Wednesday, February 2, 2011

nytimes:King of Jordan Dismisses His Cabinet

King of Jordan Dismisses His Cabinet

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/02/world/middleeast/02jordan.html?hp

AMMAN, Jordan — King Abdullah II of Jordan fired his government on Tuesday after weeks of demonstrations challenging his regime, part of a wave of demands of public accountability sweeping the Arab world that has brought throngs of demonstrators into the streets of Egypt.

The royal palace announced that the king had dismissed Prime Minister Samir Rifai and replaced him with Marouf al-Bakhit, who has served before in the post and is a former general and a onetime ambassador to Israel and Turkey widely viewed as clean of corruption.

Changing cabinets is not new for King Abdullah. In his 12 years on the throne, he has done so eight times. But this was the first time that he had done so in reaction to public pressure, seeking to undermine a growing protest movement across a broad spectrum of society and to pre-empt further unrest. It came after four weeks of unusual public demonstrations.

The palace statement 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.”

In a brief telephone interview, Mr. Bakhit added that his main objective would be to “take tangible steps to social, political and economic reform and give priority to dialogue with all segments of society.”

His predecessor was criticized as dealing primarily with technocrats and business leaders, while failing to consult with trade unions and the Muslim Brotherhood and to address the concerns of citizens.

With tens of thousands of Egyptians packing city squares daily to demand that President Hosni Mubarak end his nearly 30-year autocracy, the message was spreading across the region.

In Yemen, the government, fearing new protests, offered concessions to the opposition, which promised to call a demonstration every Thursday until March, when it will evaluate whether its demands have been met. In Syria, calls for a “day of rage” this weekend against the government of President Bashar al-Assad were spreading on Facebook, which is banned in the country, and on Twitter.

And in Tunisia, the country that set off the regional unrest after protests toppled the government, the army was called in to calm fears of chaos.

Gangs had been rampaging through schools in the capital, Tunis, and a synagogue was set on fire in the southern city of Gabes, according to news agency reports. A United Nations mission sent to Tunis to investigate the violence reported that at least 219 people had been killed in the unrest and 510 had been injured, The Associated Press said.

The main Syrian protest page on Facebook urged people to protest in Damascus on Feb. 4 and 5 in “a day of rage,” whose goal was to “end the state of emergency in Syria and end corruption.” Various political factions issued statements calling for change.

“Oh, Syrian people, isn’t it time for you to shout a big no?” the Muslim Brotherhood said. “No to oppression, corruption, theft and humiliation. No to poverty, hunger and unemployment.”

The democratic Islamist movement, in calling for participation in Saturday’s protest, said, “We don’t want a chaotic revolution; we want a peaceful uprising in which you raise your voice peacefully and in a civilized way.”

About 200 students in Sudan protested outside Al Nileen University in Khartoum, but were beaten back by squads of police officers, Reuters reported. Opposition figures blame the government for rising food prices and a crackdown on press freedom.

And the emir of Qatar, scheduled to visit South America later this month, postponed his trip because of regional tensions, a statement from his office said.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority announced it would hold local elections, postponed last year, “as soon as possible.” The Palestinian cabinet, led by Prime Minister Salam 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 meeting next week. It was not clear whether the government’s rival Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza, would cooperate.

The authority blamed Hamas for upsetting planned local elections last June, but critics of the authority said the reason for the cancellation was disarray within Fatah, the faction that dominates in the West Bank.

In an interview in his office in Ramallah, Mr. Fayyad said the sense that Palestinians, like Egyptians and people in the rest of the region, wanted to move ahead quickly on democratic reforms had helped spur the setting of elections.

In Jordan, the reaction to the change of government was mixed. Many said they were relieved, but the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, rejected the move as insufficient given the need for greater political freedom.

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 nearly half the country’s population of six million.

Recent demonstrations in Jordan were the first serious challenge to the rule of King Abdullah, a crucial American ally 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.

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, some 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.”

But Zaki Saad, head of the political bureau of the Islamic Action Front, said Mr. Bakhit was “a very bad choice.” Mr. Saad said the new prime minister was “not a man of dialogue,” although he said he would wait to see if Mr. Bakhit had changed.

Mr. Bakhit, 63, served as prime minister from 2005 to 2007. He is close to the king and has been deeply 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. But given the growing regional rage, it was difficult to predict the level of danger to his rule.

The pressures in neighboring Syria were harder to gauge because it is a more authoritarian regime. President Assad told The Wall Street Journal in an interview this week that he was in a stronger position than other regional leaders because of his anti-American and anti-Israeli stands. But last month, he also raised heating oil allowances for public workers.

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