Bread Riots in Jordan Force King to Wield an 'Iron Fist'

Jordan, once one of the most stable Arab nations, is struggling to contain riots sparked by the government's threefold hike in bread prices.

Violent clashes - the first of their kind here in seven years - have shaken towns in southern Jordan and spread to the capital, Amman, on Saturday. Protesters demanded the overthrow of the government of Prime Minister Abdul Karim al-Kabariti and a reversal of the price hikes.

In the town of Karak, the focus of the unrest since riots began after Muslim prayers on Friday, hundreds of demonstrators burned four banks, government buildings, and pelted police with stones. More than a dozen people were reported injured.

The stones, broken glass, and ash left over from burning-tire barricades were eerily reminiscent of the 1987-93 intifadah uprising by Palestianians in Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The roots of Jordan's protests, however, lie partly in its economic woes since the 1992 Gulf war, in which King Hussein sided with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Substantial aid from Saudi Arabia dried up when the King backed Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of Jordanians working in the Persian Gulf states were forced to return home where jobs are few.

Jordan then turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for aid, forcing the government to take stiff budget-cutting steps, including reducing subsidies for bread prices. At the same time, Jordan has had hopes of American aid as a result of its striking a peace deal with Israel in 1994. But the aid remains stalled in Congress. And Jordan has not had an expected rapid rise in tourism to its ancient sites, such as Petra.

The riots have provoked a crisis for the rule of King Hussein, who has put his full weight behind the government's decision to raise prices on many of Jordan's basic foods. The price for two pounds of high-quality bread jumped to 34 cents from 13 cents.

Despite warnings of violence in recent weeks by opposition members of parliament, Mr. Kabariti and other government officials have insisted that the abrupt price hikes are the best way to end decades-long subsidies on bread.

The King has described the current choice for Jordanians as one between "order and chaos," and vowed to quell further unrest with an "iron fist."

"We are standing on a threshold," King Hussein told soldiers in Karak on Saturday. "Either there is a state or there are outlaws and people who want to sabotage this exemplary country."

By yesterday more than 120 people had been arrested in Karak, and Ahmad Mahadin, the head of the local municipality, reported that soldiers broke up a meeting of the municipality.

Poor southern towns have been hardest hit by the price increases, so riots erupted here first, just as in 1989 when higher fuel prices caused five days of violence. One elderly man argued with a policeman. "All we want is to get our bread," he said, with anguish in his voice. "We also want the resignation of the Kabariti government."

Low bread prices are considered by many here to be a "gift" from the Jordan government that has been "sacred" for years.

Citizens in Karak and analysts in Amman agree that the rise is bread prices is only the latest is a long line of grievances that have been growing for months, and were bound to boil over.

First among them have been promises of a "peace dividend" after Jordan's peace deal with Israel. Instead, the economy has stagnated.

"This was the last straw," said Taher el Masri, a former prime minister and member of parliament.

"We have noticed for a long time a lot of unhappiness in the population and we warned about it, but we failed to convince this government."

Problems, he said, include fears about the speed with which Jordan made peace and embraced Israel, and the "spread of poverty."

"There has been a tremendous exaggeration of the size of the peace dividend with Israel, but it never arrived," he said. "They turned the Israeli enemy to a strategic friend in such a short time, and it was too much to digest. These riots have been caused by an accumulation of things."

The calm in Karak yesterday afternoon was broken as residents craned their necks to hear news from military loudspeakers that the curfew would be lifted for two hours. Only a few ventured out.

"It's quiet," said one man on a street corner, "but it's a quiet imposed by tanks."

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