Thousands demand reform in Morocco rally

Sun May 8, 2011 9:47am EDT
 

By Souhail Karam

MARRAKESH, Morocco (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters marched in Morocco on Sunday to demand reform in the Arab world's longest-serving dynasty and to oppose militant violence after a deadly bomb attack.

The rally in Marrakesh is the latest in a series organized by the February 20 youth movement and presents a challenge to the government of King Mohammed, which is wary that the protests could build into an Egypt-style revolt.

The march began at the Bab Doukkala gate and will go past a cafe where 17 people including eight French nationals died in a bomb attack on April 28. Authorities last week arrested three suspects and said the ringleader is loyal to al-Qaeda.

The group's north African wing, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, said on Saturday it was not responsible for the bombing that raised tension in Morocco, in part because it was the first such attack since 2003.

A government official put the number of marchers at up to 3,000 but independent reports estimated around 8,000 took part.

Protesters held signs with slogans such as: "We are for freedom and security; We oppose terrorism and intimidation." Other banners voiced opposition to corruption.

"This sort of protest must happen every day so that our country moves forward in fighting corruption," said car mechanic Abdelali Hamra, 44, as he watched the march.

"We suffer a lack of opportunities and jobs. The police must also treat us as equals," Hamra told Reuters.

"We are here today to denounce terrorism and to support these youths' demands for change. There is too much corruption and a lot of other bad things," said marcher Marie Atif, a French national resident in Marrakesh since 1993.

REFORMS

A separate, and much smaller, march in support of the establishment was due to cross the February 20 rally's path later, witnesses said.

The uniformed security presence at the rally was light with security forces parked on nearby side streets, but plain clothes officers could be seen writing down details of the march and speaking into cell phones, a Reuters witness said.

Officials say the fact that authorities let such rallies proceed is a testament to Morocco's status as one of the most tolerant societies in the Arab world.

Protests in Tunisia which toppled veteran leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali gathered decisive momentum when trade unions put their weight behind them, but Moroccan unions did not join Sunday's march, or a parallel one set to take place in Casablanca.

The government announced in April it would increase public sector salaries and raise the minimum wage in the latest of a series of handouts aimed at preventing any spillover from revolt in other Arab countries.

It also appointed a committee to reform the constitution in order to cede more powers, promised to make justice independent and freed some political prisoners.

(Writing by Matthew Bigg, editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)