Morocco Joins Arab World Unrest as Thousands Rally for Reforms

At least 5,000 demonstrate in Rabat, waving Tunisian and Egyptian flags in recognition of the popular uprisings that overthrew the two countries' presidents.

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Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Morocco on Sunday demanding King Mohammed give up some of his powers, dismiss the government and clamp down on corruption.

In the capital Rabat, some people in the crowd waved Tunisian and Egyptian flags in recognition of the popular uprisings that overthrew the two countries' presidents. At least 5,000 people marched across central Rabat, according to Reuters reporters.

Protesters gather in Rabat, Morocco on February 20, 2011. Credit: Reuters

Uniformed police kept their distance from the protest but plain-clothes officers with notebooks mingled with the crowd amid chants of "The people reject a constitution made for slaves!" and "Down with autocracy!"

Some called on the fragile coalition government of Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi to leave. Placards and slogans made no direct attacks on the king although one criticized the influence of firms in which his family is the biggest investor.

Analysts say Morocco, a Western ally with a reformist monarch and growing economy, is one of the Arab countries least likely to succumb to the violent unrest sweeping the region.

"This is a peaceful protest to push for constitutional reform, restore dignity and end graft and the plundering of public funds," said Mustapha Muchtati of the Baraka group, which helped organize the march.

"Baraka" means "enough" in colloquial Moroccan Arabic.

The protest was initiated by a group calling itself the February 20 Movement for Change, which has attracted 20,000 followers on the social networking website Facebook, a figure officials allege included sympathizers of the Polisario Front that seeks independence in the disputed Western Sahara.

The protesters were joined by youths of the banned Islamist Justice and Charity opposition group, members of opposition parties and Berber militants. The main press union and human rights groups also voiced support for the protest.

Mohamed Al-Aouni, of the February 20 Movement for Change organizing committee, said younger protesters want to stage daily sit-ins.

"We have not yet agreed on the next step. Some suggest weekly protests," he said.
City buses were taken out of service, preventing some people from taking part. "We wanted to spare buses potential damage," a government official said.

Demonstrations also took place in Morocco's other main cities, including Marrakesh, the top tourist destination.

Aouni said the smaller protest in Marrakesh had been "violently dispersed by police using long truncheons. The protesters gave up to avoid escalation," he said. Officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

The government official said a protest in Casablanca drew only a few hundred people, while Aouni put the figure at about 10,000. Independent estimates were not immediately available.

Finance Minister Salaheddine Mezouar had urged citizens to boycott the march, warning that any "slip may in the space of a few weeks cost us what we have achieved over the last 10 years".

Morocco is officially a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. But the constitution empowers the king to dissolve the legislature, impose a state of emergency and have a key say in government appointments including the prime minister.

"Demands for constitutional reform have been around for decades," political commentator Ali Anozla said. "But this is the first time this demand has been embraced by apolitical youths, Moroccans from leftists to Islamists and Berber militants. A barrier of fear has been overcome today."

Officials say Morocco's commitment to reform has never been stronger than under King Mohammed. As a member of the Alaouite dynasty that has ruled Morocco for some 350 years and claims descent from Prophet Mohammad, the king is considered sacred by the constitution.

Since he was enthroned in 1999, his governments have tried to repair the bleak legacy of human rights abuses, poverty and illiteracy left by the 38-year rule of his father King Hassan.

Officials have voiced concern that Algeria and the Polisario Front may use upheavals sweeping the Arab world to stir unrest. Morocco annexed Western Sahara in 1975 when Spain ended its colonial rule of the territory.

Protests have spread to Kuwait as well, as descendants of desert nomads continue to demonstrate for a third day to demand Kuwaiti citizenship and its lavish benefits.

The stateless Arabs hold no citizenship but have been settled in the oil-rich Gulf nation for generations. Security forces fired tear gas to disperse them on Saturday.

Kuwait's parliament speaker has appealed to the nomads to end to the protests, to no avail.

In Yemen, the president offered to oversee a dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition Sunday, in a bid to diffuse 11 days of protests across the country calling for his ouster.

Opposition groups have refused all dialogue with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key U.S. ally, as long as security forces suppress demonstrations. At least nine people have died since the protests began.

The demonstrators demand the resignation of Saleh, who has ruled the Arab world's poorest nation for 32 years. The main grievances are poverty and corruption.

Saleh's promises not to run for re-election in 2013 or to set up his son as an heir have failed to quell the anger.

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