Arab turmoil besets Jordan after government dismissed

THE turmoil in Egypt spread to Jordan last night as King Abdullah sacked his government and appointed a new prime minister, Maruf Bakhit, with orders to carry out “true political reforms”.

The king’s edict followed days of escalating protests on the streets as Jordanians echoed protests in Egypt for change.

“Bakhit’s mission is to take practical, quick and tangible steps to launch true political reforms, enhance Jordan’s democratic drive and ensure safe and decent living for all Jordanians,” a palace statement said last night.

Jordan’s powerful Islamist opposition said it had started a dialogue with the state, saying that unlike the situation in Egypt, it did not seek regime change.

Despite recent government measures to pump about $US500 million into the economy in a bid to help improve living conditions, protests have been held in Amman and other cities over the past three weeks to demand political and economic reform.

Tunisia’s popular revolt, which ousted veteran strongman Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, has inspired dissidents across the Arab world, with the eyes of the world on the extraordinary demonstrations in Egypt, where a “day of anger” was called last night.

The thunderous roar of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians calling for democracy filled central Cairo early today as protesters set off on a “million-strong march” to bring down President Hosni Mubarak. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced that at least 300 people had died in the eight days of protests, the Australian government said it would send as many aircraft as it took to pull Australians out of strife-torn Egypt.

A Qantas jumbo jet chartered by the government and capable of carrying 400 passengers was due in Cairo today and another was urgently put on last night for tomorrow . The government vowed to provide a “jumbo a day” until demand was met.

The hundreds of thousands who began massing after dawn yesterday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square did so with the assurance that the military would not fire on them.

The army’s declaration yesterday that the protesters’ claims were “legitimate” came after days of speculation about whether the army was prepared to put down the protests.

“To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people,” stress that they “will not use force against the Egyptian people,” the military said in a statement.

It appeared to be a major break with Mr Mubarak, who is commander-in-chief and has branded the protests illegal. A bloody confrontation could, however, occur if the protesters march on the presidential palace and attempt to take it over.

Fifty Egyptian human rights groups called on Mr Mubarak to step down to “avoid bloodshed” yesterday, while pro-democracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei gave the President a deadline of Friday to stand down and asked for a “safe exit” for him.

While army helicopters circled overhead in Cairo early today, the roar from the protesters could be heard several kilometres away.

As the push to oust Mr Mubarak reached a crescendo, Australians seeking to flee Egypt were yesterday advised to reach assembly points in the city from where they could be taken by bus to a point near the airport to be flown to Germany.

More DFAT staff would be waiting in Frankfurt to help the evacuees.

As concerns grew that today’s Qantas jumbo would not be able to take all the Australians seeking to flee Egypt out of the country, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Dennis Richardson said the government would organise as many flights as necessary. “If there are too many for this flight we will have one the next day,” said Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head Dennis Richardson. “We will put on a jumbo a day for as long as it’s needed.”

Yesterday, 31 Australians left Egypt on flights organised by Canadian authorities. While the Canadians had to pay for the flights, the Australian government will pay for the Australians on those aircraft.

By last night well over 400 Australians had indicated that they wanted to fly out on the government charter, more than enough to fill the first Qantas jumbo.

DFAT officials were working their way through a list of those who “expressed interest” in getting on the government charter flight to avoid duplications and to delete those who’d got out already on commercial flights.

Families and work colleagues trying to find out who was booked on the Qantas jumbo said it had been hard to get information from government officials.

Andrea Connell, headmistress of Sydney Girls High School, said she could not get any information from DFAT about maths teacher Nader Maker who was visiting family in Cairo.

In Cairo, Mr Maker said he had initially not been able to get help from DFAT.

“I contacted the embassy (in Cairo) and they transferred me to Canberra and said we can’t do anything,” he said. “Canberra said get in contact with the airline, but I can’t get in contact with the airline. What can I do?”

After trying the embassy in Cairo again, Mr Maker was able to register for the evacuation flight today. He has been staying in an area that has been heavily attacked by gangs who burnt down a police station. “I saw hell,” he said.

He was afraid to even carry his suitcase into the street. “If they see my bag they will take it — gangs control the area,” he said.

Many Australian travellers in Egypt are caught up in a nightmare situation, with no way to get cash at Cairo airport while they are being charged as much as $30 for a bottle of water. Most credit cards do not work.

Mr Richardson said he could understand the frustrations people were feeling.

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