* Justice and Charity party sets ultimatum for change
* Demands “a democratic constitution”
* Says Morocco is following Ben Ali’s policies
RABAT, Feb 7 (Reuters) - The banned Islamist group Justice and Charity, believed to be Morocco’s biggest opposition force, has said “autocracy” will be swept away unless the country pursues deep democratic reform.
Authoritarian Arab leaders are watching carefully for signs of unrest spreading through the region after revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Credit rating agencies Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have said Morocco is the least likely Maghreb state to be affected by the wave of popular unrest. [ID:nLDE7130EC]
The group of Sufi inspiration is believed to have 200,000 members, most of whom are university students, and is active mainly in the poor districts of some cities. Banned from politics, its avowed aim is to achieve a peaceful transition to a pluralist political system inspired by Islam.
In a statement posted on its website late on Sunday, Justice and Charity said the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia left ”no place today for distortions ... and empty, false promises.
”The gap between the ruler and the ruled has widened and confidence is lost.
“The solution is either a deep and urgent democratic reform that ends autocracy and responds to the needs and demands of the people, or the people take the initiative and (it) erupt peacefully ... to sweep autocracy away,” it said.
A group on social networking website Facebook has gathered hundreds of followers for a Feb. 20 protest meant to restore “the dignity of the Moroccan people and (press) for democratic and constitutional reform and the dissolution of parliament”.
Moroccan officials could not be reached for comment. The government says Morocco is irreversibly committed to democracy and that efforts to alleviate poverty and create jobs have made progress under King Mohammed.
State-controled television in Morocco has reported the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt with restraint, but many cafes have been tuning in to the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera, which has covered the uprisings extensively in real time.
Moroccan media, including the official MAP news agency, have reported few attempts at self-immolation, apparently inspired by the fruit seller public suicide triggered the Tunisian protests. Noone was reported to have died inr these attempts.
Justice and Charity rose to prominence after its spiritual leader, Abdesslam Yassine, demanded thorough reform in letters sent first to the late King Hassan in 1974 and then to his son and heir King Mohammed after his enthronement in 1999.
Yassine disputes the Moroccan monarchs’ eligibility for the religious title of Commander of the Faithful. He was put under house arrest for several years under King Hassan, but King Mohammed lifted the restriction shortly after coming to power.
The monarch, one of the youngest Arab rulers, has shown a greater sense of initiative than his father in trying to address the social and economic needs of the 32 million population.
Official data shows GDP per capita rose 41 percent between his enthronement in 1999 and 2009.
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 on the appointment of sensitive government portfolios including the prime minister.
Justice and Charity said the constitution should be replaced by “a democratic one to mark a break with all aspects of autocracy ... and monopolisation of authority and national wealth and preserves the human dignity of the Moroccan citizen”.
It also demanded an end of what it called the “Benalisation” of politics and the economy in Morocco, a reference to the authoritarian rule and nepotism of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, ousted last month after 23 years in power. (Reporting by Souhail Karam; editing by Paul Taylor) (email@example.com; Reuters Messaging rm//:firstname.lastname@example.org) ($1=8.132 Moroccan dirhams)