Morocco police break up jobs protest ahead of budget debate
RABAT (Reuters) - Moroccan police with batons broke up a protest by more than a thousand unemployed graduates in central Rabat on Wednesday, the second protest this week before parliament votes on the first part of the 2013 budget.
Public finances are in dire straits in the North African country of 33 million people due largely to the euro zone's financial crisis. Europe is Morocco's main economic partner.
Increased social spending last year that helped to contain Arab Spring protests has also put a squeeze on the budget.
Stability in North Africa has become a Western concern because of the spread of Islamist militants in Sahel countries of the southern Sahara such as Mali, as well as kidnappings and illegal migration across the Mediterranean into Europe.
Leftist and Islamist graduates protested in different groups of several hundred each in the area around the Moroccan parliament, in an apparent effort to outwit police who prevented protesters gathering outside the parliament building on Sunday.
The graduates said the government had broken promises made in the past year.
"We want jobs," said protester Hicham el-Hachemi. "We got a written promise and the attention of the government, so we are here to push them to take us into consideration."
Protesters chanted "The people want the fall of the government" and "People, rise against the dictatorial regime" outside parliament before police ran towards them to make them move.
The crowd also chanted its disapproval over residents of Western Sahara being given jobs seen as pay-offs for loyalty to Morocco, whose control of the sparsely populated territory to the south is challenged by the Algerian-backed Polisario Front.
"If the government doesn't respond, we will unify all the jobless and organize a massive protest," said Mohamed Amine Sekkal, one of the organizers of the protest.
Small protests have become a common occurrence in Rabat but have picked up this week ahead of the budget vote on Thursday.
On Sunday police used force to break up a rare protest against the size of King Mohammed's royal expenditures.
Last year the king reacted swiftly with constitutional changes after Morocco saw large-scale protests for political and economic reforms following uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
But King Mohammed, who bases much of his legitimacy on his Islamic credentials as "Commander of the Faithful" and descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, retains wide powers.
Under the new constitution he keeps control of military, security and religious affairs, while parliament legislates and the government runs the country.
Anger over rising prices, unemployment and wealth distribution is prevalent in a country where a quarter of the population live in poverty. The government puts unemployment at about 9 percent but it is thought to be much higher among graduates.
Morocco projects 4.5 percent economic growth for 2013, and a reduction in its budget deficit to 4.8 percent of gross domestic product from 5 percent forecast by the government for this year.