Morocco Joins North Africa Protests: Protesters Demand New Constitution, Economic Reforms

02/20/2011 02:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • The Huffington Post/AP

(SCROLL DOWN FOR LIVE UPDATES)

RABAT, Morocco (AP) -- Thousands of people marched in cities across Morocco on Sunday, demanding a new constitution to bring more democracy in the North African kingdom amid the wave of Arab world upheaval.

Demonstrators shouted slogans calling for economic opportunity, educational reform, better health services and help in coping with rising living costs during a march on central Hassan II Avenue in the capital, Rabat.

The day of demonstration was Morocco's entree into the series of protests that have swept up North Africa and the wider Arab world after popular uprisings brought down longtime autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt.

The main target of Sunday's rallies was parliament, where many Moroccans fear their voices are not heard. Still, the protests are likely to pressure King Mohammed VI, who has been seen as a reformer compared to his iron-fisted father, Hassan II, and who still holds absolute authority.

A sea of white banners covered Casablanca's rain-splattered Mohammed V square, where young men in baseball caps and hoods joined young women in Islamic headscarves as well as middle-aged women in black-rimmed glasses and earrings in the diverse crowd.

Plainclothes police mingled among the demonstrators in Rabat, though police were generally discreet. Most marches took place peacefully, officials said.

However, in the city of Marrakech in central Morocco, vandals besieged a McDonald's restaurant and a clothing store in spillover unrest, said a security official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

And in the northern city of Larache, roaming bands set upon the regional governor's house and set fire to a gasoline station, prompting firefighters to intervene to put out the blaze, the official said.

The self-styled "February 20 movement" - apparently not for any particular historic reason - was largely summoned through social media like Facebook.

But the open call to demonstrate also caused confusion, as disparate political and religious groups elbowed their way in and sought to reshape a protest movement to serve their own ends.

One youth-led group initially behind the call to march - whose name translates as the Freedom and Democracy Now Movement - canceled its plan to take part on Saturday, saying the movement was hijacked by leftist political parties and Islamists seeking to infuse ideology and faith issues.

The official news agency, MAP, cited a "weak turnout" - including at 2,000 both in Rabat and the northeastern city of Beni Bouayach, 1,000 in Casablanca, Al Hoceima and Targuist, and 900 in Marrakech.

An Associated Press reporter in Rabat estimated the turnout there at 3,000 to 5,000. Organizers put the turnout outside the parliament building at 20,000.

03/11/2011 6:31 PM EST

U.S. Extends Sanctions On Libya

Reports the AP:

The Obama administration extended its Libya sanctions to more Gadhafi family members and close advisers on Thursday, blacklisting business with the Libyan leader's wife, four of his children and his chief of military intelligence.

The Treasury Department froze the assets of nine Libyans in all as part of the strategy to peel off Moammar Gadhafi's closest advisers while punishing those who remain loyal to the regime even as it commits human rights violations.

The sanctions come on top of those previously announced by the administration, which accounted for $32 billion in Libyan government assets blocked in the United States.

03/11/2011 5:33 PM EST

Sarkozy Calls For Air Strikes If Gaddafi Attacks Civilians

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for airstrikes against Gaddafi forces if the leader attacks civilians. According to the Guardian:

Nicolas Sarkozy has called for targeted air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi's regime if his forces use chemical weapons or launch air strikes against civilians.

As the EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, warned that a no-fly zone could risk civilian lives in Libya, the French president told an emergency EU summit in Brussels that air strikes may soon be justified.

"The strikes would be solely of a defensive nature if Mr Gaddafi makes use of chemical weapons or air strikes against non-violent protesters," Sarkozy said. The French president qualified his remarks by saying he had many reservations about military intervention in Libya "because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs".

03/11/2011 5:06 PM EST

Dutch Helicopter Crew Freed

A Dutch helicopter crew taken captive in Libya has been freed and sent to Greece. The BBC is reporting:

The two men and one woman arrived in Athens on a Greek military transport plane hours after a son of Muammar Gaddafi announced their release.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said Libya would hold on to the crew's Lynx helicopter.

The woman pilot, Yvonne Niersman, took part in a mission last year to free a German ship from Somali pirates.

Ms Niersman and her fellow crew members were captured in Libya after flying in from the Dutch warship Tromp, anchored off the coast.

Read the entire report here.

03/11/2011 4:43 PM EST

McCain Praises Moroccan King

Senator John McCain praised Morocco's King Mohammed VI for his pledge to introduce democratic reforms. According to the AFP:

"This new reform agenda builds on the king's long-standing commitment to lead Morocco to a future of reform and modernization, and it could ensure that the Kingdom of Morocco will continue to stand as a positive example to governments across the Middle East and North Africa," said McCain.

03/11/2011 3:40 PM EST

Gaddafi Offers Amnesty To Rebels

Reuters is reporting that Gaddafi is now offering to offer amnesty to those rebels who lay own arms.

03/11/2011 3:28 PM EST

2 Protesters Killed In Tunisia

The AP reports:

Tunisia's Interior Ministry says a new eruption of violence between police and protesters has killed two people and injured 20.

The ministry says on its Facebook page that police fired tear gas and demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs.

The statement says two protesters were killed in the incident in Metlaoui, a mining town in the center of the Mediterranean country.

The violence comes as Tunisia's interim government is trying to restore stability after deadly protests that drove out longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. That prompted uprisings around the Arab world.

03/11/2011 2:39 PM EST

Berlusconi Says Hardline With Gaddafi A Mistake

Berlusconi is saying that the West may have made a mistake by taking a hardline against Gaddafi, which may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner. Reports Reuters:

The hardline stance taken by major powers against Muammar Gaddafi may have backed the Libyan leader into a corner and prevented a quiet exit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Friday. Speaking after a special meeting of EU leaders, Berlusconi, one of Gaddafi's closest friends in Europe until the current upheaval, said the chances of persuading him to give up power voluntarily now appeared to have disappeared.

"Once someone put forward the idea of bringing Gaddafi before the International Criminal Court, I think the idea of staying in power became entrenched with him and I don't think anyone can make him change his mind," he told reporters.

Read the entire report here.

03/11/2011 2:16 PM EST

Who Are The Libyan Rebels?

The AP is reporting that the rebels fighting Gaddafi forces are amateurs, but deeply committed to the cause:

Moammar Gadhafi has ruled Libya since long before the 25-year-old was born, and he hates the dictator enough to risk his life by fighting for the ragtag rebel force battling government troops along a desolate highway on the North African country's Mediterranean coast.

"I will fight forever. I will die or win, like Omar Mukhtar," said Salem, invoking the legendary Libyan hero who fought Italian occupiers in the 1930s, was ultimately executed, and has become a symbol for the new revolutionaries.

The front-line force trying to advance toward Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital Tripoli is surprisingly small. Not counting supporters who bolster them in the towns along their path, it is estimated at 1,500 at most — Libyans from all walks of life, from students and coffeeshop owners to businessmen who picked up whatever weapons they could and joined the fight. No one seems to know their full size, and they could be picking up new members all the time.

Its ramshackle nature explains the dramatic lurches the fighting has taken. Last week, they took control over a stretch of Mediterranean coastal land that included major oil installations in the ports of Brega and Ras Lanouf. They charged enthusiastically further west, reaching within a few dozen miles of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a bastion of support for the leader of 41 years.

03/11/2011 1:03 PM EST

Gaddafi Forces Show Signs Of Victory

Reports the AP:

Moammar Gadhafi's regime has gained momentum with the capture of a key city near Tripoli after days of fierce fighting with rebels.

The battle for Zawiya has emerged as a key test in the government's ability to maintain its hold on the Libyan capital and surrounding areas.

The government had claimed victory on Wednesday, but the rebels who are seeking to oust Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.

An Associated Press reporter, who was escorted with other journalists into the city on Friday, says the main square that had been the center of resistance is clearly in government control.

03/11/2011 12:47 PM EST

Obama On Libya

Obama noted all of the sanctions and property seizures that have already been implemented against Gaddafi, saying, "Across the board, we are tightening the noose on Gaddafi." He says that NATO is discussing potential military actions in Libya, including a no-fly zone, and will meet on Tuesday. He said that a position will be created for a liaison to speak with Libyan opposition groups. He said that the international community had moved quickly to isolate Gaddafi.

Obama said that no options have been taken off the table so far. In response to a question about whether it would ever be acceptable to the U.S. for Gaddafi to stay in power, Obama stated that "it is in the U.S.' interest and the interest of the Libyan people for Gaddafi to leave." He added, however, that when making a decision to engage militarily, he would weigh the "costs and benefits."