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Jordan protesters inspired by Tunisian ripple

By Ivan Watson and Amy Hybels, CNN
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The Tunisia ripple effect
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Protesters in Jordan praise Tunisians who forced out their president
  • Jordanians have been holding peaceful protests during economic downturn
  • Senior minister says the situation in Jordan is different to Tunisia
  • Protesters wrath is focused on prime minister -- but there has been some criticism of the king

Amman, Jordan (CNN) -- Nearly everyone you talk to in this little desert kingdom reacts the same way. They break into a broad smile at the mention of Tunisia.

"Everybody is happy," said one young Jordanian man huddling under his sweatshirt hood for warmth. "Because [deposed Tunisian president] Bin Ali was a bad man."

"When we saw what was happening in Tunisia it was contagious!" exclaimed Adel Shamayleh, a real estate broker who lived for years in California. "People start to go "hey, why don't we do like what the Tunisians do?""

Long before Tunisians took to the streets, Jordan was already mired in a deep economic downturn that prompted a series of protests.

But when several hundred demonstrators peacefully gathered outside the parliament in Amman last Sunday, they added a new slogan to their often-repeated complaints about government corruption and the soaring cost of living. "A salute," they shouted, "from Amman to proud Tunis."

Businessman and political commentator Labib Kamhawi said many Jordanians identify with the hardships that led Tunisians to rise up against their president.

"The Tunisians revolted against problems that exist in Jordan, exist in Egypt, exist everywhere.

iReporters in Tunisia

And they have the same syndrome, the vicious dictator who wants to rule and run the country forever," Kamhawi said. Jordanians have "never been so fragmented, and in such a mood of protest," said political analyst George Hawatmeh. "Frankly, never have they been that poor."

But a senior Jordanian government official said comparing the Tunisian unrest to Jordan's much smaller, more peaceful demonstrations, is like comparing "apples to oranges."

"What happened in Tunisia is enormous. It's historical. Is it relevant to Jordan? No," said Ayman al Safadi, Jordan's deputy prime minister.

"Can we compare the two situations? Absolutely no. Do we have economic problems? Yes."

Last week, the Jordanian government announced a $225 million dollar plan to slash taxes, lower commodity prices and create jobs. It was an obvious attempt to address the growing frustration in the streets.

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Meanwhile, opposition leaders appear to be trying to capitalize on the popular frustration. The Islamic Action Front, an Islamist party that boycotted last November's parliamentary elections, stepped up demands for the resignation of current prime minister.

"I think this government should go," declared Nimer al-Assaf, deputy secretary general of the IAF, at the protest in front of parliament last Sunday.

And at a press conference on Tuesday, the IAF accused the government of rigging the November elections.

As evidence, the party's leader showed a CD with the names of 69,000 voters' names he claimed had been forged.

In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Ayman al Safadi denied those charges.

Immediately after the elections, he said Jordanian authorities had followed up allegations of wrong-doing at the ballot boxes with several arrests.

Until now, angry Jordanians have focused their wrath on Prime Minister Samir al Rifai. In this monarchy, it is a crime to criticize Jordan's King Abdullah.

The authorities wield an extensive security apparatus that carefully stifles dissent.

During periods of extreme social unrest, however, Jordanian kings have been known to sacrifice their highest level officials to appease the population.

In 1989, Abdullah's father, King Hussein, accepted the resignation of the current prime minister's father, Zaid Rifai, who was also serving as prime minister at the time. The resignation came after rising prices of food and fuel triggered days of deadly riots.

But some observers warn the Tunisian model may inspire Jordanians to challenge one of the country's oldest taboos.

"A lot of people have gone out in public, criticizing even the king," said analyst Labib Kamhawi. "Every time a ruler believes that people will eventually forget about it and he can continue to do what he normally does," he warned, "than this rule helps in a build-up that can lead to an explosion."

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