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Jordan king orders price cuts to protect poor

AMMAN, Jan 11, 2011 – Jordan\’s government is preparing to take urgent steps to reduce prices of commodities, a senior official said on Tuesday, amid rising popular discontent.

"King Abdullah II has instructed Prime Minister Samir Rifai to take immediate and effective measures to mitigate the impact of rising prices of commodities on citizens," the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The king has called for protecting poor and middle-class citizens, giving them the means to ensure their basic needs," he added without elaborating.

"The king said basic commodities should be sold to citizens at the lowest possible prices."

The official said the armed forces, which sell various commodities to its members as well as civilians through its 85 cooperative stores at low prices, "have been instructed by the king not to raise prices, particularly sugar and rice."

The price of sugar doubled on commodities exchanges in 2010, while rice prices have also been highly volatile.

The official also said a decision to increase public transportation fees has been frozen, despite hikes in fuel prices.

The king has also asked the government to "act quickly and launch projects that generate income and create job opportunities."

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Such measures come amid growing unemployment and as inflation last month reached 6.1 percent.

"Clearly, the government is trying to contain the people\’s resentment," said Mohammad Masri, a researcher at the University of Jordan\’s Centre for Strategic Studies.

"What happened in Tunisia and Algeria has pushed the state to act."

Algeria and Tunisia have both been hit by widespread violent rioting and fatal clashes with police.

More than 50 people were killed in three days of rioting in Tunisia\’s central Kasserine region, a union official told AFP Tuesday.

"Jordanians now need to see tangible results from these measures," Masri said.

Mohammad Sneid, a popular trade unionist representing government workers paid on a daily basis, has called for a nationwide protest on Friday after midday prayers.

"Protests will take place in the southern cities of Maan Tafileh, Karak and Aqaba, as well as Irbid in the north and Salt in the west, and Madada and Dhiban in central Jordan," said Sneid.

He said the slogan of the protests is "a March for the downfall of Rifai for a decent living."

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The powerful Islamist opposition "is still studying the situation and has not decided whether to take part in the protest or not," said Zaki Bani Rsheid, one of the leaders of the Islamic Action Front (IAF).

"The new measures will only drug people, who reject government policies," he told AFP.

"Should we expect violent events like the ones in Tunisia and Algeria to happen in Jordan in order to push the government to initiate dialogue with national powers?"

Some analysts say the the Islamist opposition, which boycotted the parliamentary elections in November, is trying to take advantage of the situation for political gains.

"The Islamists tend to grow and prosper in times of crisis," said Mohammad Momani, political science professor at University of Yarmuk.

"Their political message is based on the fact that everything is wrong and they are the best alternative."

In May, Jordan launched a 10-billion-dollar (7.7 billion euro) development project in the Red Sea port of Aqaba, the country\’s largest ever property and tourism venture, the official Petra news agency reported.

However, cash-strapped Jordan expects its 2011 budget deficit to come in at 1.5 billion dollars, or five percent of gross domestic product, Rifai said in December.

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