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 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.
Islamists quickly expressed their anger with the appointment of Bakhit, whose government oversaw local and parliamentary elections in 2007 seen as marred by vote-rigging that 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 toward 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.
Under fire from an enraged public over high food prices, Rifai announced wage increases two weeks ago to civil servants and the military in an attempt to restore calm.
But protests continued across Jordan, with demonstrators blaming corruption spawned by free-market reforms for the plight of the country’s poor.
Rifai was criticised for pushing a pro-Western reform agenda. 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 liberalization,” 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.”
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 the country’s $20 bln GDP.
Bakhit is expected to form his government in the next few days.
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.
Editing by Dominic Evans and Maria Golovnina