Tens of thousands protest against Morocco government

Tens of thousands of Moroccans took to the streets of Casablanca on Sunday in the largest opposition protest since an Islamist-led government took office, reflecting mounting tensions over unemployment and other social woes.

The protest was organized by trade unions which accuse Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane of failing to deliver on the pledges of social justice that brought his party to power in the wake of the Arab Spring.

"There are more than 50,000 people who are demonstrating to call on the government to start a genuine dialogue addressing our country's social ills," opposition Socialist MP Hassan Tariq said.

An official estimated the crowds at between 15,000 and 20,000.

"The trade unions are united and the message to the Benkirane government is clear: he needs to change his strategy," Tariq told AFP as the crowd marched through the heart of Morocco's largest city and its economic capital.

Union leaders have been appealing to the government for talks on improving salaries and social conditions in a country where almost half of people aged between 15 and 29 are neither working nor in school, according to a World Bank report this month.

The report said Morocco's large youth population — 30 percent of the total of 32 million people — could be an "engine of growth" but that young people faced numerous obstacles.

Morocco's government is grappling with a crisis caused by drought and a sharp slide in tourism revenues, the country's largest source of income along with transfers by Moroccans abroad and phosphate exports.

Hundreds of youths from the February 20 Movement — known as M20 — also turned out in Casablanca for the demonstration on Sunday.

Their movement was born of the wave of protests which took hold in the kingdom last year after pro-democracy revolts in Tunisia and Egypt toppled long-standing regimes.

King Mohammed VI nipped the protest movement in the bud by introducing significant reforms to curb his near-absolute powers.

The ensuing November 2011 election saw the Justice and Development Party — a moderate Islamist party — win the most seats and head a coalition government.

It had pledged to address the protest movement's grievances and fight for more social justice in a country mired by high unemployment and illiteracy rates.

But less than six months after it was sworn in, Benkirane is facing renewed discontent from protesters who see no change.

"Benkirane and Fouad Ali El Himma are two sides of the same coin," was one slogan chanted in the streets of Casablanca, referring to the king's closest advisor.

In April, parliament adopted a 2012 budget that trims the public deficit but continues efforts to reinforce social spending.

It foresees a public deficit at 5 percent of gross domestic product this year, down from over 6 percent last year as the previous government splurged on subsidies, notably on food, to defuse the growing protest movement.

Finance Minister Nizar Baraka has said the country's economy would likely grow by around 3 percent this year, less than the 4.2 percent forecast in the budget because of the drought and the debt crisis in the Eurozone, which is Morocco's biggest trade partner.

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