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Islamist-led protesters in Jordan press demand for broader, swifter reforms

Two youths carrying a large Jordanian flag are among thousands of Islamic Action Front supporters gathered to demand constitutional reforms during an opposition rally described as the biggest in the kingdom since the Arab Spring uprisings in Amman, Jordan on Oct. 5, 2012. (Raad Adayleh/AP)

Thousands of Jordanians joined an Islamist-led demonstration in the capital Friday to demand that King Abdullah II implement democratic reforms, in the largest of a wave of protests launched since last year’s Arab Spring.

Several thousand people, including some liberal activists and tribal representatives, took to downtown streets after Friday prayers to accuse the Jordanian monarch of having failed to carry out promised reforms — among them the election of a parliament empowered to appoint the government, which the king now chooses.

“Abdullah,” the protesters chanted. “Where are our freedoms? We want to reform the constitution before the people revolt.

Friday’s show of force came a day after Abdullah dissolved the current parliament to pave the way for elections. Participants said that move was insufficient, and they described the turnout as a watershed moment for a 20-month-old protest movement that has often failed to attract more than 1,000 people to its rallies.

“We don’t want elections for elections’ sake. We want real change,” said Fatima Hammad, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter at the demonstration.

Abdullah has responded to simmering protests with reforms including an end to restrictions on public gatherings like the one Friday and pledges to introduce a parliamentary government eventually. But criticism is mounting that those moves have been superficial and too slow.

The Brotherhood’s political party, the only organized opposition force in Jordan, is vowing to boycott polls, saying that new electoral laws favor rural tribal areas loyal to the government. Its participation is viewed as crucial to the legitimacy of an election.

“For over 20 months, the Jordanian people have had one central demand: the right to choose governments,” said Zaki Bani Rsheid, the Brotherhood’s deputy head. “And for over 20 months, the regime has provided nothing more than empty promises, and now we are faced with a political crisis.”

Demonstrators said their frustration is growing, particularly as they witness political transformations in other Arab countries.

“Governments come and governments go, and our demands or needs are never listened to,” said Omar Abu Sheid, 17, who held a placard reading, “Student for reform.”

Some demonstrators complained about the impact of government austerity measures and price hikes intended to aid the struggling economy. Muath Abu Hani, a 47-year-old unemployed carpenter, blamed corruption for Jordan’s fiscal woes.

“For over a decade, officials have stolen billions from the treasury, and now we are expected to pay the bill,” he said. “This is why the only solution is to reform the regime.”

So far, the protest movement and increasingly open criticism of the king have not amounted to a real threat to Abdullah. Opposition factions are divided, and they are calling for reforms, not the king’s overthrow. Some Jordanians worry that the Brotherhood intends to usurp the king’s powers in a bid to establish an Islamic state.

“They say, ‘We want to reform the regime,’ but we all know they want to form a new regime,” said Ahmed Saud, who was hanging a framed portrait of Abdullah from the balcony of his downtown Amman cafe, overlooking the demonstration. “They want to take away our king and country, and the Jordanian people won’t let them.”

Karin Brulliard in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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