Jordanian protesters ratchet up demands but stop short of urging king's ouster

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
By Joel Greenberg
Friday, March 4, 2011; 6:13 PM

AMMAN, JORDAN - Enas Hamed went out Friday for the first time to join thousands of people marching through central Amman to demand an overhaul of Jordan's political system, a growing weekly demonstration that is posing a mounting challenge to King Abdullah II.

Hamed, a 27-year-old homemaker who was joined by her mother-in-law, said such political participation was new to her.

"I saw what happened in Tunis and Egypt, so it's possible in any country with any government," she said, referring to the uprisings that toppled two autocratic leaders. "It gave us the courage to go forward to this demonstration. I love my country, and I want it to change."

The protesters are not calling for the removal of the king or the monarchy, which many Jordanians still see as a vital unifying force in a country with a large Palestinian population and numerous rival tribes.

Yet organizers from the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan's largest opposition group, and members of smaller leftist parties have ratcheted up their chants: "The people want to reform the regime!" they roared, echoing the battle cry of the Egyptian revolution: "The people want to topple the regime!"

The protesters called for the ouster of the king's latest appointee, Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit, whom they accused of corruption and presiding over rigged elections during a previous term as premier. They called for the dissolution of parliament, widely regarded as an unrepresentative assembly chosen in a fraud-marred vote, and demanded an elected cabinet, replacing the current system in which the prime minister is appointed by the king.

In a call addressed to King Abdullah, they shouted: "Change the policy, not the people."

Pictures of the monarch, seen everywhere in Jordan, were noticeably absent from the protest, though marchers carried Jordanian flags. Ranks of police separated the protesters from a small group of pro-monarchy demonstrators, who walked ahead, proclaiming their loyalty to the king. Last month, men armed with sticks and metal rods attacked anti-government demonstrators, injuring eight.

The protests appear to be attracting a wider circle of Jordanians, both religious and secular, who are finding them an outlet for discontent stoked by economic hardship, including rising prices and unemployment and a growing gap between rich and poor.

"We want to fix the system," said Yazid Arman, 27, a Web developer who said he was protesting for the first time. "We want the liberty to express ourselves, and we need justice in the distribution of resources."

Attacking the king and undermining the monarchy would only lead to internal strife, Arman said. "The change has to be step by step," he added.

Maneuvering to prevent the unrest from accelerating, Abdullah and top officials have sought to reassure Jordanians that real change is coming and that their voices are being heard.

"When I say reform, I want real and quick reform," Abdullah declared in a recent speech to cabinet ministers, legislators and judges.

After Bakhit's government narrowly won a vote of confidence in parliament on Thursday, the prime minister announced plans to create new jobs and prevent price hikes for basic goods and utilities. And the head of Jordan's Public Security Department, Lt. Gen. Hussein Majali, promised in a public letter to the king to protect citizens' right to free speech.

So far, both protesters and authorities have managed their confrontations so as to avert the deadly clashes seen in neighboring Arab countries. But debate is growing about the king's authority.

"The government is a sham, and it takes orders from the king and the security agencies," said Murad Adaileh, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamic Action Front. "The people should have a role in governing the country."

Hamed, the homemaker and first-time demonstrator, said the monarchy was essential to hold the country together. "It's an umbrella for us," she said, "and it preserves the country's stability."

Asad al-Zagha, a member of a leftist party, noted that insulting the king is banned in Jordan. Asked why the protesters were not criticizing the monarch, who holds ultimate power, he replied: "We can't. We criticize the government - and ask him for things."

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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