Jordan king swears in new government after protests

AMMAN Wed Feb 9, 2011 2:24pm EST

1 of 3. Jordan's King Abdullah (C), new Prime Minister Maruf Bakhit (3th L) and ministers pose for a photograph at the Royal Palace in Amman February 9, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Yousef Allan

AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan's King Abdullah swore in a new government on Wednesday, led by a former general who has promised to widen public freedoms in response to anti-government protests inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

U.S. ally Abdullah appointed Marouf Bakhit, a conservative former premier drawn from the ranks of the powerful security establishment last week to replace Samir Rifai, who was dismissed after just over a year in the job.

Scores of anti-government protests have been staged in Jordan in the wake of Arab street protests, where a mix of tribal and Islamist led opposition have called for moves toward a constitutional monarchy that limits the powers of the throne.

Bakhit's 27-member cabinet is dominated by conservative politicians and tribal loyalists as opposed to Western-leaning pro-business reformists who held sway in previous administrations, political sources said.

The new government however retained the key interior, foreign affairs and finance portfolios in the previous administration and is expected to maintain traditional support for U.S. policies in the region, analysts say.

They say the monarch chose Bakhit, who is known for his hostility to the private sector, rather than a more liberal premier to appease Jordan's powerful East Bank tribes, the backbone of the monarchy.

Their vocal criticism of the monarch's economic reforms has grown more pronounced after the recent Arab popular street protests, blaming free market policies for corruption and a widening gap between rich and poor.

Bakhit's choice also reflects a traditional priority of the Hashemite royal family to placate East Bank Jordanians, the country's original inhabitants who hold a tight grip on political power, over the interests of the Palestinians, who form the majority of the country's 7 million population.

The cabinet line-up also maintains the under-representation of Jordanians of Palestinian origin who depend on jobs in the private sector and on remittances from relatives in the Gulf.

East Bankers have enjoyed a generally higher level of state jobs and subsidies and were alarmed by the threat to their benefits from a sharp economic downturn and from economic liberalization promoted by former Prime Minister Samir Rifai.

Bakhit has spent the last week holding broad-based consultations with civic groups opposition groups and labor and business leaders. He has said his government will ease censorship and curbs on political activity and public freedoms.

Before the cabinet was sworn in, Bakhit visited parliament and met deputies.

He has even offered the Islamist opposition, who boycotted last November's parliamentary elections in protest at the erosion of parliament's independence, seats in his government. They refused, saying they would only join a government that was popularly elected not one appointed by the monarch.

Bakhit is expected to slow the pace of Jordan's IMF-guided free market reforms and widen a subsidy programme to rural and provincial tribal areas away from the Palestinian dominated cities.

The new premier's strong advocacy of a bigger government intervention in the economy could push the 2011 budget deficit close to the record $2 billion level it hit in 2009 - or 9 percent of GDP, analysts say.

(Writing by Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Diana Abdallah)

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