Thousands Of Jordanians Take To The Streets As Tunisian Uprising Continues

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Thousands of Jordanians took to the streets of Amman and other cities on Friday to protest against soaring commodity prices, unemployment and poverty, calling for the sacking of the government, as the revolutionary movement in North Africa spread to the Middle East.

Amid a heavy police presence, demonstrators in the Jordanian capital, that included trade unionists and leftist party members, carried national flags and chanted anti-government slogans.

They called Prime Minister Samir Rifai a ‘coward’ and demanded he resign.

One banner carried in the protest after mid-day prayers read: ‘Jordan is not only for the rich. Bread is a red line. Beware of our starvation and fury.’

As they marched in the city centre, protesters chanted: ‘Down with Rifai’s government.

‘Unify yourselves because the government wants to eat your flesh.

‘Raise fuel prices to fill their pocket with millions.’

Similar demonstrations took place in the cities of Maan, Karak, Slat and Irbid, as well as other parts of the country.

On Tuesday, Jordan announced a $169 million plan to reduce prices of commodities, including fuel, and create jobs in a bid to face rising popular discontent.

But the protesters said these measures are not enough, complaining of growing unemployment and poverty as inflation last month reached 6.1 per cent.

They say government economic policies ‘have made the poor poorer and the rich richer’.

The measures to control prices and create jobs follow widespread insurrectionary protests and fatal clashes with police in Algeria and Tunisia over inflation.

The Jordanian Islamist opposition said in a statement: ‘We want government to meet people’s fair demands as quickly as possible, ease their burdens and start a dialogue with national powers to launch true and comprehensive reforms.’

The Muslim Brotherhood, its political arm the Islamic Action Front (IAF), and the country’s 14 trade unions said on Friday they would hold a sit-in outside parliament on Sunday to ‘denounce government economic policies’.

The unions warned: ‘God knows where this tension would lead the country.

‘We demand a solution to this problem to avert any negative repercussions through reforming policies and carry out true and fair economic and political reforms.’

l In Sudan, students protesting against price rises adopted by parliament have clashed with police in the capital, Khartoum, and elsewhere over the past two days, witnesses said on Thursday.

On Wednesday, police forcefully dispersed students in Khartoum and Wad Madani, south of the capital and principal city in the agricultural heartland of northern Sudan’s El-Gezira state.

Again on Thursday, students in Wad Madani came out to protest and were beaten by police with batons and fired at with tear gas, student Mohammed Hassan said.

He added that El-Gezira University was surrounded by 14 police vehicles, blocking all access.

In Al-Hasahisa, also south of Khartoum, witnesses said around 500 students had gathered outside their university campus shouting slogans against the price rises before being forced back inside by police.

Last week, the Sudanese parliament adopted a string of austerity measures aimed at bolstering the fragile economy, which is burdened by foreign debt and a currency weakened by post-referendum uncertainty.

MPs approved a raft of measures designed to reduce state subsidies on fuel and sugar and tighten government expenditure.

Finance Minister Ali Mahmoud announced after the vote that a 50-kilo sack of sugar would rise from 128 Sudanese pounds to 148 pounds (US$59) at the official exchange rates.

Fuel would also rise, with cooking gas up one pound to 13 pounds a gallon and petrol increasing from 4.50 pounds to 6.50 pounds.

The resource-rich south of the country has been holding a referendum that is expected to lead to independence, which would complicate the picture for north Sudan.

• In Tunisia the revolution is continuing.

Tunisia’s Constitutional Council announced on Saturday that the ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was officially swept aside, naming the speaker of Parliament as the interim leader.

The council declared the head of state had ‘definitively’ left power and appointed Foued Mebezza acting president under the constitution in a communique published by the official news agency TAP.

The council made its ruling at the request of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi.

Responding to Tunisians’ mounting demands for him to quit, Ben Ali fled the country for Saudi Arabia late on Friday in a dramatic end to his 23 years in power.

Saudi Arabia has welcomed Ben Ali and his family on Saturday, a day after they fled a mass uprising in their country.

A statement released by the Saudi monarchy said the decision to welcome Ben Ali was based on appreciation of the ‘exceptional circumstances’ in Tunisia.

‘Out of concern for the exceptional circumstances facing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of the security and stability of their country. . . the Saudi government has welcomed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family to the kingdom,’ the statement said.

Also on Saturday, all airports and the country’s airspace were reopened.

After abandoning power, Ben Ali boarded a plane with his family and left the country, amid widespread rumors about where he was travelling to.

Sources speculated they were flying to Malta, Libya, France or elsewhere. Eventually, it appeared Ben Ali’s plane had been en route to Paris. But French media reported that President Nicolas Sarkozy had rejected a request for his plane to land in Paris.

Before leaving, the ‘ex-president’ signed a decree handing interim presidential powers to Ghannouchi.

‘Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the presidential duties,’ Ghannouchi said in a statement broadcast on state television.

As a state of emergency has been declared, Ghannouchi has said he will meet political leaders on Saturday in an attempt to form a government.

Ben Ali, who has ruled Tunisia since coming to power in a bloodless coup in 1987, fled amid violent demonstrations and protesters who rejected his last-minute raft of concessions.

Members of Ben Ali’s family, reportedly including some of his in-laws, were arrested as they tried to leave the country.

The unrest in the country began on December 17, after a 26-year-old unemployed graduate set himself on fire in an attempt to commit suicide. Mohammed Bousazizi’s act of desperation set off the public’s growing frustration with rising inflation and unemployment, and prompted a wave of protests across the country.

Dozens of people have died in recent weeks as unrest has swept the country and security forces have cracked down on demonstrations over unemployment, food price rises and corruption.

Tensions remained high despite Ben Ali’s exit, with protesters reported to be ransacking government buildings in the capital, Tunis, and throughout other provinces. Police have also been accused of participating in looting, and citizens have made appeals for the protection of their property.

Ben Ali’s apparent downfall has not calmed all the protesters; there were reports of continued protests outside the interior ministry on Friday night calling for Ghannouchi’s immediate resignation.

In his televised address, Ghannouchi vowed to respect the constitution and restore stability and called on citizens to ‘maintain patriotic spirit… in order to brave through these difficult moments’.

He also vowed to address problems of inflation and unemployment ‘exactly’ as they had recently been announced by Ben Ali.