In what is being called an unprecedented show of political unity and strength, tens of thousands of protesters from various political strains marched peacefully in cities and towns across the country Sunday demanding rapid political reform.
The rallies, marchers said, were aimed at gaining democratic rights in a nation that has long been a hereditary monarchy and at times as oppressive as its autocratic North African neighbors.
“We no longer want to be subjects,” said Abdelilah Benabdeslam, a leader of the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights. “We want to be citizens.”
Even state television, derided by one former associate as similar to North Korea’s in its restrictions, reported on the protests, though it also gave equal coverage to tiny bands of pro-government demonstrators praising King Mohammed VI.
The protests closely followed the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and amid calls for change in other authoritarian states across the Middle East and North Africa. Demonstrations broke out in Rabat, the capital, as well as the business hub of Casablanca, the cities of Marrakech, Tangiers, Fez, Agadir and smaller towns and villages, according to activists and photographs and video posted to social media websites.
Human rights groups, various leftist and Islamist factions, trade unionists and advocates for the rights of those speaking the Berber language took part in the rallies. But they were led by the same type of youthful tech-savvy activist who helped spark the toppling of longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Calling themselves the Feb. 20 Youth, they began using online social media less than a month ago to urge people to take to the streets. In Rabat, they could easily be spotted in the rally, urging fellow protesters to remain orderly. They said they weren’t worried about the possibility of the kind of violence that has shaken Bahrain or nearby Libya, where security forces have opened fire on peaceful protesters.
“The big risk is staying at home and doing nothing against the dictatorship,” said Montasser Drissi, a 19-year-old student who was one of the rally organizers.
“The government doesn’t really represent the people,” said Myriam Harnafi, a 15-year-old holding a Tunisian flag who attended the protest with her mother and father.
“I see myself in the young people,” said Naima Boulal, a 54-year-old longtime trade unionist at the rally. “We have dreamed of this day for a long time. With this Facebook generation, I feel hope.”
Almost all protesters interviewed said they wanted profound political change but not a revolution. “The people want a new constitution,” they chanted, waving banners and holding Egyptian and Tunisian flags. “This is a new Morocco.”
The main rally in Rabat drew a massive tide of protesters that flooded the main streets and wound up before the parliament building. Unlike in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, official permission was granted for the rally. No riot police were present, and the few uniformed security forces hung back, directed traffic or chatted amicably with demonstrators. As the protest ended, a group of plainclothes security officials pounced on a protester who was banging storefronts. There were also reports of injuries in small confrontations between security forces and protesters in other cities.
The North African nation of 32 million is a major U.S. ally in the fight against Al Qaeda as well as an economic partner of the West, especially France, which has invested heavily in its former colony. A free trade agreement with the U.S. took effect in 2006.
Under the rule of Mohammed VI, who ascended the throne in 1999, Morocco expanded political freedoms and even began examining the allegations of torture and disappearances during the previous era. But critics and watchdog groups contend that it has regressed on human rights and press freedoms in recent years. Many also complain of corruption at the highest levels of government, uneven economic development and persistent illiteracy among the poor.
The protests took place even though leaders of some established Islamic and socialist political parties, who have been in and out of the opposition over the last decade, called on their supporters not to take part. A whisper campaign painted the rallies as pursuing an anti-monarchy agenda, a taboo in Morocco.
A cold drizzle fell as several hundred protesters began to gather at the brick walls of the Bab El-Had gate next to Rabat’s ancient medina. Cellphone and text-messaging services became spotty. Many voiced frustration, disappointed by the low numbers that showed up early.
But as noon approached and the crowd swelled, protesters were heartened. As they began to march toward the parliament, the sun broke through the clouds to reveal a massive gathering. Some even defied their political organizations to take part.
“Morocco deserves better institutions,” said Mustapha Ramid, who resigned from his post as a leader of the mainstream Justice and Development Party after it refused to endorse the rally. “I hope the king will greatly reform the country in order to satisfy the demands of the Moroccan people.”
Special correspondent Ilhem Rachid contributed to this report.