By Gul Tuysuz
Monday, February 28, 2011; 10:40 PM
CASABLANCA, MOROCCO - Efforts to kindle a protest movement in Morocco have met with only limited success, evidence of support for King Mohammed VI and of the effectiveness of tight security around the country.
The gatherings organized in recent weeks by Moroccan youths through Facebook and Twitter have been episodic and small in comparison with the large, sustained outpourings that toppled the governments of Tunisia and Egypt. The largest gathering, on Feb. 20, drew an estimated 15,000 nationwide and produced a list of demands for economic and political reform.
But although Morocco's social and economic problems are similar to those in Tunisia and Egypt, there has been no sign of a mass movement that might threaten Mohammed's rule. Indeed, some protesters say they trust him to gradually open the country's economy and politics, and to eventually move to the sort of constitutional monarchy common in modern Europe.
"I love my king. I believe he can do a lot for us. I believe he will change things," said Zahira Harka, 30, an activist and leader of Mustakbal Medina, a Moroccan human rights organization. She was participating in an unauthorized rally in Casablanca on Saturday, and had been detained by city police for four hours the day before for handing out fliers advertising the rally.
Similar sentiments could be heard among protesters in Jordan and Bahrain in recent weeks, where citizens felt emboldened to protest government policies but stopped short of a widely acknowledged taboo: challenging the legitimacy of the monarchy itself.
It is difficult to know whether the relative quiet stems from love for the king or fear of repercussions.
Although the demonstrations in Morocco have been largely peaceful, there have been some exceptions. More than 50 people were reportedly injured in clashes with police in the southwestern coastal town of Agadir on Sunday; rioting in Hoceima left five dead when a bank was burned by protesters; and last week, an unwed mother of two died after lighting herself on fire to protest being refused public housing.
Moroccans have been pointed in their criticism of corruption, an inadequate health-care system in which patients must often pay bribes before receiving treatment, poor public education, and a lack of employment opportunities even for college graduates. The demands of the protest movement focus on those social issues but also call for political changes such as the dissolution of the current parliament and new elections, along with a constitutional amendment to curtail some of the king's governing power.
But they also acknowledge the limits of protest here and have concentrated, for example, on seeing Prime Minister Abbas el-Fassi - rather than the king himself - be held accountable for the failings of government.
Participants in the Feb. 20 protest were given a wide berth by police in Casablanca, but security was tightened for subsequent demonstrations in the city and plainclothes agents openly circulated in the crowd taking pictures and video.
"People can go to jail if they say something bad about the king," said Abdeslam Maghraoui, a North Africa and Middle East expert at Duke University. "When I hear people speak about the exception of Morocco, I find it mind-boggling." Maghraoui said he that he thinks the demands of the protest movement have been modest, and that the king has been moderate in his reaction.
"The level of the challenge has not intensified yet, but I think it will," he said.
The authority of the royal family remains such a sensitive topic that public opinion polls on the subject are effectively banned. When a 2009 poll conducted jointly by Moroccan newspaper TelQuel and French daily Le Monde found that an overwhelming 91 percent of Moroccans viewed the king positively, authorities still censored reports about it on grounds that the monarchy was above debate and polling.
But Mohammed has developed rightful credentials as a reformer. The rule of his father, Hassan II, was characterized by violent suppression of dissidents. When Mohammed took over, he began a three-year period of rapid change.
"The king has long been a reforming figure in Morocco," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.
Relative freedom for opposition groups, a moderately free press and the existence of civil society organizations have helped spare the country from the unrest experienced elsewhere in the region. But other indicators such as a high unemployment rate, corruption and a lack of public services, as well as a young population that feels it faces severely limited prospects, suggest a reckoning may still come.
Younes Derraz, a demonstrator who said he joined the Feb. 20 movement after seeing the changes in Tunisia and Egypt, does not expect a lot from the king, but says "it is possible to preserve the monarchy if there is a transition to a parliamentary monarchy like those in Spain, England, Norway and other northern countries."
Tuysuz is a special correspondent.