AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordanians hurled stones at riot police and chanted unprecedented slogans against the monarchy for a second day Wednesday as growing anger over price hikes threatened to plunge the U.S.-allied kingdom into a wave of unrest.
So far, King Abdullah II has steered his nation clear of the Arab Spring that has swept across the region, toppling the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen along the way. But Jordan's massive budget deficit and other economic woes could increasingly push the population into the opposition's camp.
Tensions rose late Tuesday after the government raised prices for cooking and heating gas by 54 percent to rein in a bulging budget deficit and secure a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. Minutes after state television announced the hike, several thousand Jordanians poured into the streets across the country, pelting police with stones, torching government offices and private cars and chanting slogans against the king.
"I like the king, but so what?" asked 29-yead-old civil servant Daoud Shorfat, one of some 300 protesters in central Amman on Wednesday who police dispersed with tear gas and water cannons. "He can't feel our pain. ... He is watching the government raising the prices, while the people are barely able to feed their hungry children."
Violent demonstrations broke out across the rest of the country Wednesday as well, hitting all 12 of Jordan's governorates, police said. Protesters burned tires to block traffic, torched police and private cars and at least 20 government offices, including court buildings. Police said at least 120 people were arrested nationwide.
In the northwestern city of Salt, tens of protesters unsuccessfully tried storm the residence of the Jordanian prime minister, while in the southern city of Maan, demonstrators fired in the air to force riot police out of town, wounding one officer, police said in a statement.
Some 2,000 protesters in the city of Karak shouted "Down, down with you, Abullah," and "Get out and leave us alone" as they marched through the town, shattering shop windows, eyewitnesses and police said.
Jordan has been hit by frequent, but small, anti-government protests over the past 23 months, but these demonstrations have shifted the focus from the government squarely to the king.
The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan's most powerful opposition group, called the protests "a wakeup call to the king to avoid a replica of the violence in Egypt and Tunisia."
"The street is seething with anger and an explosion is coming," Zaki Bani Irsheid said. "We want to create a Jordanian Spring with a local flavor — meaning reforms in the system while keeping our protests peaceful."
The Brotherhood, which has spearheaded the protest movement in the past, has harnessed anger over the price hikes to form a loose — and temporary — alliance with Arab nationalists, Marxist and Communist groups. The umbrella recently has expanded to include the militant Salafis and the largely secular protest movement, known as Hirak composed primarily of young people.
The riots are reminiscent of those in 1988 and 1996 over similar hikes on the price of bread and other food commodities under Abdullah's late father, King Hussein. At the time, Hussein was forced to introduce swift reforms that ushered in Jordan's first parliamentary elections after a 22-year gap, an end to martial law and the renewal of a multiparty system that had been banned for decades.
Jordanian political commentator Osama al-Sharif said the new wave of protests pose a "serious challenge, probably the most crucial since he (Abdullah) became king" in 1999.
The 50-year-old king has been fighting to fend off a host of domestic challenges, including a Muslim Brotherhood boycott of parliamentary elections, increasing opposition from his traditional Bedouin allies and an inability to keep the Syrian civil war from spilling over the border.
So far, Abdullah has largely maintained control, partly by relinquishing some of his powers to parliament and amending the country's 60-year-old constitution. His Western-trained security forces have been able to keep protests from getting out of hand. And most in the opposition remain loyal to the king, pressing for reforms but not his removal.
But as the pressure has mounted, Abdullah has been forced to make more concessions. He has surrendered some of his absolute powers to an elected parliament, and renounced his right to appoint the prime minister, saying lawmakers will select the premier following Jan. 23 national elections.
The country's economic woes have added to the crush of challenges, and they show no sign of easing.
Jordan's budget deficit is expected to reach a year end record of $3 billion, while foreign debt is expected to jump 27 percent to $27 billion this year as the country grapples with rising poverty, unemployment and inflation.
Donations promised by Saudi Arabia and other oil producing Arab nations — a badly needed cash infusion for resource-barren Jordan — have failed to materialize, while the cost of sheltering some 265,000 Syrian refugees who have fled the civil war at home has put further strain on Jordan's already meager water, fuel and electricity resources and health care system.
On top of that, disruptions in cheap Egyptian gas shipments cost Jordan an extra $7 million a day, the government said. The pipeline that transports the natural gas has been blown up more than a dozen times over the past year by militants in Egypt's Sinai desert, halting shipments. Jordan has switched to the more expensive fuel oil to generate electricity.
Despite the challenges, Abdullah is expected to ride the latest wave of protests, which are confined to certain areas in the country and have attracted relatively small numbers so far.
The stakes are high: Abdullah is a close friend of the United States and has been at the forefront of its global war on terrorism, including in Afghanistan. Jordan serves as a buffer zone to Saudi Arabia, another Sunni Muslim country, and to Israel, a friend under a peace treaty signed in 1994, and Iraq. The kingdom hosts the largest Palestinian population outside the West Bank.
"Washington's goal is to preserve the status quo, whereby Jordan is a "safe zone" in a sea of unrest," said a report by the Washington-based Middle East Research and Information project.
Associated Press writer Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.