staff and news service reports
updated 2/1/2011 11:53:00 AM ET 2011-02-01T16:53:00

King Abdullah II of Jordan fired his government following street protests and ordered a former prime minister to launch immediate political reforms on Tuesday, 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. Protesters had demanded Rifai's dismissal in protests across the country that mirrored the regime ouster in Tunisia and the turmoil in Egypt.

Meanwhile, the Western-backed Palestinian government in the West Bank said Tuesday it will hold local council elections "as soon as possible" — a surprise move reflecting fears that massive anti-government protests spreading across the Arab world could inspire unrest there, too.

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Jordan's 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, 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.

All talk?
Rifai was criticized 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."

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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 billion 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.

West Bank elections
In the West Bank, the elections announcement was one of many responses among the region's Western-backed governments — many with questionable legitimacy and limited popular support — to reduce the chances their own people will rise up against them.

The Palestinian Authority has not held elections since 2006, leaving the president and members of parliament in office after their elected terms ended.

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Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's Cabinet said it would set dates for local elections during its next session, probably next week.

Fayyad hopes to hold the vote in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Hamas, which rules Gaza and is in a bitter rivalry with the West Bank government, said Fayyad has no right to call for elections.

The Palestinian Authority — a huge recipient of American and European aid — has had a spotty record with democracy in recent years.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas canceled local elections in the West Bank in 2009 when it appeared that his Fatah movement would lose key seats to independents.

Fatah has been burned twice before by heading into elections despite warnings of impending defeat. Hamas scored heavily in 2005 municipal elections and won a strong majority in the Palestinian parliament the next year.

Elections have not been held in the territories since. Abbas' four-year term expired in 2009, though it has been extended indefinitely. The parliament's term expired in 2010, though it, too, continues to serve.

Announcement timing
Further complicating matters, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip by force in 2007 and set up a rival government. Egyptian-sponsored efforts to reconcile the two governments have repeatedly failed.

Before Tuesday, West Bank officials said they couldn't hold elections while the two territories remained divided.

Tuesday's announcement did not mention presidential or parliamentary elections, though Abbas aide Nimr Hamad said the division prevented these from taking place.

Hamas blasted the announcement, saying no vote could be held until the territories are united under a single government.

"Elections are supposed to come after reconciliation has been reached, as part of that reconciliation," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told The Associated Press.

The announcement's timing suggested it came in response to the days of massive street protests in Egypt calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Cabinet Secretary Naim Abu al-Hommos denied any link, telling The Associated Press the Cabinet had been "waiting for the right atmosphere" to hold elections.

Also on Tuesday, a Gaza activist said Hamas police prevented a handful of people from demonstrating in solidarity with Egyptian protesters.

Asma al-Ghoul said she and a small group of demonstrators had gathered Monday in central Gaza City when police came to stop them. She said police detained and roughed up some demonstrators.

New York-based Human Rights watch called on Hamas to "stop arbitrarily interfering with peaceful demonstrations about Egypt or anything else."

Hamas police had no comment.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which considers Egypt an ally, put down a similar protest this week — reflecting fears of unrest among its own population.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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