Tens of thousands protest against Islamist-led Moroccan government

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Tens of thousands of Moroccans took to the streets of Casablanca on Sunday in the largest opposition protest since an Islamist-led government took office in January, according to AFP news agency.

The protest was organized by trade unions which accuse Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane of failing to deliver on the pledges of social justice that brought his party to power in the wake of the Arab Spring.

“The trade unions are united and the message to the Benkirane government is clear: he needs to change his strategy,” opposition Socialist MP Hassan Tariq told AFP.

“More than 50,000 people who are demonstrating to call on the government to start a genuine dialogue addressing our country’s social ills,” Tariq added.

But police sources estimated the crowd at around half that figure, according to AFP.

Hundreds of youths from the February 20 Movement -- known as M20 -- also turned out in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city and the country’s economic capital.

Their movement was born of the wave of protests which took hold in the kingdom last year after pro-democracy revolts in Tunisia and Egypt toppled long-standing regimes.

King Mohammed VI nipped the protest movement in the bud by introducing significant reforms to curb his near-absolute powers.

The ensuing November 2011 election saw the Justice and Development Party -- a moderate Islamist party -- win the most seats and head a coalition government.

It had pledged to address the protest movement’s grievances and fight for more social justice in a country mired by high unemployment and illiteracy rates.

But less than six months after it was sworn in, Benkirane was facing renewed discontent from protesters who see no change.

“Benkirane and Fouad Ali El Himma are two sides of the same coin,” went one slogan chanted in the streets of Casablanca, referring to the king’s closest advisor.

In February, hundreds of demonstrators marked the first anniversary of a reform movement, born of last year’s Arab Spring, amid calls for more democracy in the Moroccan kingdom.

In Casablanca, the country’s second largest city, some 2,000 people had gathered amid cries of “end corruption” and “freedom,” while in the capital, Rabat, about 1,000 turned out to celebrate the so-called “February 20 movement,” journalists said

But a counter-demonstration had also taken place in Rabat, near the parliament, with dozens of people carrying portraits of King Mohammed VI.

As Tunisia and Egypt last year ousted their longtime dictators through popular uprisings, King Mohammed nipped swelling protests in the bud by offering constitutional reform that curbed his near absolute powers.

The February 20 movement lost much of its support in December when the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), which won most parliamentary seats in November elections, broke with it.

The movement, made up of workers and students, wants a parliamentary monarchy similar to Spain’s, and an end to corruption in the country. But it had been criticized for calling for a boycott of both the vote for the new constitution and the early general elections.