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Islamists in Jordan call for end to authoritarian rule

AMMAN (Reuters) - Islamists in Jordan, emboldened by protests in Tunisia that forced out the long-serving president, called on Sunday for an end to what they called authoritarian rule in their country.

Protestors from opposition parties and labour unions carry a symbolic coffin as they shout anti-government slogans outside the parliament in Amman January 16, 2011. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

Nearly one thousand Islamist and some leftist demonstrators rallied in front of parliament, to protest price rises and free-market reforms they blame for worsening the plight of the poor in the country of 7 million.

The rally was called by the influential Muslim unions, a bastion of opposition to the kingdom’s pro-Western policies. Protesters called for the downfall of Prime Minister Samir Rifai’s government, pointing to Tunisia as an example.

“The Tunisians who stood as one to bring down tyranny and injustice are an example for all Arab peoples,” Sheikh Hammam Said, the head of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, told the crowd as many shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest).

“We in Jordan suffer a lot from what Tunisians suffered from. We suffer from authoritarian rule. There has to be an end to this confiscation of freedoms and confiscation of the will of the people,” Said added.

Violent riots in Tunisa forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country last week after over 23 years in power. The events are being watched closely by the rest of the Arab world, where leaders have historically been dislodged only through coups, assassination or their own mortality.

The Brotherhood, the country’s largest political party, and its leftist allies say political freedoms in Jordan have eroded in recent years and are demanding change.

Activists waved banners bearing slogans that criticised the “theft of public money” and “rampant corruption.” Other placards warned “the dignity of the people is a red line” and denounced price rises.

The rally came after nationwide protests on Friday by a mix of tribal and left leaning activists aimed at forcing the government to back down on tough austerity measures, including higher taxes, to fight an economic crisis.

The authorities, worried about rioting in both Tunisia and

Algeria, rushed through a $225 million (£141.8 million) package of price cuts last week on types of fuel and goods at government run stores.

To stave off more public anger, Rifai on Saturday approved other moves to cap prices of goods on market shelves and to allow trade inspectors more powers to penalise importers who manipulate prices artificially.

Some analysts have said the moves are designed to head off the kind of unrest seen in Algeria and Tunisia from rising food prices and worsening living conditions.

Jordan has witnessed several bouts of civil unrest in poorer regions over the past decades after steep price hikes.

The latest protests are a blow to Rifai’s government, already undermined by a weak economy and a series of scandals in quasi-governmental firms and now facing growing public criticism over perceived corruption among top officials.

Writing by Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Noah Barkin