and current leader of the Jordanian senate or the Upper House, Taher al-Masri.
Like Atieh, MP Abbadi is also an exceptional figure in Jordanian politics. Although he comes from the powerful Abbadi tribe, he represents the wealthy constituents of Amman that comprise the third district which has sizeable Palestinian residents. He is known as a strong advocate of Jordanian national unity between East and West Bankers of Jordan and has strong pro-Palestinian policies, particularly when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Such strong national and grassroots popularity will come in handy for both men when it comes to seeking higher positions within the Jordanian state ─ especially since their power base depends on their electoral success, not their tribal affiliations.
Later that week, Abbadi announced his intentions to run for Speaker of the Parliament, after its current speaker Faisal al-Fayez announced he was not seeking re-election, sparking rumors that he might be slated to replace the current prime minister.
As for Atieh, he seems content for now with his status as the most popular MP in terms of votes as well as being a key political figure that the King depends on. Atieh’s relations with the King are “excellent” he told me one night as he was ordering a batch of heavy foods from a popular old restaurant in the old part of Amman called Shehrazaad.
“I owe much of my success to the King” he said. “He never fails me whenever I go to ask for his help in solving problems or seeking benefits for my constituency.”
The constant ringing of his phone from callers seeking his help seems to define Atieh’s politics as the consummate man of the people.
“Are we going to Faisal’s house?” he asked, referring to the current speaker of Parliament and former prime minister, Faisal al-Fayez. “Or to Abdel Karim’s?” he said, referring to the head of the powerful legal committee in Parliament, Abdel Karim al-Dughmi. Jordanian politicians seem to have grown accustomed to conducting much of their business deep into the night, oftentimes over heavy food as a way to break bread and break political obstacles.
He decided to go to al-Fayez’s house to hammer out some political strategies but before going there, he decided to order “fool” for dinner a popular meal of mash of fava beans accompanied by spicy meat pies called “Araayes”. It was almost midnight.
The writer is a Middle East analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: email@example.com