Jordan's new cabinet looks oddly familiar

Using cabinet ministers as scapegoats, only to replace them with a nearly identical lineup, is a well-worn tactic in Jordan. Still, many people appear cautiously optimistic that political reforms are nearing.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Jordan's Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit (L) receives greetings from a tribal Bedouin leader in Amman February 10. Jordan's King Abdullah swore in a new government on Wednesday, led by former general Bakhit who has promised to widen public freedoms in response to anti-government protests inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Jordan swore in a new cabinet on Wednesday that includes five prominent leftist opposition figures and a vocal Islamist politician, but some protesters who last week spurred the king to sack the old government worry the new lineup smacks of the same old thing.

With demonstrations reducing to a simmer in recent days, however, there seems to be little urgency among citizens to challenge Jordan's ninth cabinet in the 11 years since King Abdullah II assumed the throne from his father.

Instead, a cautious optimism has taken the air, with the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing the Muslim Brotherhood and Jordan's largest opposition party, expressing hope that political and electoral reforms are on the horizon after holding its first-ever talks with the king.

“He was a bit apprehensive, and we were a bit apprehensive. After 11 years, you would be!" says the front's deputy general secretary, Nimer Al-Assaf, who attended the meeting. "But I think after the talks, we felt that His Majesty is really sincere in what he said [about reform], and we encourage him. Because it is important to us, the stability of Jordan, and be sure we wouldn't do something to change that or threaten that.”

Only six ministers from the 27-member previous government maintained their posts, though those include some with important portfolios such as the Foreign Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and the Planning Ministry, which handles foreign aid. The new slate includes well-respected leftists such as journalist Taher Adwan, as well as independent Islamist Abdelrahim Akur, a former leader of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.

Using cabinet ministers as scapegoats in times of trouble, only to replace them with a nearly identical lineup, is a well-worn tactic here, and there is a sense, particularly from the opposition leftists, that the new government looks strikingly similar to previous governments, made up of well-known loyalists and political veterans. Such criticism began Feb. 2, when King Abdullah replaced the former prime minister with Maarouf al-Bakhit, a conservative with a long history in the military and security services.

“It's the same way of making ministers before and now; we haven't seen any real changes,” says Fakher Daas, a political activist and head of the youth wing of the leftist Popular Unity Party.

Mr. Daas seriously doubts the new appointees will have the clout to implement reforms. “There will not be permission for them to make real changes, there are two or three [liberals] from 27 [ministers],” he says.

For its part, the Islamic Action Front has sent somewhat mixed messages about the new government, alternating between skepticism and hopefulness. “The names [of the ministers] do not make any difference to us, what makes a difference is what's going to be done on the ground by the way of reforms,” says Mr. Al-Assaf.

The IAF recently turned down the suggestion that it would participate in the government, preferring to remain in opposition on assurances from King Abdullah that reforms will be forthcoming.

Scattered protests have continued through this week in the capital, but the biggest motivator now seems to have been support for the protesters in Egypt, rather than domestic politics. Several dozen protesters from left-wing groups turned out today at the downtown mosque in the pouring rain, while a few hundred supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood gathered near government offices.

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