RABAT (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters gathered in the Moroccan capital on Sunday to demand that King Mohammed give up some of his powers and clamp down on government corruption.
Some people in the crowd were waving Tunisian and Egyptian flags in recognition of the popular uprisings that overthrew the two countries’ presidents.
A protest organiser said there were more than 5,000 participants while a police officer told Reuters there were fewer than 3,000 people at the protest in Rabat.
Uniformed police kept their distance from the protest, which began in the central Bab El Ahad area, 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 Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi to leave but placards and slogans made no direct attacks on the king.
Analysts say Morocco, with a widely respected reformist monarch and growing economy, is one of the Arab countries least likely to succumb to the wave of protests 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 (Enough) group, which helped organise the march.
The protest was initiated by a group calling itself the February 20 Movement for Change, which has attracted 19,000 followers on the social networking website Facebook. On Saturday, a youth movement said it was pulling out because of disagreements with Islamists and leftists.
The protesters were joined by the youth section of the banned Islamist Justice and Charity group, by members of opposition parties and Berber militants. The main press union and human rights groups also voiced support for the protest.
The city’s buses were taken out of service, preventing some people from taking part. “We wanted to spare buses potential damage,” a government official said.
Demonstrations were also planned in Morocco’s other main cities, including Marrakesh, the top tourist destination.
The government official said a protest in Casablanca, the country’s biggest city, drew only a few hundred people. That figure could not immediately be verified.
Finance Minister Salaheddine Mezouar 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.
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 the Prophet Mohammad, the king is considered sacred by the constitution.
Since the king came to the throne in 1999, the government has worked to repair the bleak legacy of human rights abuses, poverty and illiteracy left by the 38-year rule of his father, King Hassan II.
“I don’t think authorities will opt for a heavy-handed approach here in Rabat or Casablanca,” political science lecturer Ahmed el-Bouz said. “The concern lies in smaller towns like Sidi Ifni and Sefrou and in the (Western) Sahara.”
Officials have voiced concern that Algeria and the Polisario Front, which wants independence for the disputed territory of Western Sahara, 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.
Writing by Christian Lowe and Marie-Louise Gumuchian; editing by Tim Pearce