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JORDAN: Pro-democracy demonstrators show little sign of letup

Story.jordan.prot.feb3.getty After six months of Egypt- and Tunisia-inspired protests, Jordanian pro-democracy demonstrators calling for reforms and a wider public say in politics remain persistent and show little sign of ceding their demands.

Though demonstrations in Jordan have failed to generate the large numbers seen in other Arab countries such as Egypt and Yemen, hundreds and perhaps thousands continue to take to the streets of the Jordanian capital, Amman, in weekly anti-government rallies after Friday prayers to demand reforms.

"It is a consistent peaceful protest that is very stubborn," 29-year old Khaled Kamhawi, a member of the activist group March 24 Youth Movement, told Babylon and Beyond. "There is no compromise. Jordan is a small country suffering from big problems -- all due to political, administrative and financial fraud. The status quo is unsustainable."

Jordan is a monarchy ruled by the Hashemite King Abdullah II, who technically wields absolute control over political life. Though civil liberties are not nearly as curtailed as in Tunisia before the uprising or Syria under Bashar Assad, activists complain of human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and prison abuse, as well as widespread corruption practiced by elites close to the king. 

The opposition is a diverse pool that includes youth activists, leftists, Islamists and political independents.

Protests have been largely peaceful, but things turned ugly on July 15 when groups of club- and baton-swinging riot police and pro-government enforcers violently dispersed pro-democracy demonstrators when they tried to set up a protest camp in an Amman square, reportedly clubbing demonstrators as the crowds chanted "the people want to reform the regime."

The clampdown, in which scores of people were injured, came only a few days after Jordan's prime minister sternly warned against the pitching of a sit-in protest camp in Jordan mirroring those in Egypt and Yemen.

The incident appears to have backfired and upped tensions in the Hashemite kingdom, with scores of angry demonstrators arriving at a protest Friday with signs reading "No to government thugs" and calling for the prime minister's ouster and denouncing government corruption.

Mohammed Masri, a political analyst at Jordan University's Center for Strategic Studies, told Babylon & Beyond that the crackdown will only ratchet up popular pressure on the government and make demonstrations gain more sway in Jordanian society.

"What happened on that Friday is what is creating the crisis for the government," he said. "Every time they attack demonstrations with thugs or the police there will be a larger segment of Jordanians that are sympathetic with the protesters. What is creating the tension in Jordan and what is creating the crisis is the management of the crisis itself."

King Abdullah pledged to move forward with political and economic reform programs in January after weeks of large protests, but many complain that meaningful change in the kingdom appears to be coming too slowly at a time when the region is going through extraordinary changes.

"Things must move fast. What happened in Tunisia and Egypt ... are all indicators that a historical moment has come. We have to bring history with us, we have to catch up with the rest of the world," said Kamhawi, adding that his vision is for Jordan to become a democracy through a series of constitutional reforms.

4e2877b700388.image Earlier this month, King Abdullah endorsed a cabinet reshuffle in which the country's Interior Minister Saad Hayel Srour, whom protesters accused of ordering the police to crack down violently on protests, was replaced by a more moderate politician. But the move doesn't appear to have mollified the opposition.

"They didn't have confidence in the previous [government], now the new one is at the same point. They feel there is an unbalance between state institutions and that the government should be accountable to the parliament. Their demands are still very similar," said Masri.

On Friday, activists plan to hold a march to Amman's City Hall and protests are also expected in surrounding areas and provinces -- indicators, according to Kamhawi, that the pro-democracy movement is gaining ground.

"I believe the momentum is rising and that more people are getting involved -- not only in numbers but also in different geographic locations," said Kamhawi. "Many barriers have been broken in the past three months. The people have become one voice."

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photos, from top: Women demonstrate at an anti-government protest in Amman, Jordan, in February (credit: Getty Images); Riot police violently quell a July 15 pro-democracy protest in Amman (Nader Daoud/Associated Press).

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