Jordan's government tumbles in wake of Egypt unrest

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 1, 2011 

JERUSALEM — Yet another government fell Tuesday to the rumblings of revolution that are sweeping the Middle East, as Jordan's King Abdullah II dismissed the country's prime minister and Cabinet after weeks of protests.

The surprise move appeared aimed at pre-empting the types of massive protests that are under way in Egypt and Tunisia and are being planned in other Arab countries, including Yemen, Sudan, Syria and Algeria.

However, King Abdullah's choice of Marouf al Bakhit, 64, a former army general and former prime minister, to replace Samir Rifai, a wealthy businessman and former court adviser, failed to impress a coalition of political forces behind nationwide protests that have been running weekly since the end of last year.

Demonstrators have called for the protests to continue until the new government takes office and institutes concrete changes.

Like other protests that have spread across Arab nations recently, the demonstrations in Jordan have focused on a better quality of life for average citizens. Protest organizers say the main issues are poverty, price increases and endemic corruption. Demonstrators from the Islamist movements also have called for constitutional amendments to curb the king's power to name heads of government. The constitution gives the king sweeping powers to appoint and dismiss prime ministers and to dissolve the parliament.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia — where government authorities first ignored protests and then reacted harshly — Jordan attempted to placate the protesters by distributing water and candy at demonstrations and announcing a wage increase for civil servants and military personnel.

"The move by the king was clearly part of what is going on across the Middle East. This is not a liberal reform kind of area. Reform usually takes years to achieve, and here we are seeing it spread like wildfire," said professor Assaf David, an expert on Jordanian affairs at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Nowhere have the unfolding events across the Middle East been more closely watched than by the Israeli government

Israel's neighbour to the south, Egypt, saw a "million man march" Tuesday that demanded the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key Israeli ally in the region. In the north, Lebanon soon will see a new government sworn in under the Hezbollah-backed Prime Minister Najib Mikati. Syria will see its first round of protesters Saturday as opposition movements called for massive protests against the rule of President Bashar Assad.

"It's a dangerous time, because it's an unpredictable time," one Israeli Cabinet minister said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity as the minister wasn't authorized to talk about the issue to journalists. "Maybe in these countries they are calling for democracy. But we don't know what that vote will bring. The current rulers may be called evil dictators, but they are the evil we know rather than the evil we don't."

Israel already has moved at least one battalion to reinforce its southern border with Egypt. Military officials said the move was meant to stop "infiltrators and other people hoping to take advantage of the chaos to attack Israel."

Israeli troops also were moved to guard the northern borders with Syria and Lebanon.

"As long as these protests continue to spread within the Arab world we will remain in a state of high alert," a senior Israel Defense Forces official said. The official asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the news media.

Israeli officials were said to be watching the turmoil in Tunisia, where the first rumblings of protests took place in December and led to the toppling of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.

Further protests are planned in Algeria and Yemen, though experts said it remained unclear whether the momentum would be enough to carry the demonstrations into a national movement, as in Egypt.

"Today we reached the zenith of the protests in Egypt. Arabs across the region will watch this on their TVs tonight. It's impossible to know how they will respond," David said.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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