Egypt crisis puts pressure on US allies in Mideast

Jordan's king fired his Cabinet on Tuesday and the Palestinian president promised to hold long-delayed elections as America's Mideast allies came under pressure for democratic reforms because of the popular uprising sweeping Egypt.

But the Western push for reform in this tumultuous region has backfired in the past, strengthening Islamists at the expense of pro-U.S. moderates.

The Egyptian revolt against President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule has raised two urgent questions: Will it spread and perhaps destabilize other countries, and will it bring more democracy to the Arab world?

The democracy question is particularly pressing for U.S. allies like Jordan and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which have long faced pressure from Washington to uphold democratic values.

Even as they loosen the reins a bit more now, Jordan's King Abdullah II and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared concerned about inadvertently giving a boost to their Islamic rivals.

Abbas feels he was already burned once, when his Fatah movement was trounced by the Islamic militant Hamas in 2006 parliament elections he called under intense U.S. pressure. The following year, Hamas grabbed control of Gaza by force.

The Palestinian split is now a key obstacle to any Mideast peace deal. While many Palestinians lament the ongoing political divide, they also feel that the West employed a double standard by refusing to deal with a democratically elected Hamas government.

In Jordan, Abdullah faces formidable opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab movement of Islamic fundamentalists with roots in Egypt, where it has been a key Mubarak opponent. Hamas is the Gaza branch of the movement.

On Tuesday, Abdullah fired his government, bowing to public pressure for reform, including several large demonstrations inspired by events in Egypt as well as Tunisia earlier last month.

The king instructed the new prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhit, to correct mistakes of the past and lead "real political reforms, which must increase popular participation in the decision-making." Outgoing Prime Minister Samir Rifai was blamed for a rise in fuel and food prices and slowed political reforms.

Opposition groups dismissed the change as cosmetic. "We reject the new prime minister and we will continue our protests until our demands are met," said Hamza Mansour, leader of the Islamic Action Front, Jordan's largest opposition movement.

The opposition in Jordan says it doesn't seek regime change but wants to curb the king's power. Jordan's constitution gives the monarch exclusive authority to appoint prime ministers, dismiss parliament and rule by decree; the opposition argues that the post of prime minister should go to the elected leader of the parliamentary majority.

Abdullah is willing to speed up some reforms, including introducing legislation governing political parties and elections, according to a top Jordanian official who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with briefing regulations. However, he said the king is worried about possible U.S. pressure for further reforms that could strengthen hard-line Islamists.

Abbas has similar concerns.

Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, he has clamped down hard on Islamists in the West Bank, curtailing democratic freedoms in the process. His security forces have rounded up Hamas activists, shut down Hamas-allied institutions and tried to dry up foreign funding for the militants. Hamas has taken similar actions in Gaza against its Fatah rivals, prompting complaints of human rights abuses in both territories.

Earlier this week, Abbas met with his security chiefs and told them to clamp down on any protests in support of the Egyptian demonstrators and to make sure anti-Israel marches don't turn violent, a senior Palestinian security official said Tuesday.

Abbas told the chiefs he was concerned that loosening the grip could provide an opening to Hamas to destabilize the West Bank, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss details of the meeting.

Despite such worries, Abbas' Cabinet promised Tuesday to set a date next week for municipal elections. The vote, which was to have been held last July, was canceled by Fatah at the last minute when it became apparent it would likely lose against independents. Hamas said at the time it would not participate.

Tuesday's announcement said elections would be held in the West Bank and Gaza, though Hamas again said it would not cooperate.

Even if Hamas stays home and votes are only cast in the West Bank, Abbas and Fatah would be taking a risk.

Peace efforts with Israel are frozen and Abbas suffered another blow last week when the widely watched TV station, Al-Jazeera, reported he secretly made major concessions to Israel, citing hundreds of leaked transcripts of negotiating sessions.

In the West Bank, dissatisfaction is bubbling under the surface, particularly among young Palestinians who belong neither to Hamas nor Fatah, said Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki. "They feel that the West Bank is turning into a police state," he said.

Meanwhile, there have been stirrings of discontent among nations in the region that aren't U.S. allies, notably Syria and Sudan.

Syria, like Egypt, is plagued by poverty, unemployment and corruption.

Drawing inspiration from the Internet-savvy Egyptian protesters, an online campaign called for anti-government demonstrations Friday and Saturday in the Syrian capital Damascus.

"Together for a Day of Rage in Syria," read one Facebook page joined by more than 2,500 people. Another 850 joined a page backing Syrian President Bashar Assad, a British-trained physician who inherited power from his father in 2000, after three decades of rule.

Assad has since moved slowly to lift Soviet-style economic restrictions, letting in foreign banks, opening the doors to imports and empowering the private sector. But he has not matched liberal economics with political reforms and critics of the regime are routinely locked up, drawing an outcry from international human rights groups.

In Sudan, calls for anti-government protests Thursday were posted on a website. Earlier this week, dozens of university students demonstrated against price hikes, but were quickly arrested.


Halaby reported from Amman, Jordan. Additional reporting by Mohammed Daraghmeh and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut and Mohammed Osman in Khartoum, Sudan.