Thousands of people flooded on to the streets of cities across Morocco yesterday, hoping to wrest some powers from the ruling monarchy in the first large protests inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt.
At the front of the nearly thousand-strong crowd in Casablanca, excited youths held aloft a banner bearing the image of Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable seller, whose self-immolation touched off the Arab revolt. They admired his sacrifice, but were revealingly modest in their demands. A larger demonstration took place in the capital Rabat, where some 5,000 protesters gathered opposite parliament. Smaller protests took place in Marrakech and Tangiers. The chants at times echoed those heard in Egypt's Tahrir Square, but differed crucially. "The people want an end to corruption," they chanted, wrapped in Moroccan flags, under the gentle drizzle that fell over Casablanca's Place Mohammed V. In Egypt, they wanted the end of the regime.
References to the monarch were also scarce. Some held aloft banners, denouncing the government, but paying homage to the 47-year-old King, who inherited this kingdom from his father Hassan II 11 years ago. Even the doughtiest protesters dared not utter his name. "First was Ben Ali, second was Mubarak... we know who'll be the sixth," they chanted. Since assuming the throne, Muhammad VI has cast himself as the "king of the poor" and the "king of women". His chubby-cheeked, youthful visage is widely in evidence.
"We want the King to reign, but not rule," said Reda Oulamine, an articulate 40-year-old lawyer. "Why can't we have a constitutional monarchy like England or Spain?" While Morocco has the trappings of a more liberal regime, with dozens of political parties, unions and civil society groups, power remains tightly concentrated with the monarchy, the protesters say.
A fifth of the budget is lavished on its palaces, while the monarchy controls a vast empire of business interests, including the largest bank and mobile phone company. "The King's holding conglomerates should be returned to the people," said Tarik Armili, 30, a businessman. "We want our wealth back." Officially, unemployment in Morocco is at 10 per cent, but Moroccans insist it is several times higher. Criticism is possible, but heavily circumscribed. Newspapers studiously avoid unflattering mentions of the King and his top generals.
"We need justice, health and education," said Mr Oulamine. "There is no independent judiciary, the King appoints fearful judges. The old have no healthcare. There is no investment in schools. Most of the country is illiterate."
Many were disappointed by the turnout. "There is a fear," said a teacher who stayed at home. "I have sympathy with the protesters, things are bad here. But I don't want there to be any trouble in my country."