RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Many Arab countries had popular uprisings last year. Morocco seems to be an exception. Last winter, a pro-democracy movement there did demand limits to the power of King Mohammed the Sixth, and within weeks, the king proposed a new constitution and elections. Morocco was hailed as a model. But now, a year later, protesters are still on the streets. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Abdullah Abaakil is a full-time democracy activist in Casablanca, Morocco's biggest city. Over coffee, the 41-year-old business executive explains that he quit his job because the February 20th movement changed his life.

ABDULLAH ABAAKIL: So when the movement started, I just felt that there is hope in this country.

AMOS: And since that first protest a year ago, there's been some change: a new constitution approved in a referendum, open parliamentary elections in November, an Islamist Party now heads the government. But the king remains the most powerful political and economic force in the country, says Abaakil, so he organizes weekly protests to keep up the pressure.

ABAAKIL: Because what you get in staying silent is worse than what you get shouting in the street.

AMOS: And that is so new for Moroccans to do?

ABAAKIL: It is new, it is new, because the fear is an important pillar of the system.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

AMOS: This demonstration is in Sidi Mo'men, a slum on the outskirts of Casablanca. Morocco has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the Arab world. About 500 activists gather on the main street. Young and middle class, they chant wake up, become aware to some of the country's poorest. Some watch from apartment windows. Others edge closer. The police are out in force, but don't interfere. Abaakil arrives with his mother, who's also an activist.

Is this what it always looks like?

ABAAKIL: Yeah, at the beginning, yes, because there is just the activists. And when we start marching, the march is growing when the people from the neighborhood join the march.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

AMOS: The rally ends in a noisy parade. More than a thousand residents join in. These weekly protests have thinned considerably compared to a year ago, says Karim Tazi, a Casablanca businessman who supports the movement. But there's a better way to measure success, he says.

KARIM TAZI: There is an awaking of Moroccan political conscience.

AMOS: And Moroccans are no longer afraid to speak out.

TAZI: When you see Moroccan people speak to their kings and record their speech on YouTube - believe me, they don't say only nice things. On Facebook, every day, people criticize the regime, the king himself.

AMOS: This is new. Three years ago, a magazine editor was jailed, his publication closed over an opinion poll. The question, do you approve of the king, got a favorable answer of more than 90 percent, but the prosecutor argued that the monarchy cannot be judged. It was a criminal offense.

A grassroots democracy movement has won for Moroccans a way to demand a better functioning political and economic system. And the king broke the pattern of Arab rulers. Instead of hunkering down, he moved quickly, appointing a royal commission that wrote the new constitution. But Journalist Ahmed Benchamsi says the king still determines the pace of change.

AHMED BENCHAMSI: The monarchy outfoxed them with this new constitution that basically takes nothing of the king's absolute power, but just is presented in a better way. He played for time - skillfully, actually.

AMOS: But how much time, asks Benchamsi, when the number of Moroccans living in poverty has risen sharply in the past decade and youth unemployment is at 30 percent.

BENCHAMSI: The reasons why the protests started in this country are still here. Injustice is still here, impoverishment is still here, economic difficulties are still here. So sooner or later, people will take to the street again.

AMOS: That's the calculation of activist Abdullah Abaakil. We can rebuild the February 20th movement, he says, learn new ways to protest.

ABAAKIL: I mean, what we are doing is like teaching each other how to work in democracy. It's a long process, but it's OK. We adapt. We are a movement that adapts.

AMOS: And Moroccans have adapted to a new political power that doesn't come from the palace or the ballot box, but from streets in cities across the country.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.