AMMAN (Reuters) - King Abdullah of Jordan, a close U.S. ally, replaced his prime minister on Tuesday following protests inspired by mass demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, but the Islamist opposition dismissed the move as insufficient.
Abdullah asked Marouf Bakhit, a conservative former premier with a military background, to head the government after accepting the resignation of Samir Rifai, whose dismissal has been demanded in a series of protests across the country.
“We call on you to form a new government whose main task is to take practical, speedy and tangible steps to launch a path of real political reforms...on the road to consolidating democracy,” the monarch said in a letter of designation.
Analysts said Bakhit was an unlikely choice to champion reforms but his appointment could placate tribal and rural Jordanians — the backbone of support for the Hashemite monarchy — who have protested against what they see as cuts in state jobs and subsidies since the global financial crisis hit Jordan.
Islamists quickly expressed their anger with the appointment because Bakhit’s last government oversaw local and parliamentary elections in 2007 seen as marred by vote-rigging, and left them with a handful of seats in a pro-government assembly.
“This is not a step in the right direction and does not show any intent towards real political reforms or meeting the popular demands for people yearning for greater political freedoms,” said Sheikh Hamza Mansour, head of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest political group.
Mansour did not say whether the IAF planned to continue its weekly protests which have drawn a few thousand demonstrators to the capital after Friday prayers. The movement has taken a back seat in most of the rural protests outside Amman.
Under fire from an enraged public over high food prices, Rifai announced wage increases two weeks ago to civil servants and the military and curbs on increases in food and fuel prices in an attempt to restore calm.
But protests continued across Jordan calling for the resignation of Rifai, who was named prime minister in December 2009 and re-appointed by Abdullah after last November’s parliamentary elections, boycotted by the Islamists.
Rifai was criticised for pushing a pro-Western reform agenda which the demonstrators said fuelled corruption and further impoverished many Jordanians.
His opponents sought to reverse free market reforms they say have cut state support for East Bank Jordanians, the original inhabitants of the country who depend on government support more than Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
“I wouldn’t see it (appointment) as a sign of liberalisation,” said Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East policy studies at London’s City University.
“With his previous premiership, (Bakhit) talked the talk of reform but little actually happened.”
Philip Robins, a Middle East expert at Oxford University, also questioned Bakhit’s reformist instincts but said he was seen as having “good credentials in the East Bank in the way the Rifais don’t have.”
Bakhit is expected to form his government in the next few days.
Many Jordanians hold successive governments responsible for a prolonged recession and rising public debt that hit a record $15 billion this year in one of the Arab world’s smallest economies, heavily dependent on foreign aid.
But discontent in recent months has grown as the economic downturn bites and weakens the state’s ability to create more jobs in a public sector that has traditionally absorbed poor tribesmen in rural and Bedouin areas.
Jordan has among the highest levels of government spending relative to the size of the economy, which economists privately say accounts for over 40 percent of its $20 billion GDP.
The Islamists and independent liberal groupings have called for constitutional changes to curb the extensive power of the king, who appoints cabinets, approves legislation and can dissolve parliament.
(Additional reporting by Alistair Lyon in Beirut)
Editing by Dominic Evans and Elizabeth Fullerton