AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordanian teachers went on strike to protest price hikes Wednesday as anger mounted over a government decision to lift fuel subsidies, fueling tensions among a population already straining under high unemployment and poverty.
The strike came a day after protesters took to the streets, burning tires, smashing windows and throwing stones at police, following the government announced that prices for cooking and heating gas would rise by 54 percent in a bid to reduce a massive budget deficit and secure a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
In a rare show of criticism aimed at Jordan's King Abdullah II, protesters chanted against him and unsuccessfully tried to take down his portrait from a billboard. Public criticism of the king, who has the final say in all civic matters, is punishable by a three-year prison term.
Jordan, a key U.S. ally, has so far weathered nearly two years of Arab unrest that has seen longtime rulers toppled in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. The kingdom has seen frequent protests but they have largely been peaceful, and most in the opposition remain loyal to Abdullah, pressing for reforms but not his removal.
Political activists have warned against a price increase, and protests erupted in 13 cities, including the capital, Amman, minutes after Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour announced the decision Tuesday night on state TV. Protesters also demanded the prime minister's resignation.
The price of a gas cylinder jumped from 6.50 Jordanian dinars ($9.18) to 10 dinars ($14.12).
Police spokesman Mohammad Khatib said 24 protesters accused of attacking riot police were arrested in Amman. At least 14 people were injured, including 10 police who were hit by rocks, according to a police statement.
Police also reported $1.4 million in damages, including smashed shop windows, burned police cars and other vehicles and damage to government offices. The statement also said a courthouse in Mazar and three gas stations in other cities were torched.
The protesters were largely affiliated with Muslim, Arab nationalist, Marxist, Communist and youth opposition groups, and police played down the unrest, saying it was limited to certain areas and protesters numbered about 3,000 people.
On Wednesday, the Jordanian teacher's union called on members to strike, although it only affected public schools and it was unclear how many teachers stayed home.
Fahd Abol-Haj, who owns a dry cleaning laundry in the eastern city of Russeifeh, said his 8-year-old son went to school but found no teachers.
"So, he returned home," Abol-Haj said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan's most powerful opposition group, also held emergency meetings to discuss its next move after the decision, which the government said was necessary to offset $5 billion in state losses from a rising fuel bill.
Youth protesters also urged Jordanians to take to the streets on Wednesday night to demand the government repeal its fuel hikes.