Jordanians take to streets to protest

Hundreds of Jordanians calling for reforms demonstrated peacefully today, rejecting the beginning of a national dialogue as insufficient.

It was the 11th straight week of Friday protests.

On Saturday, the first meeting of the dialogue committee is set to start work on reforms in Jordan's regime, in which the king has the final say on important issues, though the parliament is an elected body.

The demonstrators say the parliament was chosen through a distorted map of election districts favouring the backers of King Abdullah II, and it must be replaced.

The king has given the 53-member committee three months to draft new laws for parliamentary elections and political parties. While these are key demands for the protesters, some opposition figures have refused to participate, saying the government appointed people without consultating them, and some political groups were not represented.

The committee's chairman, Taher Masri, who also heads Jordan's Senate, has promised a national dialogue that "leads to better democratic life" in Jordan, but the protesters said they were not convinced.

"I would call the national dialogue stillborn," said Sabri Akroush, an independent activist.

About 1,500 demonstrators from Islamic Action Front, the country's largest opposition party, joined leftists and independents marching past the al-Husseini mosque in Amman's downtown market district after Muslim prayers. Waving Jordanian flags, they chanted, "No to the National Dialogue Committee, dissolve the parliament."

The largely peaceful demonstrations inspired by uprisings across the Middle East have not threatened the monarchy but are calling for U.S.-allied King Abdullah to relinquish some of his sweeping powers.

The powerful Muslim Brotherhood opposition and their leftist allies also demand the popular election of the prime minister, now appointed by the king.

Brotherhood spokesman Jamil Abu Bakr ruled out participation by the Islamist opposition in the national dialogue.

"We have presented our conditions and they were not taken into consideration, particularly the constitutional amendments," he said during the protest.

Abu Bakr also cast doubt on those participating in the national dialogue, saying "the committee will not be capable of making decisions that meet people's aspirations." Others refusing to participate claim the group had too many pro-government loyalists to institute change.

The deputy chief of the leftist National Unity Party, Issam al-Khawaja, said his group will take part in the beginning of national dialogue as a vehicle for laying down its demands.

"We want broad constitutional reforms, not just changes to the election and political parties laws," he said at the protest.

He said his group will press for the introduction of a constitutional court to rule on the validity of laws and amendments made in previous years.

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