Amman, Jordan – King Abdullah II of Jordan fired his government in a surprise move on Tuesday, in the face of a wave of demands of public accountability sweeping the Arab world and bringing throngs of demonstrators to the streets of Egypt.
The Jordanian news agency Petra announced that after recent protests in Jordan itself, the king had dismissed Prime Minister Samir Rifai and replaced him with Marouf al-Bakhit, a former general and ambassador to Israel and Turkey. He is widely viewed as clean of corruption.
The official announcement said Mr. Bakhit would have the task of “taking practical, swift and tangible steps to launch a real political reform process, in line with the king’s version of comprehensive reform, modernization and development.” It added that the king asked Mr. Bakhit and the new cabinet to “bolster democracy” and proceed “with nation building that opens the scope for broad accomplishment to all dear sons of our country and secure them the safe and dignified life they deserve.”
Meanwhile, around the region, tremors from Egypt’s huge demonstrations could be felt from Yemen — where the government, fearing new protests, has offered concessions to the opposition — to Syria — where calls for “a day of rage” on Friday are spreading on Facebook, which is banned in the country, and Twitter, The Associated Press reported.
Tunisia, the country that set off the regional unrest after protests toppled the government, was forced to use the army to calm fears of chaos as gangs rampaged through schools in the capital, Tunis, and a synagogue was set on fire in the southern city of Gabes, according to wire reports. A United Nations mission sent to Tunis to investigate the violence reported that at least 219 people were killed and 510 injured in the unrest, the Associated Press said.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would hold local elections, postponed last year, “as soon as possible.” The Palestinian cabinet, led by Prime Minister Salman Fayyad, said in a statement that elections would take place simultaneously in the West Bank and in Gaza, and that the government would set a date at its next meeting. But it was not clear whether its rival Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza, would cooperate.
The authority blamed Hamas for upsetting planned local elections last July, but critics of the authority said that the reason for the cancellation was disarray within Fatah, the faction that dominates in the West Bank.
Jordan is a highly literate and largely stable country, with well-developed security and intelligence operations. But it has a fundamental vulnerability in the large number of Palestinians here. Refugees arrived in large numbers from the West Bank and Jerusalem after the war in 1967, and more arrived from Kuwait after President Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded that country in 1990. They and their descendants make up more than half the country’s population of six million.
Recent demonstrations in Jordan were the first serious challenge to the decade-old rule of King Abdullah, a crucial American ally in the region who is contending with his country’s worst economic crisis in years.
Last Friday, thousands took to the streets in the capital, Amman, as well as several other cities shouting, “We want change.” Because direct criticism of the king is banned, the focus has been on his government. Banners decried high food and fuel prices and demanded the resignation of the prime minister, appointed by the king.
On Saturday there was a sit-in of about 400 people in front of the prime minister’s office calling for his resignation. He has been criticized for what is seen as a lack of accountability.
In recent months, journalists, former generals and students have attacked corruption, lower subsidies and lack of democracy in Jordan, especially recent reductions in freedom of expression. The marchers have been a mix of Islamists, trade unionists and leftists. To counter the criticism, the king recently announced an increase in civil service pay and $125 million in subsidies for basic goods and fuel.
After Tuesday’s announcement of a new prime minister, reactions among protest leaders were cautiously positive.
Nahed Hattar, a leftist activist, said in a telephone interview that he considered the change a good move but that he wanted to see the government program before rendering judgment.
Ali Habashneh, a retired general who had participated in public protests, said the appointment was “wise,” adding, “He is the right man to lead the country at this time.”
The new prime minister, Mr. Bakhit, served briefly in the post once before in 2006 after Amman hotels were attacked by terrorists. He is close to the king and has been closely involved in the peace treaty with Israel.
While King Abdullah has detractors in Jordan, there seems at the moment to be little push to end the monarchy. The pressure has been focused on economic issues and government accountability.
Ranya Kadri reported from Amman, Jordan, and Ethan Bronner from Ramallah, West Bank. Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem and J. David Goodman from New York.
This article “Jordan’s King Dismisses Cabinet as Tremors Spread Through Region” originally appeared at The New York Times.
© 2010 The New York Times Company
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