(Adds Prime Minister’s comment (paragraphs 7-8)
By Souhail Karam
RABAT, April 24 (Reuters) - Morocco’s prime minister has hit out at courtiers around King Mohammed in rare criticism that could signify the start of a confrontation between the Islamist-led government and powerful figures close to the palace.
Moroccan authorities, under pressure from the “Arab Spring” upheavals elsewhere in the region, held early elections last year which for the first time handed power to the opposition PJD party of moderate Islamists.
Since then, analysts have been predicting a stand-off between the government, which is committed to tackling corruption and poverty, and a moneyed elite with long-standing ties to the palace.
Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane spoke out on Sunday after his government’s plan to reform state-run television, widely seen as a mouthpiece for the monarchy, was criticised by figures close to the palace.
“The Arab Spring is not over yet,” Benkirane told a PJD gathering in Rabat, according to remarks carried on Monday by local newspapers. “It (the Arab Spring) is still wandering about and may feel like coming back,” he added.
“In this country, even the monarchy itself needs citizens who seek reform ... Kings are not always surrounded by the right kind of people, they can actually be surrounded by foes who become the first to desert them.”
In a statement emailed to Reuters, Benkirane later said his comments were “taken out of context”.
“Morocco’s democracy is a participatory one based on cooperation between constitutional institutions under the leadership of His Majesty the King, may God protect him, and his directives,” Benkirane said.
Two officials with Benkirane’s PJD party confirmed to Reuters that he had made the remarks, which were reported by publications including the independent newspaper Akhbar al-Youm and the Febrayer.com news portal.
Jamaa Moatassim, head of Benkirane’s office, could not be reached for comment.
Any criticism of the palace is highly unusual in Morocco, especially from such a senior politician.
The monarchy itself is revered, with King Mohammed held by Moroccans to be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, and the elite around the palace, commonly known as the Makhzen, is also generally treated with deference.
The PJD won the biggest share of the vote in November by promising to fight corruption, especially among people using high-level connections to enrich themselves.
It promised to unveil lists of beneficiaries of business licences granted at the authorities’ discretion to politicians, businessmen and senior army officers.
Benkirane’s government issued guidelines that would have banned lottery commercials and required them to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer - both in line with the PJD’s policy of promoting conservative social values.
Executives at the state-run RTM and 2M channels argued that these rules were a threat to their independence from government.
Two government ministers from parties close to the palace that are in coalition with the PJD also attacked the guidelines. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)