Mideast Protests Spread To Morocco

The Arab revolt spread to Morocco on Sunday and demonstrators gathered in the capital, Rabat, demanding political and economic reforms.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The Arab revolt spread to Morocco today. In the capital city of Rabat, demonstrators rallied in front of the parliament building, calling for corrupt politicians to go away.

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WERTHEIMER: Similar protests were held in cities across Morocco to call attention to a variety of demands for political and economic reform. The rallies were almost entirely peaceful, and the demonstrators eventually went home, though they vow to continue their demands.

NPR's Tom Gjelten was at a couple of those rallies, and he joins us now from Casablanca.

Tom, we've seen these protests turning violent in other Arab cities, but it did not happen that way in Morocco. Why is that?

TOM GJELTEN: I think, Linda, it's because the government was well-prepared for these demonstrations. And what they did is they tried to contain them rather than repress them.

I mean, they've been saying all along, look, we're accustomed to demonstrations in Morocco. We believe in the peaceful right to dissent. They went out of their way to maintain a very low police presence.

The other thing is that they waged this very effective information war, kind of a propaganda war. They let it be known that in their view, the separatist group in the Polisario, the Western Sahara, was trying to stir up trouble. They created doubt in the minds of some Moroccans.

So all in all, they just had, I think, an effective strategy for dealing with these demonstrations. They were large demonstrations, though. We shouldn't be in any doubt about that.

WERTHEIMER: You know, Tom, from what I know about Morocco, I would not have expected the revolt to spread to that country. The king is, I believe, fairly well-regarded, and they've - he's made some democratizing gestures. I thought that they might dodge it.

GJELTEN: Well, you weren't alone in thinking that, Linda. In fact, the Standard & Poor's and some of the other rating agencies said that Morocco was among the least likely of the Middle Eastern kingdoms to be overthrown.

And you're right, there is a young king here, Mohammed VI. He took over from his father, Hassan II, about 10 years ago. And he did, in fact, bring sort of a new style to his reign, introduced a lot of reforms.

But those reforms basically ran their course a few years ago. And, in fact, I think one of the reasons that people are upset is that their expectations were raised, and there really hasn't been much in the way of reform in the last few years. And there's a sense here, a feeling - what I heard a lot is that this so-called transition to democracy that he allegedly began has basically run into a dead end.

WERTHEIMER: Well, tell us about the people who were out there demonstrating.

GJELTEN: Well, Linda, it reminded me a little bit of a Democratic Party convention. I mean, you had a lot of interest groups. You had - in one part of the demonstration, you had your women's rights groups, and then in another part was the families of the political prisoners. There was a kind of an anti-American group.

I mean, you could sort of walk around the plaza and sort of take your choice of banners and slogans. It was a very diverse group.

WERTHEIMER: So is there a link, do you see, between what is happening in Morocco now to the demonstrations we've seen in Tunisia and in Egypt?

GJELTEN: Well, there's certainly something contagious about all these demonstrations. I saw a lot of Tunisian and Egyptian flags in the crowd today. There were a lot of chants against Gadhafi because the news had just come of the alleged shootings in Libya.

So these people are clearly connected across the region. And there is a sort of a sense, especially among the youth, that something has been unleashed here that they would like to keep going.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Tom Gjelten is in Casablanca.

Thank you very much, Tom.

GJELTEN: You're so welcome, Linda.

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