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Jordan’s king sacks Cabinet; protests possible in Syria

The dramatic political unrest in Egypt, long a pivotal nation in the Arab world, has intensified demands for change across the region and spurred attempts at reform by nations long ruled by autocrats.

The upheaval unleashed by the Jan. 14 ouster of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali and the ongoing struggle against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt is burning its way like a contagion through the Arab world, spread by electronic media and breathless reports on pan-Arab media that are accompanied by images of massive, emotional crowds.

“What’s happening in Egypt is going to reshape the region,” said Mohammed Masri of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in Amman, the capital.

The new political dynamic is playing out in various countries in different ways.

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On Tuesday, Jordan’s King Abdullah II fired his Cabinet and ordered a new prime minister to pursue political reforms to “correct the mistakes of the past” after massive anti-government protests regionwide and smaller demonstrations at home.

The toppling of an Arab dictator in Tunisia and the continuing popular revolt against Mubarak in Egypt have inspired talk in Syria of staging anti-government protests Saturday against the reign of President Bashar Assad.

The government of Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir in Sudan has announced a “dialogue” with political parties after protests in the capital in recent days.

And political activists in Yemen, where huge protests broke out last week, have declared Thursday a “day of rage” against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, according to local media.

The fledgling Jordanian government of Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit has been told to take “practical, swift, and tangible steps to launch a real political reform process, in line with the king’s vision of comprehensive reform, modernization and development,” according to a statement carried by the state-owned Petra news agency.

The announcement came after Jordanians took to the streets in recent weeks demanding that the government respond to popular concerns over unemployment and corruption, although their demands are markedly more modest than those of their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts, who called for regime change.

The Jordanian grievances have been aimed for the most part at Samir Rifai, who was replaced as prime minister by Bakhit on Tuesday.

But a Jordanian analyst said the Cabinet change was unlikely to satisfy frustrated citizens who have been demanding political change, economic improvements and fresh faces. Bakhit, a former military official, served as prime minister from 2005 to 2007.

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“A measure like today’s measure will increase anger, not defuse it, because people will believe they are not being taken seriously,” said Labib Kamhawi, an economist and political analyst. “This is a cosmetic measure. The government itself does not initiate policies, it only implements them. So the Cabinet change does not mean anything.”

In Syria, a tightly controlled nation described by human rights groups as a police state, several online campaigns have been launched on Twitter and Facebook calling for protests. One group has called for a “day of rage” Saturday, similar to the Jan. 25 demonstrations in Egypt that sparked the uprising there. Another Web page with more than 6,000 members calls for protests in Damascus, the Syrian capital, Friday and Saturday.

“We want to end oppression and torture and insult [to] people,” said a 38-year-old Damascus resident who asked that he be referred to only as Abu Tamaam. He said he would attend protests later in the week.

“We want to achieve our freedom,” he said. “Syria deserves this.”

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Syrian authorities and government supporters aren’t taking chances. Extra police have already been deployed on the streets of Aleppo in Syria’s north, according to news reports and a resident of the city.

Supporters of the president also have taken to Facebook, setting up a page called “Salute President Bashar Assad.” Some have vowed to attend a separate gathering Saturday in support of the president.

Assad retains support for some of his stances, including his opposition to American foreign policy and his support for groups that oppose Israel, which occupies the Golan Heights, seized from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War. Many Syrians view democracy through the prism of neighboring Iraq, which continues to be mired in conflict.

“Syria is not Egypt or Tunisia,” said Moaaz, a business student in Damascus who said he would attend the pro-Assad rally. He spoke on condition that his last name not be used. “We have work, and Syria is standing up for itself.”

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A 45-year-old teacher from a village southwest of Damascus said he fears a change in Syria’s political system would adversely affect the country’s largest minority, the Christians.

“The president is important for Christians. If something ever happened to cause him to go, the Muslims would get in and we [Christians] would be in big trouble,” he said. “The president has done a lot for us.”

Yemen’s Saleh, who has been president since 1978, has buckled somewhat to the demands of protesters and pledged to hold talks about constitutional amendments demanded by the opposition. He called for an emergency meeting of his Cabinet on Tuesday as massive protests unfolded in Egypt.

Egyptians were angered in part by Mubarak’s attempt to place his son as his successor as part of what many criticized as an archaic form of “rule by dynasty.” The fathers of Syria’s Assad and Jordan’s Abdullah ruled their countries as well. But anger in the streets does not yet seem to have reached a boiling point in either of these countries.

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Even the Islamic Action Front, or IAF, Jordan’s main opposition group and a branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has renounced the kind of regime change being called for in Egypt and agreed to a dialogue with the new government.

“There is no comparison between Egypt and Jordan,” IAF Secretary-General Hamzah Mansour told Agence France-Presse on Monday. “The people there demand a regime change, but here we ask for political reforms and an elected government.”

daragahi@latimes.com

Starr is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Meris Lutz in Beirut contributed to this report.

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