Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rallies in Morocco

   "The people want a new constitution." "We want social justice, liberty, dignity."

Protest In Morocco

Slogans like these have been shouted throughout the week in Morocco in a series of protests led by a group of youngsters who met on Facebook and call themselves the "Feb 20 movement for change".

Followed by supporters from different political persuasions, they want constitutional reform, with a limitation on the power of the king, the dissolution of parliament, the resignation of the government, the release of all political prisoners, as well as official recognition of the Berber Tamazight language.

What they don't want is a revolution.

"Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt [where long-standing rulers have been forced out], these youngsters are demanding reform of the regime [through a democratic constitution], not a change of the existing regime," says political science professor Mohamed Darif.

If the political climate in Morocco is not the same as in Egypt and Tunisia, the social one is similar, according to members of the movement.

"We will be a part of this Arab spring," says 23-year-old Abdallah Aballagh, a leader of the Feb 20 movement who was a member of a left-wing political party for four years before quitting. "I am confident Morocco after Feb 20 is different from Morocco before Feb 20."

"I believe in radical change," says Yacine Falah, a long-time militant who joined the group. "But it's going to be extremely hard and will take a lot of time."

Morocco's King Mohamed VI

Morocco is viewed by many observers as immune to major political disturbance and therefore as an exception in the Arab world. But although King Mohamed VI remains very popular, Morocco's political leaders are highly discredited. The main power is in the hands of the king and his close advisers. The parliament, elected with a record low 37% turnout in 2007, is far from representative.

Corruption in recent years has increased, disparities between rich and poor remain, and as in Tunisia and Egypt, the unemployment rate is high, especially among the youth.

According to Oxford University professor Michael Willis, Morocco needs to rapidly initiate new reforms to stave off further discontent. "After what has happened in the last two months, anything could happen anywhere. It is less likely in Morocco, but all the ingredients are there," he says.

"There is the head of state who has been here for a shorter period of time. There is the feeling that in Morocco things have changed, unlike in other countries in the last decade. There is a memory than things have changed," Willis says. " However, the pace has slowed during the last five or six years and probably stopped. If the reform process doesn't start moving again, Morocco will build up problems for itself."

Morocco's Feb 20 movement was born on Facebook about a month ago. The revolution in Tunisia prompted these youngsters who had never met to organize a march calling for profound change in the kingdom. They agreed on a day to march across the country: February 20.

Left-wing militants, youngsters from various political parties, as well as Islamists united for peaceful marches in large cities including the capital Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh, Agadir, Tangiers, as well as smaller ones like Sefrou, Larache and Al Hoceima. Tens of thousands of people took part.

Feb 20 local groups have now spread to all major cities. In Rabat, though the group originally numbered only around 20, its name is on everyone's lips.

The Internet permitted them to meet and to reach out to tens of thousands of people with a now famous video in which 14 Moroccans of different origins explained why they planned to attend the march. The video cost about 50 dirhams (about US$7), Aballagh now jokes. They also exchanged thoughts online with fellow Tunisian militants before January's revolution.

"We helped them. We gave them advice to get round censorship, to spread information," says Falah. "Now Tunisians and Egyptians give us advice to avoid violence during demonstrations," adds Aballagh, in a discussion following a sit-in in Rabat.

A week after the march, protests were still taking place across the country. On Sunday, in the last of a series of sit-ins, hundreds of people showed up early at Bab el Had in Rabat, while dozens stopped just to get a glimpse of the event. About 400 militants chanted slogans against the media and police repression and urging other Moroccans to join them for real change in Morocco. State television was booed when its cameraman approached to film the event.

Feb 20 leaders announced on Sunday that weekly protests were planned for March. They insisted they should keep the momentum and, in the context of events in the wider region, had an historical opportunity for change that could not be missed.

This week will be a test for the movement, which has been highly criticized and at times repressed. Several militants from the movement and supporting human-rights organizations were hit and wounded by police forces during similar sit-ins last week.

In Rabat, many were skeptical that the movement could initiate major change in politics and argued that authorities should not have let these "troublemakers" protest more than once. Critics also falsely accused the movement of being led by "unknown", "atheist", "anti-monarchy" youngsters who will quickly be deterred from pursuing their actions.

Members of the group say they will not be deterred from continuing their struggle. They say they feel they are attracting increasing interest from local politicians. Political party leaders, who were at first against the march, are slowly starting to court the protesters by initiating dialogue.

According to the Feb 20 movement leaders, about 60 organizations now back the movement, including the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, the anti-globalization non-governmental organization Attach in Morocco, a few small left-wing political parties and trade unions.

However, no major political party has yet publicly declared its support, although a few seem to be eager to benefit from the success of the Feb 20 movement.

"The march was civilized," said a member of the national bureau of Morocco's socialist party, who called on its members not to take part. "Protests have become a normal thing in Morocco. We didn't march simply because we didn't know who was behind this movement."

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