- 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.”

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.

Anti-government protests have spread like wildfire across the Arab world in recent weeks.

Tunisia

The birthplace of the Arab world protests, Tunisia has continued to see daily demonstrations since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14 in the face of the so-called “Jasmine Revolution,” a popular uprising over high prices and unemployment.

A unity government was sworn in, but some demonstrators are demanding that all officials with ties to the Ben Ali regime give up power.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, himself a Ben Ali regime holdover, has promised elections within six months.

Egypt

President Hosni Mubarak announced Tuesday that he will not seek re-election in September after thousands of Egyptians had taken to the streets of Cairo to demand his immediate ouster.

Responding to an offer from newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman for a dialogue, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said he would not participate in talks until Mr. Mubarak leaves.

“If we use 1989 and Eastern Europe as a model, Tunisia was Poland and Egypt would be the fall of the Berlin Wall and that will have a ripple effect,” said Michael Collins Dunn, an Egypt analyst and editor of the Middle East Journal at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “If Mubarak follows Ben Ali out of the door, we will see something that will be attempted to be imitated in a lot of other countries.”

Algeria

Tunisia’s neighbor also has been rocked by unrest. Demonstrators have been calling for a “radical change of the regime” and riots in early January left five dead and more than 800 injured.

The Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, a pro-democracy group, is planning a march in Algiers on Feb. 12.

A constitutional amendment passed in 2008 allowed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in office since 1999, to run for a third term.

Opposition groups are demanding the ouster of the government and the end of its 19-year state of emergency.

Mauritania

The National Rally for Reform and Development, a party of the moderate Islamist movement in Mauritania, expressed support for the Egyptians protesting against the Mubarak regime.

The party described its protest as “a decisive moment, which calls for a much greater solidarity among all the forces of change, to deal with a dictatorship and defeat all the maneuvers likely to slow the momentum of a revolution whose claims to freedom and reform meet people’s aspirations.”

President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz seized power in a military coup in 2008.

West Bank

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week instructed his security chiefs to prevent any protests in support of the Egyptian demonstrators.

Mr. Abbas’ Fatah Party has ruled the West Bank with an iron fist, cracking down on the militant opposition group Hamas. He told his security chiefs he was worried that loosening the grip could provide an opening to Hamas to destabilize the West Bank, a senior Palestinian security official told the AP on the condition of anonymity.

Bowing to Palestinians’ frustration over the slow pace of political reform, Mr. Abbas’ Cabinet promised to set a date next week for municipal elections, which were to be held last July.

Yemen

In Yemen, the most impoverished of Arab states, protesters kept up their demand that President Ali Abdullah Saleh leave office.

Mr. Saleh has called for a meeting of parliament and the consultative council in response to the protests. The opposition says it is too late for a dialogue and that he must step down.

Pro-democracy groups have called for a “day of rage” protest in Yemen on Thursday.

Sudan

There were calls for protesters to take to the streets in Sudan on Thursday.

The anger toward President Omar al-Bashir’s government is not just over high prices and corruption, but the all-but-certain secession of the oil-rich southern half of the country. Many northerners blame Mr. al-Bashir for losing the south.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is one of those country’s where economic disparity that has fueled protesters’ anger is stark.

The monarchy sided with the embattled regimes during the unfolding crisis: The kingdom has granted refuge to Mr. Ben Ali and its ruler, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, has expressed support for Mr. Mubarak.

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, a rare protest erupted over the weekend after heavy rains flooded the streets, according to Reuters. It was swiftly crushed by police.

Libya

So far, there have only been unconfirmed reports of minor protests outside the capital, Tripoli.

Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi has been in power since a coup in 1969.

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