PROTESTS IN JORDAN
Jordan protests pressure king, but respect for monarchy remains
AMMAN, JORDAN - Tarek alMasri, a Jordanian lawyer who studied in Egypt, has been following 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.
When he considers a growing challenge to the government 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. But, he added, "I cannot imagine the country without the royal family. They strike a balance between the people and the government. I trust them."
The lawyer's ambivalence is shared by many in this kingdom, where King Abdullah II, 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 demonstrations, inspired by the unrest in the region and 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 have protested rising prices and demanded the dismissal of Prime Minister Samir 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.
In an attempt to defuse tensions, Rifai 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 has 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 say the king has failed, so far, to take substantial steps to address mounting public resentment, and they warn that unless genuine changes are 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 the election of the prime minister, who currently is appointed by the king, and amendment of the election law, which critics say is designed to underrepresent opposition elements in the legislature.