Thousands march in Morocco to seek reform

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 coping with rising living costs during a march on central Hassan II Avenue in the capital, Rabat.

But scattered violence broke out in some places. Stone-throwing youths clashed with police near the ocre-colored walls of touristic hub of Marrakech, where angry mobs overturned and torched several parked cars.

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.

Morocco, like Tunisia and Egypt has been a magnet for tourists and a strong Western ally. Anger over rising prices and corruption hasn't so far appeared to dent the loyalty many Moroccans feel toward the king.

"Today we are here to say that we are all Moroccans, we love our country, we love our king, but we are against corruption and economic and political monopoly," said demonstrator Youness Karach in Rabat.

Some called for the release of political prisoners, the recognition of the Berber language, a freer media, a rise in the minimum wage and better social services.

While most marches took place peacefully, Marrakech appeared to be the biggest epicenter of unrest.

People there besieged a McDonald's restaurant and a clothing store, 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 crowds 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.

The Facebook page of the February 20 movement claimed tens of thousands of people marched in northern Tangiers, and said that rioting erupted in Safro, near Fes.