By Joel Greenberg
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 9:10 AM
AMMAN, JORDAN - Jordan's King Abdullah II on Tuesday dismissed Prime Minister Samir Rifai and his cabinet after widespread protests by crowds of people inspired by demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.
The monarch asked Marouf Bakhit - a well-regarded ex-general who is not tainted by allegations of corruption that plagued the former government - to form a new cabinet.
Abdullah, a key U.S. ally, has come under pressure in recent weeks from protests by a coalition of Islamists, secular opposition groups and a group of retired army generals who have called for sweeping political and economic reforms.
The weekly demonstrations, which have drawn momentum from the unrest in the region and were joined Friday by thousands across Jordan, reflect growing discontent stoked by the most serious domestic economic crisis in years and accusations of rampant government corruption.
Demonstrators protested rising prices and demanded the dismissal of Rifai and his government. But they have not directly challenged the king, criticism of whom is banned in Jordan. The demonstrators have been peaceful and have not been confronted by the police.
It was not immediately clear whether the opposition would be satisfied with Tuesday's ouster of Rifai and members of his cabinet, who had been lightning rods for criticism. Opposition critics say they personally profited from the sale of state companies as part of the king's policy of privatization and free-market reforms to attract foreign capital.
"It's a club of businessmen serving their financial interests," said Nahedh Hattar, a veteran opposition activist. "The king is a member of the club."
In an attempt to defuse tensions, Rifai earlier announced a package of new subsidies for fuel and basic goods, as well as pay raises for civil servants, an increase in pensions and a job-creation initiative.
The king met with members of parliament and the appointed Senate, urging reforms. Officials say he has talked to representatives of various groups, including unionists and Islamists, to hear their grievances, and even visited poor areas of the country to get a firsthand look at people's needs.
In his meeting with parliament members last week, Abdullah said that more should be done to address the concerns of ordinary Jordanians, and that "openness, frankness and dialogue on all issues is the way to strengthen trust between citizens and their national institutions," according to a palace statement.
But leaders of the protests said Sunday that the king had failed, so far, to take substantial steps to address mounting public resentment. They warned that unless genuine changes were made, the unrest could worsen.
Zaki Bani Irsheid, head of the political department of the Islamic Action Front, an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan's largest opposition group, said its main demands were dismissal of the government by the king, the dissolution of parliament - elected in November in a vote widely criticized as fraudulent - and new elections.
The opposition also is demanding that the prime minister, who currently is appointed by the king, instead be elected. And protesters want to amend of the election law, which critics say is designed to underrepresent opposition elements in the legislature.
Abdullah's response so far has been "just a public relations campaign that doesn't solve the crisis," Bani Irsheid said in an interview Sunday, two days before Rifai's dismissal. "The regime wants a solution without paying the price, and it is offering cosmetic changes. We told them that what was acceptable yesterday is not acceptable today, and what could resolve the problem today may not be a solution tomorrow. Delaying and hesitation will only complicate matters."
Critics such as Hattar say the king's policies, and accompanying corruption, have only widened the gap between rich and poor and exacerbated Jordan's economic ills, which include a rising national debt and high levels of unemployment and poverty.
Ali Habashnah, one of the retired generals advocating reforms, said that public resentment has spread to rural areas dominated by Bedouin tribes that have been the traditional backbone of the monarchy and its security forces. It was the first time, he said, that members of that segment of Jordanian society had joined with other groups in demands for change.
But the generals, who published a manifesto with other retired officers last year outlining their positions, have asserted their loyalty to King Abdullah and say they are seeking reforms under the monarchy. The ruling Hashemite family, Habashnah said, is the only force able to unite a nation made up of disparate tribes and other groups.
"The Hashemites are the symbol of the unity of the state," he said Sunday, before adding words of caution. "If things go on like this," he said, "there's no telling what can happen."
Ordinary Jordanians, too, seem loyal to the king. Tarek alMasri, a Jordanian lawyer who studied in Egypt, said he has followed the upheaval there with mixed emotions: happy that the Egyptians finally have risen up against an oppressive ruler but worried about a power vacuum in the streets.
But regarding protests in his own country, where the authority of the monarchy is an article of faith, there is one line that he will not cross.
"I'm upset by the social problems, the economic problems, the political problems, and the parliament doesn't represent the people," Masri said. At the same time, he added, "I cannot imagine the country without the royal family. They strike a balance between the people and the government. I trust them."
Greenberg is a special correspondent.