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Jordan's Abdullah Can Only Blame Himself

By Lisa Beyer
November 14, 2012 2:40 PM EST

Jordan's government had the right idea, but the sequencing was off. To cushion the blow of fuel-subsidy cuts that went into effect yesterday, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour promised poor households would receive direct cash transfers from the state -- but not for some days.

By ensuring the money had already been deposited in special accounts before prices increased, Iranian authorities in late 2010 managed to eliminate $50 billion to $60 billion in energy subsidies without stirring a public uproar. By contrast, Ensour's vague pledge of relief down the road failed to prevent protests in the Jordanian capital and several provincial towns.

They were the most serious protests in Jordan since the start of the Arab Spring and featured, for the first time, crowds shouting for the fall of King Abdullah.

Judging from his record, the king's instincts must be telling him to revoke the fuel price increases and sack Ensour. Abdullah reversed a lifting of fuel subsidies in September when the measure provoked demonstrations. In 13 years on the throne, he has had nine prime ministers.

Those tricks have outlived their usefulness, however. For one thing, Jordan's depleted treasury can't continue supporting the subsidies. For another, Arab leaders can no longer count on escaping accountability to their people. Reformers in Jordan have argued the king should give up his power to appoint the prime minister and approve the cabinet. As long as he doesn't, he bears responsibility for the government's actions.

The king is keenly aware that leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya have been deposed by citizens seeking democratic change. His best chances for keeping power may lie in giving some of it up.

(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

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