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Jordan hit with more protests, work stoppages over fuel price hikes

Protesters take part during a demonstration following an announcement that Jordan would raise fuel prices in Amman on Nov. 13, 2012. (MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS)

Security forces battled demonstrators armed with torches and, in some cases, firearms in a number of violent clashes across Jordan on Wednesday, as protests over rising fuel prices entered a second day.

At least 14 people were reported injured and 35 protesters were arrested during two days of scattered melees that included assaults on government buildings and the torching of cars and gas stations. The disturbances, the worst in Jordan since Arab Spring protests began 23 months ago, stoked fears of deepening unrest in this strategically vital U.S. ally.

After a night of rioting in multiple cities, protesters Wednesday set fire to police kiosks and government facilities in several southern towns as public anger continued to simmer over a government decision to eliminate fuel subsidies. Riot police fired tear gas at 200 protesters in the southern city of Karak after the group attempted to torch the regional governor’s mansion, while public buildings came under attack in the Red Sea port of Aqaba and two other towns, security officials said.

In Maan, 150 miles south of
the capital, Amman, protesters armed with assault rifles stormed a government building after noon prayers, firing shots and wounding police officers who tried to block them, the officials said.

As dusk fell in Amman, about 100 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood — Jordan’s largest political movement — rallied outside the Interior Ministry, where earlier in the day police had
broken up a protest by about 300 people calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour. Some demonstrators also have called for the ouster of King Abdullah II, who has until now largely escaped public blame for the country’s economic and political ills.

The protests began within hours of the government’s announcement Tuesday that it was ending subsidies for several fuel products, including gasoline and the propane used by Jordanians for heating their homes and cooking, a move that sent prices soaring by 15 to 33 percent. But security officials blamed the unrest in part on the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing its leaders of cynically exploiting discontent over higher prices.

“This was not spontaneous,” said a government security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments of the protests. “The Muslim Brotherhood had a plan, and they were well organized. For them, it is a gift from heaven.”

The elimination of the subsidies was the latest in a string of economic shocks to Jordan, a
resource-poor country that has suffered from both higher global petroleum prices and multiple supply disruptions since the start of the Arab Spring. Jordan has long subsidized fuel costs for its citizens, but government officials and private analysts say the
practice was no longer sustainable, given Amman’s multibillion-
dollar budget deficit.

Ensour, in an interview Tuesday with Jordanian television, described the country’s financial situation as “very critical,” adding that subsidies should have been slashed years ago. He announced a new program to provide compensation to poorer Jordanians to help them cope with higher fuel costs.

“My duties toward the country have forced me to lift the subsidy in order to avoid a financial crisis,” he said.

His appeals appeared to have scant effect. Protests quickly broke out in Amman and numerous other cities across the small Arab country of 6 million, as mobs set fire to buildings and property and, in at least one instance, sought to tear down a large portrait of the king. Riot police in Amman used water cannons and batons to disperse some of the protesters.

Amman was largely calm early Wednesday, as unions for teachers and taxi drivers ordered their members to stay home in a general work stoppage.

Law enforcement officials said they expected the protests to peak Friday, when organizers have called for mass demonstrations after prayer services. They predicted a gradual return to calm after that, despite a vow by some protesters to continue until the subsidy decision is reversed.

“For years, public officials stole money from the treasury, and now the government is asking the people to pay the bill,” said Mohammed Husseini, a 25-year-old Islamist protester. “Although it is already winter, the Jordanian spring is about to begin.”

Jordan, a close ally of the United States and one of only two Arab states to sign peace accords with Israel, has been largely spared the kind of upheaval that has shaken countries throughout the Middle East since last year. Despite worsening economic conditions and discontent over official corruption, many ordinary Jordanians appear to prefer their country’s relative stability over the chaos and violence that have swept Egypt and Syria, their neighbors to the south and north.

A small but persistent band of protesters has held weekly rallies complaining about the slow pace of political reform, and on Oct. 5, a crowd said to number in the tens of thousands marched through central Amman in the largest showing by opposition forces to date. That protest ended peacefully, although supporters said its size suggested deepening discontent.

Government officials in interviews acknowledged the effect of rising prices on the national mood but noted that protests have been mild compared with anti-austerity demonstrations in several European countries this week. But they also acknowledged that the unrest had presented an opening for Islamists who would like to see the country’s pro-Western government overturned.

“They are exploiting a sensitive issue,” the government security official said, referring to the Islamists, “and they are managing to convince some people.”

Joby Warrick joined the Post’s national staff in 1996. He has covered national security, intelligence and the Middle East, and currently writes about the environment.



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