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After Egypt’s protests, Jordan’s king faces more assertive public

AMMAN, Jordan — One day after Jordan’s King Abdullah dismissed his cabinet and appointed a new prime minister to oversee political and economic reform, a few dozen protesters at a traffic circle near Amman’s prime ministry building chanted “no Ba

AMMAN, Jordan — One day after Jordan‘s King Abdullah dismissed his cabinet and appointed a new prime minister to oversee political and economic reform, a few dozen protesters at a traffic circle near Amman’s prime ministry building chanted “no Bakhit, no Samir,” in reference to the outgoing as well as the incoming leaders. The red flags of the leftist Popular Unity Party flew side-by-side with green Muslim Brotherhood flags.

“We came here to make a message to our government, to the decisionmakers in Jordan, that we don’t need changes in faces; we need changes in policies,” said Ghaith al-Qudah, who was organizing for the Brotherhood’s Youth Committee.

Despite public skepticism about the new government, there were no large, organized protests like those that have shaken the capital on the past three Fridays. But the small gathering spoke to the fresh willingness of Jordanians to go public with their discontent – and how the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have changed the game for a generation.

“I think that there is now a new understanding inside the political kitchen that we have a new public mood in the region,” says Mohammad Aburumman, a political columnist for the Jordanian daily Al Ghad. “We have a new Arabic street … they need justice, political reform, democracy, human rights. … Political reform became a necessity in Jordan.”

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King Abdullah appointed Prime Minister Maarouf al-Bakhit on Tuesday, after accepting the resignation of the previous cabinet of ministers. The first response to the appointment was doubt that Mr. Bakhit, a conservative with a long history in the military and security services, was really put in place to implement reform. Some held out hope that Bakhit’s conservative credentials might actually make him a capable figure to head a reform government. Others said the change in prime ministers was a purely cosmetic move, in a country where political appointees change frequently but policies seldom do.

“People here are afraid that this [new government] is to contain the street, not to make a real change,” says Mr. Aburumman. He expects that by next week, Bakhit’s ministerial appointments and his public statements will make clear how serious his government is about reform is. “We hope the new prime minister understands that he doesn’t have a long time – he has a short time to give a very strong message towards democracy.”

The protesters outside the prime ministry were very critical of Bakhit, but no one interviewed actually called for his resignation.

“No, no, no: we are not asking names,” said engineer Khaled Ramadan. “We are asking [to change] the mode, how the prime minister [is] appointed. Not: we are with Maarouf or against Maarouf; we are asking [for] a new system.”

Is the political will there?
It’s impossible to guess what kind of immediate reforms will be necessary to keep protest in check, and whether the new government will have the political will or ability to implement them.

One demand was clear: a new elections law that would create a more representative National Assembly. Jordan’s current laws restrict the activity of political parties and aggressively gerrymander electoral districts, ensuring that the Assembly is dominated by east-bank Jordanians, who are typically elected based on tribal loyalties rather than policies. The resulting parliaments are widely seen as unrepresentative, ineffective, and corrupt.

Aburumman said he hoped not only for an elections law, but for a system in which the cabinet would be chosen by the largest bloc in the assembly, rather than by the king – though most agree the king is unlikely to give up that control.

Muslim Brotherhood view
Abdellatif Arabiat, head of the Shura Council of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, said his organization would probably be content if there were a more democratically elected National Assembly, and it were given more say in the running of the country, as opposed to the current system, where almost all decisions are made by the cabinet.

The protesters near the prime ministry made numerous other demands, including a review of the restrictive laws governing public gatherings, the creation of a “supply ministry” to control commodity prices, and more democratic management of public universities.

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“We are planning to make these protests week after week, or month after month, until we believe the government can reach to a level to make change which we want,” said Mr. Qudah.

Popular anger is unpredictable, but it seems likely that the biggest player in determining whether protesters return to the streets will be the Brotherhood. So far, Aburumman said, the Brotherhood has participated in protests without taking a leading role.

“They still tried to open something there with the regime, trying to give a positive indicator that they don’t want to change the regime, but they want to participate in improving the regime, in improving the political life,” he said. “That is the new strategy of the Brotherhood. But I think if they find doors closed, they will go to the street again and they will change their tools to be a more aggressive, strong opposition.”

Mr. Arabiat, however, says his group is taking its cue from Jordanians.

“It is up to the people,” he says. “If they approve the main [government] line for reform, I think [protests] will decrease, but if not, they will increase.”

Arabiat says the Brotherhood would push for a serious reform program, but that it was also committed to working with other opposition groups.

“We are reformists in an evolutionary process, not revolutionary; working according to the Constitution; working with the whole people. … We are working for a real democracy,” he says. “We are doing the will of the people. The people will be with us if we work with them and toward their own objectives.”