Low turnout for Casablanca anniversary protest

PAUL SCHEMM
February 19, 2012
Protesters from Morocco's pro-democracy February 20 movement gather for the night in front of City Hall Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, in Casablanca, Morocco.  On Sunday, the movement will try with countrywide anniversary demonstrations to rekindle some of the fire that at its peak in March put 800,000 people from all walks of life on the streets calling for an end to corruption, greater democracy and social justice.  (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)
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Protesters from Morocco's pro-democracy February 20 movement gather for the night in front of City Hall Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, in Casablanca, Morocco. On Sunday, the movement will try with countrywide anniversary demonstrations to rekindle some of the fire that at its peak in March put 800,000 people from all walks of life on the streets calling for an end to corruption, greater democracy and social justice. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)

CASABLANCA, Morocco (AP) — Several hundred people gathered Sunday in Casablanca's main square to mark the one year anniversary of the North African kingdom's local version of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The low turnout was in sharp contrast to the tens of thousands that once flocked to the February 20th movement's banner early last year and even the thousands that were still demonstrating last month.

The demonstrations last year prompted the king to amend the constitution to curtail is powers and hold early elections, which were won by an Islamist opposition party promising reforms. Since then, demonstrations petered out.

Activists say many of their demands remain unmet, including fighting corruption, releasing prisoners of conscience and decreasing the absolute power of the king.

While activists acknowledged that their numbers were down, they pointed out that a protest such as this, filled with young people, would have been unthinkable a year ago.

"It is not bad to be able to do a sit-in for two days and discuss issues in the open air," said Larbi Menousi, a slight old man that has attended nearly every one of the weekly demonstrations held in Morocco's largest city for the past year.

The main square of the city, flanked by the central bank, city hall and main post office, was filled with people enjoying a sunny winter's day, along with the knot of protesters, a few dozen of whom spent the night on the square in tents.

Banners above their tents demanded the new parliament be dissolved, those stealing public money be prosecuted and all prisoners of conscience be released.

Activists say the sit-in will continue until their demands are met, a conscious echo of the sit-in at Cairo's Tahrir Square at the center of Egypt's uprising.

"Before people were too scared to speak and now they do. The February 20 movement has been a catalyst and people are now mobilized everywhere," Souad Guennon said.

Placards and photos around the square testified to the breadth of movements across the country, describing striking villagers at a distant silver mine, residents bulldozed out of informal housing and clashes with police in a mountain town.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, condemned the trial of activists of the February 20th movement arrested for advocating a boycott of the Nov. 25 elections.