37,000 Moroccans in largely peaceful march for reform; Amnesty International lauds “maturity” of protesters & police; Human Rights Watch says Morocco’s “calm response” should be “rule, not exception” in volatile region

Streets back to business; on visit, US Senator John McCain cites Morocco’s progress on reforms in past decade, respect for citizens’ rights, underscores differences with others in region

Washington, DC (February 22)—As Morocco returned to business Monday following largely peaceful demonstrations for continued reforms in more than 30 cities, Amnesty International (AI) commended Moroccans’ “maturity” and Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Morocco’s restraint and “calm response” to Sunday’s protest “should be the rule, not the exception for tolerating peaceful dissent” in the region.

HRW noted that “Thousands of Moroccans in cities across the country demonstrated in favor of political reform on February 20, 2011. Mostly peaceful demonstrations and marches took place in towns and villages largely without interference from police, who in some areas were barely in evidence.”

HRW added that “Morocco's demonstrators encountered none of the deadly force utilized by the security forces against protesters in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen. Security forces allowed Moroccan citizens to march peacefully to demand profound changes in how their country is governed.”

“We applaud the maturity shown by the Moroccan authorities," said AI in a statement, adding that “we are satisfied with the behavior of the security forces.” It also praised the "maturity" shown by demonstrators.

On Monday, Moroccan officials put the number of protesters nationwide Sunday at 37,000, a moderate turnout for a country that regularly sees much larger demonstrations. The protests, which are legal in Morocco when sanctioned by the authorities, took the form of sit-ins, rallies, and demonstrations.

“In many ways, this was Morocco at its best,” said former US Ambassador to Morocco, Edward Gabriel, who witnessed the demonstration in Rabat. “Protesters were respectful and polite, but intent on expressing their legitimate concerns that government work better for them. They wanted the government to quicken the pace of the far-reaching political, social, and economic reforms Morocco has instituted in the last decade. In most locations, there was no violence, no heavy-handed tactics, just people showing their desire to make Morocco a better place, with more freedom, democracy, and jobs.”

“The positive example Moroccans are setting is one that others in the region would do well to observe, and US policymakers should be more active in supporting,” said Gabriel. “It certainly stands in stark contrast with the dreadful violence in Libya and other parts of the Middle East/North Africa region in recent weeks.”

US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in Morocco on Friday before the protests noted that “we have seen progress during the last 10-15 years” in Morocco’s respect for human rights and advances in its parliamentary system.

Among the key indicators and advances experts point to in citing Morocco’s progress to date:

* The 2004 reform of the moudawana (family code) gave women equal rights in marriage, divorce, and child custody; and there are now ten times more women in Morocco’s parliament than in 2000.

* More than 90% of Moroccan children are enrolled in primary school (the number of enrolled girls has increased more than 87% since 1990) and illiteracy is down to 30% with the goal of complete eradication by 2015.

* Life expectancy has increased 7 years since 1990 and Morocco’s comprehensive social development strategy ($2 billion National Human Development Initiative) has cut poverty from 15 to 9 percent over the last decade.

* Morocco has nearly 30 political parties and there have been two sets of national and local elections over the last decade certified as “free and fair” by the international community.

* Morocco has a strong civil society with more than 30,000 NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) helping people meet socioeconomic challenges, advocate reforms, and promote cultural awareness.