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 Moroccan 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.
A 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 said, 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.
Moroccan King Mohammed VI nipped the protest movement in the bud by introducing significant reforms to curb his near-absolute powers.
The ensuing election in -November last year 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.
However, less than six months after it was sworn in, Benkirane’s government 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.
Last month, parliament adopted a budget for this year that trims the public deficit, but continues efforts to reinforce social spending.
It foresees the public deficit at 5 percent of GDP this year, down from more than 6 percent last year as the previous government splurged on subsidies, notably on food, to defuse the growing protest movement.
Moroccan Minister of Finance Nizar Baraka said the country’s economy would likely grow by about 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.