AMMAN, Jordan — In a sign that the U.S.-backed kingdom of Jordan may yet be vulnerable to the "Arab Spring" upheaval, angry demonstrators Friday denounced King Abdullah II and his ruling circle as "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" and demanded swift reform or an end to the monarchy.
Across the country, demonstrators this week have been calling for the king's ouster, a demand previously muted in the strategically situated kingdom, which has mostly avoided the political tumult that has convulsed the region.
The protests at times have turned violent, resulting in at least one death. However, Friday's rallies of several thousand in Amman, the capital, seemed mostly peaceful, carefully monitored by gendarmes in full riot gear. Police separated protesters from small groups of pro-monarchy counter-demonstrators and vowed to use an "iron fist" against anyone inciting violence.
Some analysts already view Jordan's escalating protest movement as the gravest threat to date to the reign of Abdullah, who assumed the throne in 1999 upon the death of his father, King Hussein.
Major instability in Jordan — which shares borders with Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq — would add fresh uncertainty to a region already undergoing a profound transformation. Jordan is one of two Arab nations, along with Egypt, that have signed peace treaties with Israel and helped the U.S. pursue its goals in the Middle East, although the rise of an Islamist government in Cairo has already weakened Washington's influence in the region.
Amman also has close ties with U.S. and Western intelligence agencies and has been a front line in the battle against Islamic extremists.
Just last month, Jordanian authorities announced the arrest of 11 Jordanian militants in an alleged plot to attack shopping malls and Western diplomatic missions, apparently using weapons smuggled in from strife-ridden Syria, which some regional analysts now view as an extremist incubator. Jordan labeled the plot an attempt to destabilize the kingdom.
The spark for the current unrest was the government's decision to cut subsidies for gasoline, cooking gas and heating fuel. The move drove up prices and taxed Jordanians already struggling to eke out a living in a moribund, largely aid-dependent economy plagued by high unemployment and inflation rates and few opportunities for the young.
The subsidy cuts, which raised the price of cooking gas more than 50%, ignited widespread outrage in this nation of 6 million. The government defended the move as necessary to help deal with a massive budget deficit, a rationale rejected by protesters.
"There are people who steal all the money of the country while others go hungry," said a student protester Friday who gave her name only as Lina. "Let those people who steal the money go away and give back the money to the poor."
Many Jordanians were already fed up with what they viewed as the king's cosmetic response to Arab Spring-inspired demands for political reform and a gradual transition to a constitutional monarchy.
In response, the king has named and sacked prime ministers and intelligence chiefs and revised electoral laws in what critics call a futile scramble to maintain his near-absolute governing authority. Abdullah has clearly signaled his unwillingness to become a largely symbolic, European-style monarch.
National parliamentary elections are scheduled for January, but opponents have vowed to boycott the polling.
The price increases seemed to detonate long-suppressed frustrations with rampant cronyism and corruption in ruling circles. Some see the unraveling of a longtime royal strategy favoring a rural, tribal segment of the nation at the expense of the largely urban population of Palestinian ancestry.
"The regime was working hard to divide the society: Jordanians and Palestinians, tribes between north and south," said Hesham Hesa, an Islamist opposition activist. But now, Hesa said, "the regime is in a state of fear. The government has no strategy."
But the Jordanian king retains considerable support. Should the monarchy fall, many Jordanians fear the kind of chaos that has enveloped neighboring Syria and continues to destabilize Iraq.
Jordan is home to as many as 200,000 Syrian refugees.
Analysts note that Jordan's monarchy has proved resilient in the face of previous protests, Arab nationalism movements and the tumult of the early 1970s Black September era, when King Hussein led a brutal crackdown on Palestinian groups.
This week's demonstrations appear more broad-based than previous protest campaigns led by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a leading opposition group here. Students, workers, secular activists and others have marched alongside Islamists in antigovernment rallies throughout the country.
"The bottom line is that during these last two days, quite a lot of people have participated who have not been politically involved previously," said Labib Kamhawi, a leading government critic. "It's a quite new development, and the government has to look at it in a serious way."
Social media and the proliferation of news websites with varying viewpoints have contributed to a much freer flow of ideas than in years past, activists say. The government has moved to impose new restrictions on Web news content, which critics have assailed as censorship.
"There is no more fear," said Mohammed Shamma, a radio personality at a community-run station in Amman. "People are more courageous, and they get inspired by other people who are speaking out."
Why the government didn't wait until after January's elections to end the subsidies is a matter of speculation. Officials say the budget crisis forced them to act. Others suspect a possible miscalculation of the public response, though previous price increases have also brought protesters to the streets.
On Friday, demonstrators in the capital chanted slogans such as "May Abdullah fall!" and mocked the king's reported fondness for gambling.
"Before, we were after reforms," said another student protester, who gave her name as Dalia. "But now we want the regime to fall."
Special correspondents Bulos reported from Amman and Sandels from Beirut. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.