By Joel Greenberg
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 12:45 AM
AMMAN - Bowing to anti-government protests inspired by a wave of unrest across the Arab world, King Abdullah II of Jordan dismissed Prime Minister Samir Rifai and his cabinet on Tuesday and ordered a new premier to carry out speedy political reforms.
The surprise move by the monarch, a key U.S. ally, was intended to prevent growing demonstrations across the country from gathering steam. But the Islamist opposition promised more protests, charging that the new prime minister is unfit to rule and that the king's step did not go far enough.
Members of Islamist and secular groups had demanded the dismissal of Rifai and his cabinet, widely accused of corruption. The government was also blamed for cutting subsidies that led to rises in fuel and food prices and for moving too slowly on political reform.
Cabinet dismissals are not rare in Jordan and are used to offer a semblance of change without disrupting the underlying authority of the ruling Hashemite family. The prime minister's job has frequently rotated among members of a few well-connected clans - Rifai's father and grandfather each held the position more than once - and Abdullah's statement after the dismissal did not directly address the allegations that protesters had levied against the government.
In a letter accepting Rifai's resignation, Abdullah praised him for fighting corruption, among other accomplishments. Rifai did not comment publicly, but in a letter to Abdullah he took credit for working "to expand popular participation in government and achieve development."
Analysts and ordinary Jordanians agreed Tuesday that the swelling protests on the streets and the uprisings in Tunis and Egypt had hit home in the royal palace.
"I'm happy that the king listened to the people," Muhammad Absi, a university student, said after hearing the news. "We did not like the previous prime minister, and the new one is clean."
The new prime minister is Marouf al-Bakhit, an ex-general and former premier who has not been tainted by the allegations made against Rifai and his ministers.
In a letter of appointment, Abdullah ordered Bakhit to "take practical, speedy and tangible steps to embark on a course of real political reform." The king called for a "national dialogue" among all political groups to draw up a new election law and instructed the new government to pursue economic reforms that would include job creation, and to "fight all forms of corruption."
Zaki Bani Irsheid, a leader of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the largest opposition group in Jordan, said that Bakhit had overseen rigged elections during a previous term as premier and was not qualified to serve. He said that no dialogue could begin on a new election law before the dissolution of parliament, widely seen as a rubber-stamp assembly chosen in a fraudulent vote.
The monarch's actions "are not enough and do not meet the demands of the people," Irsheid said. "It was a step forward, and then a step back. Zero was accomplished today."
Some observers said that Abdullah had taken a skillful step to deflect public anger by appointing a well-regarded premier.
"In principle, the change is good," said Radwan Abdullah, a Jordanian political analyst. "The new prime minister does not belong to the corrupt class."
Considered a moderate politician, Bakhit served several years ago as Jordan's ambassador to Israel and has supported the peace treaty with it, along with strong ties with the United States. He was last appointed prime minister in 2005 after a triple bombing of hotels in Amman claimed by al-Qaeda in Iraq and was credited with maintaining security and stability during his two-year tenure.
Tuesday's cabinet change seemed to reinforce the king's status in Jordan as a uniting national figure immune to public criticism, in contrast to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been the target of throngs of protesting Egyptians.
Mubarak "stepped all over the Egyptian people," Muatazz Assaf said in a conversation this week in his computer supply store. "The king listens."
Greenberg is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Ranya Kadri contributed to this report.