- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The king of Jordan fired his government in a surprise move on Tuesday amid nationwide protests calling for political reforms, as similar demonstrations were sweeping through the Arab world.

King Abdullah II dismissed Prime Minister Samir Rifai and replaced him with Marouf al-Bakhit, a former general who previously had served as prime minister and ambassador to Israel, the Jordanian news agency Petra reported.

But the country’s most powerful opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, dismissed the change as cosmetic.

“We reject the new prime minister, and we will continue our protests until our demands are met,” said Hamza Mansour, leader of the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood’s political arm, according to the Associated Press.

In a letter to Mr. al-Bakhit, Abdullah said the new government’s chief task would be to “take speedy, practical and tangible steps to unleash a real political reform process that reflects our vision of comprehensive reform, modernization and development.”

Jordanian protesters shout anti-government slogans during a demonstration at the prime minister's office in Amman, Jordan, on Saturday. The opposition supporters demand that the prime minister step down as they vent their anger at rising prices, inflation and unemployment in Jordan. (Associated Press)
Jordanian protesters shout anti-government slogans during a demonstration at the prime minister’s ... more >

The king said such steps would enable “bolstering democracy” and “building the nation that will open the door wide for achievement by all our dear people and secure them the safe and dignified life they are worthy of.”

Jordan, a country of 6 million, is ruled by a constitutional monarchy, and its economy is among the smallest in the Middle East.

Unlike some other countries in the region, Jordan has insufficient supplies of oil and other natural resources, and also suffers from a water shortage. The government faces an array of economic challenges, including high rates of poverty, unemployment and inflation, as well as a large budget deficit.

Abdullah said political reform had been held back by “imbalances and individuals who balked at change.”

The opposition in Jordan is not seeking regime change, but it does want to curb Abdullah’s powers.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mr. Mansour called for constitutional amendments to limit the king’s power in naming prime ministers, arguing that the post should go to the elected leader of the parliamentary majority.

Jordan’s constitution gives the king exclusive powers to appoint prime ministers, dismiss parliament and rule by decree.

“Unlike Egypt, we don’t want a regime change in Jordan, and we recognize the Hashemites’ rule in Jordan,” Mr. Mansour said, referring to Jordan’s ruling family. “But we want to see real political reforms introduced.”

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar, said the protests in the Arab world have turned into a political movement that is about democracy and freedom.

“In Jordan, they’re calling for a constitutional monarchy. In other words, they want the king to stop being the king,” Mr. Hamid said in a phone interview.

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