Jordan’s King Abdullah appoints new prime minister as Egypt unrest spreads

Ian Black – Gaurdian.co.uk February 1, 2011

Jordan’s prime minister has been replaced as the political shockwaves from Egypt continue to reverberate across the Arab world. King Abdullah asked Marouf Bakhit to form a new government following the resignation of Samir al-Rifai after weeks of protests by Jordanians calling on him to step down.

Bakhit was asked to take “practical, swift and tangible steps to launch a real political reform process, in line with the king’s vision of comprehensive reform, modernisation and development”, said a statement from the royal palace.

But the opposition Islamic Action Front quickly attacked the appointment as “inappropriate”, blaming Bakhit for presiding over corruption, electoral fraud and mismanagement during what spokesman Zaki Bani Rashid described as the “bitter experience” of Bakhit’s first term in an interview with the Ammanet website.

Abdullah has dismissed prime ministers in the past but the background of protests at home and the intense focus on Egypt gives added significance to this move, which was immediately seen as an extension of spreading regional unrest.

Bakhit, prime minister from 2005 to 2007, also served in the sensitive posts of national security chief and Jordan’s ambassador in Israel. As a member of the al-Abbadi tribe, he is considered a loyal member of the country’s East Bank elite.

Demonstrators had demanded Rifai’s departure in demonstrations that began after last Friday’s prayers in Amman’s main mosques and were given added impetus by the dramatic events in Cairo.

The recent unrest in Jordan was inspired by the Tunisian uprising, and focused on anger about poverty and the well-heeled Rifai’s apparent inability to offer relief. Protests over poverty, inflation, unemployment, corruption and a lack of democracy have been going on for weeks.

The prime minister became a lightning rod for discontent, though he recently found $550m in subsidies for fuel and staples such as sugar, rice and gas. The package included pay rises for civil servants and security personnel.

The Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, is now playing an active opposition role and has been calling for political reform, while still treading carefully. “There is no comparison between Egypt and Jordan,” the IAF leader, Hamzeh Mansur, said yesterday. “The people there demand a regime change, but here we ask for political reforms and an elected government.” Abdullah has promised reforms, particularly on an election law. But it is unlikely that he will surrender his right to appoint the prime minister and cabinet officials. Unemployment is officially around 14% in the country of 6 million people, 70% of them under 30. The minimum wage is $211 a month. Poverty levels are 25%, while the capital, Amman, is the most expensive city in the Arab world.

Many ordinary Jordanians are also vehemently opposed to the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, signed by the late King Hussein, and at the heart of the country’s close alliance with the US, which was enhanced by the war in neighbouring Iraq.

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