RABAT: The seats outside cafes are empty and streets eerily quiet in the hour before sunset, as Moroccans wait to break the day-long Ramadan fast. But one group is causing a stir by flouting religious convention.
Masayminch ("We're not fasting" in the local Arabic dialect) was founded last month by Moroccan youths seeking to defend individual liberties, starting with the right of non-believers to eat, drink or smoke in public during the Muslim holy month.
"The essential vision is to tell society that we are different, and that we shouldn't have to hide to live in peace," Imad Iddine Habib, 23, a co-founder of the group, told AFP.
Morocco has a reputation as a particularly tolerant Muslim country, where the form of Islam practised is distinctly moderate.
There are plenty of bars in the main cities, though they tend to close during Ramadan and some may refuse to serve Moroccans. Women enjoy relatively extensive freedoms.
But it remains a deeply religious society -- 89 percent of Moroccans consider religion to be "very important" in their lives, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Centre, a U.S. think-tank.
For a Moroccan not to fast during Ramadan is viewed as something of a taboo.
"Most people are shocked if they see someone eating in the streets. There's a feeling of resentment, that they are not respecting society," said Omar Benjelloun, a human rights lawyer.
At the heart of the debate is article 222 of Morocco's penal code, which states that anyone "breaking the fast in a public place during Ramadan, without a reason accepted" in Islam, can be imprisoned for up to six months and fined.
Communication Minister Mustapha El Khalfi, of the PJD, the moderate Islamist party that came to power after winning the November elections, was quoted as saying last month that the government would be "firm in enforcing the law, as it has been since taking office."
Getting round the problem is straightforward enough -- most shops remain open during the day, so if your self-discipline weakens as your stomach starts to growl, there's no law to stop you going home for a bite to eat.
But people do get into trouble.
Local media reported last week that four youths, two men and two women, were arrested near the central town of Beni Mellal, northwest of Marrakesh, and are awaiting trial, after a farmer saw them eating and smoking by the roadside and informed the police.
Another incident highlighted the depth of feeling over the issue.
Two young men filed a complaint against the son of an MP, independent daily Al-Akhbar Al-Youm reported this month, accusing him of ramming into them in his car and causing injuries, after they criticised him for smoking in public.
-- 'Spitting on society' --
Habib, the Masayminch activist, argues that although Morocco is a largely Islamic society, there are many non-practising Muslims who simply fast to avoid getting into trouble, and accuses those who defend the law of "hyprocrisy."
"People drink and smoke. There is prostitution everywhere. But then (during Ramadan), they don't tolerate that you are not a Muslim," he told AFP.
"We want to abrogate this law. We are not believers, and society has no right to impose its beliefs on us," he added.
But even for progressively-minded Moroccans who would like to see greater personal freedoms and who fear the kind of restrictions that a more Islamic government might impose, the Masayminch activists are barking up the wrong tree.
"Individual liberties and human rights are much more important than having a picnic during Ramadan," said Benjelloun, the lawyer.
"What Masayminch are doing doesn't serve the cause of secularism and modernity. This is a gift to their enemies," he added, referring to hardline Islamists.
At one of the few cafes open for business during the day in central Rabat, Jose, 46, believes it is simply a question of respecting the country's Islamic culture.
"Even if you are not a Muslim, if you want to smoke or eat, you should do so in private. These people are spitting on society," says the Spaniard, enjoying a coffee in the cafe's upstairs section that allows customers to be served out of sight.
by Simon Martelli