By OMAR AKOUR
AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Monday accepted the resignation of his embattled prime minister and reportedly tapped a leading reformer as a successor, hoping to quell the largest anti-government protests in recent years, which are also seen as a potential challenge to his two-decade-old rule. Jordan is a staunch military and political ally of the West in a turbulent region, and any threat to the kingdom’s stability is viewed with concern, particularly by neighboring Israel and by the U.S.
Prime Minister Hani Mulki’s resignation came after several days of mass protests across Jordan against a planned tax increase, the latest in a series of economic reforms sought by the International Monetary Fund to get the rising public debt under control. The government has also raised prices for bread, electricity and fuel. Many Jordanians feel they are being squeezed financially by a government they perceive as corrupt and aloof, and say they are not getting services for the taxes they are asked to pay. It’s not clear if the departure of the business-friendly Mulki will be enough to defuse growing public anger.
Government-linked media said Education Minister Omar Razzaz, a Harvard-educated reformer, has been tapped as Mulki’s successor, though the choice was not officially confirmed. Mulki is to serve as caretaker until his replacement has been named, the state news agency Petra said. In meetings with Jordanian newspaper editors and journalists later Monday, the king promised reforms, saying the country must meet its challenges “away from the traditional approach,” but did not give specifics. Abdullah is the ultimate decision-maker on policy, but he has also positioned himself as a unifying force above the political fray. He has frequently reshuffled or disbanded governments as a way of quieting criticism.
His response to the current crisis fit that pattern. In his comments Monday, he expressed sympathy for the protesters and the hardships faced by ordinary Jordanians, while criticizing the outgoing government, saying it had failed to explain the tax bill to citizens. Yet he stopped short of saying he would meet protesters’ demands for scrapping the bill.
Meanwhile, crowds began gathering late Monday near Mulki’s office for the fifth straight evening of protests against the tax bill and the recent price hikes. Protest organizer Ali Abous said a one-day strike set for Wednesday would still take place, despite the Cabinet changes.
“We want to change the path, not the individuals,” said Abous, who heads an umbrella group for 15 unions and professional associations with half a million members.
Hatem Jarrar, a lawyer, said the resignation of Mulki is a “victory for the Jordanian people who demanded to topple the government,” adding that protesters would keep pressing demands for rescinding the tax bill. The recent protests were largely spontaneous, drawing many young people and members of the middle class, rather than being organized by traditional opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In a show of non-violence, protesters raised their hands in the air as they were being pushed away from the prime minister’s office by helmeted riot police. Protest organizers have urged the king to cancel the tax plan, saying it disproportionately targets the poor and the middle class.
The king has indicated he’s willing to make concessions, saying earlier this week that Jordan’s citizens cannot be expected to bear the entire burden of economic reform.
Jordan’s government is under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to carry out economic reforms and austerity measures to rein in growing public debt. The kingdom has experienced an economic downturn in part because of prolonged conflict in neighboring Syria and Iraq, and a large influx of refugees several years ago. The official unemployment rate has risen above 18 percent, and it’s believed to be double that among young Jordanians.
Abdullah became king in 1999, taking over from his late father, Hussein, and has weathered a series of political crises. During the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, he promised political reforms, but instead tightened his rule after the outbreak of violent conflicts in the region, including in Syria. Israel has maintained discreet security ties with Jordan. Yoav Gallant, a member of Israel’s security Cabinet and retired general, told foreign journalists in a news conference Monday that it’s in Israel’s interest “that stability will go back to Jordan as soon as possible.”