In Tunisia, President Ben Ali has fled the country. In Egypt, crowds of 200,000 are hanging President Mubarak in effigy. In Syria and Yemen, protests are roiling. And in Jordan, King Abdullah II seems to be trying to jump out in front of a similar wave of unrest. The king fired his prime minister, Samir al-Rifai, and jettisoned his cabinet this week, as thousands of Jordanians demonstrated in the capital and elsewhere. The move is widely being seen as a preemptive, conciliatory gesture, though it's not clear whether it will be enough to mollify the protesters. The U.S. has reason to keep an eye on this story, since Jordan is a close ally of American interests in the region. Here's what's going on and the main questions going forward:
One PM Out, Another One In Demonstrators had been calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Samir Rifai for weeks. According to official figures as reported by The Guardian, Jordan has a 14 percent unemployment rate and a 25 percent poverty rate, and 70 percent of the unemployed are under age 30. Rifai's government was popularly blamed for these conditions, and for runaway food and fuel prices; in mid-January, protesters gathered in Amman, Jordan's capital, to denounce Rifai and demand "bread and freedom." The new PM, Marouf Bakhit, served as Prime Minister from 2005 to 2007, and has also been Jordan's national security chief and its ambassador to Israel. Abdullah has tasked him with starting "a real political reform process, in line with the king's vision of comprehensive reform, modernisation and development," according to a royal statement.
Will This Make a Difference? Maybe not. Reuters quotes Rosemary Hollis, a professor of Middle Eastern policy studies who points out that Bakhit, with his long résumé in government, is "someone who would be seen as a safe pair of hands," rather than a system-shaking radical. Hollis added, "I wouldn't see it as a sign of liberalization. With his previous premiership, [Bakhit] talked the talk of reform but little actually happened." The Los Angeles Times quotes Labib Kamhawi, an analyst who calls Bakhit's installation "a cosmetic measure" and says that it will "increase anger, not defuse it, because people will believe they are not being taken seriously." On the other hand, points out Dan Amira at New York magazine, Bakhit might "feel a little more urgency this time around" to initiate reforms, "with regimes being toppled left and right."
How Will the People Respond? It's hard to say as of yet. Dissatisfaction in Jordan doesn't appear to have reached the fever pitch seen in Tunisia and Egypt, and most of the ire has been directed at Rifai. David Wood at Politics Daily notes that "the monarchy itself did not seem to be an immediate target of public anger." The German news service Deutsche Welle has published an interview with Achim Vogt, head of the Amman office of the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, who says that a government overhaul was "expected," but not quite so soon. Vogt adds that "it's unclear how, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood, the left-wing groups or the trade organizations are going to react to al-Bakhit's nomination. On the other hand, the protests in the past few days have been significantly smaller than the ones at the beginning." In the streets right now, says Vogt, "it's completely quiet here."