Despite a new constitution, Moroccans protest

Aniti- government girls shout slogans during a rally organized by the 20th February, the Moroccan Arab Spring movement in Casablanca, Morocco, Sunday July 3, 2011, in a mass popular call to bring more democracy into this North African kingdom. Thousands of pro-democracy activists in Morocco demonstrated Sunday around the country two days after the king's new constitution was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum. Placard reads "If corruption enters through the door of integrity goes away" in red Arabic word of wisdom. AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar

RABAT, Morocco - Thousands of pro-democracy activists in Morocco protested across the country Sunday to demand more reforms two days after voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution the king said will expand freedoms.

The demonstrations were a show of strength for the February 20 movement, whose rallies over the past few months prompted King Mohammed VI to amend the constitution as part of his own democratic reform.

"We are here to say no to the referendum and the constitution," said Oussama Khlifi, one of the founders of the movement, which brings together young, Facebook-using activists and members of Morocco's Islamist movement. "We want a parliamentary monarchy with a king that reigns, but does not rule and we want a real fight against corruption."

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The North African country of 32 million has been swept by pro-democracy protests - like in other countries across the Arab world - denouncing low wages, poor education and perceptions of widespread government corruption.

But protesters have not called for the ouster of the 47-year-old king, who remains popular. Instead, they have called for the curtailing of his absolute powers and more official accountability.

The king, who came to power in 1999, said he presented exactly that in the new constitution, which was approved by 98 percent of voters Friday, with a 70 percent turnout - numbers that many activists dismissed.

"The numbers put out by the government brought people out to demonstrate that hadn't come out before," said Fouad Abdelmoumni, a development consultant and prominent activist among about 2,000 people marching through central Rabat. It was the biggest turnout in the capital by protesters in weeks.

He blamed the declining number of demonstrators over the past few weeks on police repression and the hiring of thugs by pro-government supporters to harass the protesters.

The king's supporters could be seen around the edges of the demonstration in Rabat, but for the most part were kept away by a heavy police presence. One woman was hit in the head by a rock thrown by a government supporter.

Thousands also marched through the working class neighborhood of Sbata, in Morocco's largest city of Casablanca, and were set upon by government supporters.

Youths threw stones and attacked the democracy activists, hunting them through the twisting lanes of the neighborhood. In one incident, several activists were trapped in a store and surrounded by government supporters chanting that they were traitors.

When an AP photographer took pictures of the scene, he was set upon by the young men and beaten, his equipment smashed, before police rescued him. There were also demonstrations in the port city of Tangiers and the popular tourist destination of Marrakech.

The February 20 movement has pledged to keep up its weekly demonstrations until there is what they perceive to be real reform.

"The movement's demand was never the constitution," said Abdel-Hamid Amine, the vice president of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, as he marched through Rabat. "The main problems are social ones and these are good mobilizers."

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