Moroccan protests to demand limit to King's powers

RABAT Sat Feb 19, 2011 11:10pm GMT

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RABAT (Reuters) - Thousands of Moroccans are expected to join nationwide protests Sunday to demand that King Mohammed hand some of his powers to a newly elected government and make the justice system more independent.

The street protests, initiated by the February 20 Movement for Change which has attracted 19,000 Facebook fans after revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, will also urge the king to dismiss the coalition government and dissolve parliament.

The revolutions, especially in neighbour Tunisia, have brought the issue of constitutional reform back onto the agenda after a crackdown that followed suicide bombings in 2003 and the rapid rise of a political party led by a former security official close to the king.

On the eve of the protest, a Moroccan youth movement said it was pulling out because of disagreements with Islamists and leftists.

But Saeed Bin-Jebli, a spokesman for the organisers, said "thousands are expected to join the protests in main cities," including Marrakesh, the country's top tourist destination. Police in the capital Rabat have asked citizens not to park their cars on main streets to spare the potential damage.

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.

Never since his enthronement in 1999 has King Mohammed's role come under so much scrutiny. The turnout for the protests and the slogans that will be chanted will be closely watched to gauge the popularity of a monarch who shuns domestic media and press conferences.

Officials say Morocco's commitment to reform has never been as palpable as it has under King Mohammed who -- as a member of Alaouite Dynasty that has been ruling Morocco for some 350 years and claims descent from the Prophet Mohammad -- is the head of state and is considered sacred by the constitution.

The call for the protest has been portrayed as a healthy sign by the authorities. The government has worked since the king's enthronement to repair, with mixed success, a bleak legacy of human right abuses, widespread poverty and illiteracy left after the 38-year rule of his father King Hassan.

But Finance Minister Salaheddine Mezouar urged citizens to boycott the march, warning that any "slip may in the space of few weeks cost us what we have achieved over the last 10 years."

Credit rating agencies Standard & Poor's and Fitch have said Morocco is the least likely of the Maghreb states to be affected by the wave of popular unrest that has swept the region.

But officials have voiced concern that Algeria and the Polisario Front, which wants independence for the disputed Western Sahara, may use upheavals sweeping some Arab countries to stir unrest in the disputed desert region. Morocco annexed the Western Sahara in 1975.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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