AMMAN, Jordan – It's usually a few younger protesters who break out in the chant — startling and almost unheard of in this country where the monarchy has always been almost sacrosanct — "Down, down with the king."
The rest of the opposition, including its biggest and most powerful faction, the Muslim Brotherhood, are quick to make clear they don't demand the ouster of Jordan's King Abdullah II. But after the past week's angry protests sparked by a government hike in gas and fuel prices, they warn that this usually placid U.S. ally will be thrown into turmoil unless the king allows change.
The unusually violent protests have shifted the focus of discontent from the government, at which anger was focused in the past, squarely on Abdullah for the first time. As a result, the monarch faces the biggest test yet of his democratic reform program, which his critics say does not do enough to end his monopoly on power. Anger over the price hikes has given the opposition, led by the Brotherhood, a rallying point to push him for more dramatic moves.
At the heart of the political standoff is a half-British king trying to forestall Arab Spring-style uprisings that have toppled autocratic regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya and led to the civil war in Syria. A darling of the United States and other Western governments who celebrate him and his beautiful Palestinian wife as modern celebrity-monarchs, the king still sits at the helm of a sprawling and largely feared intelligence service, a carefully lubricated patronage system and a U.S.-trained military.
His moribund economy is largely dependent on aid from Washington, Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing Arab states. Government opponents say their phones are bugged and homes watched. At times, such as during the 2010 parliamentary elections, his government was accused of blatantly rigging the vote.
"We're not calling for the king's ouster, but for him to listen to the people's demands and embark on real and serious reforms," Zaki Bani Irsheid, a leading figure in the Islamic Action Group, the political arm of the Brotherhood, told a press conference Monday.
"We did not raise the slogan of toppling the king, but it is being called for by some in street protests, a precedent which indicates that popular tension is growing and an explosion is looming."
The Islamic Action Front now heads a newly created coalition of the fragmented opposition groups. But its control is loose, and the coalition uncomfortably brings together a wide ideological spectrum, from Islamists to Arab nationalists to communists.
Around 400 demonstrators protested Monday in front of the prime minister's office, blocking the road in a traffic circle and demanding the reversal of the fuel and gas price hikes. A few young secular activists in the crowd chanted "down, down with the king" and "Abdullah, you either reform or go."
Calls for the king's ouster reflect "the anger over the price hikes, which dealt a serious blow to the vast majority of Jordanians, whose per capital income is $3,000," said Khaled Ramadan, a prominent activist representing Arab nationalists.
"But in a broader perspective, the tension started building up over the snail-pace of reforms, with no visible sign that the government and its security apparatus, which maintains the upper hand, are taking a step back," he said.
University senior Sohaib Breizat, 21, member of the largely secular Hirak movement comprising young Jordanians, said, "We want a total hands-off for Jordanian security in our daily lives."
"Why do Jordanians need certificates of good conduct from Jordanian intelligence when they apply for government jobs or drivers' license?" he asked. "We keep asking for more freedoms, but we get less. It seems our calls are falling on deaf ears."
Hirak surfaced in the wake of the Arab Spring through Internet social networking.
"We want justice and equality, better opportunities for everyone, including women, jobs for college graduates, respect for our right to free speech, opinion, union and assembly without security interference or intimidation," said a Hirak spokesman, Suhaib Assaf. "We want government transparency and a serious clampdown on corruption, as well as an end to nepotism and bureaucracy."
Jordan has some of the aspects of a police state — the often-thuggish secret police; the manipulated elections; the fawning royal stories in the government media; the hundreds of billboards with the king's face gazing upon his subjects.
However, the reality is complicated. It's illegal to criticize the king here, but prosecutions are rare and those convicted often get royal pardons. The secret police are feared, but are not a constant, threatening presence as in Syria. If some politicians say their phones are tapped, even the harshest critics speak fairly openly.
Abdullah has faced little public criticism at home since he ascended to the throne in 1999. After the Arab Spring's eruption in late 2010, Jordan has seen frequent but small protests.
Then, last Tuesday, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour hiked the prices of cooking and heating gas by 54 percent and some oil derivatives by up to 28 percent, saying that was necessary to reduce a record budget deficit and growing foreign debt and tackle high unemployment, poverty and waves of Syrian refugees, who are straining meager resources. He said the move was part of Jordan's efforts to secure a badly needed $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to shore up the kingdom's shaky finances amid a shortfall of Arab donations this year.
The protest backlash was unusually violent, with one person killed and 75 others, including 58 policemen, injured. There was also a change in tone, as angry protesters blamed Abdullah for the price rise, accusing him of supporting state corruption by allegedly pocketing state money to spend on personal pleasures.
It was a rare departure from the norm of revering Abdullah's Hashemite dynasty. Its line of descent from the Prophet Muhammad, combined with the elaborate system of patronage aimed at powerful local leaders, has earned the family immense loyalty among the Bedouin tribes who make up the traditional core of Jordanian society.
Protests have dwindled to a handful per day this week, and violence has waned. But the opposition has vowed to continue until the price hikes are revoked.
The protesters also want broader political gains.
The Islamic Action Front's leader, Hamza Mansour, said as a first step, the king must dismiss Ensour and "form a national salvation government that would include Islamists and other opposition figures to change controversial legislation, like the election law, and help parliament regain its independence so that it can impartially monitor the government and official corruption."
So far, Abdullah has maintained control, partly by relinquishing some of his absolute powers to parliament. His reform roadmap envisions parliamentary elections slated for Jan. 23 as a vehicle toward having an elected prime minister for the first time in the country's history. Previously, it was the king's prerogative to appoint the premier.
He also changed 42 articles, or one-third of Jordan's 60-year-old constitution, to ensure an end to government manipulation over parliament. He created a constitutional court to monitor the application of the law. Other new laws encourage a multiparty system, allow Jordanians to elect mayors and city councils and lift restrictions on rallies and public gatherings.
Abdullah also changed the election law. But the Brotherhood responded by announcing a boycott of the upcoming election, saying the legislation favors locally-based conservative candidates rather than parties with an ideological base. The government said it has adopted a globally recognized system of elections, and that the Islamists' alternative would inflate their own representation.
Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah said the groundwork was laid for reform, but that "change can't happen overnight."
"We have a nascent multiparty system that must be nurtured so that it would mature and be able to contest future elections based on party banners," he said. "We can't leave any unfilled vacuum because the alternative would be a total mess."