Morocco government plays down call for protests

RABAT Thu Feb 3, 2011 5:51pm EST

RABAT (Reuters) - Morocco said on Thursday it was not worried about opposition plans for a peaceful protest later this month to press for reforms in the monarchy and the resignation of the government.

A group on social networking website Facebook has gathered more than 3,000 followers for a Feb. 20 protest meant to restore "the dignity of the Moroccan people and (press) for democratic and constitutional reform and the dissolution of parliament".

Authoritarian Arab leaders are watching carefully for signs of unrest spreading through the region after revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. But a spokesman for the Moroccan government, Khalid Naciri, said it felt "serene" about Internet calls for protests.

"Morocco ... has embarked a long time ago on an irreversible process of democracy and widening of public freedoms," said Naciri in remarks carried by the official MAP news agency.

"That citizens are able to express themselves freely does not disturb us in any way," said Naciri, who is also the minister of communication.

He warned, however, that such protests must not harm national interests and constitutional values. "Nothing suggests to us that it will be otherwise," Naciri added.

Rating agencies Standard & Poor's and Fitch have said the North African country of 32 million people is the least likely in the region to be affected by the wave of popular unrest.

By law, Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. But critics say its constitution gives the monarchy wide prerogatives from the dissolution of parliament and the imposition of the state of emergency to a say on appointments of key government portfolios including the prime minister.

Since his enthronement in 1999, King Mohammed has sought to reduce poverty and cut what was one of the highest illiteracy rates in the Arab world while developing infrastructure to attract foreign investment and create jobs.

But Morocco remains plagued by strikes and has witnessed sporadic, localised unrest mainly in remote areas where citizens feel the development effort has not produced tangible results.

Morocco, like other Arab states from Algeria to Yemen, has tried to keep out contagion from Tunisia and Egypt by offering economic carrots on jobs, housing and prices. Morocco has introduced a compensation system for importers of milling soft wheat meant to stabilise grain prices.

(Reporting by Souhail Karam; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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