Morocco's king seen as holding keys to future (News Feature)
By Sinikka Tarvainen and Mohsin el-Hassouni Feb 23, 2011, 10:40 GMT
Rabat - The upheaval sweeping the Arab world has spilled over to Morocco, which had remained calm until now.
Tens of thousands of people demonstrated around Morocco on the week-end, and sit-in protests have been announced to demand more democracy, an end to corruption, higher living standards and better education and health care.
Sunday's rallies were first called by activists on Facebook and attracted support from Islamic fundamentalists, human-rights and women's groups, trade unionists and a few small leftist parties.
The question now being asked is whether Morocco will see a social revolution similar to the uprisings that toppled governments in nearby Tunisia and Egypt, or whether protests will be short-lived.
The answer could depend on King Mohammed VI, who may still be able to stave off further unrest by undertaking reforms, analysts said.
Sunday's protests were generally peaceful, though they sparked rioting and looting in several cities including Tangier and Marrakesh. Five people were killed when a bank was set on fire in al- Hoceima.
Demonstrators vented their anger at people or companies close to Mohammed VI and especially at Fouad Ali Himma, the king's close friend, whose party won the 2009 municipal elections.
Hardly anyone, however, criticizes the 47-year-old monarch himself - possibly because that could lead to the critic being arrested, but also because Mohammed VI still enjoys a considerable degree of popularity, observers said.
The king has a virtually sacred status in his country, where he is the official leader of Muslims and claims descent from Prophet Mohammed.
Mohammed VI replaced his iron-fisted father, Hassan II, after the latter's death in 1999 and became known as 'the king of the poor.'
The king is still trying to improve the lot of his country's poor masses with his National Human Development Initiative, launched in 2008, which has poured millions of euros into small projects in areas such as housing, fisheries and agriculture.
It is doubtful that such initiatives are sufficient to boost the middle class and to close the vast gap separating Morocco's rich elite from the rest of the population, analysts said.
Mohammed VI has launched other reforms, such as a legislative reforms to improve women's rights and the creation of a commission to compensate victims of human-rights abuses under his father's rule.
Yet, Morocco's basic power structures remain untouched, with the king retaining the power to appoint key ministers and to veto any government decision.
In recent years, Mohammed VI is also seen as having backtracked on reforms in sectors such as press freedom.
Morocco weathered the global economic crisis well, thanks partly to a good harvest and infrastructure projects. However, the real unemployment rate could be double the official rate of 9 per cent.
Discontent is brewing, especially among unemployed university graduates and among urban slum dwellers, many of whom are drawn to Islamic fundamentalism.
'We have all the ingredients for a real explosion,' said Nadia Yassine, spokeswoman for the country's biggest Islamist movement, the non-violent al-Adl w'al-Ihsane, which was among the organizers of Sunday's protests.
'We want to be free citizens and not slaves. Let this rotten regime fall,' said Oussama el-Khlifi, a young unemployed computer expert who played an important part in initiating the rallies.
The government tried to ward off unrest by announcing that it will subsidize foodstuffs and other basic products with 15 billion dirhams (1.4 million euros or 1.9 million dollars) this year, in addition to 17 billion dirhams pledged earlier, in order to keep prices down.
Prime Minister Abbas el-Fassi's government has also promised to employ tens of thousands of university graduates and announced a two- year plan to combat corruption.
Behind the scenes, tougher measures are also being taken to prevent protests, according to el-Khlifi, who said he had received death threats from people whom he believed to be members of the secret service.
King Mohammed on Monday promised to launch 'deep' reforms, without giving more details.
Morocco's main political parties agree on the need for a constitutional reform increasing the powers of the prime minister and Parliament - something the king may well not oppose, observers said.
However, dismantling the power structure surrounding the monarch would take more than a few timid measures, and it is far from certain that Mohammed VI and his advisors are willing to go that far.
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