Jordanian protesters, police scuffle as Amman demonstrations continue

MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS - Demonstrators protesting an announcement that Jordan would raise fuel prices, including a hike on cooking gas, blocked a road in Amman Nov. 15, 2012.

AMMAN, Jordan — Police armed with truncheons skirmished with protesters outside a central Amman mosque on Friday as demonstrations over rising fuel prices rocked this Western-backed Arab monarchy for a fourth straight day.

Scattered scuffles broke out between security forces and an agitated but predominantly peaceful crowd of about 4,000 people who rallied outside the capital’s Husseini Mosque after Friday prayers.

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Many protesters chanted slogans demanding the ouster of King Abdullah II, the moderate monarch long regarded as a pillar of stability in the turbulent Middle East.

The unrest was the worst under Abdullah’s 13-year rule. Jordan has witnessed scores of protests since the start of the Arab Spring movement nearly two years ago, but most have been relatively small and peaceful.

Demonstrations in Amman early last year prompted the king to replace the prime minister and announce a number of political reforms, including a revamped constitution and new elections for parliament and local government. Discontent over the pace of political reform sent tens of thousands of protesters into streets in a peaceful protest in October.

Jordan, one of only two Arab countries with diplomatic ties to Israel, is regarded as a vital U.S. ally in the region and a partner in counterterrorism efforts.

Opposition leaders had called for massive demonstrations throughout the country on Friday, urging Jordanians to turn anger over price increases into a broader uprising against the government. Already this week, rioters in more than a dozen cities have torched cars and government buildings and battled with police in disturbances that have left one protester dead and scores injured.

But Friday’s protests in Amman, while boisterous, did not appear to signal a significant escalation of the protest movement, and organizers and police alike issued appeals for restraint. At the Husseini Mosque, angry demonstrators pressed against a line of helmeted riot police guarding the square but did not attempt to break through. Small clashes broke out along the fringes of the protest, and at one point club-wielding police chased a few dozen protesters through a nearby market.

“Leave us, leave us, you liar!” the protesters shouted at one point. “The people want the downfall of the regime.”

Rows of uniformed police officers formed a human barrier between the main rally and a smaller group of counter-demonstrators, mostly older men who carried portraits of Abdullah and his father, the late King Hussein, while hundreds of onlookers watched from sidewalks, balconies and rooftops. About two hours into the protest, the crowd slowly dispersed.

“The king is okay, but he is being undermined by his government,” said one first-time protester, a 23-year-old computer technician who gave his name only as Awwad. “I side with the people over the regime.”

The country was relatively calm Friday evening as only a few hundred protesters returned to the streets in Amman and other major cities. Minor clashes broke out between protesters and security forces in the southern city of Tafileh after about 150 demonstrators attempted to march on the regional government headquarters. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd after several protesters began pelting them with stones.

Amman remained quiet as security forces prevented protesters from gathering near the Interior Ministry for a planned rally. Police also blocked a group of about 100 protesters from marching on the Royal Palace downtown.

The Friday protests had the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s largest political movement, which earlier this year called for a national boycott against parliamentary elections scheduled for January. Jordanian officials have accused the religious group of exploiting public resentment over price hikes in a grab for power.

In a statement released before the rally, Brotherhood leader Sheikh Hamam Said declared that ordinary Jordanians were “unable to shoulder more burdens.”

“King Abdullah should take note of the situation by going back on the decision to raise prices,” he said.

Friday’s rally followed three days of occasionally violent demonstrations in the capital and smaller cities all across the country of 6 million. Police and protesters traded gunfire in two southern cities on Thursday, and rioters looted stores and burned public buildings in the town of Salt.

Authorities confirmed the first fatality from the disturbances — a 23-year-old protester killed in the northern city of Irbid — and reported nearly 80 injuries, including 57 members of the security forces. Law enforcement officials on Thursday warned protest organizers to refrain from violence, noting the government’s tolerance of peaceful demonstrations that have occurred weekly in the capital since the start of the Arab Spring movement.

“If protesters target us with force, we will change our approach in kind,” Gen. Hussein Majali, head of Jordan’s Public Security Department, told a news conference.

The disturbances erupted late Tuesday after the government announced plans to lift subsidies on gasoline and other fuel products to help address a growing budget deficit. The government has promised cash payments to poorer Jordanians to offset the spike in prices.

 
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