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Jordan's King Abdullah shuffles cabinet, but few see an Egypt in the making

The change initiated by Jordan's still-popular King Abdullah is likely influenced by recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. But expectations are low for significant political change.

By Nicholas SeeleyCorrespondent / February 1, 2011

King Abdullah II of Jordan listen to President Barack Obama during a joint statements at the White House on Sept. 1. As civil unrest grows in nearby Egpt, the popular Jordanian monarch has sacked his cabinet and called for a new government.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File

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Amman, Jordan

After weeks of intermittent street protests, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has sacked his cabinet of ministers and called for the formation of a new government led by Maarouf Al Bakhit, a career military man with a reputation for maintaining order and stability. The new government is also tasked with implementing political reforms.

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But the general feeling is one of skepticism. Jordan’s king regularly replaces his ministers when there is a scandal or when public trust in government is low; these cabinet reshuffles are often more cosmetic than representative of actual change.

“The government has really two roles,” says prominent political blogger Naseem Tarawnah. “One is to implement an agenda, the other is to be a scapegoat in case things go wrong.”

Jordan’s government is seldom willing to provide explanations for royal decisions – at the moment, it doesn’t even have an official spokesman, since the communications minister submitted his resignation along with the rest of the government. But the change seems clearly related to the recent street protests in the capital, Amman. For three consecutive Fridays, large crowds have gathered at the city’s main downtown mosque, chanting slogans. Some, last Friday, waved the green flags of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although doubtless influenced by recent uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, the protests here have remained peaceful, and seem much more heavily weighted towards economic issues, particularly complaints about unemployment and rising prices. Protesters had also been calling for the resignation of the just-dismissed prime minister, Samir Al Rifai, and his government, and for a new commitment to political reform and openness. None have ventured to criticize the king, who retains broad popularity in Jordan. (Criticism of the Hashemite royal family is also considered a red line.)

But there’s little optimism that the new government will actually implement an ambitious program. For one thing, the new prime minister is seen as representing an agenda focused on security and order. He has served in the post before, appointed the first time in 2005, only weeks after a group of terrorists led by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi launched suicide attacks against three hotels in Jordan’s capital.

The message this sends is not seen as one of a new era of political openness.

“This is a sad day for Jordan,” says Mustafa Hamarneh, a policy analyst and chairman of the board of the independent magazine As-Sijil. The Bakhit government, he says, represents the “securitization of the state.”

“This is not a reform government,” he says. “This is the government that gave us the worst elections in history, this is the government that buried the [National] Agenda,” Jordan’s last blueprint for comprehensive liberal reforms.

Mr. Tarawnah is more hopeful.

“He [Bakhit] has been prime minister before, and there were no real major security changes under his reign. People expected, well, he’s going to shut down the whole country, it going to be militarized. That really didn’t happen. I don’t see that happening now, either.”

Other than Prime Minister Bakhit, no new appointments have been announced, nor is there a specific outline for what kinds of reforms might be in the air. Tarawnah says that if reform is forthcoming, it is more likely to focus on issues like cracking down on corruption than on democratization. But, he adds, a prime minister like Bakhit, with close ties to the military and powerful Jordanian tribes, might be in a better position than others to pursue a reform agenda.

“If there are any reforms that come, he might not be the worst person to carry them out,” he says.

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