Moroccan Islamists flex muscles in Rabat march

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 25, 2012 12:13 PM
Moroccan Islamists flex muscles in Rabat march

By Souhail Karam

RABAT (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Moroccans staged a pro-Palestinian march in Rabat on Sunday in a show of force organized by an Islamist group seen as the main opposition to Morocco's monarchy.

A Reuters reporter in the Moroccan capital said at least 40,000 people joined the march called by Al-Adl Wal Ihsan (Justice and Spirituality). A senior police officer put the number at 11,000 while organizers said 100,000 had turned out.

It was Al-Adl's first march since December when it pulled out of pro-democracy protests, inspired by Arab uprisings elsewhere and aimed at forcing the Arab world's longest-serving dynasty to become a constitutional monarchy.

Morocco has not had a revolution of the kind seen in Egypt, Libya or Tunisia. King Mohammed is still firmly in charge after he offered to trim his powers and allowed moderate Islamists to lead the government after their Justice and Development Party (PJD) won an election in November.

Ali Anouzla, a political analyst and editor of Lakome.com news portal, said Al-Adl sought to send a message to Moroccan authorities that they remained a force to reckoned with, even after withdrawing from the pro-democracy protest movement.

"Al-Adl's withdrawal from the February 20 Movement has tremendously reduced pressure on the PJD. With this march, Al-Adl is trying to make a comeback and sends a message to skeptics who raised doubt about its support base," Anouzla said.

While the protests of the February 20 Movement lost much of their momentum after Al-Adl's withdrawal, unrest over poverty, corruption and unemployment still erupts, sometimes violently.

Al-Adl is seen as Morocco's biggest and best-organized Islamist group. It is active mostly in universities and in helping the poor, but is banned from politics due to what is seen as its hostile rhetoric towards the monarchy.

Hassan Bennajeh, an Al-Adl wal Ihsan spokesman, said Sunday's march was to mark Land Day, when Palestinians recall 1976 protests over Israeli expropriation of Arab-owned land.

"We have always been active on issues that touch the heart of Moroccans. While we protest here in support of Palestine, members of our group continue to be persecuted and jailed by authorities for their activism on local issues," he said.

"Everybody knows that the Moroccan regime supports normalization with Israel and has helped thousands of Moroccan Jews to migrate to and populate Israel," Bennajeh added.

Morocco has been a discreet broker between Israel and Arab countries and established low-key diplomatic ties with the Jewish state in 1994. In 2000, Rabat froze ties with Israel after violence intensified in the Israeli-occupied territories.

The marchers carried Palestinian flags, balloons in the flag's black, red, white and green, and placards that read "Palestinians are resisting while Arab regimes are haggling".

They chanted: "The people want the liberation of Palestine" and "We will never forget you Ahmed Yassin", naming an Islamist Palestinian Hamas leader assassinated by the Israelis in 2004.

Most of the protesters appeared to be Islamists, with women wearing headscarves and marching separately from men.

(Reporting By Souhail Karam; Editing by Alistair Lyon)