x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

As Jordan king changes PM, critics demand new policies

Jordan's protest groups plan to continue demonstrations even though King Abdullah II complied with one of their demands by firing the country's prime minister.

The new Jordanian prime minister, Marouf Bakhit, centre, held the post in the past.
The new Jordanian prime minister, Marouf Bakhit, centre, held the post in the past.

AMMAN // Officials of several of Jordan's protest groups said they plan to continue their demonstrations despite the fact that King Abdullah II complied with one of their demands by firing the country's prime minister.

The king on Tuesday removed Samir Rifai, 43, from the post. Many Jordanians have blamed Mr Rifai for the soaring prices, poverty, unemployment and government corruption that has afflicted the kingdom.

The king replaced Mr Rifai with Marouf Bakhit, a former prime minister and army general, and tasked him with beginning a "real political reform process".

A spokesman for Mr Bakhit, 64, said yesterday that the former general will be meeting various groups during the next few days and that "the composition of the new government should be announced Saturday or Sunday if the consultations go well".

Some observers see Mr Bakhit's appointment as an attempt to meet the public halfway, but critics say they want to see a change of policies, not merely a change of faces.

Ibrahim Alloush, an activist, said: "We want a change in policies that would give people the power to choose.

"While Rifai was associated with corrupt businessmen, Bakhit is the son of a security [official] for the army; he was also one of the chief negotiators of Wadi Araba treaty, which is condemned by the public," he said, referring to Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

"He is also a previous ambassador to Israel. So it is not the kind of change people have in mind. We are returning to the old guard."

The Muslim Brotherhood, with its offshoot the Islamic Action Front (IAF), and other opposition groups promised to continue protests until their demands are heeded.

They are calling for constitutional changes that include the leader of the parliamentary majority serving as prime minister, as opposed to the position being a royal appointee.

Hamza Mansur, head of the IA, said: "Based on our past experiences, we don't see the prime minister as the right person to lead the reform process. As long as our demands are not met we will continue with the protest."

The Islamists and the Jordanian National Democratic Party, a smaller opposition group, said they will stage a sit-in on Friday in front of the prime minister's headquarters.

The Islamists are angry about Mr Bakhit's appointment because it was under his tenure that the parliamentary elections of 2007, which they claim were rigged, took place. Islamist parties lost 11 seats in those elections.

In addition, during Mr Bakhit's tenure the government clamped down on the Islamic Centre, the Brotherhood's financial and investment arm, amid allegations of corruption.

On the other hand, some analysts consider Mr Bakhit a politician capable of understanding people's demands and opening dialogue with disaffected Jordanian groups that have been critical of government policies.

Sultan Hattab, a columnist, wrote in Al Rai, a government-owned paper: "It is believed that the prime minister is closer to those segments of society who are looking for jobs, asking for an improvement in their living conditions. He also comes from a security background and therefore is capable of opening a dialogue with military retirees."

Some analysts said Mr Bakhit's appointment comes at a delicate time. Jordan is already facing tough economic conditions, and is challenged by a budget deficit estimated to be as high as 5 per cent of the GDP.

Despite government measures to pump around US$500 million (DH1.8bn) into the economy, protests took place in Amman and other cities during the past three weeks in support of reform.

Jumana Ghneimat, an editor with the al Ghad daily, based in Amman, said: "Mr Bakhit will face a daunting task to rein in the deficit and the debt against the lack of financial resources."