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Nov 16, 2012 | 14:29 GMT

Protests Against Jordan's King Abdullah II

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images

An estimated 2,000 protesters directly called for Jordan's King Abdullah II to step down at a rally in downtown Amman on Nov. 16. Jordan has seen three consecutive days of protests and riots over a government decision to lift fuel subsidies. During Friday's rallies, protesters chanted, "Down Abdullah," and "The people want the downfall of the regime." The utterance of both phrases is a punishable offense in the kingdom. The protesters have also accused the monarchy and the government of corruption and complained of a lack of freedoms.

The open calls for Abdullah's resignation mark a dramatic escalation in the open derision of the king — who is widely unpopular but until now has rarely been openly criticized. Though the protests have not yet reached a point where they could lead to the overthrow of the monarchy, they represent a serious break with tradition and an escalation from what has been seen in the past year and a half. They may well be the start of a slide into open dissidence and challenges to the throne.

Abdullah has been on the defensive ever since the unrest in 2011, and this has emboldened his opposition. The perception that Abdullah is weak may explain why the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front, continue to challenge the monarchy over electoral laws and to demand reform. Open demands for the king to step down will add to that perception of weakness and could create a crisis within the regime if its stakeholders in the tribes and the urban Palestinian elite feel the king is incapable of dealing with the situation.

Clashes between rioters and security forces have occurred in Amman and cities throughout the country including Irbid, Tafileh, Maan, Aqaba, Karak, Salt, Zarqa and Theeban. Rioters, mostly tribal youths in these cities, attacked police stations and businesses such as banks and military warehouses. Muslim Brotherhood members have joined a wide spectrum of the Jordanian polity in the demonstrations.

Security forces have shown remarkable restraint despite having come under repeated attack. That may change, however, as the rioters grow bolder and the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict nearby adds to pressure on the ruling Hashemite monarchy. The protesters have not yet connected the current unrest to the situation in Gaza, but that could change if Israel launches a ground incursion.

Jordan's monarchy relies heavily on its relationships with the country's numerous tribes, members of which dominate Jordan's security services, including the police, military and intelligence. The economic strain created by an energy import crisis and a growing reformist movement have strained relations with some of the country's tribes, leading tribal youths to participate in the demonstrations. Security forces have so far remained supportive of the regime, but it is unclear how long that will last now that dissent within the tribes has grown more vocal and more public.

The king has offered several concessions to both the security forces and the tribes, including allowing security forces for the first time the right to vote in the upcoming parliamentary polls, scheduled for Jan. 23, and allowing the next parliament to chose the prime minister. The monarchy will also likely offer financial incentives when and where it can as it receives loans and aid from the West and the Gulf states. The government has so far refused to back down on lifting the subsidies, though it did previously back down when protesters took to the streets. The violence this time, combined with the heightened regional tensions brought on by the Israeli operation in Gaza, may force the security forces to grow less tolerant of the protesters.

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